The Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata begins with the beginning of the Mahabharata war and ends with the fall of Bhishma on his bed of arrows. It has a number of small incidents that set up the dramatic events that will happen later on during the battle.
And here it is! From individual matchups in the war to the divine-eyed Sanjaya, from Krishna’s interventions to Bhishma’s last stand, we have it all. Enjoy!
Individual Matchups on Day One
On the first day of battle, Yudhishthir and Dhrishtadyumna line up their forces to fight the Kauravas, and this is how the individual matchups look:
- Arjuna is to fight with Karna.
- Bhima will take on Duryodhana.
- Dhrishtaketu and Shalya will battle one another.
- Uttamaujas (a bodyguard of Arjuna’s) will fight Kripa.
- Nakula is asked to challenge Kritavarma.
- Satyaki will duel with Jayadratha, the king of the Sindhus.
- Shikhandi, as expected, will try and knock Bhishma off his perch.
- Sahadeva will battle Shakuni.
- Chekitana will challenge Sala.
- The five sons of Draupadi will try and rout the Trigartas.
- Abhimanyu, the son of Subhadra, will line up against Vrishasena, the son of Karna.
- As for Drona, Dhrishtadyumna announces that he himself will fight the preceptor.
This lineup drives home the point even to the casual observer how mismatched the two sides are. Many of the Kaurava heroes that we have heard of – Bhurishrava and Bhagadatta, to name a couple – are left ‘unmarked’, meaning they are free to launch damaging attacks on the Pandava army.
Not to mention that some of these duels are lopsided – for instance, Uttamaujas cannot be hoped to win against Kripacharya; if he can hold off the Kuru elder without incurring too many losses, he will have done well. The same could be said of the Shikhandi-Bhishma and Drona-Dhrishtadyumna battles.
Rules of War
Early on in the Bhishma Parva, the two armies come to some agreements on what constitutes ‘just’ and what doesn’t. Here are a few of these rules:
- People who belong to more or less equal circumstances should fight each other, and fairly. (This means that they are equal in status, weapons, valour and rank.)
- If, having fought fairly for a while, both warriors intend to withdraw peacefully, that is allowed.
- Those who are engaged in verbal jousts should be fought with words only, not with weapons.
- Those that leave the ranks of his army should not be attacked.
- A chariot must engage with a chariot, an elephant with an elephant, a horse with a horse, and a footman with another footman.
- One should strike another for the first time after announcing that he intends to. No one should strike another who is unprepared, panic-stricken or retreating.
- An unarmoured man must not be attacked. Charioteers, horses yoked to chariots, men engaged in the transport of weapons, players of drums and blowers of conches – these should not be attacked.
These, one must hasten to add, are guidelines only. When the stakes are high enough, we must expect these rules to be bent and broken as it suits the various participants.
During the eighteen days, the Mahabharata war begins as a ‘just battle’ (or Dharma Yuddha), but beginning from the fall of Bhishma on Day 10, it devolves into a meaner and meaner form until at the end people kill their enemies even when they’re sleeping.
So the Mahabharata war, among other things, is also a commentary on how Dharma falls when human desire overrides all other emotions.
Sanjaya Receives the Divine Eye
As the war is about to begin, Vyasa visits Dhritarashtra and offers him the gift of divine sight so that he can watch the happenings of the war from the comfort of his palace.
But Dhritarashtra replies, ‘I cannot bear to see my kinsmen kill one another this way, O Sage. But I would like to hear of the battle in some way.’
Vyasa then gives the divine eye to Sanjaya, Dhritarashtra’s minister. ‘This man here will narrate to you events of the battle as they occur. He will see everything that happens. He will even peer into the minds of various warriors, and explain to you the motivations behind their actions wherever possible. He will be blessed with deep knowledge of every aspect of the war, O King, and he will transmit it all to you.’
Having made this arrangement, Vyasa now tells Dhritarashtra of the various omens that have appeared, signaling the end of the Dwapara Yuga.
‘Hawks and vultures, crows and herons, together with cranes, are alighting on the tops of trees and clustering together in flocks, Your Highness,’ he says. ‘Carnivorous beasts and birds are lurking around the battlefield, licking their lips at the feast of dead elephants and horses that will soon be fed to them.
‘Both at dawn and dusk, I have begun to see the sun during his rising and setting to be covered by headless trunks. (A headless trunk is a symbol of Ketu, who swallows the sun and causes the solar eclipse.)
After giving Dhritarashtra the gift of divine sight (by proxy through Sanjaya), Vyasa goes on to list a number of signs that he sees in nature that signal the destruction of the world.
