Bhishma and Sri Krishna
The New Value System in the Mahabharata*
by Sitansu S. Chakravarti, PhD

I The Goals of the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is an add-on to the existing corpus of the Vedas in several ways.  The truths in the Vedas were primarily revealed in the seclusion of the forest. The social setting of the Vedas as a whole, which includes the Vedanta, does not have the overall urban sophistication and artificiality to it. The stage-setting for the Mahabharata, however, is different. The episodes start and continue in the palace, culminating in the final conflict of the kings throughout India who take sides of the Kauravas or the Pandavas.  The truths in the Vedas are brought to bear on the radically altered setting of the Mahabharata. New interpretations are added, which at times amount virtually to new truths. This, along with some other associated reasons, the primary one among them being the presence of the towering Sri Krishna, accounts for the impact the book has on the Hindus in general. A special mention needs to be made of the part of it commonly known as the Gita,[1] which is considered to contain the spiritual essence of the Mahabharata. We find justification for the book being accepted in the tradition as an extension of the four Vedas and accorded the status of  "the fifth Veda".

The goals of the Mahabharata are in many ways different from those of the Vedas. Violence and unrest are rife in the atmosphere. With Jarasandha dominating the political scenario of India, the pockets of democracy are not functioning smoothly. It is not only his own subjects, but those of other kingdoms also, that are being tyrannized by the chief of Magadha, who has little respect for the ideals of democracy. He has held captive as many as eighty-six heads of states. The whole of India is traumatized by the power of this super-dictator, who is ultimately killed by Bhima, on the advice of Sri Krishna. This leaves a vacuum, in its sequel, in the political setting of India. In Krishna's own state, Kamsa, the chief, has to be assassinated for all his excesses. Things, however, have drifted so much from the norms of democracy in the land of the Vrishnis, that even this ultimate measure of assassination of the despot does not put things back to order, for the social psyche of the whole people has taken an irrevocably downward slide. With the sustained erosion in the inner strength of democracy, the support system for this viable institution, the good old days of effective democracy seem to have disappeared forever. By the same token, there is an absence of a monarch in the picture at the moment who is mighty enough to be able to strike a balance in the uneven scenario of the country toward establishing the good of mankind. The goals of the Mahabharata are to bring about a holistic well-being for all, anchored, in the final analysis, to the spiritual level, being a product of a sound political and social structure conducive to the end. Sri Krishna cherished the ideal to his heart and strove toward its realization his whole life with the help of the five Pandava brothers.

II The Overpowering Bhishma

The mighty Bhishma, of course, is there in all his strength, honesty and benevolence. He, however, stands for the old values with their associated interpretations, which bring him closer to the Kauravas, rather than the Pandavas, even though he knows full well that righteousness is the way of life for the latter, whereas for the former things are just the opposite. Tradition, as enshrined in the books, seems to have a definite sway over Bhishma. This is indicated in the following episode. When Bhisma was making offerings to the memory of his deceased father on the bank of the Ganga, as per the ancient custom, a hand took concrete shape from within the sand ready to accept them. The son, however, laid the offerings on the kusa grass, following the instructions of the scriptures, and would not oblige the stretched hand of the father eager for the offerings.[2] The five Pandava brothers' common marriage with Draupadi marks a deviation from the traditionally accepted sacrament of marriage that the great “grandfather" may not have cherished, although this was a custom in vogue in Uttarakuru, across the Himalayas,[3] where the ancestors of the Pandavas as well as the Kauravas had originally migrated from.[4] The interface with the marginalized society, on an equal footing, on the part of the Pandava brothers, Arjuna and Bhima, through marriage of the former with a widowed woman of the Naga tribe, and of the latter with a woman of the Raksasa tribe, was not in keeping with the tradition that Bhishma would like to uphold. The way the Pandava brothers' mother, Kunti, had got her first son Karna, before her formal marriage, might not have been very appealing to him either. Even truth and righteousness on the side of the Pandavas cannot win him over onto their side once they have fallen repeatedly off the tradition on the important sacrament of life, viz., marriage. The Kauravas, however, are not guilty of such faults pertaining to the tradition, whatever other moral faults they might have had. Thus, his allegiance to them is final based on the traditional interpretation of values, so much so that at the darkest moment of Indian history signalling a total collapse of ethical norms, when an attempt was made to strip Draupadi by force in the royal court of the Kauravas, in the presence of all, the mighty Bhishma took everything calmly without uttering a word of protest, or even of simple advice, – the very minimum, indeed, that seems to have been called for in the situation.

