A Bhishma-Krishna centric perspective of the Mahabharata

Yatra yogeshvarah krsno yatra partho dhanur-dharah
Tatra srir vijayo bhutir dhruva nitir matir mama – Gita 18.78. (Concluding verse)

The Mahabharata consists of multi-layered plots and subplots, multitudinous complex characters. It spans multiple generations, and sometimes the entire historical perspective is necessary to make sense of the story arc. However, as everywhere else, certain simplifications are helpful in crystallizing key elements of the mythos.

At a microcosmic level, and an admittedly circumscribed perspective, the Mahabharata may be viewed as a showdown of ideologies of two main characters: Bhishma, the grandsire patriarch of the Kuru clan; and Krishna, the prime lobbyist for a new world order in the Dwapara yuga.

Bhishma was a stander-upper for the establishment, enforcer-in-chief of the letter of the law. He was unflinching in his loyalty to titular positions, and prefered to go down with the sinking ship of the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war. His track record of adherance to his vows to uphold the prevalent dynastic values of the time are legendary, and contribute to his monicker.

Krishna was the mercurial iconoclast, impishly charioteering the course of events towards change, while vowing to not wield weapons in a war that, in a who-did-what-to-whom interpretation of the situation, wasn’t his to fight.

This microcosmic rivalry plays itself out in the little nugget of an incident hidden in the mighty tome. Bhishma, the steadfast, who never reneges on a vow, vows that he’ll make Krishna violate his. Bhishma relentlessly scorched the Pandava warriors – later in the Bhishma Parva, Sanjaya says:

As regards Bhishma, his car was then his fire-chamber. His bow was the flame of that fire. And swords and darts and maces constituted the fuel of that fire. And the showers of arrows he shot were the blazing sparks of that fire with which he was then consuming Kshatriyas in that battle. As a raging conflagration with constant supply of fuel, wandereth amid masses of dry grass when aided by the wind, so did Bhishma blaze up with his flames…

Krishna realizes that the Pandavas will not win the war as long as Bhishma is at the helm of the Kauravas. He breaks his own vow, and engages the Sudarshanachakra. At this crystallized moment highlighting the essense of belief-systems of the two personas, Bhishma lays down his own weapons, and is humbly eager to accept what’s coming to him. In chessical jargon, he plays the player, and not the board. Krishna, on the other hand, is very much playing the board. If the situation demands his breaking yet another rule, he rises up to it.

Bhishma loves the map more than the topography. As a consequence, he champions a static application of rules, while his opponent stands for a dynamic reading of reality.

Mythos tells us that adharmis do not always come in weird hairdos, resounding laughs and Mogamboesque fashion-sense. Perhaps we lose messages hidden in our mythos. But then, maybe we are wired to cling on to stassis, until it is challenged and overthrown, so that we may cling on to a new brand of stassis.

The Ourorboros, attracted by something wiggly, chases it, bites it, and starts consuming what happens to be it’s own tail.

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11 comments
  1. Tiny Seal said:

    Interesting analysis of the characters.

    Checkout Yuganta by Iravati Karve for some possible reasons on why Krishna did what he did. Apparently, Krishna was vying to be a YugaPurusha for that era. He was willing to go back on his vows, if necessary, to further his cause of being recognized as the yugapurusha. His so called miracles were also part of this gameplan.
    Bhishma on the other hand, did not have had this higher goal to achieve, so, could happily stick to his code of conduct.

  2. Mridul said:

    this is interesting.
    I always considered the clash between the both from the point of view of duty vs righteousness.

    btw, it is interesting that in indian mythology, we have much higher emphasis on archery – while greeks, romans, etc used to consider hand to hand combat as more nobler … makes you wonder about how these wars actually happened.

  3. Unawoken said:

    tiny seal, thanks for the book reco, must check it out

  4. Gargi said:

    an interesting take on the big players of epic.
    But not sure if I get the point that you make in the final paragraph. What, in your opinion, was the intended message in the mythos regarding adharmis?

  5. Unawoken said:

    Gargi,
    I do not claim it is the "intended" message. But I do think this is one way of reading it: Love the topology more than the map. Reading reality dynamically is dharma, and basing way of life on a static model of reality is adharma.

    • Nikhil Thatte said:

      This sounds like Tao of Physics!
      “Don’t confuse the map with the territory”?

      • Unawoken said:

        Nikhil, i see so that is where the terminology comes from. Thanks for the note, I had come across it in other places: eg. Dennett uses it, and it is predated by Bertrand Russell who presents the idea, but not this terminology. But so “tAo of…” is where it was coined then; I shall read it.
        Welcome to my blog

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