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Bhishma Pratignya

The story goes back as far as those early days of the Pandavas and their cousins, the Kauravas when the country was known as “Mahabharata”. Great India, because she was the mother of heroes and their deeds were the deeds of the great. In these days, the chief of both clans alike was Bhishma, “Grandsire” or “Pitamaha” as he was called. He was equally loved and respected by all. He was not the King, but greater still, the maker and director of kings; and amidst all the events of that stirring time, his form looms large as a great battle-charger. Bhishma was not the king, but he had been born to the throne and of his own free will had given up his right.

It had happened thus. When he was still young, having been brought up in great splendor as the only son and heir-apparent of Shantanu the King, a strange thing occurred. His father, the sovereign of the country, fell in love with a beautiful maiden, who was nothing but a fisherman’s daughter.

The fisherman, however, was very fine and proud and would not hear of his daughter marrying out of the proper rank. If she did this, he said, it would only be to bring undeserved humiliation upon herself. It was true that she would live for the rest of her life in a palace, but in that palace, who would she be? None would look upon her as the Queen, for no son of hers would ever be considered fit to inherit the throne. Only if her son could be made crown-prince, instead of Bhishma, would he consent to her wedding the King? This meant that the fisherman could not take the proposal seriously. So strong were all men in those days of the heroes.

Of course, the condition laid down was out of the question and as soon as King Shantanu understood that the girl’s father really meant what he said, he withdrew his suit. But, it was impossible to forget the beautiful maiden herself and everyone saw that the King was sad at heart. Even the Prince began to notice it. When he found out the reason for this, he came to a conclusion. How unexpected was the result! No sooner did Bhishma understand the cause of his father’s sorrow, than he called for his chariot and set out to visit the house of the fisherman. On arriving there, he inquired carefully about the reason for the refusal of this marriage. The fisherman told him that if it had been possible to make his daughter the mother of a future king, he would by no means have objected to her entering the royal household.

‘Then,” said the prince, “the matter should be easily settled, for I am perfectly willing to give up all right to the throne in favor of the children of your daughter, Satyavati.”

“Ah, sir,” said the fisherman, “it is easy for you to promise and easy for you to keep the word in your goodwill. But, you will marry someday, and what about your sons? They will not be willing to forgo a crown, simply because such was your intention.”

The Prince saw the truth of these words and quietly determined that his father’s happiness was dearer to him than all the world; besides, he made up his mind to another great vow. “I promise you,” he said, “that I shall never marry; so I can never have a child to lay claim to the succession. And now, will you allow me to take your daughter to my father?”
The fisher-maiden was led forth, veiled, and the Prince saluted her as his mother and placed her in his own chariot. Then, taking the place of the charioteer, he gathered up the reins and drove straight to the doorway of the palace.

Shantanu could hardly believe his eyes, when the bride that he had desired was led before him by the son, for whose sake he had silently renounced her. But, when he understood how and why she had come, he felt sudden awe for the selflessness of his son and named him for the first time, “Bhishma, the Terrible,” blessing him with a wonderful blessing. “Go forth, my son,” said the King, “knowing that as long as thou shalt desire to live, none can ever endanger your life. Death himself shall never be able to approach thee, without first obtaining your own consent.” The blessing of the father or the mother always creates destiny and long, long afterwards, Bhishma, on his deathbed beside the lake of Kurukshetra, was to prove the truth of the King’s words.

From this time onwards, the life of the Prince was half that of a monk. Full of knightly deeds he was, but, like some great knight templar, no act was performed for his own benefit, but always for the safety of his order or the common weal. It was his part to crown kings and then, serve them, protecting their kingdoms for them. Satyavati, the queen, had twin sons, but one died young, in the early years of her widowhood, and it seemed as if the royal line might become extinct. With tears, then, she, now the queen-mother, but once a simple fishermaiden, implored Bhishma, the Prince to marry. She released him over and over again from his promise.

But, nothing would induce him to break his vow. Instead, he went, like a monk clad in armor, to the swayamvara of the princesses of a neighboring kingdom and challenged all the other guests to fight. Then, he won each duel in turn and ended by carrying off the daughters of the King to be wives of Satyavati’s son. With breathless pride and admiration had the royal maidens watched the prowess of the strange knight. His strength was indeed terrible. Everyone went down before him. And his armor shone in the sunlight with gold and jewels.

Bhishma lived for many more years till the end of the Kurukshetra war. He died fixing all his thoughts on Krishna and so united himself with the Eternal, to live forever in the love and memory of India as Bhishma the Terrible. He was her great and stainless knight, who lived as he had died, and died as he had lived, without fear and without reproach.

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