Bhishma Parva describes the first 10 days of the 18-day Kurukshetra War, and its consequences. It recites the story of Bhishma, the commander in chief of the Kaurava armies, who is fatally injured and can no longer lead as the commander.
This book of Mahabharata includes the widely studied Bhagavad gita, sometimes referred to as Gita, or The Song of the Lord, or The Celestial Song. Bhagavadgita chapters describe Arjuna's questioning the purpose of war, ultimate effects of violence and the meaning of life. Arjuna's doubts and metaphysical questions are answered by Krishna. Other treatises in Bhishma parva include the Just war theory in ancient India, as well as strategies of war and troop deployment.
Structure and chapters
- 1. Jamvu - khanda Vinirmana Parva (chapters 1 - 10)
- The parva begins with a meeting of two sides where the rules of war are agreed. Rishi Veda Vyasa, the grandfather to both Kauravas and Pandavas, offers a blessing to Dhritarashtra - who is blind - in the form of the gift of sight, so he can see the tragedy unfolding ahead. Dhritarashtra declines the offer, claiming he does not want to witness the slaughter of his family and friends. Vyasa grants the blessing to Sanjaya to see anyone and everyone, anywhere, while the war is in progress and describe the war to Dhritarashtra. Vyasa then makes a final attempt to Dhritarashtra to seek peace and avoid the war. King Dhritarashtra confides that his sons do not listen to him or obey him. Vyasa counsels war is evil, victory in war is uncertain, only sorrow and slaughter on all sides is certain no matter who wins. Dhritarashtra, aware of Sanjaya's special powers to see the world, asks him about the visible world. Sanjaya describes the sights of world to him. He describes the world near him, as well as far of places in north, south, east and west, everywhere with beautiful people, of forests, fruits and birds, of moon and planets that appear with stars at night. The description makes Dhritarashtra sad that his sons are choosing war, rather than a negotiated peace.
- 2. Bhumi Parva (chapters 11 - 12)
- Sanjaya continues to describe the world. He mentions island nations, nations without kings, lands with white people, black people, mixed race people, celestial gems, ocean of milk and ghee. Then he describes the planets seen at night, why they are believed to be globes, that light-giving sun too is a very large sphere according to calculations of Arka, eclipses occur when planets temporary cover the sun or moon. Such is the merit of the world we live in, says Sanjaya.
- 3. Bhagavad Gita Parva (chapters 13 - 42)
- On the 1st day of war, Sanjaya announces to Dhritarashtra that the commander in chief of Kauravas, Bhishma is dead. Dhritarashtra is shocked. He asks for the details of war over the ten days. Sanjaya describes how Bhishma marshaled the Kaurava army by declaring, "to die at home is a waste of life, a chance to die in battle for a cause is the highest honor a man can have." Arjuna described the Kaurava army as one with 100,000 elephants trained for war, 10 million chariots, 1 billion horsemen, 10 billion archers, 100 billion soldiers with sword and shields. Learning about this vast army of cosmic proportions, Yudhishthira is in grief. Arjuna reminds him that victory ultimately comes to the side of right.
- Arjuna asks Krishna, his charioteer, to bring the chariot between the two assembled armies, to see who were assembled to fight. He sees friends, families and human beings on both sides of the war. Introspective Arjuna wonders if their cause justifies war, bloodbath. War only kills, it arouses only hate among kindreds and human beings. Arjuna tells Krishna, "I seek neither victory nor a kingdom." Arjuna doubts whether war is ever justified. To Arjuna's doubts, Krishna gives various answers. These answers range from nature of life to demands of justice, to three paths of liberated and free life, to human duty, and are collectively called the Bhagavad Gita.
