By Upendra Mishra
After many trials and errors of life, I try to finish everything I start—no matter how big or small it is. I do the same at home, at work, in the garden and even while doing the mundane things like cleaning the dishes or making my bed. No short-cut. Never. Sometimes, I don’t even respond to emails unless what I have set out to do is complete. I am okay if I don’t begin something, but If I start I have no choice but to complete it.
It was not easy at first. I had to train myself and keep reminding myself about this until it became my habit. It all started many years ago when I was watching the first Mahabharata TV serial. Soon after Devavrata (who is later known as Bhishma) is born, his mother Ganga takes him to Heaven after promising his father, Shantanu, that she will return Devavrata to him at an appropriate time.
In the Heaven, Devavrata studies under the guidance of Sage Vashishtha; Brihaspati, who counsels the gods and is their guru supreme; sage Parashurama; and Shukracharya, the guru of demons. When Devavrata turns 16, his teachers declare that he has learned everything he needed to learn. Then Devavrata’s mother, Gagna, brings him back on the earth and hands him over to his father, Shantanu.
Shantanu is fascinated by the knowledge his son has mastered, and asks him to share some pearls of wisdom with him. Here is the first lesson Devavrata shares with his father:
“Vidya dadati vinayam,
Vinaya dadati paatrataam,
Dhanat dharmam tatatsukham.”
Education gives Humility,
Humility gives Character,
From character one gets wealth,
From wealth one gets righteousness (dharma),
From righteousness gets happiness.
Father: What did you learn from the great sage Vashishtha:
Devavrata: The mantra he taught me is this: A swan can fly only with the help of two wings. One wing is karma (action) and the other wing is knowledge. If there is only one wing, then other is useless. With the help of one, swan cannot fly.
Father: What did Brihaspati teach you?
Devavrata: If you start a work then take rest only after its completion; otherwise, the (uncompleted) work will finish you.
Father: What is the Shukra niti?
Devvrata: Only the result of a work can tell whether the work started at an auspicious or inauspicious time.
Father then asks what did Devavrata learn from Prashuram, to which the son responds that obeying the father is everything. What about mother? Then Devavrata says he was taught that a teacher has 10 times more the right over his student, father has 100 times more and mother has 1,000 times more. If there were no mother on earth, there would be only God here.
When Devavrata became an adult, he came to be known as Bhishma because of his bhishamna pratignya or terrible oath, to remain life-long Brahmacharya so that his father could marry a fisherwoman, Satyavati, whose son will be guaranteed to become the next king. Touched by Devvarata’s oath, his father grants him the boon of Ichcha Mrityu, or he could choose the time of his death. In the epic Mahabharata, Bhisma remains a central and powerful character throughout. Towards the end of the 18-day war, when Bhishma decides to die and is lying on the death bed, Krishna asks the victorious elder Pandava Yudhishtir to seek final lessons from Bhishma.
Here are a few lessons adapted from The Mahabharata (abridged and translated by John D. Smith. Penguin Classics, 2008) in Q&A format between Yudhishthira and Bhishma:
Q: What is the fundamental aspect of Dharma?
A: Self-control is the highest virtue, an aggregate of all virtues. The man who controls his senses and takes to the forest is ready to become one with Brahaman. The only fault with self-control is that people mistake for weakness, but its great merit is that it enables one to attain the heavenly realms. Indeed the self-controlled man does not need a forest to go: wherever he is, that is his forest and his hermitage.
Q: What is the truth?
A: Truth is dharma (righteousness), it is asceticism, it is Yoga, it is Brahman. It underpins everything (Bhishma lists the 13 forms that truth may take): truth itself, equanimity, self-control, selflessness, forbearance, modesty, endurance, lack of envy, renunciation, meditation, nobility, steadfastness and non-violence.
Q: How happiness and unhappiness come about?
A: Only renunciation can lead to happiness.
Q: How the man with insufficient wealth can find happiness?
A: Happiness is achieved through equanimity (composure), non-striving, truthfulness, indifference and lack of desire for possessions.
Q: What way of life leads to happiness and success?
A: The virtue of self-control, which brings great rewards.
Towards the end Yudhishthira asks how sorrow and death, which are feared by all beings may be avoided? In reply, Bhishma cites the dialogue of Narada with Samanga:
“Narada remarked that Samanga appeared to be forever happy; Samanga answered that this was because he knew the past, present and future, commencements and consequences. He said that wisdom lies in tranquility of the senses; delusion of the senses prevents wisdom. Pleasure leads to joy, joy to pride, and pride to hell; therefore, he said, he had abandoned wealth and pleasure, desire and delusion, and wandered the earth free from fear of death or of anything else.”
(Mr. Mishra is managing partner of the Waltham, MA-based integrated inbound marketing and PR firm The Mishra Group. He writes about his three passions: marketing, scriptures and gardening.)