Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Bhishma Redux

Right, now for a spot of mythological revisionism.

STATUTORY WARNING: If you're one of those people who get all devout and uptight about the Mahabharat and feel that all mythological icons should be respected and worshipped and stuff - DO NOT read this post. Or, rather, read it (it might clear your sinuses) but don't say I didn't warn you.

It has long been a theory of mine, that Bhishma (or Bhishm, I'd rather not put in these irritating a's at the end) was gay [1].

Here's the official version of the Bhishm story (or at least the version as gleaned from Irawati Karve's Yuganta, the TV version of Mahabharat and Amar Chitra Katha) [2]. He's a prince of Hastinapur who discovers that his father has the hots for some fisherwoman, except said fisherwoman won't sleep with him unless he can guarantee that her offspring, and not Bhishm, will become king. Bhishm, hearing of this, not only renounces the throne, but, to put the matter to rest forever, takes a vow of life-long celibacy. So committed is he to this vow that even when the welfare of the Kaurav empire requires that a heir be produced, and Bhishm emerges as the logical sperm donor for this enterprise, he refuses to father a child and safeguard the empire, thereby setting of a chain of events that leads inexorably to the split between the Kauravs and the Pandavs and the great war that was fought between them. In this war, Bhishm is originally the leader of the Kaurav forces, and proves an almost insurmountable opponent to the Pandavs, until they use the fact that Bhishm will not fight Shikhandi to defeat him. Bhishm will not fight Shikhandi, we are told, because Shikhandi used to be a woman and Bhishm does not fight women. How chivalrous! How noble!

If you think about it for a minute, this story doesn't really hold water. First, the bit about Bhishm being this chivalrous old world type is a little hard to buy. I mean, remember, the whole point about the Amba thing was that he went around abducting these women so they could marry what's his name and keep the dynasty going. And then he wouldn't do the square thing by Amba. Hardly what you would call a chivalrous act. If he was willing to drive Amba to suicide when she was a woman, why not be prepared to kill her when she'd been reborn as a man? More importantly, this is the same Bhishm who did nothing, if memory serves, when the whole Draupadi striptease thing was going down. Surely allowing a defenseless young woman to be stripped naked by a hundred horny men is a lot less chivalrous than killing one former woman who's attacking you in battle. At this point, Bhishm apologists will argue that the Shikhandi thing was just an excuse, that Bhishm just chose to die. Or that it was his way of atoning for the one wrong he ever committed. But that just feels too easy.

As for the Bhishm's great vow - even that, when you think about it, seems problematic. Are we really to believe that a young man (a prince no less) would not just give up his rightful throne, he would give up on sex for the rest of his life just so his father could sleep with some woman? And in doing so, give his consent to a request that went against every established precedent of primogeniture? Was such an extreme vow even necessary, you might ask? Could he have bargained for, and got away with less? And why go on with the vow when it clearly made no sense for the empire? When Satyavati actually pleaded with him to renounce it? The traditional version of the story will argue that this was a great and noble thing to do, but it's always struck me as being unbelievably obtuse. It's not just that it was bad policy for the state, it's also that, in refusing to break his vow, Bhishm actually overturned the code of patrilineal succession - neither the Pandavs nor the Kauravs were related by any ties of blood to the original line of the kings of Hastinapur (though they were, of course, related to Satyavati, so that succession, amazingly, had become matrilineal - so much for patriarchy!). Think about the codes that the Kshatriyas lived by and ask yourself if that isn't extreme. Think about the fact that is a man who wouldn't fight a woman after she'd 'turned into a man' but was okay with letting the succession of his kingdom pass out of his father's bloodline.

You could argue that it was a question of personal honour - even though a fairly idiotic type of honour. But notice that to overcome the problems this vow of his caused, Bhishm had to essentially set up a whole bunch of fairly dishonourable acts. There's the whole Amba story, for one. Plus you now have a set-up where someone who's virtually an outsider has to be brought in to impregnate the queens of Hastinapur. So that the kings of Hastinapur are now effectively children born out of wedlock and fathered by a man who was also born out of wedlock. So much for family honour!

Here's what I think is really going on.

