Bhima had rushed to where Durdasa was fighting, and Arjuna was trying to reach them; he was very worried about Yudhisthira’s safety. That was how he ran into Bhishma, who blocked his way. This was the first time the doting grandfather and the devoted grandson met after the Pandavas’ return from vanavasa (living in the forest) and ajnatavasa (living incognito). Arjuna paid his respects to him, and in all humility and sincerity prayed to him to use his authority to stop the war. Even after Yudhisthira had decided in favour of war, he was not inclined to fight, more sure than unsure about the immorality of that war. Let us not ask now whether Arjuna had any authority to take any step towards stopping the war, because such questions are meaningless when it comes to peace.
The grand old man expressed helplessness. How would peace be possible with a person who was intent on killing his brothers, and was unconcerned about the adharma of that act, said Bhishma. Therefore instead of thinking of peace with Duryodhana, Arjuna must concentrate on the war and devise a strategy to kill him.
Arjuna was upset. He got down from his chariot and prostrated before him. Bhishma gave him blessings for victory. How could he ever even think of killing him, his grandfather, who with so much loving care had looked after him all along, he asked him. Bhishma said that such feelings were inappropriate at that point of time. If he really did not want to kill his brothers, why did he desire kingdom instead of returning to the forest, he asked. In a family, he continued, there would sometimes be a troublesome person who would bring disgrace and ruin to the family. However, the virtuous would not abandon him, or eliminate him, rather they would find some way to accommodate him. But the wise Pandavas had done the contrary. It was indeed they who had abandoned dharma, coveted kingdom and entered the battlefield against their brothers. If Arjuna was really so fond of his brothers, then he should return to the forest. That would be the acid test of his brotherliness. That would also save the family.
This could be seen not merely as his counsel, but an implicit challenge to his grandson to follow the path of dharma. His words were direct and sounded harsh, but those were well-meaning words, and not at all unloving. Those were the words of a deeply hurt, disappointed and helpless family elder. He too didn’t want war! But he knew that war could be averted only if the Pandavas wanted, since they, unlike Duryodhana, understood dharma, and had the courage to live in accordance with it. And he said all this to Arjuna because he knew that he was a sensitive person, and would understand. It didn’t matter to him that he would, in all probability, not be able to accept his challenge, and meet the demands of peace, indeed, of love.
This was the only time Bhishma told a Pandava what he thought about averting the war. Unlike Arjuna, when Yudhisthira came to him on the Kurukshetra battlefield, he didn’t seek his help to stop the war; he only sought his blessings for victory. He had also asked him how he could be out of their way in order that they win, and he had told him what to do on the tenth day of the war to make him give up fighting. In all this talk, the eldest Pandava did not mention peace. It was Arjuna, who brought up the matter.
Incidentally, if Bhishma’s suggestion brings to mind Sakuni’s to Yudhisthira (see the piece “The Last Proposal to Avoid War” in this blog), his views concerning the problem person in the family reminds one of what the wise Bidura had told Dhritarastra about the infant Duryodhana. He had told him that his eldest son would be the cause of the destruction of the entire family; therefore in the larger interest of the family, he should allow him to kill him. Dhritarastra didn’t. Sons hadn’t come easily to him. Destiny had to be cajoled in the form of intervention by Vyasa, and later Durvasa, so that he, destined to be sonless, had sons. That’s a rather longish story, which we might skip. Besides, how could a father allow the killing of his eldest son, who was an infant then, on the basis of a prediction? Bidura’s fears came true of course, but his attitude came under scrutiny after a long time, in a different context. Bhishma’s words can easily be seen as a severe indictment of the Bidura’s thinking.
Listening to Bhishma, Arjuna was sad; he told his grandfather that he felt guilty. But why didn’t Duryodhana give them just one village, he asked him. There was anguish in his tone. Bhishma evaded the question. What answer could he give? He himself had advised Duryodhana to give at least two villages to the Pandavas, but he didn’t listen to him. He was helpless. But there was no point in saying these things to Arjuna at that point of time, he must have thought.
All he said was that things had been ordained that way, and it was in no one’s power to alter them. It was pointless to talk about giving or not giving. Neither had seeing nor not seeing mattered, he had heard, neither again had not getting. Now not giving would also not matter. He elaborated. Kansa saw and Dasaratha did not; both died. Bali gave; Ravana did not; both met the same end. Kichaka did not get, and he perished, and now, without giving, Duryodhana would meet the same fate.
But if Duryodhana was to perish for not giving, why must Bhishma and others perish, Arjuna asked his grandfather. Well, said Bhishma, things were ordained that way. He had heard that he would die in the war, and he knew that he would. It is here that their exchange ended. There was fighting all around, and the war was closing on them. Soon they too started fighting.
To return to Bhishma’s proposal for peace, it was not formulated within the framework of afterlife or reward in any world. It was not founded on any notion of the spiritual progress of self, spanning over births, or recognition of the illusory nature of the phenomenal world. Bhishma did not deny any of these, but nothing of these would matter for his computation of the right and the wrong, of one must do and what one must not. Rebirth would not bring with it the memory of the previous existences, and one couldn’t be guided by what lay beyond one’s awareness. For Bhishma relationships were real, and they mattered; bonds were real, and precious; and dead bodies on the battlefield were real too. A life of dharma would not discount these; on the contrary it would be crucially founded on these. That is why, for Bhishma, sacrifice of the interests of the self became so necessary for the adamant, uncooperative, and ignorant other in a relationship.
And what a metaphor to express a fusion of two profound ideas: no shastras or puranas, but one’s sense of discrimination, and understanding of dharma alone can be one’s guide to choose the right course of action for oneself, and one’s courage to pursue it enables one to work in accordance with it At the same time, one has no control over the consequences of one’s action, and the action and its consequence may lack logic and intelligibility. One followed dharma and gave, another committed adharma and did not give, but the result was the same for both. Did the great Bhishma mean to say that pursuing family dharma and renouncing the kingdom for Duryodhana might not necessarily yield positive results for the Pandavas, but that would be no reason for them to abandon the path of dharma? Perhaps he did. Incidentally, in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata there is no exemption from right action; here Krishna does not give any assurance that he would protect one, who had surrendered to him, from the consequences of one’s action.
Krishna had kept quiet throughout the exchange. It wasn’t in his nature to remain silent when the talk around him was subversive with respect to what he wanted. He wanted war. So how could he remain a passive listener to that exchange? He probably thought that at that stage there was no need for him to intervene, when the language of peace had lost all meaning. He knew that nothing concrete would emerge from all that talk between those two conscientious, and sensitive persons, who nevertheless were too ineffective to change the course of events. They were only letting out their sense of disappointment and feeling of guilt. In that delicate moment they should be left to themselves.
Besides, their talk was their family-internal matter. He was an outsider. He was no one’s emissary any more. In the battlefield he was a charioteer, and he must behave in accordance with the charioteer’s maryaadaa (dignity): it was entirely inappropriate for him to intervene in a matter that did not concern him in that specific role.
But is it also possible that Narayana knew what kind of a nara (human) Bhishma was; Bhagawan knew what kind of a bhakta (devotee) the son of Ganga was. The Kaurava elder was an authentic person, a person of great integrity, who lived a life of dharma. And Krishna knew how to respect him.