What was Kurukshetra all about? A struggle for power, a wreaking of vengeance, a righteous war to establish dharma?
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images…”
Power is craved because of the pleasure it brings, but the history of kingship recounted in the epic brings home a very different perception: individual power has to be given up in the interest of public welfare. The epic tells us that when the unhindered play of individualism led to the strong oppressing the weak [matsyanyaya], with none enforcing the rules agreed upon, the vexed people decided to give up their individual power in the interest of general welfare and approached Vaivasvat Manu for assuming overlordship. For his pains they offered one-fiftieth of their herds, one-tenth of their agricultural produce and one-fourth of the merit that the subjects would accrue by observing dharma. The massive corpus of the Shanti Parva is devoted to Bhishma’s discourse on the intricacies of Raja dharma, the way of the king, in which the key pronouncement is:
atma jeyah sada rajna tato jeyashca shatravah /
ajitatma narapatirvijayeta katham ripun //
“First the raja shall conquer his own self.
He who has not conquered himself,
how will that raja succeed in conquering enemies?”
In another account the epic throws significant light on the implications of exercising power in governance. The first king was Ananga, and it is with his grandson Vena that we come across the record of what power brings in its wake: one cannot have enough of it. That is why power is said to corrupt, and when it is absolute in nature, the corruption it brings about is also total. Vena became a tyrant, oppressing the people so that they slew him and in his place chose Prithu as king, for he had mastered the science of danda, chastisement, that upholds Dharma. It is Prithu who cultivated the earth, made it yield its fruits so that it was called “Prithivi” after him. Because he protected all from harm, he was called Kshatriya, and because he pleased all the people he was renowned as raja:
ranjitashca prajah sarvastena rajeti shabdoyate // 
From one point of view, Vyasa’s epic is a study of the use and abuse of power. It is not that in itself power is good or bad. It is essentially a force, a weapon that can be used to save and foster or to harm and extort:
“Desiring power first as an instrument for the achievement of other ends, he falls in love with and retains it as an end in itself… the man who has drunk of the draught of power loses his wisdom and, forgetful of the end which power should have achieved, dictates for the sake of dictating.”
This, indeed, is what Vyasa recounts.
Essentially what the epic depicts is the fortunes of the dynasty founded by Yayati, and the struggle between his descendants for the hegemony of Bharatavarsha. As a dynast, he is a watershed in Pauranik history. Of his five sons the Yadavas, stemming from the disinherited eldest son, Yadu, and the Pauravas descending from the youngest son Puru who gets the throne, are the most important. One branch of the family establishes itself in Hastinapura, while another rules in Magadha. The Kauravas, Pandavas and Panchalas are all Pauravas, battling amongst themselves on Kurukshetra with the Yadava Krishna presiding over it all.
The first attempts to establish tyrannical supremacy are made by Jarasandha of Magadha (modern Bihar). He makes Kansa, son of the head of the Mathura oligarchy, his son-in-law, and then manipulates him into imprisoning the titular head, his father Ugrasena. Kansa becomes tyrant of Mathura. One by one Jarasandha imprisons eighty-six princes, his goal being to sacrifice a hundred to Shiva to celebrate his coronation an emperor, samrat. Around him he builds a circle of like-minded abusers of the people’s trust: Dantavakra of Karusha and Sishupala of Chedi in central India, Bhishmaka of Vidarbha in the south-west, Kalayavana beyond the western borders, the ruler of Kashi (Benares), Paundraka Vasudeva of Pundra (Bengal) in the east, Naraka of Pragjyotishapura and Banasura of Shonitapura (Assam) in the north-east. The only person with the statesman’s vision to perceive Jarasandha’s design is Krishna. To save the Yadavas from being enslaved, he persuades them to abandon Mathura, which was being repeatedly attacked by Jarasandha, and to re-establish themselves in the fortified city of Dvaraka on the western seashore. From here he cast an eagle eye over Bharatavarsha, seeking desperately for a countervailing force.
