In the grand canvass of Mahabharata, there is no dearth of glorious spots. There are a number of enlightening moments, striking metaphors, devotional experiences and reflective situations. In every such moment there is a bend in the river that transforms the reader. Some of those are extraordinary in all these dimensions.
Philosophical perspective, heartfelt devotion, poetic imagery and forceful narrative come together in a single enlightening flash. Bhagawan Srikrishna’s encounters with Bheeshma on the battlefield are one such. It has captured the imagination of successive poets and modern era artists.
In the Kurukshetra Yuddha, Srikrishna loses his cool and composure twice, or so it does it appear. Once on the 3rd Day and once more on the 9th Day for the same reasons. On both occasions it is for the same reason. Dharmasamsthapana required that Arjuna slay Bheeshma.
It is only Arjuna who had the ability and the adhikara for such a feat. But Srikrishna finds Arjuna non-committal, tentative and without conviction to perform his duty. On both occasions Krishna assumes an anger uncharacteristic of him.
In a dramatic way, he throws the reins of the chariot and jumps down. He thunders that he will break his vow of not wielding the weapon in the war. He chides Arjuna for falling short of his Dharmic responsibility. He calls for his Sudarshana and fiercely moves towards Bheeshma to kill him. Arjuna is shaken from his Tamas.
A distraught Arjuna desperately clings on to the feet of Srikrishna to arrest his movement. He pleads him to withdraw his anger urging him to not break his vow. On the other side, Bheeshmacharya breaks into a cry of joy. He hastens towards Srikrishna, bows to him with devotion and pleads for his death at the hands of none other than Vasudeva. He seeks to capture the moment in his favour.
Finally, Srikrishna waves down his anger, withdraws his Sudarshana, returns to the chariot and resumes its reins. Arjuna is relieved and fights with a greater rigour subsequently.
It is a moving episode. It is much in glory of Bheeshmacharya. It is his devotion and ability that are exemplified in this episode, for the first eye. Here is a man who made even Srikrishna break his vow, well nearly. Yet, he is also the one who recognizes the divinity of Srikrishna Vasudeva. At his feet, Bheeshma is willing to overcome his attachment to Hastinapura.
Such is the great parampara of the Bhagavan and the Bhakta. It is always the Bhakta who wins and hence Bhagavanta. The dramatic nature of the episode is unmistakable. That is to the credit of the genius of Maharshi Vyasa. But this moving account conceals some important perspectives. Let us get into the elements of this episode.
On the third day of the war, Bheeshma seemed invincible. It was a mesmerizing and destructive display of his prowess and valour. It put heat under the feet of every single Rathi and soldier. Many ran to save their lives.
The battle-field on the side of the Pandavas was in a scatter and tatter. Bheeshma was in a battle after a very long time. The Virata war got over too soon. His natural abilities, along with his commitment, were in full expression. If he continued thus, Pandavas had no hope.
Srikrishna paused for a moment and took note. He turned to Arjuna in a rare address without his usual smile. He reminded him of his commitment to completely vanquish the Kaurava army along with Bheeshma. Arjuna had made this commitment many times.
After the Bhagavadgeeta, he promised the same with renewed emphasis. He urged him to take note of the destruction Bheeshma had wrecked. A disturbed Arjuna warmed up and sought to be driven towards Bheeshma for a duel.
A great battle ensued between the two. The battle waved like a see-saw with each overpowering the other but only momentarily. Srikrishna had to manouvre through the chariot with great deftness to avoid Bheeshma’s assault. It reached a point where Bheeshma injured Krishna-Arjuna. Quite a few Pandava rathi-s bade themselves to Veerasvarga.
Krishna was forced to think. “If Bheeshma remains unchecked, the Pandava army will soon come to a naught. Dharmaraja will become a prisoner of Duryodhana.
Dharmasamsthapana will have to wait for another epoch. It is only Arjuna who could rein in Bheeshma. But the moha of his grandfather is coming in the way of performing his Dharmic duties. Arjuna is not fighting with his full mind and might. It is best that I wear my armour, enter the battlefield and relieve Bheeshma of his body”.
