Devavrata who later became known as Bhishma was the son of King Shantanu and the river goddess Ganga. Due to the efforts of his mother, he was educated under great sages and thus became a foremost scholar. He was also an unparallelled fighter due to his various trainings.
Before exploring about his character, I would like to provide some background to his father’s character. A father influences his son be it in a positive or negative way.
His father was a distinguished King but was definitely lower in IQ as Devavrata was superior to other human beings. His father was one who really craved pleasure especially that of the company of the fairer sex. It is said that once he met Ganga he forgot about everything else, he left his duties as a King and obeyed every word and action of Ganga. Similarly, he was so attached to Satyavati later in his life and so strong was his ‘Moha’ that he once again forgot about his kingdom and more so his son.
Perhaps his deep education and/or his association with his father might have had an influence on him choosing to reject the fairer sex and remain a Bhrahmachari (celibate) throughout his life.
This happened when his father who was much drowned in the amorous charms of Satyavati, a fisherwoman couldn’t reject her father’s condition that Devavrata and his kin should lose his right to be king. Devavrata voluntarily agreed to these demands pledging that he would remain celibate so that the son of Satyavati will rule after Shantanu. This declaration is seen in religious literature as a great ‘Bhishma Pratignya’.
I would like to carefully review this incident. He wanted his father to be happy and this sacrifice served that purpose. This shows him as one who has great affection to his father.
But one should also remember that this incident took place when his father had already married previously and enjoyed the pleasures of life. He was quite old and as a scholarly son, he should have been more interested in the spiritual growth of his father and urged him to focus his mind on Dharma, the study of scriptures and to advance himself to reach salvation.
Another aspect that people seem to totally forget is that by this time, Devavrata was officially coronated as the crown prince. He was to be the future leader of the great and vast kingdom of the Kurus. As a Kshatriya, the duty towards the people is always supreme. He was in fact the most worthy of a King, as he was of unsurpassed wisdom and valour as already mentioned. He would have known that if he became the king, the whole country would get a ruler who would take it to great heights. Especially with the attitude of his father, this was his first duty.
If his father still wanted pleasure, he could have been provided for by other means. As a ruler, there is no pleasure that couldn’t have been obtained.
Moreover, Satyavati’s father had a cunning mind coupled with his lowly attitude that did not distinguish him as anyone else than just a fisherman. How could a grandson of a fisherman of low moral character befit a king of the great Kingdom? These are some of the questions that Devavrata needed to have pondered upon before acceding to the selfish wishes of his father.
At the end of this, his father comes away in a bad light. But at least there is one saving grace. He loved a woman and in spite of her being from a lower class, he married her and gave her the position of queen and an equal partner.
Next we come to the incidents where he showed his arrogance in winning wives for the would be kings across generations. He had declared to guard the crown. It seems a fair pledge to make but he didn’t have to become the marriage broker for his incompetent half-brother and nephew. These are absolutely distasteful incidents in Mahabharatha.
He forcefully kidnaps the princesses Amba, Ambika and Ambalika of Kashi. By refusing to listen to the interests of the ladies, he shows that he does not respect women and his earlier pledge of non-marriage was just an act of staying away from women whom he hated. Having violated their modesty in public by carrying them away, he leaves Amba after knowing about her love to the King Salva. He bears witness to the sufferings of Amba who is rejected by her lover.
He refuses to learn to civilize himself. Later when Dhritarashtra is to be married, he forces his will on the King of Gandhara through the might of his army. He harms the life of a charming princess for the sake of his personal pride.
In both of these cases, he could have followed the example of his father to marry a person who might be of lower caste but for the sake of love. Here, the only purpose was a show of power and also a desire to expand the kingdom in spite of declaring that he had no desire for the kingdom and he would only protect the king.
Finally in the Kurukshetra war, he chooses to fight for Dhritarashtra saying that his pledge was to serve the king. He seems to just follow the word but not the actual meaning behind the word. Pandu was declared as the king and Dhritarashtra was only ruling in his place. Dhritarashtra was not the official king. Hence when Pandu’s heir Yudhishtira arrived, he should have immediately been crowned the king. Bhishma should have at such an occasion (much before the Kurukshetra war) fought against Dhritarashtra’s army for the rightful king Yudhishtira.
But he doesn’t stop there. Having, decided to fight for Dhritarashtra, he goes on to ludicrously declare that he would not kill the Pandavas. He was essentially saying that he will fight for one side but defend the opposite side which basically meant that he caused the destruction of his own army. There is also the incident where he pledges that he will make Krishna go against his word and fight in the war.
What is quite amazing is that he actually lives in this earth for such a long period spanning five generations and still retaining his military prowess. After being hit by the arrows, he is unflinching and bravely sleeps on it awaiting Uttarayana (holy period where the sun changes it direction towards the north). He narrates the great Vishnu Sahasranama while on the bed of arrows. This is such a gem to Hindus around the world and would remain his greatest contribution. I am amazed at each of the Shlokas in this great work but being part of Mahabharatha, are the wordings of Vishnu Sahasranama (and Bhagavad Geetha) those of the attributed source or those of the author Sage Vyasa?
This article is an outpouring of my strong desire to read such a rational analysis of the life of one who is considered a great person or Mahatma. Since I couldn’t find any material that expresses these views, I decided to write it myself. This is in no way intended to hurt anyone’s feelings but an attempt to explore this character of Mahabharatha with a different outlook.