On “Maha·bhárata VI: Bhishma (volume two of two).” and “Maha·bhárata VI: Bhishma (volume two of two).” Alex Cherniak

The Book of ‘Bhishma’ (Bhīṣmaparvan), the sixth book of the eighteen-book epic “Maha·bhárata,” describes the events that took place during the first ten days of the great war between the Káuravas and the Pándavas.

The first of the two CSL volumes of “Bhishma” covers four days from the beginning of the great battle and includes the famous Bhagavad Gita.

Opening on the eve of the war, ‘Bhishma’ narrates it in every detail, starting with the ill omens foreboding an imminent fratricidal carnage. Sánjaya, the bard and herald of the Káurava King Dhrita·rashtra, is granted divine vision in order to keep the king informed of the course of battle. Asked by the blind king about the earth and what is on it, Sánjaya gives him a cosmographical account of the world.

Suddenly the royal bard brings the shocking news.

Sánjaya said:
I am Sánjaya, O great king. Obeisance to you, bull of the Bharatas. Bhishma, the son of Shántanu, the grandfather of the Bharatas, has been slain. The foremost of all warriors, the power of all archers, the grandfather of the Kurus, today lies on a bed of arrows. That Bhishma, Your Majesty, relying on whose might your son ventured the game of dice, today lies on the battlefield, struck down by Shikhándin. That Bhishma the great warrior who, alone on a chariot, defeated in the great battle of the city of Kashi all the kings of the earth assembled together, he who had fearlessly fought in combat with Rama the son of Jamad·agni, whom the son of Jamad·agni had failed to destroy, has been killed today by Shikhándin. Resembling great Indra in valor and Hímavat in firmness, equal to the ocean in profundity and to the earth in patience, that unconquerable lion among men, having arrows for his teeth, a bow for his mouth, and a sword for his tongue, your father has been struck down by the prince of the Panchálas. He, at the sight of whom eager to give battle, the great army of the Pándavas used to tremble stricken with fear like a herd of cows at the sight of a lion, that destroyer of enemy forces protected your troops for ten nights and, having performed feats of valor extremely difficult to accomplish, has set like the sun. He who, like Shakra, unceasingly showering arrows by the thousands, daily killed hundred million enemy warriors for ten days, because of your bad advice, Your Majesty, struck down in combat lies on the ground like a tree uprooted by the wind, even though he does not deserve such fate, O descendant of Bharata!

Stricken with grief, Dhrita·rashtra asks Sánjaya to recount to him at length how it happened, including the events that preceded it. The narration abounds in gory and heroic scenes of battle, military arrays, elaborate tactics, human and divine weaponry, reckless bravery, turmoil, bloodshed, moral discourses and duels.

As the troops of the two contending parties are facing each other on the battlefield for the first time, the Pándava Árjuna, the heroic warrior, stationed on his chariot, sees in the enemy ranks his relatives, teachers and friends, falls into despair, feeling unable to fight against his kinsmen. “The Song of the Lord” (Bhagavadgītā), embedded in the epic context ca. 200 BCE, is meant to bring solution to Árjuna’s dilemma: to follow his duty as a warrior and possibly slay his relatives or to abstain from fighting and renounce his activities. His charioteer, the Lord Krishna Himself, who incarnates age after age in order to restore virtue in the world, solves the dilemma through profound teaching and revelation.

