Bhishma and Iravati Karve’s Yuganta

It was only recently that I had the pleasure of reading Iravati Karve’s tour de force Yuganta, which I found one of the most brilliant and original studies of the Mahabharata. The first essay in the study is on Bhishma, and in it she talks about the futility of the grandsire’s long life that spans several generations.

Karve begins the essay by summarising the plot, leading up to Bhishma bringing home young Satyavati and presenting her to his old father as his new wife. Here the scholarly author makes a brilliant comparison of Bhishma’s sacrifice for the sake of his father Shantanu with that of his ancestor Puru’s for the sake of his father Yayati and then asks what Bhishma gained by the sacrifice in contrast to his ancestor who got his father’s kingdom overriding the rights of his elder brothers.

When you think of it, the sacrifices are strikingly similar. To begin with, both fathers are old and both sons young – Bhishma is perhaps twenty years old when he makes his sacrifice and Puru, though we do not know his exact age, is the youngest of his father’s sons, all of them in their youth. In both cases, the sacrifice is made by the sons so that their aged fathers can enjoy sensual, and more specifically sexual, pleasures. In Puru’s case what he sacrifices is his youth, whereas in Bhishma’s case, it is more than his youth that he sacrifices: he sacrifices right to the throne, his whole life, and more.

By taking the vow of urdhvaretatva, celibacy, he puts an end to his prajatantu – his family line. Indian culture sees few other sins as greater than that of breaking the prajatantu. In the famous convocation address in the Taittiriya Upanishad, when the Upanishadic guru gives his parting advice to his disciple, the very first duty he enjoins upon the student after giving gurudakshina is to see that he does not break the family line: achāryāya priyam dhanam āhrtya prajātantum mā vyavacchetsīh.

The Mahabharata itself and the Puranas tell us stories of men whose austerities turned void because they did not fulfil this duty enjoined on them. It is the Mahabharata itself that tells us the story of the ascetic Jaratkaru who was turned back from his ascetic life and asked to turn to family life in order to save his ancestors – Jaratkaru subsequently begets Asita, who stops Janamajaya’s sarpasatra through which the king was trying to exterminate the Nagas. The Padma Purana tells us the story of Mahasati Sukala, whose husband Krikala was similarly turned back from the ascetic life and asked to go back to family life by his ancestors.

Pitr-rna, debt to the manes, is one of the basic debts that each man is born with according to the ancient Indian tradition. Apart from rejecting the sexual urge and its expression for himself along with the pleasures and privileges of family life, what Bhishma did by taking his vow to remain an urdhvareta, was to fail in this regard. Bhishma had grown up fully aware of the tradition that said when a man failed to produce a son, his manes fell from their world.

Coming back to Iravati Karve’s question, in contrast to Puru who gains a kingdom and becomes the vamsha-vardhaka, the progenitor of the race, what does Bhishma gain by the great sacrifice he makes? True, the gods shower flowers upon him at the moment of his vow. True, the world calls him Bhishma from that moment on. But apart from that? The answer is: futility, emptiness, frustration and lifelong suffering.

Well, he did get one solid thing from his father, points out Karve: icchamrtyu, the power to choose the time of his death. However, the author clarifies this: what he wins in return for his sacrifice is avadhyata, not ajeyata – he cannot be killed by others, but it does not mean that he cannot be defeated. And avadhyata can be a curse at times, and it mostly is: through that privilege Bhishma lost the blessing of being killed on the spot in a battle, which privilege all kshatriyas had.

Karve observes that perhaps Bhishma got carried away by his own oath as a man who falls into a mighty river gets carried away helplessly by its torrent.

