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The Passing of Grandfather Bhisma

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By Satsvarupa dasa
(ISKCON—Dallas)

1970-1973-01-44-29

Grandfather Bhisma was lying at the point of death on a bed of arrows which had been shot through his body. Because he was the most famous warrior of his time and an expert yogi, all the great men of the universe went to the Battlefield of Kuruksetra where he lay dying.

King Yudhisthira, who had ascended to the throne by winning the battle, felt a horrible responsibility for all the killing which had taken place in the war, and in hopes of getting counsel he also went at once when he heard that Grandfather Bhisma was about to pass away from this mortal world. Lord Krsna, who is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, was appearing at that time within human society and was involved in all the affairs of Kuruksetra. Therefore, He also came to see Bhisma, driving the chariot for His famous disciple, Arjuna. Many sages and demigods had traveled even from other planets, and the greatest scholars and personalities and their disciples had gathered from everywhere just to be present at this auspicious occasion.

This opens a scene from the Srimad-Bhagavatam, First Canto. The Bhagavatam is a Vedic literature of historical fact recorded 5,000 years ago and handet down from disciple to disciple by the great scholars and spiritual masters of India. More important, however, than the fact that this story of Bhisma and Krsna actually took place long, long ago is that it can teach us the philosophy of Krsna consciousness, by which we can find eternal happiness, as did Bhisma. The fruit of hearing stories told in Krsna consciousness is very valuable, beyond comparison to worldly wealth or temporary happiness. Simply by hearing, we can revive our eternal relationship with God. Grandfather Bhisma’s passing away is unique in history. We hope that the reader will enjoy this ancient battlefield story.

We cannot imagine how great a yogi was Bhisma, for he was able to keep a sound mind even though his body was pierced by many arrows. He thus welcomed the many sages who had come to see him at his last hour. It is stated that Bhisma was such an expert religionist that although the great sages and yogis present had different understandings of philosophy—just as we have so many apparently different religious sects—he was able to speak with such command of the Absolute Truth that he adjusted all their differing opinions and had everyone listening with rapt attention, in agreement with his authoritative conclusions.

The sages, eager to hear his instructions, were listening very quietly—that was their qualification for greatness. Anyone interested in making spiritual progress in his own life in this day and age should similarly try to approach the authoritative or bona fide spiritual master from whom he can learn the Absolute Truth.

It was very wonderful that Bhisma was able to welcome such a large aristocratic gathering, even though he was neither at home nor in a normal healthy condition. But we should not think that Bhisma was writhing in excruciating pain. He was such a great yogi that he was in full control of his senses. Moreover, in passing away he was victorious. He was endowed with the power to leave his body at will, and so his passing was by his own choice. Such power over death is beyond our imaginations at present, and there is no sense in arguing the point. If we can accept this authorized narrative, all questions will be revealed gradually in the course of the story.

Bhisma was soon to leave this mortal world to gain eternal liberation in the kingdom of God. By the will of God, Bhisma was to give instructions, before leaving, to the guilty Yudhisthira about his duties, and he was also to make his last prayer to the Supreme Lord, who had kindly come to the gathering. The illustrations which accompany this story are done exactly according to descriptions in the Bhagavatam, and thus we can truly place ourselves amongst the fortunate persons who gathered in close to see and hear the events which led to Bhisma’s immortality.

Seeing the distressed Maharaja Yudhisthira and his four brothers, the Pandavas, sitting nearby with great affection for their dying grandfather, Bhisma shed tears of ecstasy. Allow us to briefly relate the background for Bhisma’s being called “Grandfather” and for his deep emotion at the sight of these Pandava brothers who had gathered beside him as he prepared to breathe his last. Some time before this scene, the world was ruled by King Pandu, who died at an early age when his five sons were all young children. These boys, the Pandavas, were brought up by the affectionate elder members of the royal family, especially by Bhismadeva. Later on, when they grew up, they were cheated by a rival in the palace and exiled from the court, although they were the rightful heirs to the throne.

Bhisma knew that the Pandavas were innocent and had been unnecessarily put into trouble, but he could not take their side since he had already promised to support the rival party led by Duryodhana, the Pandavas’ cousin. Srimad-Bhagavatam explains why Grandfather Bhisma opposed the Pandavas in the civil war: “Bhismadeva was not at all satisfied to fight against the Pandavas, who were his beloved fatherless grandchildren. But the warrior class is very stern, and therefore he was obliged to take the side of Duryodhana because he was maintained at the expense of Duryodhana.”

