This story concerns the end of Pitamaha (the Grand Sire of the Kuru clan) Bhishma at Kurukshetra revealing a profound principle of solving ethical dilemmas in life.
Duryodhana taunted Bhishma saying the latter had the Pandava’s on a limb at one time in the day’s battle and yet he went soft on them allowing them to get away from certain death at his hands. Bhishma considered the allegation as unfair and unwarranted; in fury he vowed he would kill at least one Pandava before the sunset on the following day. When the news reached the Pandava camp, gloom set in; for they knew Bhishma’s was no idle boast, he would surely fulfill his vow.
It reached Krishna’s ears as well. He let the night pass. Next day morning, he called Draupadi to quietly follow him to Bhishma’s tent. In fact the godhead went so far as to carry Draupadi’s footwear in his hands for the fear of the sound of her steps waking up the Pitamaha from sleep! Once inside the tent, he instructed Draupadi to stand at the elder’s feet. The moment the latter woke up, Krishna signaled Draupadi to fall at his feet and do namaskaram (act of prostration). Bhishma saw a woman at his feet and out of sheer habit/convention blessed her ‘Dheerga Sumangali Bhava!’, meaning ‘You’ll live long happily with your spouse (without widowhood).’ The practice prevails even today for an elder to bless similarly someone doing namaskarams.
When she gets up, he sees the woman is none other than Draupadi whose husband, one of the five, he had vowed to kill during the day.
And then he noticed Krishna standing in a corner. Knew right away it must be his doing.
He addressed Krishna, ‘Madhava, is it fair? By this act you have placed me in such a dilemma – if I kill a Pandava in today’s battle, rendering Draupadi a widow, my blessings to her would prove false. And if I don’t, I would have broken my vow made to Duryodhana. I beseech you – and who else – can get me out of this predicament.’
Krishna nodded a smile and exited with Draupadi.
During the day, Arjuna engaged in a fierce battle with the Pitamaha was not giving off his best. It was clear some thoughts swirling in his mind was holding him back from going all out on his revered Kuru (clan). At one point, perceiving the danger of Arjuna being vanquished by the elder, in sheer disgust he ticked off his ward: ‘Arjuna, all my talk to you of Gita is proving to be a waste. I’ll take care of him myself.’ With those words, he stepped down from Arjuna’s chariot, took Sudarshan Chakra (his discus) in his hand and walked towards Bhishma, all set to launch the Chakra to behead the latter. Thereby breaking his own vow made at the outset of not wielding any weapon at any time during the entire war at Kurukshetra.
At that instant it struck Bhishma: Krishna was also in a dilemma between keeping his vow and the imminent danger to the life of a Pandava whom he had sought to protect. And Krishna chose to break his vow in favor of upholding dharma personified by Pandava’s and their success. Dharma and larger public good obviously had taken priority over mere vanity of personal vows and words. Whenever two principles clashed, the one resulting in greater good for great many was pursued forsaking the other.
An enlightened Bhishma was moved to tears. He knew what he should do He dropped his bow and welcomed Krishna expressing his undiluted and unbounded delight to die a glorious death at his hands instead of facing a transgender. Sikandi, who was being used as a front by Arjuna in his fight with the Pitamaha (that’s a different story). Be it may he was failing in his vow to Duryodhana by embracing death dealt by Krishna, the venerable Kuru knew in a way he was advancing dharma’s cause by not hurting Pandava’s. A belated nevertheless profound realization.
A shocked Arjuna successfully pleaded with Krishna to return to his position (as his charioteer); while Bhishma, denied by Krishna, saw his dilemma resolved, resumed the engagement, fully reconciled to face a certain death at the hands of Sikandi-Arjuna duo.
Karna in Mahabharata faced a similar dilemma. In his life, right until the tragic end, unlike Bhishma, he favored the saamanya dharma (see Notes below) of standing by his in-the-wrong friend Duryodhana who provided him with comfort and stature he craved for, over the broader visesha–dharmic (special, that which is not saamanya (ordinary, common) context.
‘* Dharma by no means is unequivocal. It is also not monolithic or static. There are desha dharma (specific to the place one lives), yuga dharma and kaala dharma (applicable to the times one lives in)… There are role and pedigree based ones too, like raja dharma (for kings) and kula dharma (for lineage)! At the lowest level is saamanya dharma (the ordinary, common, non-specific principles like ‘don’t thieve’, ‘don’t tell lies’…)
Hence, it is not difficult to visualize principles of dharma taking contrary positions in a given situation. And our lives are full of them and living is negotiating through these conflicts, big and small. Dilemmas such as this are normally resolved by a Guru by his decisions/actions in a given context, in this case by Krishna – the one strong reason for gurukul education, showing the inadequacy of learning merely from books and not watching its roll-out in real. Remember the story where lying is no sin for reasons of ahimsa: A rishi misguides a posse of hunters hotly pursuing a deer! The two great epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata – and the multitude of Purana’s bring up a number of scenarios illustrating the application of dharmic principles.
‘Bahu jana sukhaaya, bahujana hithaaya’ (in short, greater good for great many) enunciates the same concept used in conflict resolution. Not to be confused with tyranny of numbers (majority).
‘* Karna’s life is lived by many of us in this time and age. Epitomizes our predicament. How? Values like loyalty, gratitude, affection…are in themselves quite (saamanya) dharmic but turn toxic when associated with adharmic causes. We are unwary in our early assessment of and alignment with the causes and let these legit values drop roots in our thoughts and actions. By the time the true colors are seen, it’s usually too late to go back on our commitment. And some of us are so flexible (!) we begin to even like it. Karna may have had his moments of reflection on his loyalty, etc. but remained unshaken in his alignment until the end. He was gone too far to turn back.
‘* There are many stories in Purana’s where Kings, Rishi’s and even lesser folks have not hesitated to strongly disapprove, curse or even fight with their closest when the latter chose the path of adharma.