On his Deathbed of Arrows Bhishmadeva Consoles Emperor Yudhisthira with Spiritual Insight
Although Bhagavad-gita is one of our essential texts and is glorified as having what is necessary for us to make spiritual progress, it is also considered the ABC’s. Our founder/acharya or principle teacher’s— Shrila Prabhupada’s—purports add references from many relevant Gaudiya Vaishnava and Vedic texts which greatly increase its depth and accessibility. However, objectively, in our tradition, the Shrimad Bhagavatam would be considered a more developed scripture, since it begins where the Gita leaves off—with giving up all works or material dharmas except pure devotional service to Krishna.
Prabhupada said that "Srimad-Bhagavatam is the post-graduate study of knowledge for one who has thoroughly understood the principles of the Bhagavad-gita." In fact Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (the incarnation for this age), who is considered the combined form of Radha (the greatest devotee and heart of devotion) and Krishna, treasured the Bhagavatam as his most cherished scripture. The 10th Canto of the book is most important as it recounts Krishna's so-called birth, childhood activities, and his most intimate loving relationship, yet the other 11 Cantos are not to be neglected.
For example the 1st Canto is packed with important narrations and philosophy essential for understanding the other Cantos. Shrila Prabhupada put as much information and philosophy into it as he could since he didn’t know if he would live to translate more. At present I am reading Chapter Nine of the first Canto of Shrimad Bhagavatam. It briefly elaborates on how the mortally wounded Bhishmadeva, who was lying on a bed of many arrows, pacified the aggrieved Maharaja Yudhisthira.
Yudhisthira was lamenting that for his sake so many men were slaughtered in the Battle of Kurukshetra. It is a touching, inspiring chapter which highlights the good fortune of the Pandava brothers and Bhishma who all intimately interacted with Krishna. In relating this, the supreme position of Lord Krishna is explained as are the various types of eternal loving relationship one can have with him such as servitude, friendship, parenthood, and conjugal love. And Bhisma’s “death” illustrates the perfection of life—to “die” being totally absorbed in remembering the Lord.
The Bhagavad-gita’s eighth chapter describes that whatever we are absorbed in thinking about at death will determine our next birth. So thinking of Krishna with feeling and attention will carry one to Krishna, and thinking of the things and people of this world will oblige us to remain in the world of birth and death. The Shrimad Bhagavatam is the practical example of the principles outlined in the Gita.
Bhishmadeva saw Krishna in his majestic four armed form, and he worshiped him in chivalrous servitude. His loving relationship is unique in that it was expressed through fighting. The arrows which appeared to pierce the transcendental body of the Lord, are compared by great saints to be like the love bites of lovers. From another perspective, Krishna accepted his arrows as he would accept offerings of flowers from others!
The time was after the culmination of the Battle of Kurukshetra. Although Bhishma had been mortally wounded during the middle of the eighteen days of battle, he was still lying on the Warfield. This was because he had received the benediction that he could die at the time of his choosing. So he was waiting for an auspicious time to depart from the world and for Krishna to come there so he could fix his mind and sight on him. Such absorption is the perfection of yoga.
We are given the image of the Pandavas arriving in an opulent royal procession at the behest of Lord Krishna to give joy to Grandfather Bhisma. The pageantry was meant to demonstrate that Maharaja Yudhisthira had assumed the throne, assisted by his noble brothers (rather than Duryodhana). Accompanying the Pandavas and their royal attendants were the greatest sages from around the Universe. Krishna also came seated on a chariot with Arjuna. Maharaja Yudhisthira is described as looking so opulent that he is compared to Kuvera, the treasurer of the devas (or the higher beings—demigods—of the universe).
Besides being a great ruler, warrior and statesman, Bhishma was a great devotee of the Lord. It is difficult to imagine his greatness and stature. Summing up the previous paragraph here is one about Bhishma’s visitors: “Just to see the chief of the descendants of King Bharata [Bhishma], all the great souls in the universe, namely the rishis [sages] amongst the demigods, brahmanas and kings, all situated in the quality of goodness, were assembled there.” [SB 1.9.5] Truly this was an event not to be missed for those in "the know".
Bhishmadeva was so cultured that he knew how to be a perfect host to the visitors, even though he couldn’t stand up to greet his visitors. His mind was sound and fixed on Krishna, despite his immobility. He was an expert in adjusting religious principles according to the time, place and circumstances. When he saw the Lord of his heart, Lord Krishna, he worshiped him fittingly within himself.
Seeing his grandsons sitting off to the side, saddened to behold their beloved benefactor lying on his deathbed, Bhishmadeva began speaking with tears of affection in his eyes. His words were for their benefit, being full of wisdom, power and inspiration. He remembered how he had looked after and protected these fatherless children and how they suffered so greatly from the evil-minded attempts of Duryodhana and his wicked brothers to kill them. One after another he narrated the many difficulties and reverses they and their mother experienced. From one perspective it was unexpected that they would suffer so much since they were all virtuous and Yudhisthira was the emblem of religion.