- Arjuna is not alone in his grief and introspection. Just before the war, Yudhishthira too takes off his armour, comes off his chariot, and with namaste (pressed hands) walks over to the enemy side. His brothers amazed by his act, join him and walk across the line of war. These Pandavas without battle armor meet and bow before Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and others - seek their permission to fight them, to death. Bhishma, moved by this humane action, says he admires their sense of humanity, and wishes them victory. Other generals of the enemy are equally moved. With choked voices and tears, soldiers of both sides cheer the Pandava brothers for their namaste and exhibition of respect for the human beings on the side of the enemy. Yudhishthira and Pandava brothers return to their side. The conches blare the start of war. The war begins.
- 4. Bhishma-vadha Parva (chapters 43 - 124)
- On the first day, flying arrows cover the sky and a cloud of dust obscures the sun. The twang of bowstrings and battle cries of two sides creates a tempest of sound. Abhimanyu engages Bhishma, a battle that ends in draw for the day; Uttara engages Salya, Uttara dies but cripples Salya chariot; Sweta kills hundreds of princes fighting for the Kauravas. Bhishma kills Sweta, and numerous soldiers fighting for the Pandavas. The conches and drums blare to mark the end of that day's war. Hostilities end for the first day, to be continued the next day, and each side retires for the night. On second day, conches blare the restart of war. Arjuna and Bhishma battle each other to a draw. But thousands of others die. The king of Kalingas, is slain by Bhima. The king of Nishadas fighting for the Kauravas is killed. At sunset, hostilities are suspended, both sides retire. On the third day, so many Kuru and Pandava soldiers are killed that a streams of blood flow on the battlefield. On the fourth day, Bhima kills eight of hundred Kaurava brothers, shocking Duryodhana.
- This sub-parva describes the various days of war through the 10th day. By the end of 9th day, the war has slaughtered over 100 million people and many key personalities of the Epic. Each night, either Duryodhana or Yudhishthira are depressed with massive losses of their men, or key generals. Bhishma makes multiple attempts to be killed by Krishna, as he knows Krishna is a reincarnation of Vishnu, and death at Krishna's hands will release him into heaven. But Arjuna prevents this from happening, because Krishna has promised not to fight, only drive Arjuna's chariot. Embedded in the parva are treatises on war - various ways to arrange and advance army, various forms of attack and defense, and war logistics. The parva also describes the efforts by Pandavas and Bhishma to a negotiated peace, even while war was in progress. These efforts fail.
- At night, after the 9th day of war, the Pandavas discuss ways to kill Bhishma - the commander-in-chief of Kauravas. They can't figure it out, so they decide to ask Bhishma. They approach his tent, unarmed. Bhishma welcomes them. He says he would welcome being killed, but continues to battle because he is a trained warrior. Bhishma suggests that Pandavas should place Sikhandi in front of Arjuna, as he has taken an oath to never fight Sikhandi; they should then destroy his weapons, only then can they kill him. On 10th day, that is what Pandavas do. Everyone attacked Bhishma, but Bhishma did nothing because in front he could see Sikhandi. Soon he was fatally injured and his body so full of deadly arrows that when he fell to the ground, his body floated above a bed of arrows. When he fell, both sides stopped fighting. Everyone standing on the battlefield bowed their head and paid tribute to Bhishma. As he slipped into death, surgeons rushed to give him medical help, but Bhishma refused medical care. He called Duryodhana and made another appeal to stop the war, enter into peace negotiations. Duryodhana refused. Karna, who had taken an oath not to fight till Bhishma is alive and a general, meets Bhishma to pay homage and to seek forgiveness for his past errors. Bhishma receives Karna kindly, pardons him with affectionate words, then urges that Karna should not fight the war on Kauravas side because they are wrong and unjust; Bhishma recommends Karna to fight on the side of his step brothers Pandavas because they are on the side of truth and justice. Karna refuses to accept the advice of dying Bhishma.
Bhishma Parva was composed in Sanskrit. Several translations of the book in English are available. Two translations from 19th century, now in public domain, are those by Kisari Mohan Ganguli and Manmatha Nath Dutt. The translations vary with each translator's interpretations.