Even as Srikrishna was contemplating an exceptional action, the situation worsened. Bheeshma had made it impossible for even the Maharathis on the Pandava side. There was an all-round abandoning of the battlefield which forced Satyaki to deliver a pleading war-cry to the Kshatriyas to not abandon their Kshatradharma.
Srikrishna Vasudeva was incensed. After praising Satyaki for his valour, he announced that he shall wield the weapon and send Bheeshma to his rightful place in the heavens. He shall proceed to kill all the Kaurava warriors and destroy the Kaurava army so that Yudhishthira can be restored as the King of Hastinapura. “Then alone shall Dharma be restored” announced Srikrishna.
Thus saying, Srikrishna drew his Sudarshna from his naval and stepped towards Bheeshma. He shone like Agni and moved like a gracious lion approaching to teach a lesson to an intoxicated elephant. Bheeshma, on the other hand, was not a bit taken back.
Instead, he was overjoyed. He wielded his weapons more firmly but pleaded with Vasudeva to relieve him from his body. What better glory than be killed by the very Lord himself? Wont that only further Bheeshma’s fame in the three worlds? “With your weapon I shall happily fall in the battlefield” invited Bheeshma, the great Bhagavata.
In the meanwhile, Arjuna came to his senses. He jumped from his chariot and ran towards Krishna even as the latter leapt fast in gracious steps. Arjuna barely managed to hold the Lord by his strong shoulders. Even as the embrace was on, Srikrishna continued to drag Arjuna along towards Bheeshma.
Arjuna was forced now to drop himself down and catch his thighs and feet to completely arrest his movement. Yet, Krishna moved ten more steps before Arjuna got a complete grip. Finally, Srikrishna halted.
Arjuna by then knew his folly. He promised Srikrishna that he will fulfill his Pratigna. He took a vow in the name of his children and brothers to that effect. Srikrishna was pleased. He withdrew himself and got back to the chariot along with a much relieved Arjuna. All the while, Bheeshma was simply ‘anjalibaddha’ waiting for the final assault by Srikrishna which did not materialize. The battle resumed.
This repeated on the 9th Day. Bheeshmacharya reigned supreme once again. The Pandava army had been shattered. It was progressively diminishing in number and strength. Bhagawan Srikrishna was once again alarmed. He lost no time in reminding Arjuna of his vow, yet again.
Arjuna had announced the vow in front of all Kings of Bharatavarsha in the Varata Sabha and subsequently made known to Sanjaya the messenger. He went a step further and absolutely confronted Arjuna. He chided him as being afflicted with attachment towards Bheeshma and implored upon him to shrug it away. He urged him to fill his mind with Kshatradharma and act accordingly.
But this was not the 3rd Day. This was the 9th Day and Arjuna had seen hitherto unknown destruction. Arjuna’s heart had sunk further. His emotional crisis was nearing the levels of the Bhagavadgeeta day. The experience and fatigue of the battlefield had made it worse. He wondered if the forest exile was better than this destruction of the loved ones.
Nevertheless, he urged Srikrishna once again to lead him to Bheeshma. As though resigned to the situation, he promised again that he will bring Bheeshma to his end. Words came out only from his mouth but not from his heart and definitely without the will.
Naturally, it was a repetition of the 3rd Day. A glorious display of prowess between them apart, Bheeshma again claimed an upper hand. The Pandava army destruction continued. This time, Srikrishna lost his patience sooner than later. He threw the reins of the horses and jumped out of the chariot.
Beating the ground with his whip, he thundered himself towards Bheeshma. His entire body seemed like weapons moving to bring an end to Bheeshma. Once again Bheeshma invited Srikrishna with the same smile and devotion, seeking to meet his end in the hands of the Lord. Yet again, Arjuna desperately held Srikrishna.