Let's start with Bhishm's birth. The first thing we're told about him is that his mother tried to kill him when he was a baby. If that won't guarantee that you're going to grow up having issues with women I don't know what will. The next thing we know, he's back as the prince and heir to the throne of Hastinapur, and pretty much the first thing he does is go and vow to have no children. And remember this is in an age when there's no birth control, so no children pretty much means no sex. How unbelievably hard would that be for a young man to promise (and for what?) - unless he was homosexual, in which case it would be a really convenient way of getting permanently out of all this fathering princes for the kingdom nonsense. It's not even like his father seriously proposed this to him - he went out and found the fisherman in question and pretty much browbeat him into accepting this vow. What an unbelievable masterstroke for him. How he must have laughed his head off - not only does he get out of doing something he doesn't want to do, he becomes a hero for it!

The rest follows easily enough. Every time the situation demands that Bhishm breaks his vow, he falls back on this notion of honour, simply because it's easier to use the vow as an excuse than to make the point that he simply doesn't want to. As for Shikhandi - that's the most obvious bit, isn't it? All this woman turning into man stuff is so much gobbledy-gook. Shikhandi's simply a former lover of Bhishm's, one who, for whatever reasons, has gone over to the Pandav's side and who Bhishm will not attack because he still thinks of him as a 'woman' that is to say, as a beloved.

Obviously, there's no way I can prove this is true (anymore than anyone can prove it was false - if anything, we KNOW that Bhishm never slept with a woman). Nor am I a major Mahabharat scholar. I just think it fits the facts of the case so much better than the traditional explanation that it's at least worth thinking about. For all you know, that might even have been the original version of the story, and it's only centuries of intolerance and silly prudishness that have distorted it to produce the tale we now know.


[1] If you haven't already figured this out from reading my blog, I'm a strong supporter of gay rights and of 'non-traditional' sexual preferences in general. So when I say I think Bhishm was gay, I absolutely DO NOT mean that as being denigrating - if anything it would raise my respect for him considerably. Then he wouldn't be some clueless old fraud, he would be pretty much the smartest person in that whole story.

[2] Obviously there's a lot more to the Bhishm story, but this is the important stuff.

[3] N.B. If you want an even more fun hypothesis you can go the Terry Pratchett route and argue that Bhishm was really a woman. But that's a whole other post.

[4] Oh, and what about all that stuff about him lying on a bed of arrows? Talk about phallic symbolism.



Heh Heh said...

Reminds me of my LVMR presentation on Yuganta. Except that our theory was that he was impotent instead of gay. don't know if you remember...

meditativerose said...

funny .. that's what I was just saying ... first, he could have been the 'sperm donor' even if he was gay. Also, if he was married, no-one would really care if he was sleeping with men on the side. There would be more shame and more of a need to cover up impotence rather than homosexuality.

Falstaff said...

heh: I do vaguely. Actually, this whole post was a footnote in my final LVMR report (you remember we had to do a piece on a fictional character - I did mine on Bhishm). My main hypothesis in that report wasn't that he was gay - it was that he lacked nerve. So in a sense, I was arguing that he was impotent too, but more in an existential sense than in a sexual one.

Falstaff said...

MR: Ya, ya, agree with heh heh, why don't you?

I don't disagree with the impotence argument necessarily, but how do you explain Shikhandi?

As for being a sperm donor - MAYBE he could have (though that's not obvious) but I don't see why he would. The point is that he had the opportunity to get out of something he wouldn't want to do and get honoured for it. It's like being paid for not watching the Superbowl. Specially when you consider that de facto power stayed pretty much with him, so it's not like he really gave up on much.

Of course, you do realise that the two arguments aren't mutually exclusive?

Veena said...

I thought about this gay angle some time back - but what I couldn't figure out was why would people consider him virtuous and stuff. Then I realised that in an age when most people were probably bisexual, this guy being so faithful to one sex would have been so cool. Pinnacle of sacrifice indeed.

Alok said...

this is the same Bhishm who did nothing, if memory serves, when the whole Draupadi striptease thing was going down.

I thought striptease was something voluntary. Being stripped forcefully by somebody and doing a striptease isn't the same thing ;)

Pareshaan said...

