Management of Power

The Mahabharatan Perspective - 1

Like a stick of collyrium
the wisdom of this poem opens the eyes
of a world swathed in darkness..
The womb of nature is a house of darkness,
This darkness is scattered by the lamp of this history.
(The Mahabharata, I.1.84)

The Concept of Power

Power, said Mao Tse Tung, grows out of the barrel of a gun. Throughout the history of human existence, mankind has suffered from the truth of this statement repeatedly and bitterly. Dictators and autocrats have subjected innocent people to a sanguinary demonstration of raw power in their covetousness and quest for political supremacy. It has not remained limited to mere physical violence, but has also assaulted the world of knowledge in an attempt to inflict intellectual subjugation and political indoctrination on an entire population. The Romans burnt the library at Alexandria. Hitler sold one million copies of Mein Kampf by a government order after he came to power. Before that, only 1473 copies could be sold. It is not surprising that such lust for power should corrupt a man, body and soul. Lord Acton, therefore, said, ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Interestingly and debatably, he went on to add, ‘Great men are almost always bad men.’ The fortunate use of ‘tends’ and ‘almost’ do rob the statements of much of their venom, but then, one gets the general drift. Both these statements seem to confer a negative value on the word, ‘power’. It implies destruction, corruption, even perversion. Francis Bacon, saw loss of liberty in man’s ‘strange desire to seek power.’

Is it however, always a negative and destructive concept? Can it not be positive and constructive? It can hardly be denied that we have seen myriads of great men (Lord Acton notwithstanding) who have used their power for the good of the world, for making positive contributions in the physical and intellectual advancement of civilization. It must then be perceived as a mere tool that becomes negative or positive depending on the quality of the mind that uses it. It is just a means and not an end. When it is seen as a means, it has to be used to achieve a goal. That goal may be good or bad, given the intention of the person perceiving it. But when power is seen as an end by itself, then the means adopted to achieve it tend to become questionable. ‘Desiring power first as an instrument for the achievement of other ends, he falls in love with it and retails it as an end in itself…the man who has drunk of the drought of power loses his wisdom and, forgetful of the end which power should have achieved, dictates for the sake of dictating.’

Indian mythology is replete with examples to establish the veracity of this statement. When Rama went to Dandakaranya on exile, the sages requested him to save them from the rakshasas who were terrorizing them. Sita warned Rama to be careful because untruth, adultery and unnecessary violence cause a person to deviate from the path of dharma. She told him the story of a young sage practicing severe penance in the forest who found a sheathed sword placed there by Indra to disturb his austerities. The ascetic touched it and felt thrilled. The next time, he unsheathed it. Fascinated to see the shining blade, he used it on a plant and was amused to find it neatly severed. He then used it on an animal. Soon he was under the spell of the sword and the power it exuded. He forgot all about his penance and went on using it indiscriminately on all kinds of creatures. Sita cautioned Rama never to fall under the spell of his weapons. Power is a tool that enables the user to exercise control over other beings and that temptation calls forth the negative forces causing subjugation, destruction, corruption, etc., unless the user keeps himself free from the fascination of power by developing the right consciousness. If he can do so, then it is he who controls power instead of power controlling him.

Therefore, power is a concept through which a man creates a sphere of influence by using external means, such as position, authority, physical prowess, weaponry, etc. or internal qualities of the heart and intellect. External power comes with the position he holds and the authority that is inherent in that position, e.g. a monarch, or from his physical strength and expertise with weapons, e.g. Bhima and his mace, Arjuna and his bow. Access to technology enhances this external power. Internal power is exclusive to the person. It consists of his leadership qualities, sense of justice, truth and dharma, as also in his values and ethics that persuade others to look up to him for guidance and leadership and to accept him as a role-model. This internal power, the power of Self, manifests itself as man emerges from the darkness of ignorance, a process described by Sri Aurobindo as ‘the light of his own being emerges from the inert darkness of involuntary sleep…This awakening of power in it is the gradual awakening to self.’ Thus, man arms himself with ultimate power, the power of Self, the power of knowledge, the power of a pure mind, which elevates him beyond the reach of the inanities of the world and renders him immune to the influences of tamas, the dark side of human consciousness. That grants him the power of the good, sattva, and enables him to use all the powers at his command, including external power, for the good of creation. This process is not easy. A rigorous training of the mind is required till one achieves control over it, which takes him to the stage of realisation of Self. Only when this has been achieved can a person have the ‘right consciousness’ to handle power safely, constructively and for the good of everyone and everything. Therefore, the basic precondition for management of power is the management of Self. The massive corpus of the Shanti Parva is devoted to Bhishma’s discourse on the intricacies of Rajadharma, the way of the king, in which the key pronouncement is:

atma jeyah sada arjana atato jeyashcha shatrava /
ajitatma narapatirvijayeta katham ripun //

(First, the raja shall conquer himself. Only thereafter he shall attempt to conquer enemies. He who has not conquered himself, how will that raja succeed in conquering enemies?)

