Bhima Sthairya: Steadfastness in Bhagavata Dharma

We continue the series of posts highlighting the ten guNas that bhimasena displays in the mahabharata. The ten gunas have been explained by Sri Madhwacharya in his mahabharata tatparya nirnaya as follows

भक्तिर्ज्ञानं सवैराग्यं प्रज्ञा मेधा धृतिः स्थिथिः |

योगः प्राणो बलं चैव वृकोदरो इति स्मृतः || २-१४१ ||

Vrikodara is the personification of bhakti, jnana, vairagya, prajna, medha, dhruti, sthithi, yoga, prana and bala — devotion, knowledge, detachment, grasping power, retention (of wisdom), courage, steadfastness, endeavour, activity and strength respectively.

Let us look at an incident during the mahabharata war that shows the immense ‘sthithi’ (स्थिथि) or ‘sthairya’ (स्थैर्य) that bhimasena possessed. Sthairya is a guNa which allows one to be extremely firm under any situation. Bhima’s main goal in the mahabharata was to be always on the path of shuddha-bhagavata-dharma, the highest path of dharma. Such a commitment required immense sthairya, which bhima had in abundance.

Ashwathama releases the narayana astra

On the 15th day of the war, due to combination of a great strategy by sri krishna, in asking yudhisthira to tell drona that ashwathama had died, and the subsequent realisation of drona that his time had ended, the elder brahmana warrior gave up his weapons and sat down for tapas — right in the middle of the battlefield. Very soon, his atma deserted the body and proceeded towards urdhva lokas. At the same, dhrishtadyumna cut off the head of the lifeless body of drona and fulfilled his own vow.

Soon, the news of his father’s death, through debatable means, reached the ears of ashwathama. Being an avatara of rudra, he was naturally prone to anger. However, his father’s demise meant that his anger knew no bounds this time. He undertook a terrible annihilation of the pandava warriors. He also took a vow that he would kill drupada and dhristadyumna as revenge for his father’s death.

सर्वोपायैर्यतिष्यामि पाञ्चालानामहं वधे |

धृष्टद्युम्नं च समरे हन्ताहं पापकारिणम् || Drona. 166. 28 ||

I shall strive to kill panchala through all means. I shall (definitely) kill the sinner dhrishtadyumna.

Ashwathama also undertook to release the most powerful ‘narayana’ astra that was in his possession.

The narayana astra was a most unique weapon with the capability of destroying everyone who came in its path. It was earlier obtained by drona from narayana himself. Drona had passed it on to ashwathama. The weapon had no counter. None could escape its consequence— which was death itself! There were only a few ways of surviving the attack of the narayana astra

  • Giving up one’s weapons
  • Surrendering to the enemy when the weapon was active
  • Seeking pardon directly from the weapon

Ashwathama claimed at this moment that even lord krishna cannot survive this particular weapon. Of course it doesn’t occur to him (at that moment) that sri krishna was none other than narayana himself. So there was no question of the weapon hurting him!

Shortly thereafter, ashwathama kept his word and launched the narayana astra on the pandava army. The weapon began its task of mass annihilation. It started to burn away the soldiers from the pandava camp. Every single moment, the weapon grew bigger and bigger — into a massive ball of fire. Hundreds and hundreds of soldiers were caught unaware of the power of the weapon — only to pay a dear price in the form of their lives.

Krishna’s solution to the weapon

Yudhisthira noticed that ashwathama has released the great narayana weapon and also saw the havoc it was causing on his army. He assumed that there was no way out of this, and prepared to die!

However, as on every other situation, sri krishna, the great protector of the pandavas guided them with the way out. He announced to all that the only way to survive the weapon was to give up one’s weapons and climb down from their chariots. In other words — to surrender to the narayana astra.

शीघ्रं न्यस्यत शस्त्राणि वाहेभ्यश्चावरोहत |

एष योगोsत्र विहितः प्रतिघातो महात्मना || Drona. 200. 38||

Put down your weapons quickly. Get down from your vehicles. The great one (narayana) himself has devised this as the way to resolve (this weapon).

निक्षेप्यन्ति च शस्त्राणि वाहनेभ्योsवरुह्य ये |

तान्नैतदस्त्रं संग्रामे निहनिष्यति मानवान् || Drona. 200. 41||

This astra shall not destroy those men who get down from their vehicles and put down their weapons.

All the pandavas followed the advice of sri krishna and put down their weapons and surrender to the narayana astra. The astra pardoned all of them!

Even arjuna surrendered to the great astra.

Bhima’s unflinching bhagavata dharma

When the entire pandava camp was thus prostrating before the divine astra, bhima declared that he shall not surrender to the weapon!

Bhima had a vrata of following the highest dharma of a kshatriya — the bhagavata dharma. One of the rules of bhagavata dharma was that a kshatriya should never quit battle, no matter what the circumstances of the war were. Therefore, bhima refused to get down from his vehicle and prostrate at the weapon.

It was a life-and-death situation, and yet bhima refused to compromise. Truly a measure of his amazing ‘sthithi’.

