Reading Guide. Bhishma, as you might recall, fell in battle, but he had the gift of choosing the moment of his own death. He is waiting for the solstice, and before he dies he will instruct the survivors of the battle on how to rule the world that has survived.
Source. The Mahabharata, A Summary by John Mandeville Macfie (1921). [700 words]
Not long after, the Pandu princes resolved to visit Bhishma. It will be remembered that he was left lying on the ﬁeld of battle, waiting till the sun had entered the summer solstice, before he would choose to die. He was not alone, however. The greatest of the rishis as well as Parashurama the incarnation of Vishnu were keeping him company.
Bhishma preached many long sermons and told many stories. Here is one of the stories:
Yudhisthira asked Bhishma what a brahmin ought to do to maintain life in times of calamity. Bhishma replied by telling of what happened to the rishi Vishvamitra towards the end of the Treta Yuga and the commencement of the Dwapara Yuga, during a terrible drought which lasted for twelve years. Shops were closed, the ﬁelds lay empty, the countryside was covered with heaps of bones of men and beasts, the temples were forsaken and even brahmins died. In the extremity of their hunger, men began to eat human ﬂesh. Vishvamitra suffered like others and, abandoning his wife and child, wandered everywhere in search of food.
One day he entered a village inhabited by chandalas, and begged from door to door, but no one was able or willing to help him. In one house he chanced to see a piece of dog’s ﬂesh, and resolved that he would go at night when all were asleep and steal the ﬂesh. He crept into the chandala’s house when all, as he thought, were asleep, but the owner of the house at once demanded to know why he came. When he discovered who his visitor was and why he came, the chandala was greatly horriﬁed to think that so holy a man was willing to break all the laws of the Vedas and of Aryan morality.
But the rishi replied that when one’s life is in peril there is no sin eating unclean food. He reminded the chandala that the rishi Agastya had once eaten the demon Vatapi when he was hungry, and he did not see why he should not be allowed to eat a dog. So, though the chandala protested, Vishvamitra took away the piece of dog’s ﬂesh and ate it.
Yudhisthira was greatly shocked at this story. It seemed to him that such teaching swept away the foundations of all morality. Bhishma was inviting him to do what truth and duty had always said must not be done.
To this Bhishma answered that he must look at things from a broader point of view. Righteousness sometimes had the appearance of unrighteousness. Evil sometimes seemed better than good. One had to take all the circumstances into consideration and then calmly form one’s opinion.Having finished his long discourse and answered a multitude of questions, the aged warrior bade Yudhishthira return to Hastinapura and assume the sovereignty of his own recovered empire. Yudhishthira did so and was duly installed on the throne.
At the end of ﬁfty days he returned to the battleﬁeld, bringing sandalwood and other precious stuffs for use in cremating the body of Bhishma. The dying man said he had now lain on his arrowy bed for ﬁfty-eight nights and he was anxious to be gone. The time had passed as slowly as if it were an hundred years, but the auspicious hour for death was at last arrived.
Turning to Krishna, whom he called the god of gods, the Supreme Eternal Soul, he asked permission to depart. Krishna gave him leave, and as he did so, declared that Bhishma had never been guilty of one solitary sin all through his life. The arrow then left Bhishma’s body, and his soul, emerging from the top of his head, passed through the sky like a meteor in the sight of all observers.
The funeral rites were duly performed and then the Pandus accompanied by Krishna, the attendant rishis, the ladies of the Bharata family, and a great crowd of citizens went to perform the water oblation on the banks of the river Bhagirathi.
When they reached its shores, Ganga, who it will be remembered was the mother of Bhishma, rose up out of the waters, overcome by sorrow. When she had spoken in praise of her dead son, Krishna told her not to shed useless tears for one who had passed in the fullness of years to spend a happy life in heaven.