How did the ancients in our country manage power? In fact, the struggle for power between good and evil is the basic theme of our mythology. The characters weave a web of intrigue and pass through a series of conflicts that finally culminate in the victory of good over evil. This is the central issue, not only in our mythology but also in that of all civilizations. This indeed is what Vyasa recounts, setting the focus clearly in the very first chapter where he presents two models of power in terms of two gigantic trees:

Duryodhana is a giant tree
born of passion:
Karna is its trunk,
Shakuni its branches,
Duhshasana its fruit and flower,
Discrimination-bereft Dhritarashtra its root.
Yudhishthira is a giant tree,
born of dharma;
Arjuna is its trunk,
Bhima is its two branches,
The two sons of Madri its flowers and fruits,
Krishna, Brahma and Brahmins its roots.

The first polarisation is intensely dramatic. The hundred sons of Dhritarashtra consider themselves the undisputed heirs to the throne of Hastinapura. Suddenly, Kunti, widow of their uncle Pandu who had been the original ruler, appears with her five sons about whose fatherhood there are strange tales.

In the far distance we can hear the ominous rumble of the battle-drums.

In this essay, an attempt has been made to discuss the management of power by the kings and men in positions of power in the Mahabharata. Three figures spring to mind. Yudhishthira, whom Rajshekhar Basu considers to be the central figure in the epic; Bhishma, a statesman par excellance but ineffective; and Krishna, the epitome of political genius. But before that the King needs to be introduced.

The Profile of The King

Vyasa in the Mahabharata pursues a relentless examination of man’s pursuit of power and its consequences. Mankind craves power because of the pleasure it brings, but the history of kingship recounted in the epic brings home a very different perception. When unhindered play of individualism led to the strong oppressing the weak, with none abiding by the agreed rules, the vexed people decided to give up individual power in the interest of general welfare realising:

rajanam prathamam vindyet tato varyyam tato dhanam /
rajanyasati lokasya kuto varyya kuto dhanam //

(It is the raja whom the subjects obtain first, thereafter wives and wealth; if that raja himself is absent, how will people get either wife or wealth?)

The concept of kingship in our ancient literature grants the king immense power and rights. At the same time, it also clearly defines the limitations that are placed upon him in terms of his duties and responsibilities.

There are two theories of the origin of kingship: one expounds the theory of divine origin and the other holds that the king is a ruler only because people have appointed him—he is merely the people’s representative. Harivamsha and Mahabharata mention that the first king was Prithu who was given the responsibility of protecting and maintaining the people, which he did admirably. Bhishma describes the origin of the first king in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata. When people lost the sense of right or wrong owing to the influence of worldly illusions, the gods went to Brahma, the Creator, to implore him to save the creation. Brahma first created the Dharma-shastra or the Niti-shastra, the book of governance. Then Vishnu, the Preserver, created Viraja with the power of his mind. The first king was Ananga, fourth in line after Viraja and it is with his grandson Vena that we come across the record of what power brings in its wake. He was a malevolent autocrat oppressing people and so the sages killed him with Kusha, the holy grass and created Prithu by churning Vena’s right hand. He was handsome like a god, adept in the art of administration and warfare and a vastly conscientious man. He ruled the subjects justly and with compassion. He mastered the science of danda (chastisement) that upholds dharma by preventing the strong from exploiting the weak. He pleased the people and so he was called a Raja, a king, “ranjitascha prajah sarvastena rajeti shabdayate.” He tilled the earth making it yield its fruit so that it was called Prithivi after him. From this time it was decreed that kings were actually reincarnations of Vishnu and wielded his powers and therefore should be regarded as gods. Manusmriti says in chapter seven, ‘…the Lord emitted the king in order to guard the entire realm taking lasting elements from Indra, Vayu, Yama, Sun, Fire, Varuna, the Moon and Kuvera,’ as also from the eight Dikpalas, the protectors of the eight directions. The king has the qualities of all these gods, and therefore, ‘surpasses all living beings in brilliant energy…. Even the boy king should not be treated with disrespect, with the thought, “he is just a human being,” for, this is a great deity, standing there in the form of a man.’

As against this, we have the theory of origin from popular will, as the people’s representative. The idea that the people constitute the source of power of the king has its roots in the story of Vaivasvat Manu. Originally there was no king, no state, no chastisement and none deserving to be punished. People protected one another impelled by dharma. Gradually, however, perversion of mind occurred, their sense of righteousness declined and they fell into delusion, overcome by greed. Then the flaw of desire appeared among them and they began to crave to possess things unrighteously. Slaves of desire they now became subject to anger, and thereby lost all sense of discrimination between duty and license. For stopping people from harming one another, they approached Vaivasvat Manu, voluntarily surrendering personal power to him as ruler. To overcome his reluctance, as recompense for his pains, they promised to give him one fiftieth of their gold and animal holding and one tenth of their produce, the loveliest of nubile maidens and one-fourth of the merit that would accrue to them by observing dharma in return for the protection he would provide. In this manner, whenever any human society desires to attain prosperity, they must, first of all, appoint a ruler who will look after them.

