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The Autumn of the Patriarch


Draupadi’s question struck his heart like a poisoned arrow.  “Do you really believe that you are a selfless person?”

Bhishma, the Patriarch of two kingdoms, the most venerated of all the Kauravas and the Pandavas, stood speechless before a woman’s question.  Women played more role in his life than he would have ever wished.  In spite of his renowned vow that he would never let a woman enter into his life, women forced their way into his life.

It all started with a woman.  She was the daughter of a fisherman-chieftain.  Rather, adopted daughter.  In reality, she belonged to the celestial realms.  She had the gracefulness of a mermaid and the fragrance of musk.  No wonder Bhishma’s father fell madly in love with her.  It was that mad love which made a terrible demand on Bhishma.  He vowed that he would never marry, that he would never have any offspring.  A great sacrifice.  A noble sacrifice that made his reputation as the selfless patriarch of the kingdom. That sacrifice was the demand made, indirectly though, by Satyavati’s father who wanted his grandchildren to inherit the kingdom.  Otherwise what would his daughter’s position in the palace?  He loved his daughter more than anything else in the world.

That daughter, the same Satyavadi, would later tempt Bhishma.  When her son died leaving his young wives childless, Satyavadi asked Bhishma to produce offspring through Ambika and Ambalika.  It took more than the strength of his vow to overcome the temptation laid before him.  Ambika and Ambalika were two of the most charming women he had ever seen.  It was he who won them by defeating all other kings during her swayamvara.  It was he who made them the wives of his step-brother.  He had converted the swayamvara into a raid, in fact.  He could do that because he was Bhishma the Selfless One.

Satyavadi, don’t you realise that I a man, a man of flesh and blood?  He wanted to ask her.  No, he didn’t ask.  He was Bhishma, the Great.  Great men are not supposed to have the desires of ordinary people.  Bhishma had conquered all such desires.  Bhishma was not an ordinary man. 

But Draupadi’s question remained stuck in his heart like a poisoned arrow.  She had not asked it with rancour.  It came from her helplessness and dignity.  Was there pity too?  Did she pity him?  Pity his life whose greatness was built up on mistakes committed in the name of dharma?

What had he done to Amba, for instance?  Amba was the sister of Ambika and Ambalika.  He, Bhishma, had carried her off too to become the wife of his step-brother.  He mercilessly ignored her pleas.  She had told him that she was in love with Salva, the king of Saubha.  Salva had fought valiantly too for her. But what did he, Bhishma, do?  There was no place for love in his world of conquests.  The selfless patriarch who knew not the meaning of love.  Draupadi’s arrow quivered in Bhishma’s heart.

Her husband didn’t want as a wife a woman whose heart was with another man.  He let her go to the owner of her heart.  But the self-respect of kings is much more immense than their love for women.  “You have been polluted by another man’s touch,” declared Salva. “You cannot be my wife.”  She pleaded with him.  No man had touched her, she avowed solemnly and passionately through tears that flowed down her sweet cheeks.  Tears on such cheeks would have melted any ordinary man.  But kings are not ordinary men.  Amba was driven out of the Saubha palace.

She returned to the Kuru palace.  “No, don’t ever dream of being my wife,” said the Kuru king.  He refused to accept the counsel of Bhishma too in this regard. 

“You marry me then,” Amba turned to Bhishma.

“Who, me?” Bhishma was shocked.  How dared she?  Didn’t she know who he was?  Bhishma the Great.  Bhishma the Great cannot marry.  But the beautiful woman had shot an arrow into the tranquillity of his heart.  He had to order her out of his sight once and for all before the ripple in his heart would become a turbulence. 

A Ravi Varma painting
Are you really selfless?  Draupadi’s question wiggled in his heart. 

“Why don’t you at least see the adharma of what is happening here?” Draupadi demanded.  “Which son of a king would wager his wife?  Which man can wager his wife having lost himself first?”

“Whom did you lose first, yourself or me?” She turned to her husband who had lost the game of dice.  

Yudhishtira sat sullenly.  Draupadi looked her other four husbands.  They diverted their gaze from her. 

What is a woman?  Draupadi asked herself.  A commodity for men to buy and sell as they please?  This man, the great patriarch, the selfless one, hadn’t he done the same with other women too? 

“Dharma is too subtle, my dear,” declared Bhishma, “I am unable to resolve your question in the proper way.”

“Truth is simple,” returned Draupadi.  “But dharma is subtle.” 

Bhishma could not reply.  Rajneeti has its own dharma.  She could not understand that.  Can she understand the silence of all her husbands, brave warriors as they are?  The first loyalty is to the king.  Their king had lost himself.  He had lost them too.  He had lost her too.  That is the dharma of rajneeti.  If Yudhishtira answered her question, if he said, “Yes, I lost myself before I lost you,” a serious question would arise: “Does a woman cease to be the wife when her husband loses ownership over himself?”

No, my dear Draupadi, Bhishma heard him muttering to himself.  No.  You are raising a question that is not easy to resolve.  Are you a queen first and then a wife?  Or are you a wife first of all?  What is a wife’s dharma?

Dharma.  The patriarch had no answers.  Which is greater: dharma or love?  Well, he had renounced love, hadn’t he?  At any rate, what has love got to do with a kshatriya? 

The patriarch could not find words to speak even when Duhshasana started pulling out Draupadi’s sari.  He was contemplating dharma and rajneeti.

One day he would have to make a great sacrifice for the sake of the same dharma.  He would sacrifice himself.  Somewhere far away, Amba was re-creating herself in the fire of never-dying vengeance. 

Women, thought Bhishma the patriarch, Bhishma the Great.  Women make dharma mysterious.


  1. What a brilliant way of putting across the questions asked over the most epic scene in mythology. I really liked when she asks why didn't Yudhisthira lose himself first. Isn't protecting the wife the first vow of marriage and Draupadi had not one but 5 husbands to protect her. But had it not happened Mahabharata would not have been an Epic of lessons to be learnt even in today's world. Am happy I read it here. On being selfless, Bhishma didn't do anything for himself, he did it for his brothers so it was selfless in a way.

    1. In fact, Yudhishtira had lost himself before losing Draupadi. Her question is can one who has already become a slave, one who is not the owner of himself, wager his wife? Women had few rights in those days. It was a highly and rigidly patriarchal system. We can say Draupadi was one of the first feminists.

  2. The Mahabharata is always one of my favourite books...every 'sloka' here has dual can teach us so many things, about love,life,politics,religion...everything. You've nicely presented the dilemma of Bhishma portraying the great scene of the game of dice...

    1. Yes, the epic has everything in it, all human themes. It's a very complex work which is not easy to interpret. It makes us think in many ways.

  3. An ingenious touch to the Mahabharata

  4. What a take on Mahabharata's most celebrated Man; Bhisma! Wonderful I am spell bound. This post has risen so many questions in my heart that it will take them a bit of time to settle down.

    1. Bhishma can keep us thinking for ever :) Glad you liked the story.

  5. Great writing! Mahabharata's Bhishma questions are really thoughtful .

  6. That's a wonderful perspective of a great man from the epic..Well written :)

  7. Wonderfully written piece with pertinant questions...


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