Bhishma – the ego manifest
Kurukshetra means the field of doing. The doer within us is our ego. Bhishma and Arjuna are two very important warriors in the Mahabharata; Bhishma symbolising the ego within us, and Arjuna depicting the disciple within us working to dissolve the ego.
The ninth day of the Mahabharata war is characterised by Bhishma devastating the Pandava army. Even the mighty Arjuna has fought and lost many duels with him. Here, Sri Krishna warns Yudhisthira that unless the Pandavas defeat Bhishma, defeat in the battle was a surety. The perplexing question for Yudhisthira was “How does one kill someone who has the boon of voluntary death (ichcha mrityu)?” Sri Krishna advises Yudhisthira to return to Bhishma the blessing of victory that Bhishma bestowed before the war began. When Yudhisthira goes to him, Bhishma concedes that if a woman comes in front of him, he will be forced to drop his weapons (owing to his pratigya). Yudhisthira is left in a dilemma, as by rule, a woman cannot fight.
Later that day, Sri Krishna narrates to the Pandavas the story of Shikhandin who was born a woman but raised as a man. Hence, on the tenth day, Arjuna asks Shikhandin to be alongside him on his chariot during the battle. On seeing Shikhandin, Bhishma lays down his weapons. This allows Arjuna to shoot arrows that penetrate an unarmed Bhishma’s armour, felling him on a bed of arrows. If we can unravel this beautiful symbology, then we will have unlocked some of the most guarded secrets of our spiritual journey.
That which frightens the soul into forgetting its immortality and getting bound in sentient existence is Bhishma or the Ego
The word Bhishma comes from the root ‘bhi’, meaning to frighten. Even though our soul is immortal, we live in the fear of death. Our attention is hypnotised by our bodily existence and the indulgences of the five senses. That which frightens the soul into forgetting its immortality and getting bound in sentient existence is Bhishma or the Ego. He rules our psychic nature forcing our soul, the real ruler, into a hypnotic trance. Here lies the seed of human suffering. The scriptures depict this as the pratigya or vow of celibacy that Bhishma took to satisfy the lust of his father. This very pratigya became the root cause of the Mahabharata war. The whole aim of spirituality is to dissolve the ego and awaken the sleeping soul to its true divine nature.
Our bodies may be male or female but psychologically we are both male energy and female energy. Energies that ‘do’ are male and energies that ‘receive’ are female. Even Yudhisthira was left wondering as to how to obtain the female energy on the field of doing. Our egos are the epitome of male energy. The only time the ego manifests as female energy is when the ego itself decides that it has had enough and wants to consciously dissolve. This is called as surrender or ichcha mrityu. Shikhandin symbolizes the female energy in a male form. Bhishma’s whole life has been a play of male energy. For the first time on the battlefield, when he sees Shikhandin, he realises the time of surrender has come and that the ego is now tired. Here, Bhishma is referred to as ‘kuruvriddh’ or the one who is tired of doing.
To surrender is the essence of our spiritual journey. A point in time comes when our egos decide that they have had enough of doing and want to surrender. Initially, we look for an external teacher and surrender to him (or her), but this is only the beginning of a long process of surrendering in normal life. In every event of life, we must be able to recognise the Bhishma within us. This becomes apparent whenever we are aggressive or obstinate. This obstinacy or aggressiveness manifests in the way we relate with our wives, children, and friends. If we sense this, we can shift away from the male energy of aggressiveness towards the female energy of surrender. This is the point where Bhishma is unarmed, allowing (the inner) Arjuna to shoot an arrow wounding the mighty ego. This is a long process over a life-time. At some point in time, we will experience the ego dissolving, and will witness flashes of freedom and joy, which have been obscured by the ego for so long. Once we have felt the joy beyond the ego, the pleasures that we have sought till now become insignificant and vain.
Bhishma’s death is depicted very beautifully in the Mahabharata. The war has ended and the time has come for the final dissolution of the ego. The inner soul has awakened and this consciousness is symbolised by Sri Krishna. Till now our only feeling of ‘I’ was the ego, now the real ‘I’ has awakened and the false ‘I’ or ego passes through its final dissolution in his presence. This is the greatest moment of grace in the disciple’s journey and is shown by Sri Krishna applying the soil of the ‘field of doing’ on Bhishma’s forehead. The disciple is now free of all bondage and his consciousness soars as high as the eagle flies.