From then on, the king began his administration as a representative of the people and used his power for ‘bringing about acquisition and preservation of the subjects’. The ideal conduct for the king to follow is that of the pregnant woman, for she rejects what pleases her and only does that which benefits the embryo she is nourishing. Similarly, the king, discarding pursuits and objects dear to him, shall ever be engaged in what is conducive to public welfare. Even though he became king by popular will, the people, as a mark of gratitude, granted him divine status, ‘His (the king’s) status is that of Yama and Indra, whose anger and pleasure are evident. Even divine punishment falls upon those who insult them. So the king should not be insulted.’

The people granted the king political authority and power to be used for their protection and prosperity, economic power by providing him with resources and also a divine status so that he is respected and obeyed by all without question. In return, the king (whether he was of divine origin or people’s choice did not matter) was bound by duties and responsibilities and not at all free to do what he wanted. He could not even think of giving up his kingship because he was not at liberty to do so as it would mean abdication of his divine responsibilities. He had clearly defined political, economic, social and personal responsibilities, and most importantly, his duty towards the people. He had to enforce maintenance of social order by protecting the purity of the varnas and the ashramas, i.e. ensure that everyone did his duty in accordance with social status and classification. As a part of the protectors of the directions (Dikpalas), he had to protect the people from external invasions and natural calamities, maintain law and order, and above all, ensure that under his tutelage his people prospered and remained, to use a cliché, healthy, wealthy and wise.

Manusamhita lays down the duties of a king in very clear terms. For the protection of the people, the king wields the rod of justice (danda). He punishes deviants fairly and deservedly. Danda protects, danda punishes, and danda maintains order and discipline in society. The king can wield it justly only when he is truthful, considerate, wise, and is conversant with dharma, artha and kama. He must not be lustful, partial, mean and undisciplined. ‘The supreme duty of the ruler is to protect his subjects, for, a king who enjoys the rewards described above (taxes, gifts, respect, etc.) is bound to this duty.’ And, ‘he (the king) should behave to men like a father.’

Therefore, not surprisingly, in spite of a monarchical structure of government, the basic source of power of the king was considered to be popular will. The system could be called a ‘democratic monarchy.’ Though the king enjoyed total power and hegemony over his subjects, his power was never absolute. He was severely restricted by dharma, as stipulated by the ancient seers who saw monarchy as a mere compilation of duties of a king towards his kingdom. Chakraborty observes,

Each role in society and organizations is actually an aggregation of duties expected of the person occupying that role. Whether we study the counselling session of Bhishma to the Pandavas and Kauravas, or the details of householder’s and king’s role in Manusmriti, it is always the portrayal of duties that is supreme.

This duty-orientation of the role of the king directed him to function only as a representative of dharma, its protector and servant. Dharma was the source of all power and it laid down that people’s will and welfare would be the source of the power of the kings. Sri Aurobindo writes,


Indian civilizations evolved an admirable political system, built solidly and with an enduring soundness, combined with a remarkable skill the monarchical, democratic and other principles and tendencies to which the mind of man has leaned in its efforts of civic construction and escaped at the same time the excess of the mechanising turn which is the defect of the modern European states…And in the Ramayana we have an idealised picture of such a Dharmarajya, a settled universal empire. Here too it is not an autocratic despotism but a universal monarchy supported by a free assembly of the city and provinces and of all the classes…’

People’s will and the prescription of duties tempered the use of power by the kings and prevented the king’s power from becoming absolute. And his conscience, being of divine origin, was expected to stand guard and guide him in the right direction. Therefore, Dasharatha called for an assembly of people to discuss the question of succession. He suggested there that Rama, his eldest son, be the king. This was approved by the assembly. Dasharatha had to seek the approval of the people because he knew that without people’s support Rama would never be able to rule. His advice to Rama at this stage is significant, ‘…you have won the hearts of the people by your character and qualities…Be polite, control your senses, forsake lust, anger and luxury and rule the kingdom by remaining loyal to your advisers and your people.’ Thereafter, pleasing the people, prajanuranjana, remained like an unwavering guiding beacon for Rama in the rest of the tale.

At the beginning of Sabha Parva, Narada came to Yudhishthira and advised him on statecraft in the form of some questions. In that brilliant discourse on good governance, Narada too emphasised the king’s duty towards his subjects and described the basic qualities required for a good king. He asks, “Do you possess the six kingly qualities, namely, vakta, pragalbhata, medha, smriti, nayavid, and kavitva? Are the seven arms of the kingdom, namely, the king, the ministers, peoples’ settlements, forts, treasury, army and friendly kingdoms, well-guarded?” With similar questions he advises him to look after the traders, farmers, artisans, artists, public servants, soldiers, dependants, the old, the poor, provide them with security and root out corruption from public service. He also advised him to follow the path of dharma firmly and enjoy the worldly pleasures with self-control and detachment.