How true Karve’s observation is proved by words in which he refuses Satyavati’s subsequent request to break his vows, occupy the throne of Hastinapura, and marry and beget children. Satyavati makes that request because his vows had by then become meaningless. His vows were taken so that Satyavati’s children could inherit the Bharata throne, but her husband and children were now dead and the Bharata throne itself had become without a master. This is what Bhishma says in answer to the request of his widowed step mother:

“I shall give up the three worlds, I shall give up the empire of the gods, and if there is anything greater than these, I shall give up that too – but I will not give up my truth. The five elements may give up their nature, earth the fragrance it exudes, water the taste it brings, light the forms it reveals, air the sense of touch and space its capacity for sound. The sun may give up its splendour, the moon its coolness, Indra his valour and the lord of justice, justice itself – but I will not give up my truth. Let the world end in dissolution, let everything go up in flames – but I shall not give up my truth. Immortality holds no temptations for me, nor does overlordship of the three worlds.”

True, one should keep one’s vows. But at what cost? And when they have become totally meaningless? When keeping the vow defeats the very purpose for which it is taken rather than breaking it? And when the person for whose sake you took that vow requests it?

Iravati Karve is absolutely right in arguing that Bhishma is like a man fallen into a river. As I observe elsewhere [Krishna: A Study in Transformational Leadership – Bhishma becomes obsessed with his vows and gets helplessly carried away by them. He becomes narcissistic and lives trapped in his own self-image. In Karve’s words, he has become intoxicated with his vow, drunk on it.

The essay also questions the sincerity of Bhishma’s commitment to the throne of Hastinapura because of which he stood by it through thick and thin, eventually leading its army against the Pandavas whom he believed to be virtuous, competent and the rightful heirs to the throne of Hastinapura. She uses Bhishma’s refusal to break his vow and occupy the throne and beget children to question the sincerity of his commitment. If he had such intense love for the family of the Kurus, she asks, why did he not break his vows and accept Satyavati’s request?

Karve sees a dual purpose in Bhishma’s immediate acceptance of the position of the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army when Duryodhana requests him – that is, a dual purpose apart from his possible desire to lead such a mighty army as that of Duryodhana. One, to keep Karna away from Duryodhana’s side, which Bhishma knew he would so long as he was fighting, and thus weaken Duryodhana; and two, to persuade Duryodhana to give the war even at that stage by frustrating his victory through dilly-dallying, which, through an analysis of the battle of the first ten days, the author argues he did.


While Karve’s essay on Bhishma is brilliant on the whole, there are details and observations she makes with which one has to disagree, some of minor importance and others quite significant.

For instance, speaking of Vyasa’s niyoga with the wives of Vichitravirya, the author refers to the third queen learning that Vyasa [‘a terrifying brahmana’] is going to come to her and sending her maid to him. As we all know, there is no third queen – there are only Ambika and Ambalika. And the Mahabharata is quite specific about who was asked to receive the sage again in her bed after Ambalika gave birth to Pandu: Ambika, the elder of the two queens – jyeshṭhām vadhūm.

Karve talks of Bhishma getting Kunti to wed Pandu, sort of against her will. The expression she uses in the Hindi version is ‘gale bāndh diya’, clearly meaning it was not according to her wish. She then argues that this was an injustice done to Kunti because Pandu was incapable of intimacy with women. She asks how much her soul must have cursed Bhishma for this.

The facts are however different. Though there is a discussion between Bhishma and Vidura in which Bhishma talks of getting Kunti as a wife for Pandu, the Mahabharata tells us that it is in a swayamvara that she chooses him from an assembly of several princes, all on her own accord, and impressed by him. The critical edition is brief here, though that too says she chose him in the swayamvara:

rūpasattvagunopetā dharmārāmā mahāvratā
duhitā kuntibhojasya krte pitrā svayamvare
simhadamshtram gajaskandham rshabhāksham mahābalam
bhūmipālasahasrānām madhye pāndum avindata

Pandu, according to the critical edition verse quoted above, is elephant-shouldered, has the eyes of a bull, and is mighty powerful. [A slight aside: The critical edition, praising Pandu here, says he had the fangs of a lion – simhadamshtra. Very unlikely. Another case of the critical edition getting it wrong. The Gita Press edition has it right: simhadarpa – with the pride of a lion. Even the expression gajaskandha, elephant-shouldered, is strained. The Gita Press’s mahoraska in its place is beautiful] And Kunti wins [chooses] him from among thousands of kings in her swayamvara.