Bhishma’s conclusion for all, but specifically to the lamenting King Yudhisthira, was that their suffering was due to the time element (Kala) which represents the power of God. He elaborated that no ordinary man—or even great sage—can fully understand the plan of the Lord. Therefore they should accept how their life's events had unfolded, and go forward to rule the kingdom righteously. Their suffering and the battle of Kurukshetra were part of the plan of the Lord, and must be accepted for the good of the world. We all have to do our best in life, accepting the results that come to us—good or bad—as meant to help us make spiritual progress. Prabhupada explains in one of his purports in this section: “A devotee's duty, therefore, is to ungrudgingly accept tribulations from the Lord as a benediction.” [SB 1.9.17 pp]
Next Bhismadeva glorified Krishna as the Supreme Lord though appearing like a human being. He said, “O King [Yudhisthira], that personality whom, out of ignorance only, you thought to be your maternal cousin, your very dear friend, well-wisher, counselor, messenger, benefactor, etc., is that very Personality of Godhead, Shri Krishna. Being the Absolute Personality of Godhead, He is present in everyone's heart. He is equally kind to everyone, and He is free from the false ego of differentiation. Therefore whatever He does is free from material inebriety. He is equibalanced. Yet, despite His being equally kind to everyone, He has graciously come before me while I am ending my life, for I am His unflinching servitor. The Personality of Godhead, who appears in the mind of the devotee by attentive devotion and meditation and by chanting of the holy name, releases the devotee from the bondage of fruitive activities at the time of his quitting the material body.” [SB 1.9.20-24]
After being charmed with such a sweet description of the Lord and having his grief dissipated through insightful, relevant wisdom, Yudhisthira was inspired to inquire about the essential principles of various religious duties. Although Bhishma was apparently a lesser personality then the great sages present, Lord Krishna wished to glorify Bhishma by having him speak to Yudhisthira. This demonstrated the greatness of a pure devotee of the Lord whom the Lord reveals the highest truths from within.
Bhishmadeva’s instructions are also described in the epic Mahabharata, though in a much longer narration. The purpose of the Bhagavatam is deeper, as it is more to glorify the greatness of Bhishmadeva and the mercy of the Lord for his pure devotee (who was with him at the critical time of his mortal death). We learn through Bhishma how we all must prepare for death, and thus how to live our life in spiritual consciousness.
A description of the four social and spiritual orders is summarized in 3 verses, which give us the essence of the different orders. Super briefly to touch on two points, the householders are meant to give in charity to support the other orders who are absorbed in spiritual cultivation—giving in charity purifies the accumulation of wealth. And all orders of life are meant to cultivate detachment from worldly things and pursuits.
The detachment of devotees is in direct correspondence to their attachment to Krishna. The various orders of life are meant to compliment or facilitate this attachment to Krishna and detachment from matter. I must say that in the spirit of Bhismadeva, Shrila Prabhupada’s purports to verses 26 and 27 are simply amazing and give the essence of Bhishma’s instructions in the Mahabharata.
As Grandfather Bhishma finished speaking he noticed that the most favorable time for leaving his body had arrived. Thus he prepared himself to give up his body. We are told through a verse which was also sighted when our own guru Shrila Prabhupada was leaving the world: “Thereupon that man who spoke on different subjects with thousands of meanings and who fought on thousands of battlefields and protected thousands of men, stopped speaking and, being completely freed from all bondage, withdrew his mind from everything else and fixed his wide-open eyes upon the original Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna, who stood before him, four-handed, dressed in yellow garments that glittered and shined.” [SB 1.9.30]
The remainder of the chapter reveals Bhishma’s prayers glorifying the Lord and for obtaining the perfection by returning to the kingdom of God, Vaikuntha. Do read this chapter and all his prayers. It is very inspiring reading, revealing the intensity of the devotee’s affectionate remembrance of Krishna, and how much Krishna loves his pure devotees. In other places Krishna is said to also have love for those who are devotees of pure devotees! I will end this blog by sharing his first prayer: Bhismadeva said: “Let me now invest my thinking, feeling and willing, which were so long engaged in different subjects and occupational duties, in the all-powerful Lord Shri Krishna. He is always self-satisfied, but sometimes, being the leader of the devotees, He enjoys transcendental pleasure by descending on the material world, although from Him only the material world is created.” [SB 1.9.32]
The remainder of the chapter reveals Bhisma’s prayers for perfection by returning to the kingdom of God, Vaikuntha. Do read this chapter and all his prayers. Very inspiring reading which reveals how much Krishna loves his pure devotees—and even those who are devotees of pure devotees! I will end this blog by sharing his first prayer: Bhismadeva said: “Let me now invest my thinking, feeling and willing, which were so long engaged in different subjects and occupational duties, in the all-powerful Lord Sri Krishna. He is always self-satisfied, but sometimes, being the leader of the devotees, He enjoys transcendental pleasure by descending on the material world, although from Him only the material world is created.” [SB 1.9.32]