Bhishma’s advice to Yudhishthira on rajadharma underlines the same aspects of good governance. It is not possible to describe his discourse in detail but some of them are as follows: you will display initiative. Work can be done only by initiative, not providence. There are six kinds of forts among which the most important is the human fort. So, you should be kind to people so that they remain loyal to you. The king must neither be always soft nor always hard – he should be like the Spring-sun, neither too hot, nor too cold. You should not be too intimate with your subordinates. They will take advantage and say that we are running the administration. That king is the best in whose kingdom the subjects move about as fearlessly as a son moves about in his father’s house. Artha is very important. Welfare depends on economic prosperity. For that he might have to break the shackles of traditional ideals and adopt ideals suitable for the times. However, a good king always strikes a balance between the three: dharma, artha and kama. Intelligence is required to be a successful politician. The king’s personal comforts are not important. The central point of rajadharma is the welfare of people. One must follow such policy as results in public welfare. These are a few examples picked up from that most brilliant and comprehensive book of advice which establishes the depth of Bhishma’s erudition.


Bhishma’s character is an enigma. It is one of the most successful efforts of Vyasa. He created a character who cannot be fully understood. Bhishma, the paragon of all virtues, needs to be scrutinised for it is in him that we find the lessons of what happens when state-power is not used, when the science of danda, though known, is never applied.

What does he do in the entire epic?

He is supposed to be the greatest warrior in the entire world. He was a master of all weapons and knew all that was worth knowing about the art of war. Everyone was scared of his prowess and dexterity in the battlefield. He was

Expert in war-weapons
of heaven and earth:
he was maha-powerful, maha-patient,

All that is true. He schooled with Vashishtha, Brihaspati and Shukracharya and learnt warfare from none other than Parashurama. Ganga said to Shantanu,

He is your excellent boy,
skilled in arms.
Take him now.
Great is the care I have given him.
…With Vashishtha he studied
the Vedas and the Vedangas.
He is a fine archer, like the raja of the gods
Indra himself in battle.
Both the gods and anti-gods
regard him highly.
Whaever Vedas and shastras
Shakra-Indra knows, he knows too.
Whatever Vedas and shastras
the son of Angiras
honoured by gods and anti-gods, knows,
this child knows too.
All weapons that were known
to the son of Jamadagni, Parashurama,
are known to this shining
strong-armed boy.
He is a splendid archer,
he knows the art of war,
and the dharma of rajas. O raja, take him home.

This being his military background, let us examine what he does with it in the entire epic. After he is born, Ganga takes him away and Shantanu goes home. After a long time (how long is a matter of debate for many reasons but this is not the place for that), Shantanu “came across a handsome, powerfully-built smiling young boy” in the forest on the banks of the River Ganga, and this young boy “with his divine arrows had stemmed the flowing waters.” This is the first display of his prowess in the epic.

The second exploit of Bhishma is connected with the marriage of his stepbrother, Vichitravirya. When he came of age, it was found necessary to get him married. So Bhishma goes to Kashi where the three princesses, Amba, Ambika and Ambalika were choosing their husbands in a svayamvara sabha. He need not have abducted the Kashi princesses. When he saw the situation at Kashi on arrival, it was expected from a man of his experience and wisdom that he explain the purpose of his visit instead of getting furious at the insults heaped upon him by the assembly of kings and precipitate the situation without any explanation. He did not do what he should have done, instead he abducted the princesses, threw a challenge to the assembled kings and thrashed them when attacked. When Shalva, king of Madra who was Amba’s lover, pursued him to rescue her from Bhishma’s custody, he defeated Shalva with ease. This then was the second display of his prowess.

The third exploit is related to Amba. Just before the princesses were married to Vichitravirya, Amba revealed her affair with Shalva and Bhishma promptly let her go to Shalva. Shalva refused to accept her. Amba, desperate and furious, held Bhishma responsible for her discomfiture, went to the hermitage in the forest and decided to take revenge on Bhishma. She wanted to begin her ascesis there but the ascetics dissuaded her. Here she met rajarshi Hotravahana, a Srinjaya dynast, Amba’s maternal grandfather and related by blood to the Panchalas of Kampilya who also belonged to the Srinjaya dynasty. He introduced her to Parashurama, a personal friend. She then persuaded the war-like sage, Bhishma’s guru, to take revenge on her behalf. He, as the champion of an insulted and infuriated Amba, appeared before Bhishma to chastise him. The battle waged for a long time and finally Parashurama accepted defeat and went away to Mahendra mountain. Amba took to severe ascesis and then, blessed by Shiva, she was reborn as Shikhandi, pledged to slay Bhishma. Actually she might have gone into hard training in the art of warfare and after satisfactory completion Hotravahana must have taken her to Drupada where she was accepted and introduced as a son, Shikhandi. However that is another story. This was Bhishma’s third military exploit.