The Lord said:
You are grieving for those who are not to be grieved for … Wise men do not grieve for the dead or the living.
Neither I, nor you, nor these lords of men were ever nonexistent. And none of us will cease to exist hereafter.
Just as childhood, youth and old age occur in this body of the embodied soul, so occurs the attainment of another body. A wise man is not deluded about that.
O son of Kunti, the sensual contacts with matter, causing the feelings of cold and heat, pleasure and pain, come and go and are impermanent. Endure them, descendant of Bharata.
O bull-like man, the man whom these contacts do not afflict, to whom pain and pleasure are alike, is fit for immortality.
For the non-existent there is no becoming; for the existent there is no ceasing to be. The boundary between them is perceived by the seers of the true reality.
But know that that with which all this is pervaded, is indestructible. No one can bring about the destruction of this imperishable.
It is these very bodies of the eternal, indestructible, immeasurable embodied soul that are said to come to an end. Therefore fight, descendant of Bharata!
Both he who considers this soul as a slayer and who regards it as slain, they do not understand. It neither slays nor is slain.
It is not born, nor does it ever die, nor having become will it again cease to be. It is unborn, eternal, permanent and primordial. It is not slain when the body is slain.
How can the man, who knows it to be indestructible, eternal, unborn and imperishable, cause anyone to be slain, Partha? Whom can he slay?
Just as a man casting off his worn-out clothes puts on others new ones, so the embodied soul, casting off its worn-out bodies, enters others that are new.
Weapons do not cut it, fire does not burn it, water does not wet it, wind does not dry it.
It is uncuttable, unburnable, unwettable, undryable. It is eternal, all-pervading, fixed, immovable, everlasting.
It is said to be unmanifest, unthinkable, immutable. Therefore, knowing it as such, you should not grieve.
Even if you think of it as constantly born and constantly dying, even then, O mighty-armed one, you should not grieve.
Death is assured to the born, and birth is assured to the dead. Therefore you should not grieve over the inevitable.
Unmanifest are beings in the beginning, manifest in the middle and unmanifest again in the end, descendant of Bharata. What is there to mourn for?
Rarely does anyone see it, rarely does anyone speak of it, rarely anyone hears of it, and even upon hearing of it no one really knows it.
This embodied soul, dwelling in the body of everyone, is eternally unslayable, descendant of Bharata. Therefore you should not grieve over any beings.
Observing your own duty, you must not waver, for there is nothing better for a warrior than a battle bound by duty.
Fortunate are the warriors, Partha, who obtain such a battle, presented by mere chance as an open door to heaven.
But if you do not wage this combat bound by duty, then, casting away your duty and fame, you will incur evil.
Moreover, people will recount your everlasting infamy; and to an honored man infamy is worse than death.
The great warriors will consider that you withdrew from battle out of fear. And, highly regarded by them before, you will be lightly thought of.
And your enemies will say many unseemly words, disparaging your power. What could be more painful than that?
Either slain you will attain heaven, or victorious you will enjoy the earth. Therefore rise up, son of Kunti, and be resolved to fight!
Treating pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat as just the same, gird yourself for the battle. Thus you will incur no evil…

Krishna reveals to his disciple profound secrets of the universe and his divine nature. The mystical culmination of the Gita is theophany, when Krishna manifests himself in the horrendous form of Death as the all-devouring fire of Time. By the end of the Gita, having undergone spiritual transformation, Árjuna is determined to follow the warrior code and fulfill his inherent duty by fighting the just battle.

This CSL volume presents the Gita within its original epic framework.

The second volume of ‘Bhishma’ recounts the battle events, which take place from the beginning of the fifth day of the war till the end of the tenth. It begins with Bhishma’s glorification of divine Naráyana and Nara, who, incarnated as Krishna and Árjuna, are the major reason for the invincibility and the inevitable victory of the Pándavas.

Despite grandfather Bhishma’s appeal to conclude peace with the Pándavas, Dur·yódhana continues the battle. Formations of troops, feats of arms, bloody massacres, tremendous confusion of routed forces, scenes of violence and valor are portrayed in ‘Bhishma’ in grand style and in every detail. Fighting with varying success, the two armies suffer heavy casualties and, driven by Fate, resume the horrible fight between them at the dawn of each following day.

The key role in the strategy of battle belongs to general Bhishma, the commander of the Káurava forces. Due to his outstanding military skills, he draws up the troops in the most effective ways and leads the army in the course of battle. Whenever the Káuravas suffer a reverse, the mightiest and bravest of warriors Bhishma interferes and always succeeds to improve the situation and to inflict heavy losses on the Pándavas.

