Groß ist die Ähnlichkeit der beiden schönen
Jünglingsgestalten, ob der eine gleich
Viel blässer als der andre, auch viel strenger,
Fast möcht’ ich sagen: viel vornehmer aussieht
Als jener andre, welcher mich vertraulich
In seine Arme schloß – Wie lieblich sanft
War dann sein Lächeln, und sein Blick wie selig!
Dann mocht’ es wohl geschehn, daß seines Hauptes
Mohnblumenkranz auch meine Stirn berührte
Und seltsam duftend allen Schmerz verscheuchte
Aus meiner Seel’ – Doch solche Linderung,
Sie dauert kurze Zeit; genesen gänzlich
Kann ich nur dann, wenn seine Fackel senkt
Der andre Bruder, der so ernst und bleich. –
Gut ist der Schlaf, der Tod ist besser – freilich
Das beste wäre, nie geboren sein.

[There’s a mirror likeness between the two
Bright, youthfully-shaped figures, though
One’s paler than the other and more austere,
I might even say more perfect, more distinguished,
Than the one who’d take me confidingly in his arms
How soft then, loving, his smile, how blessed his glance!
Then it might well have been, that his wreath
Of white poppies touched my forehead, at times,
Drove the pain from my mind with its strange scent.
But all that’s transient. I can only, now, be well,
When the other one, so serious and pale,
The older brother, lowers his dark torch. –
Sleep is good: and Death is better, yet
Surely never to have been born is best.]

— Heinrich Heine

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.