We find him in a battlefield for the fourth time on the outskirts of the Virata capital with the army of Duryodhana. Brihannala-Arjuna defeated all the Kaurava heroes, including Bhishma, single-handedly. Thus ended Bhishma’s fourth essay on a battlefield.

Bhishma picked up arms for the fifth and last time in the Kurukshetra war as the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. The reasons for Bhishma’s joining the Kauravas were, firstly, the old enmity with the Panchalas. In addition to that the king of Kashi who had become vengeful after the abduction episode had joined the Pandavas. So did the sons of Shalva for the same reason. And secondly, Amba was there to fulfil her vow of revenge against Bhishma. How then could he join the Pandavas? Thirdly, his dharma. He was pledged to protect the throne and save the dynasty from danger. The Pandavas were the axis posing danger to it. So, he had to stand by the throne. Lastly, his expressed reason:

A man is the slave of need,
but need is no one’s slave.
This is true. I am tied to the kauravas
by need.
That is why I tell all this to you,
like a eunuch; I am a servant.

The reason mentioned was true as far as Kripa and Drona were concerned. They too mentioned the same reason when Yudhishthira went to them for their blessings. But was it true for Bhishma? He was the grandfather, not a servant. He could have joined the Pandavas whom he loved and the battle would have stopped. Even Duryodhana would not have dared to go into battle with Bhishma on the Pandava side. He could also have saved his dharma by doing that. Again, he could have but did not. After ten days of heroic display of superhuman prowess, he fell, never to rise again.

There is no doubt that by training he was an adept warrior. A disciple of Parashurama he could be nothing less. But the problem is he never displayed his skills either in a defensive or an offensive battle in the Mahabharata. If he did then the author of the epic has chosen to remain silent about it. Perhaps he did not have to because his reputation as an intrepid, unbeatable warrior (I am not sure how he acquired such a reputation) preceded him and none dared to pick up arms against him. All the battles he fought in the epic were foisted upon him. Even though he displayed tremendous prowess in all of them – it does take a lot of guts and proficiency to take on an adversary like Parashurama and defeat him-- it hardly justifies the reputation he had. It is interesting to note that though almost all his protégés, Chitrangada, Pandu, Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva, much lesser heroes than him, went out on tours of conquest, he himself, the much-vaunted hero, never did.

On the other hand, we find that he failed to take action when it was direly required. Chitrangada died fighting a long battle at Kurukshetra that lasted for three years, with his Gandharva namesake who had attacked Hastinapura. And Bhishma, the self-proclaimed protector of the Hastinapura throne in the service of which he had dedicated his life, the great warrior and guardian of his half-brother, Chitrangada, the king of Hastinapura, did not lift a finger to help him, fighting desperately for life only a few kilometres away. After Chitrangada died, he dutifully performed his last rites and placed Vichitravirya on the throne. Given his reputation, one would have expected him to repel the invading Gandharva without much ado. Again, in the Balarama episode he was guilty of similar inaction. When Balarama almost uprooted Hastinapura with his ploughshare because Samba, Krishna’s son who was in love with Lakshmana, Duryodhana’s daughter, had been captured by Duryodhana, he did nothing.

So, Bhishma really never uses his tremendous power of the arms for bringing about prosperity for Hastinapura by acquiring land and wealth. His power remains under-utilized.

How then does he fare as a statesman and a family elder? Let us examine.

As a statesman we find him doing well to begin with. He received the best of education in statecraft from celebrated teachers like Vashishtha, Brihaspati and Shukracharya. When he was the crown prince, he, armed with such knowledge and proficiency, administered the kingdom very well and he had the complete support and confidence of the people:

He installed the illustrious boy
as heir-apparent,
for the protection of the kingdom
and the safety of his subjects.
The boy pleased his father,
and all members of his family.
He pleased his subjects
with his noble conduct.
Four years passed
in this manner,
father, son and subjects
living happily together.

Later, as regent for Vichitravirya, he continued to give good advice on administration which the king followed obediently. Displaying uncanny astuteness he did not take any important step without consulting Satyavati, the queen-mother. After Vichitravirya died, he looked after the children, Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura and looked after the kingdom with great care. Ruled by Bhishma, Hastinapura prospered. An entire section, section 109 of Adi Parva, is devoted to the description of the prosperity of the kingdom and praise of Bhishma’s leadership and popularity:

And when the world’s countries
saw the Shantanu dynasty recover its former glory,
they said:
Highest among mothers of heroes –
are the daughters of the king of Kashi;
Highest among the countries of the world –
is Kurujangala;
Highest among the knowers of dharma –
is Bhishma;
Highest among the world’s cities –
is Hastinapura, the city of the elephant-gates.