In the natural course of things, this force should have been available in Hastinapura, for it was here that the great righteous monarch Bharata—son of Dushyanta and Shakuntala—had ruled, after whom the country took its name “Bharatavarsha”. But here, again, personal lust was allowed to cloud a ruler’s vision of public welfare. Bharata the eponymous dynast had displayed the true qualities of greatness. Finding all his sons unworthy to rule, he discarded blind adherence primogeniture, adopted the Brahmin Bharadvaja and, renaming him Vitatha, gave him the kingdom. This over-riding concern for the welfare of the people instead of caring for the claims of one’s progeny is what sets Bharata apart. It is precisely the lack of this in his descendants Shantanu and Dhritarashtra that heralds the doom of the dynasty. The contrast Shantanu presents to his ancestor Bharata is astonishing. Like his ancestor Yayati, in pursuing the gratification of his personal desire for the intoxicatingly fragrant and dark fisher-maiden Kali, Shantanu is blind to his dharma as raja whose paramount consideration is the welfare of his subjects who already have in Devavrata a completely qualified heir-apparent. He eagerly concurs in Gangadatta-Devavrata’s vow to abjure the throne and marriage. By way of appreciation he confers on his son the boon of choosing the moment of his death. And this becomes the bane of Bhishma’s life.
Shantanu dies before his sons from Satyavati reach majority. The eldest, Chitrangada, is killed fighting a Gandharva, with no sign of his invincible foster-brother fighting at his side. Vichitravirya becomes king as a minor, makes no mark whatsoever, and is prematurely provided by Bhishma, at the insistence of queen mother Satyavati, hungry for progeny, with two voluptuous brides. Vichitravirya dies without issue, as “driven by passion, (he) became a kamatma,/a victim of his own lust.” These are words which will be echoed by his foster-son, Pandu who laments:
Noble blood is of little help
Deluded by passions, the best
of men turn wicked, and reap
the punishment of their karma.
My father was deep in dharma,
his father was too.
But kama was his ruin, he died
while still a youth.
And in the field of his lust
I was sown
by a truth-honouring rishi,
bhagavan Krishna Dvaipayana.
And I am a victim of the hunt!
My mind is full of killing,
shooting down deer.
Bhisma: Power Unused
It is the death of Vichitravirya that leads to the first exposition of Bhishma’s superhuman qualities. When Satyavati pleads with him to satisfy the craving of Ambika and Ambalika for sons (a typical case of desire transference, for it is she who is desperate for grandsons), and thereby save the dynasty from extinction, this is his response:
I will give up the three worlds
I will give up the kingdom of heaven,
I will give up more than the three worlds and heaven,
But I will not give up my truth.
Earth may give up fragrance,
water its rasa,
Sun may give up splendour,
fire its heat,
akasha-sky its shabda-ether,
Indra, Vritra-slayer, may give up valour,
Dharma-raja give up dharma,
But I will not break my vow of truth.
Now comes an extremely revealing declaration:-
Let doom overtake the world!
Immortality cannot tempt me,
nor lordship of the three worlds!
I will not break the vow. 
This is the essence of Bhishma’s dharma. His attachment to the vow of celibacy takes over-riding precedence over everything else, including the public weal. He is not bothered about the chaos that will occur in Hastinapura with no one to inherit the throne. His major concern is that his vow must remain intact. The motivation is highly complex, for in it play a number of factors: resentment against his mother Ganga for depriving him of paternal love from birth and then of maternal love from the crucial adolescent age onwards; disgust for a father who dotes on a teenaged fisher-girl oblivious of his obligations to the people; anger against Satyavati, the cause of the terrible sacrifice he has had to make. Once more, the end result is self prized above service.
What is the nature of this famous vow? It is not only the giving-up of a Crown Prince’s right to the throne [which had been done by some of his ancestors like Yati and his uncle Devapi] but also the incredible sacrifice of a Kshatriya right to beget progeny in order to subserve a father’s infatuation for a fisher-girl. The futility of it all is that the vow is adhered to long after its purpose has been served and even when it becomes dysfunctional to the extent of threatening the very existing of the dynasty of which Bhishma is the sole remaining representative.
