Vibhishana and Bhishma (born Devavrata) are two characters much discussed by commentators and the people at large in India alike. One has been reviled in public culture to the extent that it might be difficult to find anyone naming their child Vibhishana. On the other hand, Bhishma has been held as an exemplar of commitment and sacrifice, a figure to look up to. But does this conception stem from our parochial, family-centric tribalism, or does it stand the test of dharma?
In the backdrop of Ramayana and Srimadbhagavadgita, the attitude and actions of the Vishnu avatara towards these two figures suggest otherwise. And since both Rama and Krishna were dharmadhwajarakshaka (custodians of the morality of a given epoch), it’s very likely that the popular notions might not be the correct one.
Vibhishana went against his king, his own brother, and joined forces with a perceived enemy of his nation, to protect the honour and dignity of a woman. As a result of his ‘betrayal’, he ended up saving the Rakshasa race from being eliminated (against Rama’s pledge to vanquish the entire race), and Rama made him a Chiranjeevi, something Ravana was after but could not get. In fact, the Rakshasa race was flourishing and prosperous under Vibhishana when Bheema visits Lanka after the Kurukshetra war in Dvapara Yuga. Rakshasa warriors like Alambusha and Ghatotkacha were some of the deadliest in the Mahabharata, despite the fact that both the sides had humans liberally using divyastras (celestial weapons).
Bhishma, on the other hand, had found his own honour and pledge as a convenient shade to hide whenever responsibility knocked at his door. He hid behind the pledge of celibacy and protection of Hastinapur’s throne at every crucial juncture when the situation demanded that he steps up and takes the reins of the situation in his control. When both his stepbrothers died childless and his stepmother Satyavati asked him to marry the widows and assume the throne, when she begged him to at least produce children from her via niyoga so that the Kuru lineage does not end, he did not budge. He did not relent even when he was a silent witness to Kauravas’ increasingly demented transgressions, from poisoning child Bhima, the Lakshagraha assassination attempt, Draupadi’s illegal enslavement aka vastraharana in dyutakrida (ancient game of dice), etc.
In the end, he failed to protect even the throne, with which he was obsessed. Krishna made him lie in the middle of the battlefield and watch as the throne and the lineage were obliterated at the hands of God and Bhishma’s favourite grandson Arjuna.
Why did this happen? What was the difference?
Vibhishana refused to serve someone inferior in dharma, and surrendered himself to the service of the higher consciousness. Bhishma chose to serve lesser men, instead, and their adharmic actions and policies — all in name of keeping his pledge, and citing his duty to protect the pledge. The pledge became bigger than him, the sole lens through which he judged everything. He imposed the burden of his celibacy on everyone else. Also, his pride in the ‘service to the throne’ (nationalism of that day and age) became a hurdle in his mental and spiritual judgement, preventing any introspection on his part.
Bhishma mistook duty for dharma. About the conflation of the two, wrote thus Sri Aurobindo, who is said to be guided by Krishna himself on his spiritual path.
An inner situation may even arise, as with the Buddha, in which all duties have to be abandoned, trampled on, flung aside in order to follow the call of the Divine within. I cannot think that the Gita would solve such an inner situation by sending Buddha back to his wife and father and the government of the Sakya State, or would direct a Ramakrishna to become a Pundit in a vernacular school and disinterestedly teach little boys their lessons, or bind down a Vivekananda to support his family and for that to follow dispassionately the law or medicine or journalism. The Gita does not teach the disinterested performance of duties but the following of the divine life, the abandonment of all dharmas, sarvadharm¯an, to take refuge in the Supreme alone, and the divine activity of a Buddha, a Ramakrishna, a Vivekananda is perfectly in consonance with this teaching. Nay, although the Gita prefers action to inaction, it does not rule out the renunciation of works but accepts it as one of the ways to the Divine. If that can only be attained by renouncing works and life and all duties and the call is strong within us, then into the bonfire they must go, and there is no help for it. The call of God is imperative and cannot be weighed against any other considerations.”
— Essays on Gita, Sri Aurobindo (Essay Title: The Core of the Teaching)
Even a selfless vow not in service of dharma is asuric to the core, in that it exists in a silo of its own and does not factor the externalities it creates in its pursuit of supremacy — much like an asura. Even if it’s a vow of dharmic virtues like service and celibacy. Herein comes ātmavichāra — revisiting and examining one’s personal ideas and dogmas. Bhishma was 116 when he died. He did not find it necessary to test the merits of a vow he had taken at 16. It’s something we, as a nation, refused to do too; we obstinately refuse a re-examination of dogmas of someone who became a political zeitgeist of convenience since 1920. Spiritual progress does not guarantee right action automatically, ātmavichāra does. Both Vibhishana and Bhishma recognised the avatar, and knew in their conscience where dharma was. But one dropped his dogmas and transformed his being accordingly, the other did not.