When they grew up Pandu became the king and ruled well. Bhishma got them married suitably. Pandu went to the forest. Dhritarashtra ruled on behalf of Pandu. We see Bhishma slowly receding into virtual retirement and handing over charge to Vidura, who knew dharma and artha, was free from greed and anger, had the gift of foresight, was serene and a well-wisher of the Kauravas.

So, his administrative acumen was never in doubt. The Shanti Parva and the Anushasana Parva stand testimony to that. Most of the advice on rajadharma is relevant even today.

After Pandu ascended the throne, there was a distinct shift in Bhishma’s attitude. He withdrew from affairs of state. Pandu of course paid him due respect and obeyed him. Left to himself, Dhritarashtra too was not adverse towards him—not yet. But the princes were growing. Duryodhana and Duhshasana were coming out in their true colours. With the appearance of the Pandavas on the scene and the advent of Shakuni and Karna, the scenario was complete. When incident after incident kept taking place tormenting the Pandavas, Bhishma either kept quiet, or gave advice which in any case fell on deaf ears. He offered advice occasionally but with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude; he was never involved. Hardly ever do we find him standing firm and forcing decisions which only he had the power to do. He never attempted seriously to stop these incidents from taking place or make amends after they took place. He did nothing to save the family though he had sacrificed his entire life to protect the Hastinapura throne from internecine strife. He, and only he, could have prevented these incidents which had bitter political consequence but chose not to. He had the power to save but did not use it. He merely lamented and forecast doom.

The Panchala-Kaurava enmity is very old beginning perhaps from the days of the Samvaran-Sudasa conflict. One would have expected of a statesman of Bhishma’s standing to do something about it, to neutralise this thorn so close to Kurujangala. But we find that even in his heyday he chose to ignore Panchala. Had he not done that the story would have been different.

It is a telling commentary on the much-vaunted wisdom of Bhishma that he never cast a glance eastwards towards the alarming imperialistic ambitions of Jarasandha of Magadha despite the phenomenon of nearly a hundred kings having been captured and nearby Mathura attacked repeatedly. A contingent from Hastinapura even accompanied the Magadhan army’s onslaught on Mathura with Duryodhana heading it. It was left to young Krishna to scotch these imperial designs by killing each of the tyrants separately, without any assistance from Bhishma, renowned as the greatest statesman of the age.

Bhishma’s failure as a leader of the polity lies in his not having practiced the rajadharma he speaks of at length to Yudhishthira from his bed of arrows which seems to become his penance for inaction. After his brief period of excellence in administration as regent, he adopts a stance of a mere ‘witness’ and in a Kshatriya, the witness stance only brings about the destruction of polity. Withdrawal from the rightful use of danda, exercising state power for lokasamgraha, holding together people in the way of dharma, is abdication that betrays the responsibility assigned to the Kshatriya. To abjure this because of a self-imposed vow and turn into the egotistical sublime of the age brings destruction and misery in its wake not only for oneself, but also for the entire society of which such a person is the corner-stone, the pillar of strength. Indeed, in Bhishma we find the difference between the ideal and the reality.

Let us now scrutinise his role as a family elder. We find him first as a guardian of the two orphaned princes, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. He, as an elder brother, must have had a hand in training them. However, the Mahabharata is silent about that. Chitrangada grew up to be a “lord among men” and “he defeated all the lords of the world one by one.” But he was vain and did not consider any man equal to him – “manushyam na hi mene sa kanchit sadrisham atmanah” (1:101: 7). He, the king of Hastinapura, died in battle at Kurukshetra with his namesake, a Gandharva. What is surprising is, Bhishma, his most puissant elder brother, did not go to his rescue. Bhishma then crowned Vichitravirya, “a mighty archer,” the king and arranged his marriage with the Kashi princesses (described elsewhere) but Vichitravirya became addicted to sex, the old affliction of the Chandravamsha, and died of consumption brought on by over-indulgence. Bhishma, the guardian, well-obeyed by the king, allowed that to happen. Bhishma refused to father sons on the field of his brother’s widows even though requested by Satyavati because his dharma, his truth, his vows did not permit it. The essence of Bhishma’s dharma is his attachment to the vow of celibacy overriding precedence over everything else, including the public weal. He is not bothered about the chaos that will occur in Hastinapura with no one to inherit the throne. His major concern is that his vow must remain intact. The motivation is highly complex but this is not the place for examining it. The futility of it all is that the vow is adhered to long after its purpose has been served, and even when it becomes dysfunctional to the extent of threatening the very existence of the dynasty of which Bhishma is the sole remaining representative.