Of a piece with this obstinate adherence to his vow is Bhishma’s peculiar attachment to Hastinapura itself. He is the same age as Satyavati, if not older, but she does not follow her into vanaprastha in the forest after the death of Pandu, when Vyasa advises his mother and her two daughters-in-law not to be witnesses to the suicide of their race. Bhishma is entombed in a perpetual brahmacharya ashrama, the first of the four stages in a human being’s life. He eschews the stage of a householder, does not retire to the forest, and fails to become a sannyasi. With this goes an obsession with Hastinapura, so strong that he can bring himself to support the Pandavas only verbally, but needs must ally himself physically with the Dhartarashtras despite knowing them to be in the wrong. And that he does to the extent of leading their armies against the Pandavas in a cause which he believes to be wrong! Truly, he is a man divided against himself. The only rationale he provides for his behaviour is that he and Drona are borne on the Hastinapura monarch’s exchequer and hence bound to serve him. Yet, Yuyutsut, son of Dhritarashtra, has no hesitation in rising above loyalty to his brothers to cross-over to the side he knows to be in the right. It is Gandhari who points out to her husband at the time of Krishna’s peace-mission that the warriors on whom their son foolishly depends will not lead him to victory because, although they will fight on his side being rajapinda bhayat (borne on the state’s payroll), their hearts will not be with him. Bhishma himself echoes this when he tells them that he, along with Kripa and Drona, are bound to the Kauravas “by need”, that is, they are borne on the Kaurava exchequer.
It is Bhishma who is instrumental in bringing about the deaths of the successors to the Hastinapura throne, albeit unwittingly. We have already seen that his over-eagerness to provide his stepbrother with a surfeit of brides resulted in Vichitravirya’s premature demise. This was followed his going out of his way to procure a second bride for Pandu, whose very name (anaemic, jaundiced) indicates the state of his health. It is significant that the blind Dhritarashtra was not provided a second wife by Bhishma. Pandu had gone to a svayamvara (bridegroom-choice ceremony) on his own. No Kuru king is found attending any prior to this. Bhishma paid considerable bride price to procure Madri who becomes the direct cause of Pandu’s death.
It is significant that when Pandu leaves Hastinapura on a self-imposed exile, Bhishma does not protest. Nor does he ever enquire after the welfare of this scion of the dynasty in the Himalayan wilderness. Even news of the birth of the sons to Pandu, cursed with death in intercourse, does not arouse curiously or lead to any embassy from the capital to the forest to celebrate the birth of hairs to the sterile throne. The same indifference was displayed during the battle in which his stepbrother Chitrangada died. It is an though Bhishma were pleased to have the consumptive Vichitravirya engrossed in his wives, and then blind Dhritarashtra on the throne, as titular monarchs with himself as the all-powerful Grey Eminence actually his alone. Unfortunately, the coming of Shakuni, accompanying his sister to her life-long immurement in darkness in Hastinapura compelled by Bhishma, changed the entire completion of the situation. Is it not symptomatic of Bhishma’s insensitivity to human feelings that he should never have enquired of Gandhari the reason for bandaging her eyes permanently, or have asked her not to do so? It is as though, having suppressed his strongest urge and failed to sublimate it, Bhishma became the ultimate misogynist, automatically stonewalling against awareness of feelings of others, particularly women. This is consistent with his indifference to the predicament in which he places Amba that ends in her suicide. The price has to be paid by Hastinapura, whose vitals Shakuni worms into, exuding that poison which corrodes the dynasty. Incredibly, Bhishma yet again remains a silent spectator to the poisoning of Bhima, the gutting of the House of Lac, the division of the kingdom, the cheating in the dice-game, the disrobing of Draupadi, the refusal to restore Indraprastha after the exile is over. It is the supreme example of the “Witness” stance, suddenly broken when war begins. Then the Witness unaccountably turns into the Fighter against those in whose cause he believes, yet whom he will, perversely, not support.
In tragic life, God wot, no villain need be;
Passions spin the plot. We are betrayed
By what is false within. 
It is supremely ironic that the prince who earned the sobriquet of “Bhishma” and came to be renowned as the greatest of renouncers should be so hopelessly bound to his father’s throne as not only to preside over the suicide of the dynasty, but to actually participate in it on the side he knows to be in the wrong! Indeed, Devavrata-Gangadatta-Bhishma is another Prometheus, bound in adamantine chains to the icy Caucasian peaks of the Hastinapura throne, wracked in immortal agony as the Dhartarashtra-Pandava fratricidal strife eats into his vitals endlessly. For, perversely, he cannot, or will not, die till liberation comes in the form of mortal arrows showered by a grandchild who loves him.