Clay Sanskrit Library has published a 15 volume set of the Mahabharata which includes a translation of Bhishma Parva by Alex Cherniak. This translation is modern and uses an old manuscript of the Epic. The translation does not remove verses and chapters now widely believed to be spurious and smuggled into the Epic in 1st or 2nd millennium AD.
J. A. B. van Buitenen has published an annotated edition of Bhagvadgita from Bhishma Parva, based on critically edited and least corrupted version of Mahabharata known in 1980. Debroy, in 2011, notes that updated critical edition of Bhishma Parva, with so far known spurious and corrupted text removed, has 4 sub-books, 117 adhyayas (chapters) and 5,381 shlokas (verses). Debroy's translated version of the critical edition of Bhishma Parva appeared in Volume 5 of his series.
Just war theory
The Jamvukhanda Vinirmana sub-parva of Bhishma parva is one of the several instances in the Mahabharata that provides an outline of just war theory in ancient India. Book 12 (Shanti Parva) is another instance of a significant discussion of just war theory and principles of proportionate punishment.
Before the first day of war, the Kurus, the Pandavas and the Somakas meet and agree on rules of war. Some examples of the agreed rules were:
- Fairness - Every battle must be fair. Only armed and fighting soldiers can be attacked.
- Proportional and equitable response - those who fight with words, should be fought with words; chariot warriors should fight chariot warriors, horse man with horse man. Disproportionate weapons to cause suffering or slaughter shall not be used.
- Enemy soldier that surrenders should not be treated with violence, but treated with kindness and respect.
- Disarmed, injured enemy should be helped, not attacked nor killed.
- Logistical staff such as those who play on drums or conch to announce the daily start or stop of war, or those that bring food or equipment, must not be attacked nor injured.
Chapters 25 through 40 of Bhishma parva present the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. Arjuna sees family, friends and good human beings on both sides of the war. He does not want to kill. Arjuna argues that gaining a kingdom with stain of blood is a tragedy. He asks Krishna, why fight? Krishna's answer are in several parts:
- Krishna starts with a foundation of Samkhya philosophy - the mystery of knowing Self. He says, one must distinguish between the real and unreal, the Self that is permanent and universal from the body that is temporary and fleeting. One's action should serve the cause of the permanent Self, not the temporary body. In a war motivated by just cause, virtue and ideas, the permanent Self is at stake and what one fights for.
- Krishna next presents a summary of Yoga philosophy - the mystery of living in Self, as a free and liberated person. One must be free, claims Krishna, from the pairs of opposite extremes (heat and cold, pain and pleasure, anxiety and craving). One must act for the goodness innate in that action, not because one craves for the fruit of the action, or is angry, or is fearful.
- Krishna says there are three paths to liberation, moksha: Jnana yoga, Karma yoga and Dhyana yoga. Jnana, claims he, is knowledge. Karma is action. Dhyana is meditation. By fighting a just war, to the best of his abilities, without craving about the outcome, Arjuna would be performing Karma yoga.
- In Chapter 29, Krishna claims pursuit of action is superior than renunciation of action, though both lead to knowledge and liberation. Chapters 31-34 discuss bhakti as the path for spiritual emancipation.
Quotations and teachings
Jamvukhanda Vinirmana Parva, Chapter 3:
Men lose good judgment in things which concern their interest.
Jamvukhanda Vinirmana Parva, Chapter 3:
Success that is obtained by negotiations and other means is the best.
Success which is secured by creating disunion amongst the enemy is temporary.
Success secured by battle is the worst.
There are many evils in battle: the first and the foremost is slaughter.
Victory is always uncertain. It depends on chance. Even those that obtain victory have to suffer losses.
Jamvukhanda Vinirmana Parva, Chapter 4:
Everything rises from the earth and when destroyed everything goes into her. The earth is the stay and the refuge of all creatures. The earth is eternal.