Vishnu, by his own conduct in both the avatars, placed dharma over personal pledges. Rama, despite avowing to destroy asuras root-and-branch, dropped the idea when he found Vibhishana ready to take the responsibility of keeping them from being a nuisance for others. Krishna, despite taking pledge not to wield a weapon in Mahabharata, made an exception when Arjuna couldn’t face the force of Bhishma’s onslaught.
At another stage, Bhishma, in the service of his pledge, not only abandoned dharma but also committed the crime of “gurudroha” and violating Guru Agnya. He refused to marry Amba, the princess of Kashi, and the previous life of Shikhandi, after abducting her, and being the reason her lover would not accept her — despite the fact that Bhagwan Parashurama, his guru, had ordered him to do so. He chose to go to war with his guru instead.
Bhishma spent his life serving people far lesser than him in dharma, ethics, conduct, abilities, judgement, etc. In the process, he destroyed all the purushartha he was otherwise capable of. This culminated in him meeting his end against Shikhandi. He never realised (or perhaps did) that he himself had become Shikhandi because of the destruction of his purushartha. This needs to be juxtaposed with the deeds of Vibhishana, whose dharmic compass was unwavering.
Vibhishana had the inner strength, despite being the weakest of asuras in the royal assembly, to tell Ravana he was wrong. Vibhishana met his elevation in Hanuman, who took him to Rama, and the league of immortals.
In a family-centric society like India, it’s easier to respect Bhishma because he keeps family above everything else — even when confronted with the question of right versus wrong. It sweetens the deal that he is a status-quoist who does not transform or stand for a radical change. Vibhishana, on the other hand, was every inch a radical turnaround from traditional asuric proclivities even to the extent of standing against his kith and kin.
This can be easily imported to the present scenario where the community that is the majority in Indian population still sticks to TINA [there is no alternative (to Modi)] argument. Who would have thought of Vibhishana as an alternative to Ravana? But itishasa and puranas proclaim his immortality and prosperity of asuras under him.
Adharma, however noble and powerful, will get destroyed. That’s why in the end of Jaya, the original manuscript of Mahabharat epic, only Yudhishthira remains. He was an underachiever by worldly standards but a godhead liked him for dharma so much that he became a god himself. Vibhishana’s achievement was no lesser.
The seventh and eighth avatars of Vishnu underscore the point. In Ramcharitmanas,
सुनहु सखा निज कहउँ सुभाऊ। जान भुसुंडि संभु गिरिजाऊ॥
जौं नर होइ चराचर द्रोही। आवै सभय सरन तकि मोही॥
तजि मद मोह कपट छल नाना। करउँ सद्य तेहि साधु समाना॥
जननी जनक बंधु सुत दारा। तनु धनु भवन सुहृद परिवारा॥
सब कै ममता ताग बटोरी। मम पद मनहि बाँध बरि डोरी॥
समदरसी इच्छा कछु नाहीं। हरष सोक भय नहिं मन माहीं॥
अस सज्जन मम उर बस कैसें। लोभी हृदयँ बसइ धनु जैसें॥
तुम्ह सारिखे संत प्रिय मोरें। धरउँ देह नहिं आन निहोरें!!
Second time, in the Gita,
आचार्योपासनं शौचं स्थैर्यमात्मविनिग्रहः।।
इन्द्रियार्थेषु वैराग्यमनहङ्कार एव च।
नित्यं च समचित्तत्वमिष्टानिष्टोपपत्तिषु
मयि चानन्ययोगेन भक्तिरव्यभिचारिणी
एतज्ज्ञानमिति प्रोक्तमज्ञानं यदतोन्यथा।।
On the occasion of Gita Jayanti, to note: before Bhagawān, all categories break down — a rathi, a maharathi, a celibate, a jnāni or an utter outcast. Only dharma matters and He Himself is the dharma — रामो विग्रहवान् धर्मः साधुः सत्यपराक्रमः। [Aranya Kānda, Valmiki Ramayana]
With inputs and editorial contribution from Mrinaal Prem Swarroop Srivastava