Here I am noting down a few of these as examples, so that we get a general idea:
- There seems to be an increase in unnatural birth and sexual activity. We are told that asses are taking birth in cows’ wombs, and that incest is on the rise. More specifically, people are taking sexual pleasure in uniting with their mothers.
- Women who are quick with child, and even those that are not, are giving birth to monsters with strange numbers of limbs and sense organs.
- Many Brahmin women are seen to deliver chimeras such as half-hawk, half-men (like Garuda) and birds such as peacocks.
- The mare is bringing forth the cow-calf and the bitch is giving birth to jackals and roosters.
- Certain women are giving birth to five or six daughters at a time, and they (the babies) are all laughing and singing and dancing right after birth.
- The earth that produces particular seasonal crops is now covered with crops of every season. Lotuses are blooming on lily fronds. Cows, when milked, are yielding blood.
- Both the solar and the lunar eclipse have happened at the same time, on the thirteenth day of the ascending cycle. All quarters of the earth look coated in dust, and bear an inauspicious look.
- The lunar cycle has shrunk. The full moon appears on the thirteenth (not the fourteenth or fifteenth) day after the new moon, and the new moon appears thirteen days after the full moon.
- All the great rivers are flowing in reverse, and their waters have become filled with blood and grime.
- From the tops of mountains such as Mandara and Himavat, one can hear thousands of explosions, and hundreds of summits have tumbled down. The sages opine that this is the earth baying for the blood of thousands of kings. This is the yuganta.
The Bhagavad Gita
There are plenty of summaries of the Bhagavad Gita, many written by people much more knowledgeable than I am, so I will not try to cover it comprehensively in this section. I am including it here only because a post containing stories from the Bhishma Parva would be incomplete if it did not contain the Bhagavad Gita.
The inciting incident here is that Arjuna gets disheartened seeing all his family members arrayed against him on the battlefield. Dropping his Gandiva and stepping off his chariot, he tells Krishna that he refuses to fight. ‘No matter how big the rewards, O Madhusudana,’ he says, ‘what makes fighting one’s own kinsmen worthwhile?’
This launches Krishna into Hinduism’s most enduring monologues, in which he ties together philosophy, politics, psychology, history and metaphysics in an attempt to convince Arjuna to pick up the Gandiva and ride out to battle.
While a complete analysis of the Gita are beyond the purposes of this post, if one were to distill the messages into three fundamental messages, it would be these:
- Detachment. Krishna preaches a state of detachment without abstinence from action. This is a crucial distinction, because too often one can interpret detachment to mean inaction. Krishna, in fact, censures this approach to life. Instead, he suggests that we should always seek to act at all moments while remaining unattached to the results of our actions.
- Discernment. Along with this trait of detaching oneself from the fruits of one’s labours, Krishna insists that we must all develop the ability to differentiate – in any given situation – between the right action, the wrong action, and inaction. Sometimes, when this ability is not forthcoming for whatever reason, one is better off embracing inaction.
- Knowledge. Knowledge of self is equal to knowledge of the universe. The more deeply you know yourself, the more deeply you know the universe.
After Krishna’s sermon is over and Arjuna is back on his feet, with the battle ready to get underway, Yudhishthir asks to be taken alone in his chariot into the depths of the Kaurava ranks.
He does not stop until he reaches the vehicle of Bhishma. He bows and says, ‘I have come, Grandfather, to seek your blessings. With your permission, we are going to fight this great army you commandeer. Let it be that we emerge victorious in this war.’
Bhishma is pleased with the king’s gesture. ‘If you had not come to me today, Yudhishthir,’ he says, ‘I would have cursed you to lose. But now, my heart is overwhelmingly gladdened. Besides the battle itself, ask me for any boon, son, and I will grant it to you.’
Yudhishthir says, ‘It is my wish, sire, that despite your love for the Pandavas, you must fight with all your might for the sake of Duryodhana.’
‘That is understood!’ replies Bhishma. ‘Ask me for any other boon, excepting victory in the war.’
‘Then tell me, O Grandsire,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘how we can vanquish an invincible warrior such as you.’
Bhishma thinks for a moment, surveys the many heroes arrayed on the other side, facing him. Then he says, ‘I do not see even one man in your army, Yudhishthir, that is capable of defeating me when I stand up to fight with deliberation. That is all I can tell you.’
(The meaning behind these words can be taken in two ways: one, that Bhishma is hinting that Yudhishthir must look beyond men in order to defeat him. And two, that in order to have a chance of overthrowing him, it is first necessary to remove from his heart the willingness to fight.)