In the context of the Mahabharata it hardly makes any difference whether Bhishma was gay or not. He did what he had to do, Mahabharata includes reasons for why he did what he did. Your take on things may be correct,they also may resonate more with people living today but by making Bhishma gay you are again trying to do away with the Heroism that is attached with this character. A man who was compelled to do certain things however unpleasant, just because he thought them to be right, he considered them his Dharma.
Why go Freud on his ass? What is this obsession with False Gods? People need their heroes, both real and unreal - or maybe that is too broad a generalization, I need my heroes, and thus I thought your post was rather unnecessary. Besides irreverence it really had nothing going for it - I am sorry.

Supremus said...

Humorous and totally non-sensical, but interesting nonetheless hehe!


Falstaff said...

Veena: no, no, his virtue had nothing to do with his sexuality. Didn't you watch the TV series. Any man who managed to keep his clothes that pure shade of white without the use of micro-whiteners or super bleach had to be virtuous no?

Alok: Good point. I stand corrected. Plus, of course, if one is being technical, she really wasn't stripped at all, was she? Still, you know what I mean.

Pareshaan: Wow. You really do live up to your name, don't you. I could argue that it's hard not to be obssessed with False Gods when people all over the world are being killed in their name. I could point you to the relevant section of the post and make the point that I'm not trying to make Bhishm less heroic - on the contrary, if he really was gay and was shrewd and manipulative enough to portray himself the way he did, then that, for me, escalates him from being a bumbling old fart to a true hero. I could clarify that my whole point is that he didn't do what he had to because he thought it was 'right', he did it because it was in his best interests. Period. I could enquire, in great bewilderment, why you think being necessary is a criterion for blog posts! I could ask why you think reverence is important, but irreverence isn't. But I'm not going to. My only advice is: lighten up. And enjoy your freshly cleared sinuses.

Suyog: Thanks.

useless said...

You seem to have missed the TOE that explains all Indian mythology.It's called 'past karma'

Vishnu/Tulasi pair does the same stuff that Ahalya-Indra do but then purvajanma explains it all and acquits Tulasi? Ditto with Bhishma - His very birth was for 'acts of heroism for the sake of chivalry. As one one of the eight vasus he stole a Vashishta's cow for his wife goaded by his friends just for this 'defending his personal honor'

Again in mythology,the number of women one is with and impotence seem to be unrelated..Krishna never had kid(some say he had one son) ..so many freakin women and only one son..Some serious contraception there..

My personal take on Bhishma is that he is a character developed to show mellowness as age progresses.His later statements are all subtle,philosophical points even if he was this confused guy in the earlier part.

Me thinks Bhishma might have been asexual??

Pareshaan said...

reverence is not important, neither is irreverence, just for its own sake.
As far as people killing people over false gods is concerned, your point is well taken.
And I am sorry if I conveyed the impression that necessity was somehow a criterion for the existence of a post. Bad writing on my part.
Do not worry, you have not really cleared my sinuses here, I have no trouble with your post, except for the fact that at least in my case the only reason that I like Bhishma is because his karma is according to his dharma, not because he is a wily old gent. This is the Mahabharat not Machiavelli.
I just think that certain things are best left alone, because they are already doing what they are supposed to.
I am sorry I see that you took great umbrage to my comment. My question was simply: why are you such a contrarian all the time?
Its none of my business, but since you do spend a considerable amount of time coming up with posts of a very high calibre and a certain length, you must be believing that they are important. I could not understand how this was important. It seemed unnecessary to ME. I am sorry, I guess I must be stupid.

Pareshaan said...

And Falstaff, if my comments are irritating you, then please let me know, I will desist from any further comments of this nature. I just think that a post such as this one needs a warm and hearty comment. Lemme know, I would hate to be trolling around your blog.

Anonymous said...

tu chuiya hai!

Falstaff said...

Gupta-vati: Ah, but that raises the even more interesting question whether there's anything to all this karma business except sex. All this you have to do what (who?) you have to do business in the Bhagavad Gita - maybe it's all about Krishna helping Arjun come out of the closet? Action without expectation of fruit of action. See what I mean? :-).

As I said in my earlier comment - my real interpretation of Bhishm has nothing to do with his sexuality - I see him as a textbook study of how the notion of duty hamstrings us. Because Bhishm has no real sense of self, he is unable to actually take any actions that would be in his own self-interest - he's addicted to self-abnegation to the point where it's become all that he's capable of. But the gay hypothesis is so much more fun.

