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Chapter 11

Yudhiṣṭhira Approaches Bhīṣma

In the Pāṇḍava camp everyone was talking about Bhīṣma. The next day would be the tenth day of battle, and still the Kuru commander was scorching their army. It seemed there was no way to stop him. If Kṛṣṇa had not taken matters into His own hands today, then even Arjuna might have been killed. Surely no fighter could equal him anywhere in the three worlds.

As the Pāṇḍavas consulted with their allies, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “O Keśava, Bhīṣma ranges across the battlefield like an all-consuming fire. We dare not even look at him as he stands with his weapons raised, his face blazing with anger. Even the god of death wielding his mace, or Varuṇa his noose, or Indra his thunderbolt might be overcome, but not Bhīṣma. O Kṛṣṇa, I am again thinking of retiring from this battle. So many heroes have died. It is clear that none will survive this fight. Bhīṣma will destroy our forces. We are like insects rushing into a blazing fire. Thus it is preferable to stop now and spend the rest of my days practicing asceticism. What do you advise, O Janārdana? My mind is afflicted by duality and doubt.”

Even though He had spent the day exerting Himself fully as Arjuna’s charioteer, Kṛṣṇa appeared fresh and spotless. A garland of unfading lotuses and necklaces of pearls and gems rested on His chest. Lifting a graceful hand He replied, “O son of Dharma, do not indulge in grief. On your side you have warriors equal to the gods. All of your brothers still stand ready to do your bidding in the battle, and all of them are invincible. I too am here to do you good, O mighty monarch. Simply order Me and I will personally slay Bhīṣma. For your sake, O son of Pāṇḍu, what would I not do? I can challenge Bhīṣma and kill him before Duryodhana’s eyes. Even if Arjuna is reluctant, you will not find Me so. If you feel that by killing Bhīṣma victory will be attained, then riding out alone, I shall end his life.”

Kṛṣṇa glanced affectionately at all the Pāṇḍavas. “He who is inimical toward your brothers is My enemy. Your friends are as dear to Me as My own relatives. Arjuna is My friend, relative and disciple. For him I would cut off and give away My own flesh. He too would lay down his own life for My sake. “Although I am ready to do whatever is necessary, I think Arjuna should keep his vow. He should slay the grandfather, not Me. There is also the prophesy regarding Śikhaṇḍī. Somehow Śikhaṇḍī will be involved in Bhīṣma’s destruction. The grandfather’s death is imminent. He has lost his good sense and no longer knows right from wrong. Let us therefore act now to bring about his end.”

Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “It is exactly as You say, Madhusudana. You are capable of destroying the entire universe with all its moving and nonmoving creatures. With Your support alone I am sure to obtain everything I desire, but I cannot let Your words be falsified for my sake. It is already enough that You came close to breaking Your promise today. You must not kill Bhīṣma. I think we will be able to find some other means, my Lord.”

Yudhiṣṭhira’s brothers nodded their approval. Kṛṣṇa was like their second self. They would never be able to tolerate hearing Him criticized. Kṛṣṇa’s words were meant to guide all men. If He broke His word, then others would follow His example and the whole world would be ruined. People would disregard His instructions and end up in hell.

Remembering what Bhisma had said to him at the beginning of the battle, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “It is Bhīṣma himself who will tell us how to kill him. Alas, how vile is a kṣatriya’s duty that I must now seek to kill he who became our father when we were fatherless. That one who has always sought our good and loved us as his own, that aged grandsire, I now wish to kill.”

Consoling the weeping Yudhiṣṭhira, Kṛṣṇa said, “Take heart, O hero. The son of Gaṅgā has chosen to follow Duryodhana and thus cannot avoid death in this battle. You have spoken rightly. We must hear from Bhīṣma himself how he may be slain. This was his promise to you. Let us go to him now and once more beseech him. If you question him, he will surely speak the truth. O Yudhiṣṭhira, take off your armor and we will go and see the son of Gaṅgā.”

Servants removed the Pāṇḍavas’ armor and they then accompanied Kṛṣṇa to the Kaurava camp. They were ushered into Bhīṣma’s tent and they bowed at his feet. Bhīṣma’s face lit up when he saw them. “Welcome, O best of the Vrishnis. Welcome too, all you sons of Pāṇḍu.”

Bhīṣma stood resplendent in his white silks. He waved his long arm toward the many fine golden seats arranged around him on the silk rugs in his tent. After his visitors were seated, he took his own seat and said, “What can I do for your delight? I will do it with all my soul, even if it is extremely difficult to accomplish.”

Yudhiṣṭhira folded his palms. Looking at Bhīṣma he remembered their years together in Hastināpura. His heart melted and he could hardly speak. Glancing across at Kṛṣṇa to gain strength, he took a deep breath and addressed the old Kuru leader. “O Bhīṣma, O highly learned man, please tell us how we may gain victory in this fight. How can we put an end to this slaughter? O lord, please tell us how we may vanquish you. You do not display even the slightest weakness in battle. Your bow is always drawn fully. No one can see when you take up your shafts, place them on your bow, and fire them. Who could dare face you when you blaze forth with such awful prowess? Each day you slaughter more of my army, and I fear that soon we shall be ruined. Thus I have come to you again, as you instructed me, O Grandsire.”

Bhīṣma was moved as he looked at Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers. All of them carried scars from the wounds they had received in the battle. All of them were gazing reverentially at his face. How different they were from Duryodhana and his brothers! Bhīṣma knew that if he told Yudhiṣṭhira now to give up the fight and leave the kingdom to the Kauravas, he would obey. There was nothing the Pāṇḍavas would not do to satisfy their elders. If only Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons were like these virtuous brothers this horrible carnage would never have happened. Yet here was Kṛṣṇa. It was surely His desire and arrangement that all the earth’s kings and warriors be destroyed. So many of them were, after all, atheistic, even demonic. Obviously, He wanted to relieve the earth’s burden.