When the Pandavas came back from exile and asked to have at least a little land to rule, they were driven away by the rival party of cheaters headed by Duryodhana. Lord Krsna also appeared in the royal court at that time and asked that peace be kept and that the brothers be given some land, but He was ignored. Duryodhana’s party told the Pandavas, “If you want as much land as can fit under a pin, you’ll have to fight for it.” Thus, Krsna and the Pandavas were forced to fight in the great war of Kuruksetra, a huge family feud in which many brothers, students, teachers and friends found themselves on opposite sides. It appears that Bhisma was forced by political intrigue to fight opposite the Pandavas and Lord Krsna.

The ultimate reason why all these events happened as they did and Yudhisthira and the others were brought together at Bhisma’s deathbed of arrows can only be explained as the will of the Lord. It is not difficult to understand that everything is happening under a plan of the Supreme Lord. Pure devotees of the Lord are completely agreeable to the fact that nothing happens except by the will of Krsna, and the desire of a devotee is to learn Krsna’s will and carry it out as His servant in a loving mood. It is said that not a blade of grass moves without the will of the Lord.

In the ordinary events of the material world—such as the operation of the physical laws in the universe by which the planets orbit in space and different living entities are awarded different births in varieties of species of life according to their work—Krsna acts through His representative agent, which is called the material energy. The science of how God works and is present everywhere is dealt with in the scripture Bhagavad-gita, and we shall not go into it here. When it comes to the welfare of Krsna’s devotees, however, it is stated that Krsna personally arranges each situation: He even brings them trial and tribulation at certain times just for their ultimate glorification. In other words, God acts through His deputed agents, His energies, in all matters of the material world pertaining to persons who are interested in worldly gain, but for a devotee He does not employ agents; rather, He personally takes charge of their destiny and sees that they become purified.

The passing of Bhisma was personally arranged by God for His pleasure, just to exchange love with His devotees. He wanted King Yudhisthira to receive instructions from a great authority like Bhisma, and He wanted to appear before Bhisma so that His devotee could see Him in his last hour. That is the explanation of why this scene took place. Lord Krsna, the speaker of the Bhagavad-gita, stood peacefully beside His dear devotee, Bhisma, while Bhisma distinguished himself before all the learned sages by his instructions to the new king.

The first advice Bhisma gave to Yudhisthira was that he should not feel sorry for the death of those who had been killed in that way. “In my opinion,” Bhisma said, “It is all due to inevitable time.” As long as one is within the material world, he has to bear the actions and reactions of time, which brings about so many wars and sufferings. Even if one is pious, the conditions of material life are such that suffering and devastation will take place. Truly, the world is a shaky place with danger at every step, and even the greatest personalities suffer many reverses in the course of time.

Bhisma explained that this time factor was the wish of the Lord Himself, and so it was not right to think that the deaths were the responsibility of Yudhisthira. It was not by his will that these things were happening; the actual doer was Krsna. In His form of time, He annihilated thousands of soldiers of both parties. “Since it is beyond the control of any human being,” Bhisma said, “there is nothing you can do. So why should you lament?” Bhisma said: “All these demonstrations are within the plan of the Lord. Accepting this inconceivable plan, you must follow it.”

Bhisma knew that since the Pandavas’ cause was just, virtue had triumphed over vice. Yudhisthira was not personally to blame for deaths which had taken place by the agency of all-devouring time. His duty now was to take over the administration of the people and protect them so that they could perfect their lives and go back to Godhead—that is the sum and substance of Bhisma’s instructions to Yudhisthira.

When we speak of the will of God or the plan of God, these words indicate that God is not a dead lump or desireless void—He is the Supreme Person. In fact, as a person, Krsna appeared amidst this clan of Pandavas as one of their family members. His position is bewildering to the common people. He is the Almighty God by whose will the movement of a blade of grass or the outcome of a spectacular event like the Kuruksetra War takes place, yet He was present as a friend at the passing away of Bhisma. Devotees accept Him both ways, for anything is possible for God. There is no question of restricting Him only to managing the destiny of the universe by saying, “No, God can’t come into the human society personally. He can’t stand before His devotee and speak loving words. He can’t smile. He can’t bless. He can’t do this. He can’t do that.” God can do what He likes, as He likes. God is God. He is independent, and when He comes, He comes in His eternal spiritual form. As cousin, friend, well-wisher and messenger of the Pandavas, He was still the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Although it is bewildering that God can be present as an ordinary family member, it is certainly possible for Him. He appeared, by His mercy, as the unconquerable and eternal Supreme Person and was accepted by Bhisma, His devotee. Therefore, we can also accept Krsna as He appears in this narrative by His will.

