The Bhishma Complex
There are many major characters in the Indian epic Mahabharata. Among them is Bhishma who was originally known as Devavruta. Born as the son of King Shantanu and Ganga he was like a pitamaha or grandfather to both Pandavas and Kauravas, the cousins who fought one another in the the famous Kurukshetra War. When Ganga left Shantanu and his kingdom of Hastinapura after many years of marriage, he fell in love with Satyavati, the adopted daughter of a ferryman. But when Shantanu proposed to marry her, her father would give permission only on condition that the king should grant the right of succession to the children born of Satyavati. Obviously the king could not accept this condition as Bhishma was already declared heir apparent. Hence, he retreated from his request for permission to marry Satyavati.
However, because he could not marry Satyavati he lost all his desire for life; he became gloomy and depressed. When Bhishma found out the cause of the sudden change in his father he rushed to the father of Satyavati and promised that he would relinquish his claim to the throne so that his father could marry Satyavati. Then Satyavati’s father said that later Bhishma’s sons would stake the claim for succession. Immediately he took a ‘fierce oath’ (bhishama pratigya) to remain celibate all his life . It was because he took this fierce oath that later he began to be known as Bhishma. This was acceptable to Sayavati’s father and so he gave away his daughter in marriage to King Shantanu with delight.
Bhishma was so selfless he sacrificed his future for the happiness of his father. Moreover, he always tried to be honest and just in his dealings. However, this great man failed miserably at a critical moment. When Duryodana, the leader of Kavuravas invited his cousin and rival Yudhishtira, the leader of Pandavas, for a game of dice with betting he had no choice other than to accept it. However, during the game he lost everything including his kingdom, his brothers as well as his wife Draupadi and his own freedom. It was at this time Duryodana decided to disrobe Draupadi and humiliate her in front of the royal court. When Draupadi was forcefully brought to the royal court Bhishma was present there. She pleaded with everyone including Bhishma to save her from humiliation. Nevertheless Bhishma did not do anything to save her. Instead, he only expressed his inability to do so.
Karna is another major character in Mahabharata who was the half-brother of Yudhishtira and his four brothers. However, he was not aware of this relationship until the great war began between the Pandavas and the Kavuravas. By this time, he had already aligned himself with the Kavuravas. Even after he came to know about this relationship he decided to stick with the Kavuravas to show his gratitude to them for providing him protection. However, Karna is well-known for his acts of charity and kindness more than anything else. He was even willing to give away his protective armor and ear rings knowing that it would ultimately lead to his death.
Karna who was consistently kind and compassionate all his life failed miserably on one important occasion. During the war when Abhimanyu fell wounded and begged Karna for some drinking water he decided to turn a blind eye to his request instead of helping him even though water was available. Moreover, he did this knowing that Abhimanyu was the son of his half-brother Arjun! This was tantamount to cruelty.
In general we are all good people as we always try to be honest, just, kind and fair in everything we do. And often we succeed in doing so. However, the fact that we are honest, just, kind and fair most of the time should not give us the impression that we are really good people. If we claim that we are good people, then we should always be good. A single mistake at a critical moment is enough to show ourselves and to the whole world who we really are.
Let us come back to the story Bhishma and Karna. When Bhishma decided not to defend a helpless woman even after she sought his help, his life-long reputation of being selfless, just and fair went down the drain. Similarly, when Karna heartlessly neglected to give a drink to the dying man, his reputation of being kind and charitable went to the dogs. If Bhishma was selfless, just and honest to the core, he would never have remained silent at the sight of injustice and cruelty. On the contrary, he would have fought against it tooth and nail. In the same way, if Karna was really a kind person at heart he would not have turned down the request of dying man for drinking water. Instead, he would have sacrificed his own life to rush to the help of the dying man.
It is not enough that we are honest, just, kind and fair in some cases or on some days, or especially when there is a calamity like a Coronavirus pandemic. Instead, we should reflect all these qualities everyday of our life in every way. Of course, this is a big challenge but it is well worth taking up this challenge and living accordingly. As human beings we may make mistakes. However, if we are truly good to the core we will never commit one knowingly and willingly; and if we happen to make a mistake we will correct it immediately by making amends. Rather than claiming our goodness let us try to ensure that we are always good in every way at all times. If we do so we will slowly become the people we claim to be.