Even though he is forced to fight on the side of the Káuravas, his sympathies are with the Pándavas. After the ninth day of war, when Bhishma has wreaked havoc with their troops, the Pándavas understand that they will be unable to win as long as unconquerable Bhishma is alive. Bhishma willingly reveals to them how he can be destroyed. Strictly observing the warrior code, he will never fight with Shikhándin, who was originally born a woman. Bhishma advises the Pándava brothers that Árjuna should strike him from behind Shikhándin’s back, and they follow the grandfather’s advice:

Thus all the Pándavas, placing Shikhándin in the front, encircled Bhishma on every side and began to strike him in that engagement. And all the Srínjayas, joined together, started to afflict Bhishma in that combat with utterly frightful shata·ghni missiles, iron clubs, battle-axes, mallets, maces, javelins and all other missiles, gold-feathered arrows, spears, lances, darts, iron shafts, calf-toothed arrows, and slings. Even though wounded by many adversaries and having his armor torn through and his vitals pierced, Bhishma was not perturbed. With his bow and arrows for its blazing fire, the impetus of his weapons for its wind, the rattle of chariot wheels for its heat, the flight of his mighty weapons for its glow, the resplendent bow for its huge blaze, and the destruction of heroes for its fuel, Bhishma appeared to the enemies like the fire arising at the end of an eon... Bhishma, the heroic combatant, the conqueror of hostile strongholds, filled with fury, began to reflect, applying his intelligence: “I could have slaughtered all the Pándava troops with my bow alone, if mighty Vishvak·sena himself had not been their protector. I shall not fight with the Pándavas for two reasons: inviolability of Pandu’s sons and the female nature of Shikhándin. In the past, when I arranged my father’s marriage with Kali, my father, pleased with me, granted me two boons: my own choice of the time of death, and inviolability in battle. I think that the proper time of my death has now come.” Having learned of the decision of Bhishma, who was endowed with limitless vigor, rishis and vasus stationed in the sky said to Bhishma: “Sir, the resolution that you have made is agreeable to us! Do as you have resolved, great king! Withdraw your mind from battle!” At the conclusion of these words an auspicious, gentle, fragrant breeze came up filled with fine drops of water. Thundering heavenly drums resounded, and a shower of flowers poured over Bhishma, my lord... On hearing the words of the celestials, the great ascetic Bhishma the son of Shántanu, although being afflicted with sharp arrows that could tear through any armor, did not attack Bibhátsu... Yet again and again Dhanan·jaya, excited with fury, hurriedly struck him with hundreds of shafts in every part of his body and in all the vital organs... During that conflict Bhishma slaughtered hundreds and thousands of enemy warriors. But in his entire body there was not even a space two fingers broad that was not pierced with arrows. And your father, thus lacerated in battle by Phálguna with sharp-pointed arrows, fell down from his chariot with his head toward the east, a little before sunset, under your sons’ very eyes. When Bhishma fell down from the chariot, both the gods and the earthly kings screamed out loud in distress, descendant of Bharata. Seeing the great-spirited grandfather fall, we all lost heart. That mighty-armed hero, the banner of all archers, collapsed to the ground, like an uprooted standard of Indra, filling the earth with a great din. Yet Bhishma, pierced all over with hordes of arrows, could not touch the ground. As soon as that mighty archer, that bull-like man, fallen from his chariot, lay down on the bed of arrows, the divine nature took possession of him. Parjánya poured a heavy rain, and the earth quaked. While falling, Bhishma noticed that the sun was in the southern part of the ecliptic. Considering the time to be inauspicious for death, O Bhárata, the hero retained consciousness. And he heard divine words uttered in the sky all around: “How can Ganga’s great-spirited son, the best of all warriors, the tiger-like man, depart this life, when the sun is in its southward declination?” On hearing that, the son of Ganga said: “I am still alive.” Although fallen to the ground, the Kuru grandfather Bhishma held his life-breaths, waiting for the sun to reach the northern part of the ecliptic. Aware of his intention, Ganga, the daughter of Himávat, sent to Bhishma great sages... And those sages, assuming the form of swans, the dwellers of the Mánasa lake, swiftly flew together to see the Kuru grandfather Bhishma and reached the place where that best of men, the grandsire, lay on the bed of arrows... When the mighty son of Ganga was struck down, all the heroic combatants of both armies, laying down their weapons, became thoughtful. Some of them screamed, some fled, some fell into a swoon, some blamed the warrior code, and some extolled Bhishma. Sages and ancestors praised that man of great vows, and the forefathers of the Bharatas also eulogized him. And the manly and wise son of Shántanu, resorting to yoga as expounded in the great Upánishads, repeating prayers, lay still, waiting for his last hour.