Lord Krsna appeared at the deathbed of Bhisma because Bhisma was a great unalloyed devotee of the Lord. Bhisma took it as a great favor that he could see the Lord. We have seen pictures of Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. His transcendental body of eternal youth is of a bluish hue. He is smiling, and in His four-armed form He holds a disc, conchshell, wheel and lotus. He wears brilliant yellow garments and is opulently ornamented and helmeted. His eyes are beautiful like a lotus.

Krsna was standing before Bhisma at the time of his death. No general or philosopher in the history of the rise and fall of mundane empires was ever blessed in this way—to have God appear before him, in a friendly reassuring mood, just to satisfy his vision. Bhisma was thinking, in all humility, that he might not see God after his death. Therefore he requested the Lord to stay before him so that he could concentrate on His form before passing away.

This scene is unique and astonishing, but it is an authorized description of dealings between the Supreme Lord and one of His devotees. The scene and the intimate relationship which the Lord had with Bhisma are verified by the most perfect process of receiving knowledge—to hear it from the Vedic sources, the spiritual master and the scriptures. Such knowledge is never dogmatic. Just as the mother is the bona fide authority for the confidential knowledge of the identity of one’s father, so Vedic scripture is the perfect authority for information about the transcendental world. Hearing such literature is a regular process for receiving perfect knowledge.

Bhisma’s activities have been accepted by all authorities in this spiritual line of disciplic succession, including Lord Caitanya and our spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. They all accept the version of the Bhagavatam as the word of God. Modern man believes that spaceships have gone to the moon on the authority of modern science. Whatever the scientist or newspaper says is imperfect, whereas the word of God is perfect. If we attempt to guess or theorize about God’s existence and appearance rather than accept the authority of scriptures and the spiritual master, we will never have access to this vital information about our eternal relation with God. It is beyond our guessing. What’s more, by rejecting the spiritual master’s authority, today’s society has been degraded by all manner of vices, illicit sex and intoxication, and thus modern society has become very uncongenial for anyone interested in spiritual progress.

When Bhisma speaks about Krsna, we can accept what he says, since he knows the principles of transcendental knowledge. He appears in Vedic literature as an outstanding authority on Krsna consciousness.

Before the great assembly who had come to see and hear him, Bhisma prayed to Krsna, “Now I am going to die. So in these last moments, let me remember You in the mood in which we met each other as opponents on the battlefield. That vision of You, out of all, is the most attractive to me. Since I am a warrior, I long to see You in that fighting spirit. You came before me like an attacking lion, carrying a chariot wheel in Your hand, because I was about to kill Your disciple, Arjuna.”

Bhisma said: “In the battlefield, the wavy hair of Lord Krsna turned an ashen color from the dust raised by the hoofs of the horses. His hair was scattered; there was perspiration on His face. All these decorations, intensified by the wounds made by my arrows, were enjoyed by Him. Let my mind rest upon that Krsna.”

Bhisma was a warrior by quality and work, and so he worshiped Krsna by shooting arrows at Him. Of all bewildering things about Bhisma and the Lord, this is the most bewildering—that a devotee expressed his love for Krsna by inflicting wounds upon Him on the battlefield as His enemy. It is stated in the Bhagavatam, “The Lord, being absolute, can accept service from His pure devotee even in the garb of an enemy.” Actually, the Lord, the Unconquerable, has no real enemy. The wounds from Bhisma’s arrows were enjoyed by the Lord as much as the service of devotees who worship by throwing soft roses upon Him or bowing before an altar.

Of course, since the Lord has an eternal spiritual body, there was no question of His actually being bruised or cut. Transcendental bliss is of different varieties and is always completely pure. Therefore, the Lord enjoyed the wounds created by His great devotee Bhisma, and because Bhisma was a devotee in the chivalrous military mood, he fixed his mind on Krsna in that wounded condition.