Once again it took ten steps of dragging by Srikrishna for Arjuna to bring him to a complete halt. Arjuna variously praised him and sought him to not break his vow. He could not bear the thought of Srikrishna being accused of breaking a made vow.
This time he swore in the name of his weapons that he will bring an end to Bheeshma. Srikrishna calmed himself down. But he said nothing. He quietly withdrew himself back to the chair without his characteristic pleasing smile. He pursued with his anger.
The devotional and dramatic beauty of the episode masks a bigger reality. Srikrishna was not averse to breaking the vow after all. Why was that so? Was not Srikrishna bothered about earning the ignominy for breaking a vow? Would he not be disappointing all his disciplines of indulging in a manly deviation? None of that mattered to Srikrishna.
As he narrated on the 3rd day what mattered to him was the restoration of Dharma. Dharmaraja Yudhisthira was the embodiment of Dharma at that time. He alone had the right to sit on the throne. He alone had the ability to bring back Dharma to its rightful capacity. It is the future that mattered to Srikrishna. If a smaller rule had to be broken for a bigger purpose so be it.
Srikrishna alone had that clarity of when to operate from within the Saamanya Dharma and when to move to the Exceptional Dharmas that operate in the higher universe. As always, Krishna operated on the edge of the separation between the Saamanya and Exceptional Dharmas and seamlessly moved from one to the other as needed to restore Dharma.
It is beyond the normal human being to have this perspective and make seamless movements crossing lines. However, all of us can develop an eye for it and a perspective of it. We should have the ability to recognize the Srikrishna Vasudeva who can operate in those worlds.
Bheeshma, on the other hand, simply dissolved his own self and submitted himself to Srikrishna whenever he encountered him. Bheeshma’s biggest attachment was Hastinapura. It is only Srikrishna’s presence that made him see beyond Hastinapura.
In spite of his immense knowledge and perspective, Bheeshma clung to his disastrous commitment to the throne of Hastinapura even at the cost of Dharma. But the very sight of Srikrishna brought him a different realization. But that never sustained itself.
It required the continuous presence of Srikrishna in his full splendour. One must be able to perceive and recognize divinity. One must also have the ability to see it in full splendour within so that our attachments are dissolved within it.
Stronger the knowledge, deeper the perspective, greater the risks of getting within. Hence, greater the need for Divinity to bring a balance of action. This is a grand metaphor for this universal reality.
In addition, these encounters helped Bheeshma to bring himself out of his tightly held commitment to Hastinapura and see his end. The ‘icchamaraNi’ that he was, he had to feel his end within himself before others could strike him down.
It had to be a Divine power that helped him to see his end. Srikrishna made that possible. In his devotion, Bheeshma gradually overcame the bindings of his mind.
On the other side, Arjuna suffered from a continuous attachment but driven by righteous human sensitivities. Those very sensitivities help humanity to sustain and thrive. Yet, they are the ones that leave us unprotected under the assault of the others’ Arishadvarga. Duryodhana’s jealousy, Karna’s competition, Shakuni’s manipulation, Drona’s blindness and Bheeshma’s own self-defeating boundaries were feeding on Arjuna’s humane attachments.
Srikrishna was full of empathy but knew when to up the ante. He kept Arjuna on the right aggression throughout. He elevated him with perspective during the Bhagavadgeeta. On the 3rd day, he used a transient anger to pull Arjuna out of a slumber. But on the 9th day, Srikrishna moved himself to a steady state of anger and released it only when the Pandavas took a decisive step to bring Bheeshma to his end.
Bheeshma suffered from the attachment of the mind while Arjuna that of the heart. Both required the presence of Divinity to overcome. That ought to be preceded by the ability to recognize Divinity. Both Bheeshma and Arjuna were blessed with this ability. Arjuna could forever recognize it and bring himself onto that path. Bheeshma could only do that in transient.
Srikrishna’s genius is that he alone could see Dharma in such an entirety that every single action of his was towards its restoration. He was himself the Dharma. Even in an emotion like anger, he was only achieving a larger purpose.
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