The above, by no means, attempts to justify Bhishma's behaviour. At best, it attempts to explain the behaviour in terms of the agent's dispositions. For possible justification we have to go deeper into his perception of the value system in so far as it ties with the hierarchy of the patterns of duties acceptable to him. To Bhishma truth was of the utmost value, and it had to be taken literally. He kept his promise to Satyavati's father to remain a bachelor ever, and never to occupy the throne of Hastinapura himself, a promise made as a precondition for the father's consent toward the daughter's marriage to Santanu, his own father. At a subsequent time, when asked by his guru Parasurama to marry the eldest of the three daughters he had grabbed by force from Kashi for marriage to his younger half-brother Vichitravirya, he stuck to his promise, and a fierce battle ensued with the teacher to settle the issue. The teacher failed to win Bhishma over.[5]

There is another strain in Bhishma's character that has come to intertwine with the trait of allegiance to truth. Bhishma was a protector of the throne of Hastinapura since his father's days, and continued with this role even after he had lost his hereditary right to it through his promise. This was by sheer choice, an extension, indeed, of his allegiance to the family. In the case of Bhishma, attachment to truth, unconditional as it is, goes hand-in-hand with his devotion to the family. However, since he had relinquished his right to the throne, he would not impose his will on matters relating to it, except for its protection from external threat, and would not act as a surrogate monarch. His subservience to the throne, so long as he is accommodated in the kingdom, is final, and unquestioning. This is no matter of choice for Bhishma. Here he is bound by his understanding of unconditional morality pertaining to the promise-situation. This attitude of subservience to the monarch is manifest during Draupadi's humiliation in court in the presence of King Dhritarashtra and all. Bhishma is mighty enough to be able to protect the king from external threat, and is ready to give him counsel when asked to. He would not, however, tender his unsolicited advice. He is even prepared to put up with a rather immoral situation around, the resolution of which is in royal jurisdiction. Even though he is aware that he is in a practical position to force his words on the king, he will not ever utter any. Such is the effect of the promise on him.

Later on, when approached by Yudhisthira for his blessings, just before the battle started at Kurukshetra, Bhishma said:

Man is a slave to money which, however, is nobody's slave. This being the
Truth, O King, I am tied to the Kauravas for money.[6]

Here Bhishma indicates that it is out of some external compulsion, and not an inner urge, that he takes to the side of the Kauravas. After all, he has to belong somewhere. A man of his stature belonged to the class of kings in those times. He, however, cannot be a king so long as he chooses to be at Hastinapura, by virtue of the promise to disown the throne. He cannot be a king-maker there either, for that would constitute an extension to being the king, and entail breaking the promise he was bound by. It is his allegiance, on the one hand, to the throne of Hastinapura, which he developed throughout his life out of affection and his own choice, coupled with his promise, on the other, not to occupy it ever, that makes it impossible on the part of Bhishma to side with anybody other than the Kauravas who are in actual occupancy of the throne. Under the circumstances, he could have changed sides only in the possible situation of the Kauravas disowning him. That possibility, however, would never materialize given Bhishma's stature and strength. He can take on the whole world by himself. Nobody can kill him. The Kauravas are fond, as well as afraid, of him. They are fond of him because he is an affectionate and non-interfering grandfather. They are afraid of him because of his strong and well-rounded personality far above their stature. So long as Bhishma belonged to Hastinapura by way of affection and choice, he belonged to the Kauravas who came to occupy the throne as a follow-up of his promise. The other course remaining to him was to leave Hastinapura, and be a king after conquering kingdoms outside, an option Bhishma did not care to follow.

Bhishma's not interfering with the attempt at stripping Draupadi in court has to be made sense of in the light of the above considerations, so that keeping the promise as understood and interpreted by him is paramount in his scale of morality. He is wedded to the old value system which does not promise a new world of harmony, justice, prosperity and well-being to all, and not only to the members of one's own kula, or extended family, that Sri Krishna dreams of and attempts to materialize. Bhishma is not ready to view all the ethical values, including that of promise-keeping, in association with what it entails in his perception, as subordinate to this end, and to prioritize them accordingly. In his endeavours at translating his dream into reality, Sri Krishna cannot draw upon the resources of the strong and able Bhishma, although both have utmost reverence for each other.[7]  

The above highlights the shortcoming of the old value system, or rather one of the most prominent interpretations of it at the time of the Mahabharata. India had to wait for Sri Krishna for building a new system of values, on the basis of the old, centered around a new interpretation of the concepts connected with them. Such a new light coming from Krishna is symbolically contained in the mythical ending of the stripping episode. Draupadi is ultimately saved from public humiliation as Krishna thwarts the unholy process of stripping by providing, in a supernatural way, at Draupadi's implorings, an unending supply of yarn on her which it was impossible for the Kauravas to remove. In other words, where even the mighty Bhisma is helpless in silence, it is Krishna who comes to her rescue, from a far distance, and brings a manageable end to a situation that was going to turn bewilderingly obnoxious.