The Gita Press edition of the epic describes the swayamvara in greater detail. It describes how she sees him, the best of the Bharatas [bharatasattamam] in the assembly of princes, looking like a tiger among kings [rājashārdūla], with the pride of a lion, a powerful chest [mahoraska], the [intoxicated] eyes of a bull and mighty strong. Like the sun that eclipses all other celestial luminaries when it rises, he eclipsed all other kings with his glory. Seated in the assembly, he looks like a second Indra and seeing him, Kunti, every limb of hers tormented by longing [kāmaparītāngi], loses all control over her mind [prachalamānasā] and her heart becomes wildly disconcerted [hrdayena ākulā]. That is how she chooses Pandu from among the men in the assembly. Karve’s saying that Bhishma forced her upon Pandu [against her wish], thus earning her heart’s curses, does not agree with the reality of the epic at all.

Also, Karve implies that Bhishma knew Pandu was impotent when he got Kunti and Madri married to him. The epic states, though, that Pandu receives the curse that makes him impotent while he was living in the jungle with his two wives. He had left his kingdom to his brother Dhritarashtra, for whatever reasons, and had gone to live in the jungle and it is there that he comes across sage Kindama having sex in the form of a deer and kills him while the sage is in the middle of the act and receives his curse that he cannot have sex with his wife and if he did, he would die.

In an article of mine [The Puzzle of Pandu; I have argued that Pandu’s impotency is unlikely to be the result of the curse but is psychological and has much earlier origins. However, in all probability, Bhishma had no clue of this and to imply that he got two wives for Pandu in spite of knowing he was impotent is definitely wrong.


Karve argues that people of Bhishma’s day did not approve his action of carrying away the three Kashi princesses, Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, from their swayamvara hall. She sites Shishupala’s words in the Rajasooya hall as a proof for this. Well, when Shishupala abuses Bhishme in the Rajasooya hall, he is fuming in hatred at Bhishma and Krishna and if we take his words to be true or representative of the general feeling of the people, both Krishna and Bhishma would me the most hated people of the age. The fact is just the reverse. And definitely so in the case of Bhishma – even when Krishna was controversial, Bhishma commanded universal respect in his age.

As for carrying the princesses away from their swayamvara, this was a perfectly respectable custom among the kshatriyas of the day. We must remember here that Bhishma does not just come there, snatch them and run away. He stands there and explains precisely what he is going to do and challenges the assembled princesses to stop him if they can. As Amba says later after she was rejected by Shalva, her swayamvara was not an ordinary one but one that required the suitor to prove his valour and claim her and her sisters – they were viryashulkas, their ‘bride price’ was valour. And as Bhishma himself explains in the assembly of kings, of the eight types of marriages practised in the land, what was considered the most desirable for a kshatriya was swayamvara and even among swayamvaras, what was considered superior by the virtuous was carrying away the bride/s after defeating the other kshatriyas through valour:

svayamvaram tu rājanyāh praśamsanti upayānti ca
pramathya tu hrtām āhuh jyāyasīm dharmavādinah.

Elsewhere Bhishma says, he went there after hearing they were to be won over through valour: vīryaśulkāśca tā jñātvā.

He challenges them repeatedly, announcing himself by name and informing them again and again that he is going to carry them away: bhīshmah śantanavah kanyā haratīti punah punah.

I do not think the people of the day considered this action of Bhishma evil. No, what he did was the most respectable thing for a warrior hero in his days.