Bhisma prayed: “Let my mind be fixed on the Lord’s activities on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra as He fought as the chariot-driver of Arjuna.” Bhisma reflected, “Just by seeing Lord Krsna on the battlefield, the opposing soldiers gained liberation in their next lives.”

While the day grew near its close, as indicated by the sun’s rays, the great host of eminent personalities from all over the universe listened eagerly and with full faith to the authorized instructions of Bhisma. The speaking of Bhisma and the hearing by the sages can only be appreciated on the platform of devotional service or transcendental life. There was no mental speculator or doubter present at that meeting. Such persons do not have entrance into the pastimes between Lord Krsna and His devotee because they think that such activities are material or impossible or just stories. Those who are qualified to actually be an audience to such a transcendental narration were thrilled, and they forgot all miseries and circumstances of the material world and listened with full feelings of ecstasy and rapt attention.

It is said that actually a devotee cannot completely understand the Supreme Lord because the nature of God is that He is ultimately inconceivable and not subject to our understanding. But a measure of a devotee’s advancement is that he increasingly relishes hearing these stories about the Lord. If we hear this narration without envy, we can be included in that host of eternal liberated listeners of the Bhagavatam.

Bhisma recalled the battle. One day, after long fighting, Duryodhana criticized Bhisma, hinting that Bhisma was not fighting as hard as he could because of his reluctance to kill Arjuna and the other Pandavas. Duryodhana accused Bhisma: “Your grandfatherly feelings have made you soft-hearted.” In those days, warriors fought with great sporting spirit, as a friend fights with a friend, and Bhisma could not tolerate this criticism from Duryodhana. “I vow,” promised Bhisma,”that tomorrow I will kill all the Pandava brothers.”

Duryodhana had inspired Bhisma to a rage. Bhisma said: “Krsna is the chariot-driver of Arjuna, and He Himself will have to take weapons tomorrow. Otherwise His friend Arjuna will die. Krsna has promised to be neutral in this war and not to actually fight. But if He wishes to protect Arjuna, He shall be forced to fight me!”

1970-1973-01-44-30The next day, Bhisma drove his chariot across the field, broke and scattered all opposition before him, and headed straight for Krsna and Arjuna. His chariot moved against all resistance. Dust arose in clouds. Soldiers fought, knocking each other from their carts. Fully decorated bodies lay dead on the field along with horses and mangled bodies.

Bhisma fought so violently that both Arjuna and Krsna were in trouble. Arjuna became separated from Krsna and put at a military disadvantage. This stalwart fighter Bhisma, who is praised as the greatest of all generals, came upon Arjuna with raised weapons, prepared to kill him in a moment.

Then Krsna moved to save His devotee, Arjuna. He picked up a large chariot wheel from the battlefield and rushed toward Bhisma in an angry mood, as a lion charges to kill an elephant. He ran in such haste that His covering cloth fell from His shoulder without His knowing where it fell.

Bhisma at once gave up his weapons and stood ready to be killed by the Lord. The Lord was the ultimate destination of Bhisma’s life, and to see the Lord in this mood was the fulfillment of Bhisma’s chivalrous dealings with the Lord. Although Krsna had promised not to lend His fighting strength to either side, He broke that promise on Bhisma’s insistence, just to save His devotee, Arjuna. This was all an arrangement by the Lord to favor His great devotee, Bhisma. Bhisma wanted to see the Lord break His promise and save His devotee; therefore, the Lord’s running towards Bhisma with the wheel in His hand was like a lover’s going to a lover without caring for checking hindrances.

This cannot be understood by those who try to restrict God by saying, “He cannot do such and such.” Devotional service is dynamic, far beyond the selfish aspirations of yogis and impersonal meditators who seek self-satisfaction by mechanical yoga processes. Everyone has a unique, eternal, active relationship with God. We can recover our original mellow relationship with Krsna by beginning our practice of devotional service according to regulative principles under the guidance of a spiritual master. Those who know even a little of pure devotional service can penetrate the mystery of this loving exchange between Bhisma and Krsna as so-called enemies. it is astounding that a devotee can please God by playing the part of an enemy. This can happen only in the case of a completely pure devotee like Bhisma, who is not actually an enemy but an eternal servant of Krsna. At his last moments, Bhisma clearly saw and cherished this vision of Lord Krsna on the battlefield.