Then he, in consultation with Satyavati, organised the impregnation of the widows by Vyasa, and Dhritarashtra and Pandu were born. Vyasa also impregnated a Shudra slave maid and Vidura, who was Dharma himself, cursed by sage Mandavya to be born as a Shudra, was born. This time Bhishma himself trained them as if  they were his own sons.

Following the samskaras
they studied, they were trained
in athletics and manual labour,
archery, horsemanship,
mace-duel, sword-fight,
elephant-riding and the essentials of ethics.
They studied history,
The Puranas and other subjects;
they learned the Vedas and Vedangas,
they were skilled and scholarly.
Mighty Pandu excelled
in archery;
and Dhritarashtra was acknowledged master
of manly strength.
None in the three worlds
excelled Vidura in dharma;
what he knew about dharma
was incomparable.

Bhishma had trained them well. All of them did very well and were obedient to Bhishma. Bhishma had to ensure the continuity of the dynasty got them married to princesses who he knew would surely produce children – Gandhari was blessed with a boon of hundred sons and Kunti with a boon of a mantra which would enable her to invoke any god who would give her a son. For good measure, he brought a second wife for Pandu – Madri, the Madra princess. He must have heaved a sigh of relief and seems to have retired from active service. But he did that too soon. The poison that would ultimately wreck the dynasty had begun coursing through its veins.

Pandu gave up his kingdom and went to the forest. Dhritarashtra became the king. The children were born and grew up. Bhishma, strangely, did not ever try to find out what happened to Pandu. Pandu died. Yudhishthira, accompanied by Kunti and his brothers, walked into his kingdom and misery. The news of Yudhishthira’s birth alone had reached Hastinapura. It was generally accepted that Yudhishthira, being the eldest of all the hundred and five Paurava princes and being the eldest son of Pandu, would be the king. So, Dhritarashtra’s sons, out of anger, jealousy and frustration, made life miserable for the Pandavas. Kripacharya became the mentor of the princes and later Bhishma appointed Dronacharya as their preceptor. It may be noted that Bhishma, perhaps due to his old age, did not take up the responsibility of training the princes himself. He remained happy with the role of an indulgent grandfather.

Hereafter the story moves fast. The dramatic finale to their education, Drupada’s defeat, coronation of Yudhishthira as crown prince, Varanavata episode, Bhima-Hidimba marriage, birth of Ghatotkacha and finally, the marriage of Draupadi with Pandavas. Bhishma directs Dhritarashtra to give half the kingdom to the Pandavas. This would be the last time Bhishma’s advice would be accepted in the epic. But then why did Bhishma recommend this division of the kingdom? After all he had embraced a lifetime of celibacy and given up the throne so that internecine conflict could be avoided and the integrity of the kingdom maintained. Was this advice then commensurate with his objective? Could he not have just told Dhritarashtra that Yudhishthira was the crown prince and he must be given the entire kingdom? Surely as the Grand Sire of the dynasty he had the right and the responsibility to say so.

This brings us to the most embarrassing, sordid and shameful episode of Bhishma’s entire career – the dice game. The deceptive aura of perfection is ruthlessly dispelled in this episode. Never have the limitations of Bhishma’s way of life been exposed so mercilessly as when Draupadi challenges him to stand by those very tenets of nobility which the Kuru court is supposed to uphold. Here we have a complete expose of how, taking refuge behind the excuse of a Hamletian mulling over a philosophical dilemma while a queen’s honour is at stake, the paragon of Kshatriyas abdicates his calling of exercising state power to chastise the oppressor. He is wholly oblivious of his obligation, as the patriarch in society, to set an example for others to follow. That is why pointing to his silence, Karna argues that Draupadi must have been duly won and orders Duhshasana to strip her. As she is about to be dragged away to the servants’ quarters, Panchali makes a last attempt to arouse the soporific manhood of the Kuru court whose guardian Bhishma is supposed to be.

What he says then is of very great importance, for it speaks of the breakdown of a system of values, of dharma having become an empty shell:

What a strong man says often
becomes the only dharma;
a weak may have dharma on his side
but who listens to him?
…to tell you the truth
I don’t know what to say.

The face of truth is hidden not by the Upanishadic golden lid but by a sadly tarnished one. Here is the greatest of patriarchs enmeshing himself in the dialectics of reason: whether Draupadi has been won or not. As if that issue is of more importance than protecting her modesty. He does not lift a finger to free her from brutal Duhshasana’s clutches.

Indeed the life-breath of dharma is gone. What exists is a putrefying corpse kept artificially alive, shown ultimately in Bhishma’s death-in-life on the bed of arrows. It is revealing that explicit prohibition, disgust at the proceedings and warning is finally voiced not by the Kshatriya Bhishma, protector of Hastinapura, but by the son of a mixed-caste sage and a maid-servant, Vidura:

Now they insult a woman
nobility is dead,
The kauravas conspire sinfully
dharma violated in a
sabha, destroys the sabha…kurus,
do not abandon dharma.
The problem is that the power of the state remains reined in for
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of a passionate intensity.

