Bishma Complex


Epics are stories that convey the life and history of a time in the past. They are described as “Ithihasa” meaning the way it was. Ramayana and Mahabaratha are the two well-known epics from Hindu literature.

The story of Ramayana is used to tell the way Rama conducted his life from childhood till he ascended the throne as a king with strict adherence to the discrimination between right and wrong. While no one can be perfect including Rama (considered as the human incarnation of the Lord), the story of Ramayana describes the challenges faced by anyone as he/she searches for the right vs. wrong in every step of life.

Mahabaratha is a much more elaborate story with many characters, their strengths and weaknesses reflected in the complex canopy we call “life” which includes the self, family, friends, community and society at large. The central theme of Mahabaratha is Baghawath Geetha – the conversation between the warrior Arjuna and his friend (who doubles as the charioteer) Krishna (considered as another human incarnation of the Lord). The conversation in the middle of the battle field is metaphoric to the life and the battles to be faced in it by every one of us. The reflective and conscientious Arjuna wonders “if he should fight and why?” with the potential for the huge calamity and loss of life to follow, even though as a warrior it is his duty to follow orders and fight as required. Krishna uses this conversation to explain to Arjuna (and by inference each of us) answers to several questions such as: Who is “I”?, What is “duty”?, What is “life”?, What is “Objectivity?”, How a life of subjective experiences leads to all our perturbations?, how it can be transformed into a life of objective tranquility?, What is spirituality?, etc. We have written many blogs on these and many such questions in this blog site.

In addition to their central themes both these epics – Ramayana and Mahabaratha – provide an array of characters whose behavior, choices and way of life can be analyzed. They are very rich sources of learning. One key character in Mahabaratha is Bishma.  His role is writ large in every aspect of this complex story. In summary, Bishma displayed many virtues throughout his life: At a very young age, he took a vow to never become a king, so that his father could have another child who could become the king. He also took a vow never to marry so that there will be no threat to the kingdom from his own children thus preserving the valor of his earlier oath. For this noble act he was rewarded with a long life that will not end even as many generations passed by. In a sense this boon of long life ended up as a curse as well! His long life forced him to perform many acts considered as “duty” in a narrow sense. He participated in war like aggression to gain brides for his half-brother so that his dynasty can continue. In the process he destroyed the tender love of a young woman without being aware of it. He stood by many evil acts of his clan who were now ruling the kingdom, even though he felt they were incorrect as well as incompetent to serve as rulers. He stood by an immoral act of disrobing Draupadi (the main character and the heroine) since he felt powerless to stand up against his own family members. Yet, he assumed the power to lead his clan into a war, even though his heart was not for it and his clan was mostly unscrupulous and conniving at best. Finally in his death bed lying on a bed of arrows he recites the thousand names in the glory of the Lord, which is recited even today by devout Hindus. Anyone interested in the details of Bishma as a character and in his expansive role in Mahabaratha can read:

Every one of us is certain to grow old. Many of us desire to have a long and healthy life. When blessed as such it also brings with it challenges and complexities that need to be addressed objectively. Response to events largely based on subjective preferences dominated by attachment and bias (Rajasam) and unaware of this implicit bias (ignorance or Thaamasam) can lead to untold disruptions and tumult not only for the elder person but for the entire family (as illustrated in Mahabharata). We refer to this behavior by elders in the family and the impact as “Bishma Complex”.

Our actions from childhood will have good and bad aspects attached to them. Eventually others around us will look up to the elders in the family, community or society. Will our behavior and decisions be conditioned by our lessons learned, tempered with judgement and reasoning that is reflected in our objectivity? Or will they be driven by attachments and personal pet peeves which lead to more anxiety and upheaval as was the case in most of Bhishma’s life? Or will there be blind loyalty to traditional values (e.g.: family, religion, nationalism, etc.) that dominate over larger common good (across families, religions and nations)? These are not hypothetical questions.

In the past few decades globalization, peace and prosperity has spread across the globe. As a result, there are many families that have grown out of poverty into better education, employment, immigration and migration leading to more favorable circumstances. As economic standards and affluence improve, the elders who pushed the boundaries for better economic growth in their youth may need to find new dimensions and challenges to pursue for their younger generations. At some point one need to realize that money and power is not everything. Having struggled for these over many years, transitioning to broader themes of love, kindness and affection for all may not be easy.

The politics of climate change, the stagnation across political parties, religious intolerance, the leaning towards extreme right or left are all indications of blind loyalty. They may also be evidences where the older generation act as a voting block and insist on their blind allegiance to traditional values. In this regard the Bishma Complex may be more real and present today, than a fictional interpretation from an ancient epic.

The best effort of every person sets the standard for those who follow him/her.   B.G. 3. 21.

Age is a natural process that results in follower-ship. But old age and the opportunities it provides if they are not used wisely, they can lead to harm and hardship over generations. On the other hand practiced with objectivity and wisdom, old age creates unique opportunities for leadership leading to peace and harmony over generations. The balancing act between these two alternatives may be described as “Bishma Complex”?

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1 Response to Bishma Complex

  1. Pingback: You can take a horse to the water but can not make it drink! | Spirituality In Practice

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