[Advaita-l] Bhishmas motives and Krshna Bhagavans reorientation of Dharma

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at braincells.com
Fri Dec 1 23:37:34 CST 2006

Today Margashirsha Shukla 11 was Gita Jayanti, the anniversary of the day
when at the onset of the war between the Pandavas and their cousin
brothers, the Kauravas, Arjuna the Pandava was taught the path to moksha
by Krshna Bhagavan.  (Hence another name for the day is Mokshada Ekadashi.)

The Bhagavad Gita is part of the epic called Mahabharata.  The Mahabharata
is divided into 100 minor books called parvanas which are grouped into 18
major books called mahaparvanas.  The Gita is the majority but not the
entirety of the Gita parvana which is part of the Bhishma mahaparvana.

Recently there was some discussion on this list about Bhishma, the
great-uncle and patriarch of both the Pandavas and Kauravas and why he
ended up fighting on the Kaurava side despite the obvious justice (and his
personal sympathies) for the Pandava cause.  I think the answer to this
can be found in the Gitaparvan.

The Gitaparvan begins with Sanjaya returning from the field of battle to
tell his master Dhrtarashtra (the father of the Kauravas) that Bhisma has
fallen in battle.  In grief and shock Dhrtarashtra says:

praGYaparAyaNaM tajGYAnaM saddharmanirataM shuchim |
vedavedA~ngatattvaGYaM kathaM shaMsasi me hatam || 15.40 ||

"Steeped in wisdom and self-knowledge, sharp as a needle in the pursuit of
true Dharma, knower of the meaning of the Vedas and Vedangas, how can you
tell me he is killed?"

sarvAstravinayopetaM dAntaM shAntaM manasvinam |
hataM shAntanavaM shrutvA manye sheShaM balaM hatam || 15.41 ||

"Expert in the use of all weapons, self-controlled and of steady mind,
on hearing of the death of that son of Shantanu[1], I know the rest of
my[2] army is also dead."

dharmAdAdharmo balavAn saMprApta iti me matiH |
yatra vrddhaM guruM hatvA rAjyam ichchhanti pANDavAH || 15.42 ||

"'Adharma has won over Dharma' is my belief if after killing
that venerable guru, the Pandavas still desire the kingdom."

Bhishma is the man who did everything right.  He was the very embodiment
of Kshatriya dharma and so if he was defeated it was not just a personal
defeat but called into question the entire ideal of Kshatriya dharma.

Later Dhrtarashtra calms down a bit and is not quite so pessimistic.  He

dAruNaH kShatradharmo'yam r^iShibhiH sampradarshitaH |
yatra shAntanavaM hatvA rAjyam ichchhanti pANDavAH || 15.60 ||

"Cruel is the Kshatriya dharma which the Rshis have passed down to us if
after killing that son of Shantanu the Pandavas still desire the kingdom..."

vayaM vA rAjyam ichchhAmo ghAtayitvA pItamaham |
kShatradharme sthitaH pArthA nAparAdhyanti putrakAH || 15.61 ||

"...or if we still desire the kingdom after causing the death of
Grandfather[3] but [their actions are] based on Kshatriya dharma so
neither the Parthas[4] or my sons are to blame."

etadAryeNa kartavyaM krchchhrAsvApatsu SaMjaya |
parAkramaH paraM shaktyA tachcha tasmin pratiShThitaM || 15.62 ||

"For that is the noblemans[5] behavior even in the worst crisis Sanjaya.
To be brave to the best of his ability and this is rooted in it.[6]"

As bad as Bhishmas death is, it can be excused because fighting is what
Kshatriyas do.  Death in battle is a risk they have to face stoically.

Sanjaya also relates a curious fact:

ahanyahani pArthAnAM vrddhaH kurupitAmahaH |
bharadvajAtmajashchaiva prAtarutthAya saMyatau || 17.5 ||

"Day after day, the venerable guru of the Parthas and Kurus and also the
son of Bharadvaja[7] upon waking in the morning quietly uttered..."

jayo'stu pANDuputraNAm ityuchaturariMdamau |
yuyudhAte tAvarthAya yathA sa samayaH krtaH || 17.6 ||

"'...may victory belong to the sons of Pandu.' But they fought for your
benefit as they had pledged."

But what Bhishma says to the assembled Kaurava troops is something else:

idaM vaH kShatriyA dvAraM svargAyApAvrtaM mahat |
gachchhadhvaM tena shakrasya brahmaNasshcha salokatAm || 17.8 ||

"This is, Kshatriyas, the door to Heaven swung wide open!
pass through it and earn the worlds of Shakra[8] and Brahma."

eSha vaH shAshvataH panthAH pUrvaiH pUrvatarairgataH |
saMbhAvayata chAtmAnam avyagramanaso yudhi || 17.9 ||

"This is the hallowed path trod by your ancestors and theirs.
gladden their souls by your zeal in this war."

nAbhago hi yayAtishcha mAndhAtA nahuSho nrgaH |
saMsiddhAH paramaM sthAnaM gataH karmabhirIdrshaiH || 17.10 ||

"Nabhaga and Yayati, Mandhata, Nahusha, and Nrga[9] were blessed and
reached the highest place by deeds such as you will do."

adharmaH kShatriyasyaiSha yad vyAdhimaraNaM grhe |
yadAjau nidhanaM yAti so.asya dharmaH sanAtanaH || 17.11 ||

"It is adharma for a Kshatriya to die of sickness at home but is his
eternal dharma to find death on the battlefield."

Like Dhrtarashtra, Bhishma believes that war is the occupation of the
Kshatriya.  Despite his preference for the Pandavas, the only true test of
justice is on the battlefield.  Victory indicates right and defeat
indicates wrong.  So the only way the Pandavas can display the
righteousness of their cause is to win even if Bhishma has to sacrifice
himself in the process.

Arjuna balks at this, He cannot understand why the best and most revered
of his august family must die just to prove a point.  It is at this
juncture that Krshna bhagavan teaches him a different perspective on
Dharma.  Not a new one, in fact it is what Arjunas ancestors knew all
along (See Gita 4.1) but the message was lost with the passage of time.
The implications of Dharma cannot be known by single act.  They have to be
looked at in context and that context extends much further than the life
of the actors.  In fact only God can truly know it so one should abandon
all personal reasons for acting and dedicate them all to Him.


[1] i.e. Bhishma the son of Shantanu.

[2] i.e. Kauravas

[3] i.e. Bhishma in the sense of being the oldest male relative.  More
accurately he is the  great-uncle of the clan being the half-brother of
Dhrtarashtra and Pandu the father of the Pandavas.

[4] Sons of Prthu. i.e. the Pandavas.

[5] The actual word used here is Aryan but there is no reason to take it
in a racial sense.

[6] Dharma.

[7] Drona the acharya of the Pandavas and Kauravas.

[8] i.e. Indra.

[9] illustrious kings, ancestors of the Kauravas and Pandavas.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at braincells.com>

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