Incidentally, even in his insane criticism of Bhishma, Shishupala does not accuse him of abducting the princesses for another person [for his half brother and not for himself]. Apparently there was nothing wrong with it according to the rules of the times. What Shishupala finds fault with Bhishma is for abducting a princess who was anyakāmā – who desired another man. He is referring exclusively to Amba.

Karve also makes Shishupala say that the whole world knew that Amba had chosen/married Shalva. In the Hindi text, Shishupala tells Bhishma: “ambā ne śālva kā varan kiyā thā. sārī duniyā is bāt ko jāntī thī. phir bhī tum ne uskā haran kar lāye.” The English text is: “Though it was known to all that Amba had been promised to Shalva, you abducted her.”

Well, here again Karve is wrong. This is how the passage she is referring to appears in the Mahabharata:

anyakāmā hi dharmajña kanyakā prājnamāninā
ambā nāmeti bhadram te katham sāpahrtā tvayi

Translated, this means: How was it that you, who think you know dharma, carried away the virtuous maiden called Amba who desired another man?

Unlike what Karve says, Shishupala does not say anywhere that the whole world knew Amba had chosen or married Shalva. All he says is she was anyakñmñ – desired, and/or was desired by, another man. In the Mahabharata, what happened between Amba and Shalva before she was abducted by Bhishma was their own secret. Amba herself says her love for Shalva and Shalva’s love for her was their secret – even their father did not know that. Even in her most furious moments, Amba does not accuse Bhishma of carrying her away knowing that she belonged to another. True, this is the version of the story that Bhishma tells on the eve of the Mahabharata war, explaining why he will not fight Shikhandi, who is a reincarnation of Amba. In spite of this, however, there is no indication anywhere in the Mahabharata that it was public knowledge [sārī duniyā is bāt ko jāntī thī. – it was public knowledge.] that Amba had chosen/married Shalva.

Apart from putting the words ‘the whole world knew Amba had chosen/married Shalva’ into the mouth of Shishupala, the author in her own words asserts this soon after: ‘ambā man se śālva ki thi jānte hue bhi bhīshma use rath mein baithākar kyon lāyā?” [Despite knowing that Amba in her heart belonged to Shalva, why did Bhishma carry her away in the chariot?]


According to Iravati Karve, the reason why other men of the Kuru family were not considered for the niyoga with Ambika is that choosing another male from the royal family would have given that person the position of the father of the future king and much power would have gone into his hands – and away from Bhishma’s hands. So, she says, it occurred to Satyavati and Bhishma that someone unrelated to the royal family of the Kurus would be the ideal choice.

Was Bhishma so power-greedy, like a modern politician? Was the choice made so that Bhishma’s power would not be reduced?

While that certainly is not impossible, I feel a different possibility. The choice, once Bhishma rejected the honour, was made not on the basis of whom to avoid, but on the basis of whom to select. Vyasa, the person chosen was not exactly some ‘forest-dwelling brahmana’, but Satyavati’s own son. And it is Satyavati who suggests his name when Bhishma puts forward the suggestion that the niyoga be performed by some noble brahmana.

We know that when Shantanu wanted to marry Satyavati, then commonly known as Kali, her father Dasharaja insisted that the marriage would take place only if a promise was made that the son born to her would inherit Shantanu’s throne. Going beyond this, he also looked into the possibility that if Bhishma married, his sons born in the future might make claims over the throne. To avoid this possibility, Bhishma takes his two well known vows: one, giving up his claim over the throne, and the other, forswearing sex and becoming a lifelong celibate. We generallynassume these were the conditions that Dasharaja set, and Kali Satyavati had nothing to do with them.