Events of the First Five Days
The first ten days of the Mahabharata war can be considered almost a peaceful prologue to what happens afterward. But a number of people die during this period, and the momentum slowly builds toward the tenth day on which Bhishma falls.
Here is a quick recap of what happens:
- On the very first day, Bhishma kills two of Virata’s sons: Uttara, and Sweta. He almost kills a third, Sankha, before Arjuna rescues him in the nick of time. The Kauravas finish the day the happier side.
- On Day Two, Bhimasena single-handedly takes on the Kalingas and kills their ruler, Ketumata. The Kalingas are a massive force of elephants and chariots, which Bhima destroys completely on his own.
- On Day Three, frustrated at Arjuna’s lack of gumption in his fight against Bhishma, Krishna almost fights. He picks up the Sudarshana Chakra and advances toward Bhishma in a threatening manner, with Arjuna pulling him back and promising that he will give a better account of himself.
- Day Four sees Bhimasena kill ten thousand elephants in the Kaurava army with his mace. He then defeats and claims the life of fourteen of Dhritarashtra’s sons. Toward the evening, he loses a battle against Bhagadatta, but is rescued by Ghatotkacha’s magical interventions.
- On Day Five, Bhurishrava and Satyaki find themselves locked in a battle. The sons of Satyaki – ten of them in all – first surround Bhurishrava but he fights like a man possessed and kills them all. When Satyaki turns up to avenge the deaths of his sons, Bhurishrava defeats him too. Just as he is about to land the fatal blow, though, Bhima arrives to whisk Satyaki away.
This encounter between Bhurishrava and Satyaki will be reprised later on the fourteenth day of the war under more sinister circumstances. More on that later.
Events of Days Six to Nine
Here is a quick rundown of what happens during Days Six to Nine:
- The main event of Day Six is that when Bhimasena attempts to infiltrate the Kaurava forces on his own, he gets trapped and almost gets killed by sixteen Kaurava warriors surrounding him. He is rescued by Dhrishtadyumna, who uses the Pramohanastra to destabilize the mental balance of the Kauravas.
- On Day Seven, Arjuna begins by using the Aindrastra on a sea of soldiers in the Kaurava army. The weapon slices through them and leaves a cemetery in its wake. Nakula and Sahadeva secure a victory against Shalya, the king of Madra and their maternal uncle. Iravan, the son of Ulupi, wins against Vinda and Anuvinda while Ghatotkacha loses to Bhagadatta.
- On Day Eight, Iravan dies at the hands of the Rakshasa Alambusha. This marks the first incident of a close relative of the Pandavas losing his life. Arjuna is shown at the end of the day mourning over the death of his son.
- Toward the end of Day Eight, Ghatotkacha leads a stirring resurgence among the Pandava forces and almost pushes the Kauravas back to their camp, but Bhagadatta stands in his way and ensures that the day ends with the spoils almost even.
- On Day Nine, Krishna intervenes a second time in a duel between Arjuna and Bhishma in order to instigate the former to fight with more ruthlessness. As before, Bhishma raises his bow in respect and welcomes Krishna’s discus. And as before, Arjuna drags Krishna back to the chariot with a promise of fighting better.
At the end of Day Nine, there is a long consultation in the Pandava camp about Bhishma. ‘Behold Bhishma the terrible!’ says Yudhishthir to Krishna. ‘When he is consumed with such anger, when he wields his weapons with such precision, there is no one in the three worlds that can withstand his onslaught.’
All five Pandavas then, heeding the advice of Krishna, travel to Bhishma’s tent in the Kaurava camp and ask him how they could vanquish him. Essentially they ask him, ‘How do we kill you?’
And Bhishma tells them: ‘A warrior is invincible only when he is willing to fight, Yudhishthir, and when his weapons are raised. If he is made to relinquish his arms, then even the smallest car-warrior can kill him. If I am faced by a woman in battle, O Pandava, or one who has once been a female, or one who bears the name of a female, I am not going to fight her.’
Events of Day Ten
On Day Ten of the Mahabharata war, the Pandavas array themselves such that Shikhandi is the focal point. His chariot wheels are guarded by Arjuna and Bhimasena. The Upapandavas and Abhimanyu protect the Panchala prince from the rear. Satyaki, Chekitana and Dhrishtadyumna also are close at hand to support the formation.
The Pandava army fights today with one purpose and one purpose only: to set up an encounter between Shikhandi and Bhishma.
- Bhishma takes an oath for Duryodhana’s benefit that he will today seek out and kill the Pandavas – or die trying. Instead of retreating into the ranks and protecting himself from Shikhandi, he rides out to challenge the Pandava forces openly.