It speaks volumes for the much-vaunted wisdom of Bhishma that he never cast a glance eastward of Hastinapura towards the alarming imperialistic ambitions of Magadha’s Jarasandha despite the phenomenon of nearly a hundred kings having been captured and nearby Mathura attacked repeatedly. A contingent from Hastinapura even accompanied the Magadhan army’s onslaught on Mathura. One gets a sense of Bhishma presiding over a small and weak kingdom, worried only about the traditional enemies—the Panchalas. That is why he immediately takes into employment Drupada’s sworn enemy Drona. He is blind to the growing threat of the Jarasandha-Kalayavana-Shishupala-Dantavakra-Kashi-Paundraka-Naraka-Bana combine gathering forces to the south, the east and the west. Bhishma merely made sure of the north-western border through marital alliances with Madra and Gandhara, and of the west by marrying Dhritarashtra’s daughter Duhshala to Jayadratha, the Sindhu king. He was unaware that the tenuous link down the Ganga with Kashi, whose princesses were the Queen-mothers of Hastinapura, had already been snapped by Magadha. It is young Krishna who puts paid to these imperialistic designs by killing each of the tyrants separately, without any assistance from Bhishma, renowned as the greatest statesman of the age.
This failed statesman, and this misogynist par excellence who abuses his Kshatriya prowess to ruin the lives of Amba, Ambika, Ambalika, Kunti, and watches, without protest, the attempted disrobing of Draupadi, is also a Commander-in-Chief who deprives his army of its best warrior, Karna, by insulting him so grossly that he withdraws from battle. Further, he announces that he will not slay any of the Pandavas and will befriend them in his thoughts at night, although he will fight against them during the day. What a splendid morale booster for his army! Over a period of ten days he kills thousands of innocent soldiers but not a single Pandava. Unlike Drona, Bhishma does not even think of capturing Yudhishthira as a way to end the war. It is as though he were trying to tire out Duryodhana till he agrees to a truce. Repeatedly Duryodhana voices his anguish over Bhishma’s half-hearted leadership, which he will not relinquish. A peculiar dharma indeed!
It is a fact that Bhishma bestrides the epic like a colossus and it is because of this that he has been celebrated over millennia as the repository of statecraft and the embodiment of the warrior code, kshatriya-dharma, to be looked up to by all succeeding generations. This aura is like the upanishadic golden lid veiling the face of truth. What Vyasa shows us is Bhishma standing as the last bulwark of the ancient dharma in which loyalty to the clan over-rode all other claims; in which fidelity to one’s word was the be-all and end-all; into which considerations of the larger public weal did not enter. The deceptive aura of perfection is ruthlessly dispelled in the Draupadi-vastraharana episode. Never have the limitations of Bhishma’s way of life been exposed so mercilessly as when Draupadi challenges him to stand by those very tenets of nobility which the Kuru court supposed to uphold. Let us listen to that traumatic exchange of words:
“It is most wrong, most wrong
to drag me in my period
before the Kuru heroes.
But none here finds it wrong.
Dhik! Shame on you!
If all these great Kaurava heroes
find nothing wrong here,
then the dharma of the Bharatas is dead,
the dharma of the Kshatriyas
Drona, Bhishma, mahatma Vidura,
and the great raja Dhritarashtra
have lost their greatness—else why
are they silent on this great adharma?…
You cannot have a sabha without elders,
You cannot have elders without dharma
You cannot have dharma without truth,
You cannot have truth with trickery.”…
Bhishma said: “Fortune-favoured lady….
What can I say?
It is all very puzzling.
Dharma is very subtle…
I don’t know what to say.”
Here is Bhishma prefiguring Hamlet in mulling over a philosophical dilemma while a queen’s honour is at stake! Within Bhishma plays, subconsciously, that deep seated grievance against mother and stepmother because of which he treats women as chattel. He is wholly oblivious of his obligation, as the patriarch in society, to set an example for others to follow. That is why, pointing to his silence, Karna argues that Draupadi must have been duly won and orders watch in a silence that is stupefying for its callousness. As she is about to be dragged away to the servants’ quarters, Panchali makes a last attempt to arouse the soporific manhood of the Kuru Court whose guardian Bhishma is supposed to be:
Never before have we heard
of a dharma-devoted woman forced to stand
before a sabha. The Kauravas have broken this rule
of sanatana dharma.…
Something must be very wrong with the times
if the Kauravas defile
their innocent daughter and daughter-in-law
in this way!…
Where is your sense of dharma?…
Bhishma said, “Fortune-favoured lady,
I have already said
that Dharma is subtle. 