How true is this? Couldn’t Dasharaja have been expressing Kali’s desires and making demands on her behalf? From what we know of Kali, she was a hard bargainer. When Parashara, Vyasa’s father, saw her and desired her, she does not give herself to him straight away, but sets conditions before him. True, we do not see in the Mahabharata her setting these conditions – her story is told very briefly there. However, if we go by the Devi Bhagavata Purana, first she ridicules him for being obsessed with her, a fish-smelling girl, whose fowl smell spread for miles around. “Do I not disgust you,” she asks him. The sage’s response is to turn her fish smell into the fragrance of musk. Then she objects to making love in the day light. The sage creates a mist and through it, darkness. Then she objects to making love while they are in the river – she was ferrying him across the Yamuna. Parashara agrees to wait until they reach the other bank. She then takes from him the promise that her father [and other people] do not come to know of what they are going to do, and the boon that she will retain her virginity even after intercourse. It is only then she gives herself to him

Couldn’t this Kali-Satyavati have been the one who demanded all those vows from Shantanu and young Satyavrata? Couldn’t her father Dasharaja have been merely expressing her wishes? Isn’t it possible that it was Kali who was really power hungry and not Dasharaja?

I believe it is quite possible that Satyavati had a hunger for power. Perhaps in her there was the power hunger of a princess brought up as a fishergirl and it is that hunger that made her bargain with Shantanu and Satyavarata [Bhishma] in the beginning. And it is perhaps the same power hunger, once she finds an opportunity, that made her choose her son Vyasa as the man to perform niyoga with her daughters-in-law. That way she could make sure that it is her blood that inherits the throne. It would be the same, from her standpoint, as Chitrangada’s or Vichitravirya’s son occupying the throne. All three are equally her sons.

It is very possible that it was quite innocently that Bhishma suggested that the niyoga be done with a brahmana. It is very possible that Satyavati pounced on this opportunity and decided to have it done with her son Vyasa.


A very minor thing. Karve sees Kunti as ‘kafi moti tagdi” – quite hefty and fat, implying unattractiveness. But that is not how the Mahabharata sees her. She gives the impression of being a strong woman, but that is because of her great inner strength. Otherwise, the epic describes her as irresistibly beautiful. Here are a few descriptions of her physical beauty from the verses dealing with her swayamvara: prthulalocanā, with large eyes, which in India have always been a sign of beauty; tejaswinī – lustrous; rupayauvanaśālini – endowed with beauty and youth. Other words used to describe her are adbhutadarśanā, wondrous to look at, subhagā, auspicious one, and tanumadhyamā, slender-waisted. She is far from being ‘kafi moti tagdi’. [To Karve’s credit, in the English version, done by herself, she alters this and says that “she was apparently a large, big-boned girl.” Perhaps she was, who knows, though the Mahabharata says nothing like that.]


One of the most interesting questions Karve asks in her essay is why Bhishma chose to accept the position of the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. Why did he not decide to go to the forest and spend his old days there, when his stepmother did? Or if not then, at least why did he not go on a pilgrimage on the eve of the war, as Balarama did, since his heart too was divided? Karve’s answer is interesting: Bhishma accepted the position of the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army so that he could slow down the war in the hope of the war being called off by Duryodhana seeing that he was not winning. Karve also sees a second reason behind his acceptance of the postion: to keep Karna away from battling for Duryodhana so long as he lived.

In the context of this discussion, Karve makes this fascinating observation. Talking of Duryodhana’s offer of the position of the commander-in-chief of his army to Bhishma, the author says: Pandavon ne use kulvrddh hone ka jo gaurav nahin diya, us ki khaanapoori duryodhan ne ki. Duryodhana gave him the respect that was his due as the eldest of the kula, which the Pandavas did not give him. She is referring to the Pandavas not offering him the agrapuja during the rajasuya, as the English text makes clear: “the honor which had been denied to him by the Pandavas at the sacrifice.”

When you think of it, it is rather strange that the Pandavas did not do it. He was the eldest of the Kuru family [Bahlika was there, but he was not a dominant figure.] His reputation as an indomitable warrior was great – even the redoubtable Parashurama, his guru, had not been able to defeat him in battle. He was learned in every branch of knowledge and he commanded great respect for his integrity. In every sense of the word, Bhishma was a living legend. Besides, the Pandavas were very close to his heart, and they themselves held him in great reverence and were indebted to him for so many things. He seems to be the natural choice. I doubt if the thought of the agrapuja being offered to Krishna had come to anyone’s mind before Bhishma suggested it. Yet when it comes to the agrapuja, the Pandavas do not offer it to him. Instead, Yudhishthira asks the grandsire to whom it should be offered.

