“Suta Gosvami said: Thus Bhishmadeva merged himself in the Supersoul, Lord Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, with his mind, speech, sight and actions, and thus he became silent, and his breathing stopped.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.9.43)
कृष्ण एवं भगवति
आत्मन्य् आत्मानम् आवेश्य
सो ऽन्तःश्वास उपारमत्
kṛṣṇa evaṁ bhagavata
ātmany ātmānam āveśya
so ‘ntaḥśvāsa upāramat
“What is it with these stories from shastra about people going to take instruction from someone they just conquered in a military conflict? I think the most famous example is Bhishmadeva. There is the image of him lying on the battlefield, body full of arrows.
“There is an entire section in the Mahabharata dedicated to the subsequent transfer of knowledge from Bhishma to Yudhishthira, the leader of the Pandava brothers. This exchange would make sense prior to the conflict. If Bhishma was old and on his deathbed at home, ready to leave for the next life, I could see people approaching him for wisdom.
“But this was right in the thick of things. Bhishma was defeated. This wasn’t a pay-per-view event, where the opponents played up the rivalry in order to boost television ratings. This was fighting for keeps.
“Is this entirely about respect? That no matter the struggle, all enmity ends at death? I know Shri Rama never dishonored Ravana after their conflict ended. Rama even guided Vibhishana on how to properly perform the funeral rites for his departed brother.”
There are so many lessons to take from the experience, aside from the invaluable instruction offered directly to Yudhishthira. The exchange is another symbol of the guru-disciple relationship. This is everything for the proper transfer of knowledge.
The human being has the opportunity for the second birth. This is known as dvija in Sanskrit, and it is what separates the humans from the animals. Otherwise, life is anchored in sense gratification. Search for ways to increase the indulgence in eating, sleeping, mating, and defending.
The second birth is possible through a realized soul, known as the guru. The qualified person is a tattva-darshi. This refers to someone who has seen the truth. Their experience is, not surprisingly, similarly linked to a teacher.
तद् विद्धि प्रणिपातेन
उपदेक्ष्यन्ति ते ज्ञानं
tad viddhi praṇipātena
upadekṣyanti te jñānaṁ
“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.34)
A cultured person understands that there are limitations in knowledge based on experience. The elder has lived longer and has seen more. At a minimum, the difference in experience is enough to warrant respect.
Add to the equation Bhishma’s status as a mahajana, and the approach only makes sense. We are all actors on the stage in the dramatic production known as a lifetime. One person gets cast in the leading role. There are supporting players, people in the background. The hero must have an adversary. To this the villain rises to prominence.
The journey through life features many such performances. One day I am in the hero role, involved in my plight against evil. Another day I might be on the wrong side, though I am unaware. I think that I am righteous, but who is really to say?
In this regard, Bhishma’s alignment with the Kaurava family did not matter much at the end of the day. He was a pious soul, realized in the truth, and thoroughly devoted to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Narayana.
The instruction to Yudhishthira was geared towards his specific occupation, that of leader of men. Every occupation, varna, is meant to be dovetailed with progressing further in the science of self-realization. We are equal in the spiritual sense, and even with a variety in occupation there should ideally be a singular focus on advancing.
Taking these factors into consideration, it only makes sense that Bhishma would be viewed in the highest regard, especially at his last hour in the mortal world. He previously received the boon of leaving the world at the moment of his choosing, and he decided the vision of Krishna standing before him was the ideal time.
Pandavas showing proper respect,
Knowledge from elder to get.
Who ideal time deciding,
After to Yudhishthira confiding.
Of eternal truths relevant to lead,
So that dharma forward to proceed.
Krishna in front of them standing,
Next that into nature landing.