What Bhishma says now is of very great importance, for it speaks of the breakdown of a system of values, of dharma having become an empty shell:
What a strong man says
often becomes the only dharma;
a weak man may have dharma on his side
but who listens to him?…
To tell you the truthI do not know what to say. 
The face of Truth is hidden by, not a golden lid, but a sadly tarnished one. Here is the greatest of patriarchs enmeshing himself in the dialectics of reason: whether Draupadi has been won or not. As if that issue is of more importance than protecting her modesty and saving the reputation of the Kuru Court whose code enshrines protecting the weak as a central tenet. The confusion in Bhishma becomes evident as he abruptly swings to asserting that the family which has taken Draupadi as daughter-in-law will not stray from the path of dharma. Yet he does not lift a finger to free her from brutal Duhshasana’s clutches. Instead, he voices a meaningless approval of her stance:-
Your conduct now, O Panchali,
is worthy of you—
for though you suffer,
you appeal to the truths of dharma.
Our elders, learned-in-dharma
Drona and others,
sit here with lowered eyes like dead men
with life-breaths gone. 
Indeed, the life-breath of this dharma is gone. What exists is a putrefying corpse kept artificially alive, shown ultimately in Bhishma’s death-in-life on the bed-of-arrows. It is revealing that explicit prohibition, disgust at the proceedings and warning is voiced finally not by the Kshatriya Bhishma, protector of Hastinapura, but by the son of a mixed-caste sage and a maid servant, Vidura:
Now they insult a woman
Nobility is dead.
The Kauravas conspire viciously…
violated in an assembly,
Dharma destroys the assembly.…
do not abandon dharma.  
The problem is that Vidura is powerless. He can merely advise, exhort, and plead with the blind Dhritarashtra who, obsessed by his desire that the throne must be his son Duryodhana’s, is deaf to all appeals. Before the war begins, on the battlefield Bhishma and the two other patriarchs Drona and Kripa confess to Yudhishthira, “a man is the slave of need…I am tied to the Kauravas by need…I say this like a eunuch; I am a servant. (VI.43.41-42)” Later Drona and Bhishma recall their obligation to the bread eaten in Duryodhana’s house (VI.77.71; 109.29) and redouble their attacks.
In the very beginning of the epic we are told that the Kauravas are a giant tree of passion whose root is the weak-minded Dhritarashtra. Its seed is infatuation, its branches are anger and pride rooted in ignorance The state power remains reined in, for
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of a passionate intensity.”
Bhishma’s failure as a leader of the polity lies in his never having practised the raja-dharma he speaks of at length to Yudhishthira on his bed-of-arrows which seems to become his penance for inaction. In a Kshatriya the “witness” stance only brings about the destruction of the policy. The Kshatriya must use power to protect the rights of the weak, for that is his dharma, the truth of his nature. To abjure this because of a self-imposed vow and turn into the Egotistical Sublime of the age brings destruction and misery in its wake not only for oneself, but also for the entire society of which such a person is the corner stone, the pillar of strength. Withdrawal from the rightful use of danda and exercising state power for lokasangraha, holding the people together in the way of dharma, is abdication that betrays the Kshatriya code. Indeed, in Bhishma, between the ideal and the reality falls the shadow. Here is a leader fallen by the way.
When the celestial sage Narada visits Dhritarashtra, he tries to instruct him in the dangers that wielders of state power are prone to. In this attempt he recounts the example of Yayati, the founder of the dynasty. In Yayati’s own words:
I have lived in many realms,
Offered puja by the gods,
I shone like the gods,
I was powerful like the gods…
for millions of years I made love
to apsaras in the Nandana-gardens,
under clustering, lovely trees
ornamented with flowers
shedding sacred scent upon us…
Then a fearful-faced messenger of the gods came
And shouted loudly, thrice:
‘Lost! Lost! Lost!’
And I fell from Nandana. 
Yayati states the reason for his fall: his overweening pride in the merit of his virtuous acts and his self-love:-
Ill deeds cancel good deeds.
Pride is the road to hell…..
I was virtuous once—
All gone— irrevocably.
It is, therefore, not enough to be virtuous. Once must also be wise: “Be wise and virtuous— learn from me/who finds heaven?”