After Bhishma’s fall in the war, when time comes for the next commander-in-chief to be appointed, Duryodhana does a very clever thing. Rather than straight away making Drona the next commander-in-chief, he asks Karna, who is the other claimant to the position, who should be given that position. Asked thus, even if Karna desired that position and felt he was the best choice, it becomes rather delicate for him to do say so. He suggests that Drona be given that position and Duryodhana happily does so.

It is perhaps the same thing happening here. Rather than offering the puja to Bhishma, Yudhishthira goes and asks him who should be given the position. Bhishma naturally does not claim it for himself but suggests Krishna’s name. Was Yudhishthira deliberately denying that honour to Bhishma through that question? Was Bhishma’s ready acceptance of the position of the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army at least partly influenced by Yudhishthira’s not giving him the honour that was his due? I think there is a strong possibility of this being so, as Karve suggests.

Karve’s discussion on the age of Bhishma is one of the most conservative and clear I have come across. She argues that Bhishma should be at least ninety-two and possibly one hundred and two at the time of the war. In her discussion though, she forgets to add some years. After being appointed yuvaraja, Devavrata remains as the crown prince for four years [varshāni chatvāri]. The epic tells as that the battle between the two Chitrangadas lasted three years. These years are not added to her calculation.

According to Karve, at the time when he carried away the Kashi princesses from their swayamvara hall, Bhishma must be a minimum of thirty-four years old. Well, in the context of the swayamvara, the Mahabharata uses the word ‘vrddha’ meaning an old man to describe him three times in three consecutive verses and in the third verse it describes him as valīpalitadhāranah – his skin is wrinkled from age and his hair is white. The princesses take one look at him, and they turn around and run away seeing how old he is. This is hardly the description of a thirty-four year old royal warrior. There is no question of premature aging in the case of Bhishma – his health was perfect until his last days.

There are more years that Karve fails to add. She says Vichitraveerya died soon immediately after his marriage. The Mahabharata tells us that he lives a life of indulgence with his two wives for seven years [tābhyām saha samāh sapta viharan] after which he falls sick. Attempts are made to cure him through all known means, which too must have taken time.

She gives one year gap between Bhima and Arjuna – the Mahabharata mentions at least two years. Of course that does not make much difference in calculating Bhishma’s age. But she also mentions Arjuna must have been at least sixteen years of age at the time of his marriage with Draupadi. Well, he has completed his studies in the meantime, completed a digvijaya while Yudhishthira was the crown prince [this maybe an interpolation], and, after the house of lac was set fire to, lived in the jungle for some while. Sixteen seems too less. Also, there is a passage [again possibly an interpolation] which very specifically mentions that Pandu died on Arjuna’s sixteenth birthday – while the birthday celebrations were going on, while Kunti was busy serving meals to the invited brahmanas, Pandu takes Madri with him to the jungle and there meets with his death. If Pandu’s death happens when Arjuna is sixteen, then all the incidents mentioned earlier are subsequent to this, making Arjuna much older at the time of his marriage.

Of course, between ninety-two and one hundred and two is very old indeed and adding up all these years to that will make Bhishma impossibly old. Perhaps Karve was right in trying to arrive at a conservative estimate, though the epic differs from the figures she gives.


These problems are there with Yuganta. But in spite of all these, I want to repeat, Karve’s study is brilliant and extremely valuable. The stand she takes for looking at the epic story is thoroughly rational and boldly independent and her analytical powers are admirably superb.


About Rachel

I am who I am

Posted on March 2, 2012, in Mahabharata. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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