We must keep in mind that among the old stalwarts present in court at the time of the episode, it was Bhishma whom we would surely have expected to raise his voice. He is thoroughly honest, and has no axes to grind. His words would have been effective once uttered. Vidura did speak out his mind, but that did not carry any weight, and was totally ineffective. Drona and Kripa did not say a thing, and they were not expected to either. For, they must please Duryodhana, and not go against him, in order to achieve their own selfish ends. A younger brother of Duryodhana, Vikarna, tried to assert himself, but was calmed down with force. He was, indeed, too young in the presence of the formidable others. Bhishma, in spite of his greatness, and his unique position, did not stand up to the situation. He failed to maintain the fame of the kula that was so dear to him, due to his rigid interpretation of the concept of duty, on having placed an absolute emphasis upon keeping the literal promise made. In the area of duty, his motivating force was benefit to the kula, as enshrined in the concept of pitri-rina, and not to the whole of humanity, that goes with nri-rina. Of course, Bhishma would not want to do any harm to any human being, or to any creature, for that matter. However, benefit to all did not constitute the central motive for his actions, unlike in the case of Sri Krishna. In the process, to repeat what we hinted at before, he would fail even to attain the well-being of the kula.         

Before we come to the end of this analysis, we intend to have some further in-depth glimpse of Bhishma's character which may be of relevance to understanding the Mahabharata, including its moral matrix. Bhishma is conscious of his strength. He behaves like a hero facing situations straight. He makes a promise, interprets it literally, and keeps it verbatim, taking care of all the implications that he sees coming out of it. With the encouragement and permission of his step-mother Satyavati, he arranged marriage for his half-brother Vichitravirya, bringing home by force the three daughters of the king of Kashi from the assembly of princes of all the countries who had been awaiting their chances to win the hearts of the princesses. He took the eldest sister back to her father when she appealed to him in favour of her loved one from before, King Salva, who, however, did not agree to marry her on her return, because of the intervening happenings. When suggested to marry the daughter himself, Bhishma stuck to his promise not to marry. The girl ultimately committed suicide cursing Bhishma for her misfortune. Here at no single step, taken by itself, Bhishma has done anything wrong according to the prevailing standards of morality. Snatching an unmarried girl for marriage, not against her will, is an acceptable Kshatriya custom. (It is possible that she was willing to be won over by Bhishma because of her fascination for him. She might not have anticipated that his moves were ultimately pointed toward his half-brother.) Not getting her married against her will is humane. Taking her back to her father is a follow-up of the humane attitude and understanding. Not to agree to marry her himself to keep his promise is understandable. What, however, is not understandable is Bhishma's inability to take responsibility for the plight of the girl toward her effective rehabilitation upon rejection by her lover, and the lapses on his part to take adequate precautions at the very beginning in order to avert possible hurt on any of the girls. It seems, life often is only morality in letters to Bhishma, bereft of its niceties, which, however, constitute important ingredients for ensuring justice, harmony and prosperity for all. Bhishma's attitude is evident in the situation of attempted stripping of Draupadi in court.

There are other examples in the Mahabharata illustrating the attitude of indiscretion, if not rashness, on the part of Bhishma. When the Pandavas were completing a year of hiding on expiry of twelve years of exile, he said to the Kauravas, who were wondering whether they were alive at all, that there must be absolute law and order, as well as peace and prosperity prevailing wherever Yudhisthira stayed.[8] This he said not meaning to give them a clue regarding the Pandavas' whereabouts, though. He did not simply think deep enough to see that his utterance could end up in providing them such clue. Suspecting that the Pandavas were in king Virata's kingdom, the Kauravas sought Bhishma's assistance in provoking the king to fight by snatching his herd of cattle away. Bhishma agreed to comply, without apprehending any harm that the provocation might possibly cause the Pandavas. Long before this, when Drona had come to him seeking financial help, Bhishma had given him employment for teaching the Kaurava and the Pandava princes the art of fighting. Bhishma knew very well from Drona's own submission that the latter had been contemplating a conspiracy against Drupada, the king of Pancala. This act of bringing Drona into the family proved disastrous later on, when Drona engaged his disciples against Drupada, snapping thereby the friendly tie brought about earlier by Bhishma himself between Hastinapura and Pancala that had ended a long spell of discord between the two kingdoms.[9] Bhishma did not only fail to anticipate Drona's moves, he did not attempt to thwart them either when they were in place. Nor did he ever try to discipline the Kauravas whose enmity toward the Pandavas would occasionally surface in attempts to take their lives.

