The most moving episode in the Mahabharat, one that brought tears to my eyes, is the death of Bheeshma. The whole backstory of Bheeshma-Amba is a tremendous narrative feat with amazing twists and turns and a bittersweet element that finally has a tragic and yet uplifting end.
The Bhagwad Gita could also be said to be predicated by Arjuna’s reluctance to kill Bheeshma. In the end, he does what he has to, as exhorted to by Krishna, but I loved how he remains conflicted and torn about felling his grandsire at the end. If it takes courage to face one’s enemies, what must it take to cut down a loved one for the sake of a larger cause? I loved the romance of Bheeshma refusing to fight Sikhandi and how he could tell the difference between Sikhandi’s arrows and those of Arjuna. I almost wished it had been Sikhandi’s arrows that had killed Bheeshma but it did add to the drama that Bheeshma wanted to be killed by a warrior.
And then Bheeshma doesn’t just die, but has to lie on arrows for another 60 days. And it is Arjuna who can make him comfortable. I vividly remember this part from the odd times I’d catch the Mahabharata on TV as the child but the plot was too complicated. I remember asking my mother what was going on but she just gave up trying to explain. Don’t blame her now that I know the backstory upon backstory.
The nuance that characterises the Mahabharata is very present in this story. The mighty Pandavas are able to defeat Bheeshma only after going to him under the cover of darkness and asking him to reveal the secret to his defeat. This, he reveals because he is their grandfather and cannot refuse, but also because he wants them to win because they are righteous. However, the Pandavas are sheepish about having to do this, and even more so about having to use Sikhandi.
Another nuance that added a bittersweet quality to the story is that Bheeshma and Sikhandi have an unrequited love. Sikhandi’s hate for Bheeshma is tinged with love. Bheeshma cannot allow himself to love Amba because of his vow, but almost at the end, he acknowledges it and his gallantry is in part a hattip to this. The drama, the drama.
The character of Amba/Sikhandi is probably my favourite in the whole epic. The Mahabharat is full of feisty women, and Amba is a good example. She refuses to become a martyr to her fate, and she takes on a male role through generations. Interestingly, she’s reborn as a sibling of Draupadi who’s hardly a docile one either. Devdutt Patanaik points out how Draupada’s household seemed destined to raise questions about gender what with male-female being combined in Sikhandi and then split yet linked in Draupadi and Dhristadhyumna. The very existence of Sikhandi, however, is transgressive and yet, just like Draupadi and her unusual marital situation, Sikhandi’s gender ambiguity is largely accepted, which might be a lesson to us in modern times.