- Ten warriors on the Kaurava side – Bhagadatta, Kripa, Shalya, Kritavarma, Vinda, Anuvinda, Jayadratha, Vikarna, Chitrasena and Duhsasana – fight against Bhimasena but the Pandava ably defends himself with a smile on his face.
- Arjuna comes up to support Bhima in due course, and with this the battle becomes one-sided. Arjuna’s skill with the bow is so complete that he routs the armies of his enemies without so much as exerting himself.
- Shikhandi now finds Bhishma and begins to pepper him with arrows. Whenever a Kaurava warrior comes up to support Bhishma, Arjuna is present to chase them off. Bhishma, for his part, refuses to engage directly with Shikhandi: he continues to wear the Panchala’s arrows on his body while obliterating thousands of Pandava soldiers with his weapons.
- Bhishma’s last stand is to ride out to the middle of the two forces – the Pandavas ahead of him and the Kauravas behind – and stand as resolute as Mount Meru, shooting arrows in all directions. He blazes like the Samvartaka fire, intent on preventing the Kuru race from destroying itself.
It is toward this lone raging figure that Arjuna and Shikhandi ride together, intent on defeating and destroying it.
With the arrows of Shikhandi raining down on him now, Bhishma wonders if he should give up his life right at that moment.
But when he looks up at the skies he hears the voices of divine sages. ‘Withdraw from this battle, Son,’ they says. ‘Let the course of destiny resume unhindered.’
Bhishma understands what he must do, so he instructs his charioteer to steer the vehicle closer to Arjuna and Shikhandi. ‘The arrows that pierce through my armour,’ he says to no one in particular, ‘do not belong to Shikhandi. They belong to Arjuna. So if I surrender, it is to Arjuna’s skill. Not Shikhandi!’
With that declaration he steps off his chariot and picks up a sword to smite any footmen that may venture within range. With arrows sticking out of his body, covered in blood, he waves the sword a couple of times only to see that no one is attacking him.
For a moment he stands, watching Shikhandi, Arjuna, Krishna and Yudhishthir.
Then he drops the sword, and allows his body to fall.
His body does not hit the ground, though. He lies suspended on the bed of arrows, looking up at the sky. ‘The sun is in the southern solstice, and I intend to leave this earth when it enters the northern declension. I am still alive, O Sages! And I shall hold my breath until the right moment. Do not fret.’
And he does not die until the Mahabharata war is complete, after Yudhishthir is crowned king.
A Pillow for my Head
The fighting is called off at the fall of Bhishma, and the first thing he asks for when the Kauravas and Pandavas surround him is: ‘I need something to support my head.’
Duryodhana arranges for the best pillows to be brought for the grandsire, but Bhishma rejects them all. Then Arjuna steps forward and shoots three arrows into the ground. After his head had been placed tenderly on their ends, Bhishma smiles and says, ‘Now I have a bed that is fit for a Kshatriya.’
After the end of the tenth day, the Kauravas and Pandavas come together to pay respects to Bhishma. This time the old man complains that he has a parched throat.
Once again a number of drinks are brought from the camp, but Bhishma rejects them all. Once again it is left to Arjuna to shoot an arrow into the earth to bring about a jet of cool, scented water that springs out like a fountain and quenches Bhishma’s thirst.
Bhishma tries one last time to advise Duryodhana to call off the battle. But the son of Dhritarashtra refuses.
For a short time thereafter, the cousins sit together without armour or weapons, and speak together civilly of old times. Then they return to their respective camps and prepare once again for battle.
A Surprise Visitor
The Bhishma Parva ends with a reconciliation between Bhishma and Karna.
After all the warriors had gone home, with Bhishma left alone in the battlefield, Karna comes to pay his respects. The two men speak to one another without anger or disrespect, and Bhishma reveals that he knows of Karna’s true parentage.
‘The island-born sage told me about it before the beginning of the war, Karna,’ says Bhishma. ‘The circumstances surrounding your birth are unfortunate, and you have been cast away sinfully. It is because of this that your heart burns at the sight of any man with merit. If you’re to achieve greatness, Karna, you must let go of this foe that resides within you.
‘Instead, focus on your own good qualities. You’re a great warrior. Your patronage of Brahmins in Anga has become legendary. In lightness of hand and in sureness of foot, you are among our best. None of these qualities will forsake you if you acknowledge other men who are better blessed than you are.
‘Soothe your heart. Convince it that looking inward is a thousand times more fruitful than outward.’
After passing on this advice, Bhishma tries one last time to convince Karna to talk Duryodhana into abandoning the war. But Karna, of course, does not agree. He gets up, circumambulates the grandsire three times, and takes his leave.
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