It is likely that for political reasons it was but natural for Bhishma to be with the Kauravas. This might not have been just a matter of choice for him. All his near ones, including his uncle Balhika, are with them. The Pandavas do not have any locus standi at all. However, notwithstanding the compulsion of circumstances, we expect him to have exerted himself enough in order to bring about desired changes in Hastinapura, seeing to it that the rule of justice prevails, the Pandavas get their fair share, and the Kurukshetra war is averted. If Bhishma could have taken the expected stand, he would have been the right hand for Sri Krishna in paving the way to justice and prosperity for all.

III Sri Krishna in Contrast

We must keep in mind that overall prosperity in society is a product of social justice, which, in its turn, must be grounded on some political structure strong and sensitive enough to be able to deliver it. Sri Krishna had a dream of an India united and strong under benevolent monarchy, at a time when the democracies had gone wrong beyond repair. The new system of values would be the means for achieving the new structure, providing at the same time a main ingredient of the goal itself, that the structure is expected to achieve.

The Mahabharata is a story of two persons – Bhishma and Krishna. Bhisma is present, in his prominence, from the very beginning, till his passing away, with overall charge of the things in Hastinapura all along. Two of the eighteen parts of the epic – Santiparva and Anusasanaparva, contain exclusively his contribution to the posterity till today. There he articulates the grand wisdom of the olden times of which he is the last in line. Bhishma represents the old days of tradition and dynastic grandeur that are falling into pieces, a catastrophe that he does not welcome, but does not know how to avert either, from his way of looking at things. He is the least concerned about the general political unrest in the whole of India going hand-in-hand with social disequilibrium and strife at various levels.

Although Krishna is not present in the Mahabharata from its very beginning, he is intertwined with it in many important ways. He envisions a new system to be built on the basis of the old, which fails to provide solutions to the problems bothering him. It is not enough for Krishna to be good and honest himself, and allow things to drift around on constraints of perceived limits in personal responsibilities that bar initiative toward prosperity and well-being for all. If he has the capacity to initiate a change for the material, moral and spiritual advantage of all, he will make necessary attempts to accomplish what is desirable. Even deviation from the accepted norms to this end will not deter him. Unlike Bhishma, he makes adjustments to the ethical priorities according to the ethics of the emergency situation, i.e., the situational ethics of apaddharma, for reaching the grand goal of well-being for each and everyone. Bhishma is very much aware of the situational ethics himself. The apaddharma section of the Santiparva is, after all, his contribution. He knows that lies are appropriate in the situations of joking, for the sake of confidentiality, marriage and one's own safety, and also when a greater cause suffers.[10] However, he never cares to follow the deviations himself. Krishna knows that the Kauravas must be finished in order to build a just system for the people, not only of Hastinapura, but also of the whole of India. Accordingly, he suggests "unjust" means to kill Drona, Karna and Duryodhana, and proceeds to kill Bhishma himself, when the former is at the height of his fighting spree, breaking the promise not to hold any arms in the battle.

In the Harivamnsa Purana Sri Krishna says:

I do not want to see anyone in the city-state emaciated and pale without food, –
A pauper, who keeps on uttering, “Please give."[11]

He dreams of a society that prospers with the utilitarian goals. The utilitarianism of Sri Krishna, however, does not concern material ends only. He wants to build a system where the ethics of justice is in wide practice, firmly based on the spiritual state of harmony and equilibrium. His new value system includes this dimension of spirituality gifted to the humankind in the Gita through his very dear Arjuna, where a concept of duties has been emphasized, encouraging one not to be affected by the eventual results of the action, favourable, or otherwise. For the sake of his goals Sri Krishna, on special occasions, takes to means, which in normal circumstances would be called "unjust". His futuristic vision is inseparably tied to the new value system.