Bhishma thus did not act as either a statesman to save the state from committing a political blunder or a family elder in not protecting the honour of the wife of his grand nephews.

It is a fact that Bhishma bestrides the epic as a colossus and it is because of this that he has been celebrated over a millennia as the repository of statecraft and the embodiment of the warrior code, to be looked up to by all succeeding generations. This aura is like the Upanishadic golden lid veiling the face of the truth. What Vyasa shows us is Bhishma standing as the last bulwark of the ancient dharma in which loyalty to the clan over-rode all other claims; in which fidelity to one’s word was the be-all and end-all; into which considerations of the larger public weal did not enter.

He was an enigma. He was the best of them all. Yet he did nothing to justify his qualities. He had the authority as well as the capacity to change the course of history but his vows forced him to remain immobile. He remained mesmerised by his own vows, a helpless cocoon imprisoned in its own strands of impetuous sanctimony. Perhaps he, like Krishna, desired the destruction of the family he had taken up the responsibility of protecting. Perhaps not. As Pradip Bhattacharya puts it succinctly, he “is waiting for Godot: Godot who never arrives.” So, he stood on the sideline, a resplendent figure, waiting and despairing, adorned with everything that is good among men, an ideal human being to be honoured, adored and emulated and allowed destiny to take its toll. He is the greatest character Vyasa created and the most ineffective. He had all the power and qualities of leadership which remained unutilised. Bhishma remains the most unintelligible Vyasakuta of all.


The epic projects Yudhishthira as a helpless victim caught in the weft woven by destiny. He did not want power but power was forced on him. He did not want to be a king, but the environment demanded that he be the king. He wanted peace, but war was thrust upon him. He wanted to follow the path of dharma but was dragged inexorably through the quagmire of adharma. He wanted to be an ascetic but had to become a rajarshi on the directions of his mother and practise rajadharma involving sama, dana, danda, bheda. He abhorred violence, but violence was his destiny. He preferred forgiveness but he had to strive for revenge throughout his career. He wanted a simple life but life gave him complexities. Therefore, he had to make an effort to be what he was not. He had to become a king and exercise power to influence others, fight a war, inflict revenge and win a kingdom. For that he had to effect a transformation, become powerful and wield power to achieve objectives.

The general impression about Yudhishthira is that he was a good person, a staunch upholder of dharma and truth and could do no wrong, but, at the same time, he appeared to be a weak-minded idiot, afraid to take timely action and kept getting the Pandavas deeper and deeper into trouble. But the Mahabharatan reality gives us a different impression. Yudhisthira’s story has a strange Cinderella quality – a story of a slow transformation within an overarching continuum of dharma. Vyasa’s Yudhishthira has much more depth than any of the other Pandavas. Among the five Pandavas, he is the one who is intellectually gifted. He is intelligent, perceptive, patient and far-sighted. The others never display their intellectual acumen throughout the epic the way Yudhishthira does. That is why Rajsekhar Basu wrote in the Preface to his Bengali translation of the Mahabharata that Yudhishthira was the central character of the epic. He was Yudhishthira, steady in the battle-field of both life and war. Yudhishthira is dharma, – “yatodharmastatojayaha” – he won everywhere because he never deviated from the path of truth. It was always he who took all the decisions and acted upon those, controlling the speed to increase the efficacy of decisions, – others merely hid behind his decisions. He took the lead in all situations and determined every course of action that was needed to be taken. No doubt he put them in some trouble at times. At the same time he got them out of so many difficult situations which only he could have done. When Kirmira confronted them, he faced him without fear. He rescued Bhima from the Serpent-Nahusha. He recovered his brothers from the Yaksha. When Jatasura abducted the Pandavas and Draupadi, Yudhishthira rebuked him and made himself so heavy that the demon could no longer move fast. Bhima could come in time and slay him. In Virata Parva, when Draupadi was raving at the Virata court with Bhima in attendance, he, apprehensive that their identity would be revealed before time, asked them to keep quiet and leave the court, thus saving them from disaster. He was the person with knowledge and intelligence and it was he who collected all the vidyas and boons from the gods and sages which stood them in good stead later. It was he who restrained his brothers when restraint was necessary and pushed them forward when that was needed. He said once that he stands behind Arjuna’s bravery and protects him – Aham pashchadarjunamabhyaraksham. Yudhishthira also prevented disaffection between brothers when the question of Draupadi’s marriage came up. He had seen the lust in the eyes of his brothers. So he decided that all the brothers would marry her to prevent disunity in the tightly-knit group of five brothers. Although many stories were told to justify this decision, this argument appears to be the main driving force behind that decision. The leader has to identify the power centre that prevents schism and maintain cohesiveness in the core group. For achieving a higher objective one has to sometimes sacrifice a personal objective.

Continued to Next Page 


More by :  Maj. Gen. Shekhar Sen

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