Pareshaan: No, no, look - I wasn't taking umbrage and I wasn't irritated at all. My general point was only that this stuff is just whimsical and not to be taken too seriously. I certainly don't want you to stop commenting or anything. I quite enjoy them - multiplicity of perspective is always good. The only point I would make is that most of these posts aren't frankly thought through that much (irrespective of how they may appear) and their length is actually an indicator of the fact that I've been too lazy to edit them. There are posts on this blog that I'm very serious about - but they're typically not the ones that deal with current affairs / politics / false heroes etc (hint: they're more likely to be the ones on poetry or writing). So I'm happy to have you comment, but understand that I'm not trying to make some deep philosophical point that will change society forever - I'm just having fun.

Anon: Thanks. Such erudition, from one so anonymous

(Pareshaan: note. if you want a sample of comments that do irritate me - look no further than this three word gem!)

Karthik said...

Great post...

Remember, he came from a culture that equated (equates) extreme denial with greatness, and the urge to be famous and respected sometimes overwhelms everything else. So if he had asked his dad to sod it, he would've been happy but he wouldn't be this well-known. Perhaps Bhishma was smart enough to recognize opportunity when he saw it... maybe.

And as far Shikhandi - it could be that Bhishma recognized the futility of his resistance and decided to go out in a blaze of glory - what better way than this? He sort of makes up to Amba for what he did the last time around, AND he gets to remind people of his chivalry and they'll remember him forever...

Sunil said...

hehe....the gay hypothesis is good fun, and there's no reason he couldn't have been gay. I don't think it was such a big deal in the old days.

Anyway......being a stickler for language....it is Bhishma with the "a". Sanskrit vowels and consonants had the a in them, unless other wise specified with a halantha and Bhishma (भीशम and not भीशम्) certainly had a complete "ma" at the end. :-)) Irritating or not......it's there!

Anonymous said...

Of course the fact that nothing mentioned in the Mahabharatha actually happened does not matter to this analysis.

Pareshaan said...

Thank you boss, will keep that in mind. The three word gem though is missing a 't' - is it not?

Falstaff said...

karthik: INteresting. Agree with the point that culture matters. My own interpretation has always been that the cultural importance of self-sacrifice forced him to suspend his own desires in order to conform - so it's less taking an opportunity, more avoiding a cost. But that's just two sides of the same coin, I guess.

Sunil: Okay. Can't speak for the Bhishma (there, happy?) case, but overall I think the problem is that there just isn't the a sound (as in arrival) in the way English is written. So the trouble is if you write it as Bhishm it ends up rhyming with schism, whereas if you write it as Bhishma it ends up rhyming with enigma. Still, my primary motivation was to save all that extra typing :-).

Anonymous: of course not. you can't let facts get in the way of a good hypothesis.

pareshaan: Yes, I believe so. it's sad enough when people can't find anything coherent to say, but when they can't even spell it, that's just amazingly funny

Pushpak said...

Hey ,

Nice post. I was smiling half way through and then laughing all the way to the footnotes.

I do agree with you (and with Iravati Karve as well) that Bhishma is one big 'gray matter' in the epic tale. Rather than the virtuous hero that tradition calls him, I just think of him as a confused man who could not choose wisely for the betterment of his own country and people, and let false notions of 'dharma' and 'karma' dictate the course of his life.

For a really *fresh* take on the Mahabharata characters, read "Parva" by Dr Bhairappa. The original is in Kannada, though I believe it has been translated enough times. I read it in Marathi. You will certainly find it interesting.

Ashok K. Banker said...

Terrific post, Falstaff! Love the whole theory and your very logical as well as inspired reasoning.

But you know, that's the beauty of looking at old tropes with fresh eyes: you can come up with such original points of view.

I wish more people would do it, it's the historical version of 'dealing with baggage'.

There are billions out there who need to do this: to stop taking everything as the writ of God (and that includes the so-called 'writ of God' itself) and look at it from their individual, independent point of view.

Do more of this, man! You rock!

Anonymous said...

Having been gay-bashed so many times I can tell you that Anon (though not me) means it as s/he spells it. That's a derogatory (as i gather. i've never heard anyone whose not a troll say it) reference to homosexuals...

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sewa said...

terrific! just wat i was thinking! though i dont buy the shikhandi bit, the rest of it rings true, he didnt even convert when he could have and still maintained honor