Sri Krishna may be said to have added a dimension to the concept of debts considered as motives for actions of duty. He says:

My debts to Draupadi keep on multiplying instead, rather, of abating, since she cried for me for help from a long distance (when the stripping was being attempted on her).[12]

If, in other words, somebody needs assistance, and one is able to provide it, it must be provided. Sri Krishna is considered avatara, or God incarnate. He takes total responsibility for Draupadi's protection from the Kauravas' onslaught, since she is absolutely devoted to, and dependent upon him, and he could possibly have made prior plans to avoid such a happening. Bhaskar Ray Mokhi has alluded to this utterance of Sri Krishna in Lalita-sahasra-nama-stotra-bhasya when he insists on his Goddess that She – the Mother – is in debts to the devotee – the son, for She has the capacity to offer him solace, and he deserves it. The sense of responsibility being harped on here belongs to the new value system, absent in Bhisma's mind. People of India were in need of a well-rounded system of justice, which Bhishma was able to establish. He, however, did not consider this as falling within his system of responsibilities.

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya[13] hardly touches upon the episode of attempted stripping in his book in Bengali[14] and Bimal Krishna Matilal[15] takes it to be primarily a women's right issue in relation to the husband. Without questioning the relevance of women's rights, I would insist that there is need to go deep into the situation to see that the women's issue is contained here in a wider context. The problem is not mainly regarding the propriety of considering Draupadi as her husband's property, and the technical point concerning the right of the husband to stake her in the following move, after having slaved himself to Duryodhana in course of the game of dice. Draupadi seems to have made a desperate bid for clarification on the latter point, in the hope that the elders would possibly get a legal ground to let her off in consideration of it.[16] The root problem here is regarding the propriety of bringing a woman – one belonging to the royal family, for that matter – to court, half-naked, in a single unstitched piece of cloth around her, when she was running her menstrual cycle, as she repeatedly kept on reminding the people around, and attempting to strip her in the presence of all. Here the fundamental right of a human being, a woman, is violated in the attempted rape on her privacy. After all, if the Kauravas had dragged Draupadi to court anyways, even if she was not considered a property of the husbands, after the five Pandava brothers had turned to be their slaves, we wonder if the elders would have said a thing at all. If they would, they could very well have raised their voice even when she is considered a property, on account of the immorality of the situation involved. Indeed, it does not seem permissible at all to drag a woman, very much against her will, to court, from her private recluse, specially when her body is not properly covered, according to the standard of the society, and to attempt to strip her in public, be she a property of her husband or not.

* Part of the paper was presented at the Twelfth International Congress of Vedanta at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, in 2000. The author is indebted to Pandit Anantalal Thakur for help pertaining to the materials from the original sources. All translations are by the author.


[1] Srimad-Bhagavad-Gita, to be exact.

[2] Mahabharata, Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 2445 Samvat, 13/84/15-25. Bhishma was subsequently blessed by the ancestors in his dream for having stuck to the tradition.

[3] Aitareya Brahmana gives this location for Uttarakuru.

[4] Mahabharata, 1/187/28. Here, Yudhisthira's allusion to the practice of the ancestors obviously refers to the ones in Uttarakuru, taken in combination with references in other places to the customs prevalent there. Nowhere it is said that the custom of a woman marrying more men than one at a time was ever practised in Dakshina Kuru, the kingdom where the Pandavas belonged. Cf., Thakur, Ananta Lal, "Uttarah Kuravah", Dinabandhu Smriti Grantha, Darbhanga, Saka 1900.

[5] Ibid, 5/179-185.

[6] Ibid, 6/43/41.

[7] Cf., note 45.

[8] Ibid, 4/28.

[9] Bhishma had brought an end to the conflict and disharmony prevalent in the state of Pancala, vanquishing the usurper chief, turned dictator, Ugrayudha, and replacing him by Pratipa, Draupadi's grandfather.

[10] Ibid, 12/165/30.

[11] Harivamsa-purana, (Vishnu Parva, 2/58/63.

[12] Mahabharata, 5/59/22.

[13] Chattopadhyaya was a famous literary figure in modern Bengali. He flourished in the nineteenth century, and gave shape to the foundation of Bengali prose having written novels as well as essays and belles-letters.

[14] Krishna-Caritra.

[15] Matilal, Bimal Krishna, "Moral Dilemmas: Insights from Indian Epics", Moral Dilemmas in the Mahabharata, IIAS, Shimla;  Motilal Banarsidass, 1989, pp. 2-3.

[16] The fact that Bhishma referred Draupadi to Yudhisthira, in the presence of the rest of the Pandava brothers, regarding an answer to the legal question of his eligibility to stake her, having slaved himself already to Duryodhana in the game, helped maintain amity among the brothers. One possible reason for arranging the stripping episode is to bring discord among the brothers, thereby helping the cause of protecting Duryodhana's rule on Hastinapura. When Bhima got agitated at Draupadi's insult, and vowed to burn both hands of the eldest brother which he had used for playing dice with, Duryodhana's plan had already started yielding result.