The bhagavata dharma required that an adherent also try to keep others in the same path. Therefore, bhima made a passionate plea to the others not to surrender to the weapon.

No one should give up their weapons. I shall stop the son of drona through my weapons. Even if there is none in either camp to face the astra, I shall do so. Just like how shakra is the most powerful amongst the devas, I am the most powerful one here.

O Arjuna! you too should not give up your gandiva!

Bhima made it a point to tell his younger brother not to give up the mighty gandiva. However, arjuna responded by saying that he had a vrata to follow — which required that he does not challenge any weapon belonging to narayana.

भीम नारायणास्त्रे मे गोषु च ब्राह्मणेषु च |

एतेषु गाण्डीवं न्यस्यमेतद्धि व्रतमुत्तमम् || Drona. 200. 59||

I have undertaken a vrata due to which I shall not engage my gandiva against cows, brahmanas and the mighty narayana astra!

Thus, every single warrior in the pandava camp surrendered to the weapon, except bhimasena, due to his unflinching commitment to bhagavata dharma.

Does bhima violate sri krishna’s words?

In the entire mahabharata, bhimasena is known for having never violated the words of sri krishna or sri veda vyasa. Naturally, in this particular incident, a question arises whether he disregarded the words of sri krishna to get down from the vehicle and surrender.

Sri madhwacharya in his mahabharata tatparya nirnaya has clarified that sri krishna’s words at that moment was delivered as a solution to those wanting to escape the weapon and not as a specific order to surrender. In other words, sri krishna says those who wish to live should surrender. Since bhimasena was clear in his mind that adhering to bhagavata dharma was more important than his own life, he chose not to surrender. There was thus absolutely no violation of sri krishna’s words.

The words of sri krishna, as quoted above (shloka number 41) also make this point very clear (that sri krishna’s words were just suggesting the solution and were not an absolute order).

Bhima survives the astra!

The narayana astra, due to its very nature, began to engulf bhimasena since he had refused to surrender. It started to grow bigger, and more menacing, every moment. In the midst of such a terrifying attack, bhima continued his engagement in the battle. He showered ashwathama with hundreds of arrows and surrounded him with a maze (of arrows). As a counter, ashwathama too fired numerous arrows at bhima.

The battle between the two mighty warriors continued thus. Looking at the massive fire which was surrounding bhima, the entire pandava camp panicked.

पाण्डुसैन्यमृते भीमं सुमहद्भयमाविशत् ….

A great fear came across the entire army of pandu, except bhimasena…

At that moment, arjuna, out of great affection for his brother and due to instructions from sri krishna invoked the varuna astra and sent it towards bhima. Of course the varuna astra was no match for the superior weapon of narayana. But it served as an indicator of the love arjuna had for his brother.

Sri krishna then, along with arjuna, rushed towards bhima’s chariot. Having reached the vehicle, sri krishna climbed into the chariot and held bhima’s hands and dragged him out. He snatched the weapon from bhima’s hands. Once bhima became weaponless, the narayana astra left the battlefield.

(at this moment, sri krishna explicitly instructs bhima to get down from the chariot. Bhima immediately complies. This again shows that sri krishna’s words were never violated by bhima)

Sri madhwacharya has explained the reasons behind the survival of arjuna and bhima.

Arjuna was surrounded by the effects of the varuna astra. He had the company of narayana himself — in the form of sri krishna. He also had the avesha of nara in him. Due to these three factors, the astra did not harm arjuna. Of course, he had also surrendered the gandiva.

Bhima did not get hurt by the weapon due to a very unique reason. Every astra has a abhimani devata and a pratipadya devata. The abhimani devata is the presiding deity. The pratipadya devata is the deity professed or propagated by the weapon. For the narayana astra, vayu was the abhimani devata and lord sri hari was the pratipadya devata.

अस्त्राभिमानि वायुर्हि देवताsस्य हरिः स्वयम् |

तस्माद्भीमं स्वरूपत्वान्नादहच्चाग्निमग्निवत् || MBTN. 26. 202||

Vayu is the abhimani devata for the (narayana) astra. The pratipadya devata is hari himself. Therefore, since the weapon was the very form of vayu, it did not hurt bhima — just like how fire does not burn fire.

Since the original form of bhima — vayu — was himself the presiding deity of the weapon, it naturally did not harm bhimasena. In fact, he started glowing as an after-effect of being surrounded by the weapon!

व्यपोडे च ततो घोरे तस्मिन्स्तेजसि भारत |

बभौ भीमो निशापाये धीमान् सूर्य इवोदितः || Drona. 201. 22||

O Bharata! When the divine tejas of that astra left the place, bhima shone just like the rising sun that shines after the night has gone!

Sri krishna then led arjuna back to his chariot and the war resumed.

Thus, the narayana astra episode provides an example of the extra ordinary स्थिथि or commitment that bhimasena possessed towards his shuddha-bhagavata-dharma – a commitment that did not flinch even under fatal circumstances.

sri krishnarpanamastu

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