Beyond the vow that shook the universe: The significance of Bhishma
Mahabharat (1988) is one of my most favourite TV shows of all time. Whenever it is aired on TV, I do not miss a chance to watch it. The character of Bhishmacharya has always fascinated me, partly because of the brilliance with which actor Mukesh Khanna has portrayed the son of Ganga on screen and the manner in which authors like Kamala Subramaniam and C Rajagopalachari have written about him.
Today, as I watched the iconic moment in which the young prince Devavrata vows to remain a celibate throughout his life, gives up his rightful claim of Hastinapura’s throne, just so that his father Shantanu can obtain happiness which had long deserted him, I thought of writing about the significance of Bhishma. Such a vow was seldom undertaken before and has seldom been undertaken since then. This was the vow that shook the universe and which made Devavrata transform into “Bhishma”.
But the significance of Bhishma goes beyond all this. Bhishma was the ultimate patriot any nation can get. The man lived like a guardian and protector of Hastinapura almost for his entire life. The concern for Hastinapura and Bharatavarsha was the basis for his existence throughout his lifetime. He was an ideal son who sacrificed everything for the sake of his father. He was true in his words. He remained a celibate throughout his life as per his vow and guarded Hastinapura till the last moment as he had promised to his stepmother Satyavati.
He was one of the greatest warriors of all time. In fact, even in his old age, he was considered the most vital member of the Kaurava army in the Kurukshetra war. As the generalissimo, he was hailed as the protector of the army as is evidenced in the first chapter of the Bhagwad Gita when Duryondhana says “Balam Bhishmabhi Rakshitam”, referring to the Kaurava army and saying that their forces are protected by Bhishma.
He was a symbol of Dharma. Please note that as long as Bhishma was on the battlefield, the Kurukshetra war took place as per the established rules. It was only after he fell that aberrations like the slaughter of Abhimanyu and the midnight battle following the death of Jayadratha took place. It was his promise to Satyavati that held him back from switching over to the Pandava side even though he knew that Dharma was on their side and not on the side of Hastinapura.
The Bhagwad Gita and the Vishnu Sahasranama are referred to as the two eyes of the Mahabharata. Both have a special connection with Bhishma. The connection is obvious in the case of the Vishnu Sahasranama as it was first narrated by Bhishma to Yudhishthira after the war which is why Bhishma is referred to as Bhishmacharya because he played the role of a teacher to the eldest Pandava. The Bhagwad Gita also has a link with Bhishma. First of all, the Gita by itself is a part of the Bhishma Parva.
Dhritarashtra was confident that his sons would win the war as long as Bhishma remained the leader on the battlefield. That’s why he never bothered enquiring about what is happening on the battlefield for the first 10 days. Despite the fact that Bhagwan Vedavyasa had gifted the divine vision to Sanjaya so that he could narrate the happenings of the war to Dhritarashtra, the blind king never bothered to ask Sanjaya for a period of 10 days.
On the 10th day, Bhishma fell after Arjuna placed Shikhandi in front of Bhishma, a move which was suggested by the great pitamaha himself because he knew that Shikhandi was none other than Amba from the previous birth and had actually been born in this life also as a woman before becoming a man. After Bhishma fell, then Dhritarashtra was a bit worried and he asked Sanjaya “What did my sons and Pandu’s sons do after gathering at the holy place known as Kurukshetra?” This is the first shloka in the Bhagwad Gita and it begins after the fall of Bhishma.
The ultimate patriot, the ideal son, the symbol of Dharma, the guardian of Hastinapura, the teacher of Yudhisthira, and the son of Ganga. The illustrious Bhishmacharya had many roles to play in the timeless epic. In fact, the iconic moment when Devavrata becomes Bhishma is a turning point in the epic. Had Devavrata not become Bhishma, then perhaps the remaining events would not even have taken place. Bhishma had an extremely significant role to play in the Mahabharata.