Bhishma’s vow to celibacy for his father is a story from the Mahabharata that everyone talks about. It is a story of supreme sacrifice. Here are the details of the story.
How Bhishma’s story started
One evening, King Shantanu, the founder of the Kuru dynasty, was walking along the Ganges, when he saw Satyawati, the beautiful daughter of a fisherman. In those days, you came, you saw, you married. So it was with a heart full of optimism that Shantanu asked Satyawati’s father for her hand in marriage, only to have his hopes dashed to the ground.
Click here to read the story of Ahalya and Indra, was it really adultery?
The old fisherman, seeing the big fish he’d netted, laid down the condition that the sons born to Satyawati and Shantanu would succeed Shantanu. Now, this was a problem. Shantanu already had a son – his beloved Devavrat. How could he deprive his eldest born of his royal inheritance?
Click here for Diwali stories: Two tales of gender equality you can learn from.
But Devavrat was made of sterner stuff. He went to the fisherman, avowed celibacy and brought Satyawati home for his father. He then went on to shrewdly helm the dynasty, by proxy, until his death on the twelfth day of the great battle of Kurukshetra.
How does this story matter now? It matters because it’s true even today, that celibacy can be a choice and that it needn’t mean a life sans quality.
Click here to read about Kannaki, the woman who burned down a city to avenge her husband’s death.
In a world where marriage is the norm among adults, the quality of life is measured by marital status, especially for a woman. However, in this real world, the number of singles is increasing, especially women, perhaps at a faster rate than a decade ago. There are divorces, and the prevailing opinion is that men quickly remarry while women don’t. One observes, with disquiet, that many more men are dying in their 40s and 50s, leaving women without a partner. And there are, of course, a certain number of women who never married.
Click here to read: In Mahabharata Vidura was always right but never got his due.
How do these women cope, in a world commonly peopled by married adults?
Women of today
Here are a few real-life stories; the names changed to protect the identity of the individuals involved.
Rama, who has briefly married two decades ago, now lives with her partner…and her son.
Asha, 60, a lesbian, who divorced her husband two decades ago, lives happily with her partner and her two grownup daughters. Not single, but made a clear sexual choice.
Click here to read Karna’s love letter to Draupadi.
Ratna, never married, 55, has a government job, lives with and looks after her mother.
Reena, 44, briefly married, chooses to live without a guy.
Roshni, 45, widowed, has gotten used to her self and does not wish to have a guy intrude.
Avani, divorced at 45 after a bad marriage…simply not interested.
Click here to read Krishna’s lesson to Arjuna about his Dharma.
These women have found work, engagements and friendships that fulfil them. They have faced, and ignored, the typically condescending opinions of people around them – “Well, at least you are busy.” Like you were doing absolutely nothing but sitting on your ass when there was a man in your life!
Related reading: You are the most important relationship in your life…
Being single gives you more choices
Cut to the younger generation. Young women (and maybe, men, but for this article, I haven’t considered that half of humanity) don’t want to marry in a hurry. They are not necessarily celibate, but they are legally single. In a relationship for a while, then out, if it doesn’t work out for both parties.
This may seem like a hollow existence and will be if prolonged. But in the present and the immediate future, this arrangement helps them explore themselves and the world better than they would if they had settled down in matrimony.
Interestingly, marriage is often referred to as ‘sansar’, literally ‘the world’, in many Indian languages. You become a householder, get mired in worldliness and take that route to self-actualisation.
Click here to read why Parvati took the form of Mother Goddess Kali to help her son.
The other route is singlehood, one that was followed by the sages and ascetics of yore, and Devavrat (or Bhishma) mentioned at the beginning of this article – typically by men.
Several women now are choosing this route. Singlehood then is no longer a matter of being overlooked by the marriage market. It’s a personal choice of one lifestyle over another.
7 forgotten lessons on love from the greatest Hindu epic Mahabharata
Readers Comments On “Celibacy and Being Single: Bhishma set the Tone For Us to Follow”
Yes, perspectives need to be redefined.
How to accept single good yet not get so individualistic that it it destroys the foundation of society.
Really nice article and pictures. enjoyed reading it
Thank you Kavyanjali. I am so glad you liked the article.
This is such an empowering article. As individuals, we often tend to ignore the most elemental truth of all- the completeness of our being in its singularity. The society manipulates our outlooks so masterfully that we find it hard to believe that a person can choose not to enter the institution of marriage, and yet have a purposeful and fulfilling life. And it’s high time we refine our perspective.