Jamvukhanda Vinirmana Parva, Chapter 9:
If the resources of the earth are properly developed, she is then like an all-yielding cow, from which the threefold objects of Dharma, Artha and Kama might be milked. With the desire of enjoying the earth, men have become like dogs that snatch meat from one another.
Bhagavat Gita Parva, Chapter 15:
The man who suffers evil for his own misconduct should not attribute it to others.
Bhagavat Gita Parva, Chapter 21:
They that are desirous of victory do not so much conquer by might and prowess, as by truth, compassion, piety and virtue. Fight without any arrogance, for victory is certain to be there where righteousness is.
Bhagavat Gita Parva, Chapter 26:
It is better for one to live on alms than to kill.
Bhagavat Gita Parva, Chapter 26:
One sees it as a wonder, another speaks of it as a wonder, others again hear of it as a wonder; but even hearing of it, no one understands it. This indestructible embodied Self, O Bharata, is in the bodies of everyone.
Bhagavat Gita Parva, Chapter 26:
The self-controlled man attains peace.
Peace destroys all miseries. A mind that has attained peace becomes steady.
The man who casts off all desires, is free from attachments, from cravings for things and pride attains peace.
Bhagavat Gita Parva, Chapter 40:
Fearlessness, purity of heart, perseverance, yoga meditation, charity, self restraint, study of the Vedas, uprightness,
ahimsa, truth, freedom from anger, freedom from fault finding in others, renunciation, tranquility, compassion, absence of covetousness,
gentleness, modesty, vigor, forgiveness, firmness, cleanliness, absence of quarrelsomeness, freedom from vanity,
O Bharata, all these belong to him who is god-like.
- Flood, Gavin (1996), An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-43878-0
- Hiltebeitel, Alf (1990), The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata, SUNY Press, ISBN 978-0791402504
- J. A. B. van Buitenen (Translator), The Mahabharata, Volume 3, 1978, ISBN 978-0226846651, University of Chicago Press
- Bhishma Parva The Mahabharata, Translated by Manmatha Nath Dutt (1897)
- Bhishma Parva The Mahabharata, Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, Published by P.C. Roy (1887)
- M.N. Dutt, A Prose English Translation Of The Mahabharata - Bhishma and Karna Parva, ISBN 978-1163291269, Kessinger Publishing
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- Bhaktivedanta & Prabhupada (1968), Bhagavad-Gita as it is, Collier Books, ISBN 978-0892131341
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- Bibek Debroy, The Mahabharata : Volume 3, ISBN 978-0143100157, Penguin Books, page xxiii - xxiv of Introduction
- Bibek Debroy (2012), The Mahabharata, Volume 5, Penguin, ISBN 978-0143100171, Bhishma Parva
- Manmatha Nath Dutt (1897), Bhishma Parva Virata Parva, The Mahabharata, Elysium Press, page 5
- Manmatha Nath Dutt (1897), Bhishma Parva Virata Parva, The Mahabharata, Elysium Press, page 6
- Manmatha Nath Dutt (1897), Bhishma Parva Virata Parva, The Mahabharata, Elysium Press, page 7
- Manmatha Nath Dutt (1897), Bhishma Parva Virata Parva, The Mahabharata, Elysium Press, page 14
- Manmatha Nath Dutt (1897), Bhishma Parva Virata Parva, The Mahabharata, Elysium Press, page 21
- Manmatha Nath Dutt (1897), Bhishma Parva Virata Parva, The Mahabharata, Elysium Press, page 28
- Manmatha Nath Dutt (1897), Bhishma Parva Virata Parva, The Mahabharata, Elysium Press, page 32
- Manmatha Nath Dutt (1897), Bhishma Parva Virata Parva, The Mahabharata, Elysium Press, page 35 Abridged
- Manmatha Nath Dutt (1897), Bhishma Parva Virata Parva, The Mahabharata, Elysium Press, page 53 Abridged