Thinking of Krsna in so many ways as his supreme beloved object, Bhisma finally left this world for the next. Because he was thinking of Krsna in love and Krsna was actually present before him, it was assured that he would enter the spiritual realm which lies beyond these material universes to join the Lord in one of the spiritual Vaikuntha planets and constantly engage in loving service without anxiety or misery.

The perfection achieved by Bhismadeva at the time of death can be attained even if Lord Krsna is not personally present. By chanting Hare Krsna or by hearing narrations about Krsna, one can attain this stage. Every man or animal must ultimately die, but one who dies like Bhismadeva attains perfection, and one who dies forced by the laws of nature dies like a cat or dog. That is the difference between a man and an animal.

Human life is especially meant for dying like Bhismadeva. The atheist thinks that at death he is finished and that everything else is finished and there is no after-life or spiritual world. The only possible way to receive knowledge about what is beyond this material world is from the authorities who speak information from the spiritual world. There is a process of spiritual knowledge. If one wishes to know who his father is, the mother is the authority. In the same way, God Himself, or revealed scriptures, can tell us about this eternal life. The human being who takes up the responsibility of recovering his eternal relationship with Krsna fulfills the responsibility of human life. As for the atheist, he denies God up until the time of death, and then he is conquered by time, which is the direct representative of Krsna.

We should not consider the story of Bhisma to be unimportant. It is not simply the story of an old warrior dying, but it is the narration of a great soul leaving this mortal world for the spiritual world. Bhismadeva was perfect because he never forgot the Lord in His transcendental feature as the chariot-driver of Arjuna on the battlefield and because the Lord was personally present before Bhismadeva while he passed to the transcendental world.

Suta Gosvami, the speaker of this narration, describes the final moments of Bhisma: “Bhismadeva, merging himself in the Supersoul, Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, with his mind, speech, sight and activities, became silent and stopped breathing. Thus, knowing that Bhismadeva had merged into the unlimited eternity of the Supreme Absolute, all present there became silent like birds at the end of day. Thereafter, both men and demigods sounded respectful honor by beating on drums. The honest royal order offered honor and respect, and from the sky there was a shower of flowers.”

The shower of flowers by the heavenly beings has no comparison in the funeral rites performed for an ordinary common man in our materialistic civilization today. In the case of an ordinary funeral, people glorify and lament over the dead body, but in the case of Bhismadeva the men and demigods present were glorifying the ascension of the spiritual body. They were glorifying the passing of Bhisma because he was attaining the spiritual planets.

The passing away of a devotee is, therefore, unique and exalted. The Bhagavatam says that the men of this present age are always disturbed and filled with so many cares that they do not have the time and inclination to hear about spiritual life. We are so surrounded by this disturbed civilization that it is very difficult for us to hear about and understand a great Krsna conscious devotee like Bhisma. But God Himself says that if we can remember and recite about these devotees, it is even more beneficial than trying to connect directly with the Lord Himself.

If we can try to retain a summary of the narrations of Bhisma in our minds, if we try to tell others about this great devotee, who met the Lord in a fighting mood, spoke great instructions on a deathbed of arrows, and, passing away at a moment of his own choosing, attained the spiritual world—if we can just experiment in this way by reciting the activities of a devotee in a submissive rather than skeptical mood—then we will be able to feel spiritual pleasure. We highly recommend discussion of these topics about the transference of our real self at the time of death into the next world, and we urge the reader to direct any questions to the editors of Back to Godhead so we can discuss this matter clearly, since it is the most important business of life—to fix our own passage from this world into the spiritual world.

The example of Bhismadeva is one of perfect death. It is not that he died only because he was an old warrior. Even if a young man is twenty-five years old, he has already died twenty-five years. So, for all of us, our immediate concern should be how to prepare for death and what our responsibility is. The Vedic literature is full of many satisfying stories and teachings which answer this all-important question. This material is given to us out of the compassion of the great sages who are directed by Krsna Himself.

The final conclusion is that by chanting in a humble state of mind the names of God—Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare—we can achieve the stature of this great warrior devotee of the old days, Bhismadeva. Just as He did for Bhismadeva, Krsna will come before us in the mood in which we most desire Him, and He will fulfill all our desires.

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