So Bhisma, the son of Sastanu, Grand-father of the Bharatas,
Learned, a knower of time and place, knower of truth, aware
of all dharma …
A plethora of complex and nuanced characters populate the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. One in particular stands tall even today as the face of moral authority—Bhisma Devavrata, the eldest of the Kuru clan. In this book, the prolific scholar of Indic and Greek classics, Kevin McGrath, studies in microscopic detail the authority of this pitamaha, ‘grand-father’/patriarch, and explores why he still resonates with 21st century India.
Does Bhisma leave a lasting impression on us because of his steadfast loyalty and maintaining of vows, even when dharma dictates that he do otherwise? Or, if we could challenge conventional wisdom, is it because Bhisma (and not Arjuna) is the sole recipient and embodiment of cosmic inspiration from Krisna?
Relying on close and careful readings of the Bombay and Pune Critical editions of the grand epic, and drawing mainly on the text of the latter, this book describes the manner in which Bhisma negotiates the tortuous path of honourable and principled living. It describes how Bhisma’s express decisions pave the way for the collapse of his clan and the partition of the kingdom, despite his consistent efforts to prevent it.
This book is the first study to view Bhisma as a hero and moral authority. This elegant literary exploration into one of the world’s great epics will interest students and scholars of South Asian studies, cultural studies, and the classics.
Kevin McGrath is an Associate of the Department of South Asian Studies, and Poet in Residence at Lowell House, Harvard University.
‘This is the book to read to unlock the key to the riddle of Bhishma and the subtlety of dharma in the Mahabharata. McGrath explains with great insight why this epic hero has held the greatest moral authority for two thousand years in the charter myth of India.’
Gurcharan DasAuthor of The Difficulty of Being Good
Note on Poetics