After a few moments, Bhīṣma said, “O son of Kuntī, as long as I am alive you will not gain victory. I tell you this truly. Strike me down and victory will be yours. I will permit you, O sons of Kuntī, to strike me as you please. When I am slaughtered, then all the others on our side will be overcome.”

Yudhiṣṭhira spoke with difficulty. “Please tell us in detail how we may achieve this apparently impossible feat, O wise man. We could perhaps vanquish Indra, thunderbolt in hand, or Yamarāja wielding his mace, but you appear to be invincible.”

Bhīṣma held up his hands. “It is as you say, O King. When with these hands I clutch weapons and stand to fight, none can withstand me. Only when I lower my weapons will I be approachable. Here is my vow, which I will not break: ‘I will not raise weapons against one who is weaponless, one whose armor and standard are shattered, one who flies away in fear, one who surrenders, one who has only one son, one who is disabled, a woman, or one who bears the name of a woman.’ O son of Pāṇḍu, I will fight with none of these at any time.”

Bhīṣma placed a hand on Yudhiṣṭhira’s shoulder as he spelled out his meaning. “Drupada’s valiant and wrathful son, who is known in your army as Śikhaṇḍī--it is he who will cause my fall. Formerly he was a woman, as everyone knows. Therefore, I will not strike him, even if he attacks me. Place him at the forefront of the fight and let Arjuna stand behind him. Only Dhanañjaya or the illustrious Kṛṣṇa can bring me down in battle. If Śikhaṇḍī faces me, I will not fight. Then it will be possible for Arjuna to slay me. Do this, O Yudhiṣṭhira, and gain victory.”

When Bhīṣma stopped speaking the Pāṇḍavas rose from their seats. Bowing before him one by one, they touched his feet and asked his permission to leave. Kṛṣṇa also placed His hands on Bhīṣma’s feet and bowed to the floor before him. Then they all left the tent, leaving Bhīṣma alone. As they made their way back to their own camp, Arjuna spoke with Kṛṣṇa. His face was flushed and his voice choked as he addressed his friend. “O Vāsudeva, while playing in my childhood I would soil the high-souled Bhīṣma’s garments by climbing onto his lap. Clambering on his body I would say, ‘Father.’ That hero would then gently reply, ‘I am not your father, but your father’s father, O Bharata.’ How can I slay him, O Madhava? Let him kill our troops. I cannot kill him under any circumstances. What do You think, O Kṛṣṇa?”

Kṛṣṇa’s voice was firm. “O Jiṣṇu, having promised to kill Bhīṣma in battle, how can you now avoid that without transgressing your kṣatriya duties? Overthrow him, O son of Kuntī. Without slaying Gaṅgā’s son in battle, you can never hope to win this war. It has been ordained by the gods that Bhīṣma will soon go to Death’s abode. Only you can bring him down. Do not hesitate.

“Hear from Me an ancient instruction given by Bṛhaspati: ‘One should slay even an aged man or an elder, or one endowed with all virtues, if he comes as an enemy, or indeed anyone else who comes for one’s destruction.’ This is the eternal duty of kṣatriyas, O Dhanañjaya. Fighting, protecting the subjects, and performing sacrifices--all without maliciousness--are their sacred duties.”

Arjuna looked ahead into the darkness as they rode across the field. He knew he could not avoid this fight, especially as Kṛṣṇa repeatedly urged him on. Clearly it was his duty. Only sentiment held him back. Somehow he had to get past that. Clutching the reins of his white horse, Arjuna replied dourly, “Surely, O Kṛṣṇa, Śikhaṇḍī has been born for Bhīṣma’s death. As soon as Bhīṣma sees him he will drop his weapons. Therefore, as Bhīṣma has suggested, let us place Śikhaṇḍī at the front as we attack the grandfather. I will then do the needful.”

The Pāṇḍavas returned to their camp with mixed feelings. They now knew that victory would be theirs before long, but only at the cost of Bhīṣma’s life. Censuring Duryodhana and his old father, they entered their tents to rest for the night.

After describing to Dhṛtarāṣṭra the fights which resulted in the death of his sons, Sañjaya fell silent. The blind king was weeping again, beating his chest and tossing about on his great throne. “Alas, everything is my fault. Why did I not listen to Vidura? Where is my learned brother now? Where will all this end, O Sañjaya? What refuge is there for an old and weary man, bereft of his sons and other relations?”

Sañjaya tried to console the monarch as he vented his grief. He had little to say. The battle was taking its inevitable course. Dhṛtarāṣṭra had been told many times about the outcome. Now Bhīma was systematically destroying his sons, just as he had vowed. But would even that make Dhṛtarāṣṭra realize his fault? His self-condemnation was certainly nothing new. Every time the Kauravas suffered a reverse he expressed his remorse, but those feelings dissolved whenever he heard that they had won a battle.

As the king’s sobbing subsided, Sañjaya continued describing the battle in full. Sure enough, as he described how Bhīṣma was coursing through the battle like Death personified, the king was enlivened. He sat forward and listened carefully as Sañjaya told him how the grandfather had routed the Pāṇḍava troops.

Then Sañjaya told him of the episode in Bhīṣma’s tent. Dhṛtarāṣṭra was aghast. “Why has our grandsire revealed how he may die? How can that be his duty? I think he has become weary of the fight. Surely he is favoring Pāṇḍu’s sons over mine. Alas, I do not think I will be able to hear of the next day’s fighting, bringing as it will the fall of such a hero.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s wails again filled the empty chamber where he and Sañjaya sat. They echoed mournfully around the hall as Sañjaya looked across at the ornate seat where Bhīṣma used to sit.