Which Character in the Mahabharata was the Most Chivalrous?
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 29 May, 2014
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This question was asked on quora about a year ago, and I am reproducing here the answer I gave there for the benefit of my readers who do not have access to quora. Here is the answer in its context in quora.
My answer follows.
If by chivalry we mean nobility of character, the ability to keep your word under all circumstances, devotion to duty, and fairness in war, Bhishma towers above anyone else in this regard.
Before I talk about Bhishma, I'd like to dispose of other contenders that may be spoken about, so that my reasons for picking Bhishma will be clear.
Arjuna is often spoken about as a very chivalrous warrior. His speech to Uttara before they meet the army of the Kauravas and defeat them bespeaks his nature as one who despises none, for which he has earned the name Bibhatsu. (Bibhatsa is the term in Sanskrit for the emotion of disgust, and the Bibhatsu means one who shows disgust towards no one.) Arjuna, instead of despising Uttara for his cowardice, seeks to embolden him to raise himself and show the courage that is expected of him. There are many other incidents in his life which show his chivalrous nature. Yet there are three incidents in the war which show him to be less than chivalrous. Although he does these unchivalrous acts at the bidding of Krishna, that doesn't excuse the fact that they are unchivalrous.
The first is the killing of Bhishma. Knowing fully well that Bhishma would not fight a woman, Arjuna fights behind Shikhandi and kills Bhishma. The second is the slaying of Bhurishravas, who was fighting Satyaki. Satyaki was prostate and defeated, and Bhurishravas was about to kill him. Arjuna shot an arrow that cut off the hand of Bhurishravas who was about to kill Satyaki. By attacking an opponent who wasn't even facing him, Arjuna committed an unchivalrous act. The third, of course, is the killing of Karna. By killing Karna, who was not fighting him, who had laid down his bow and arrows and was trying to extricate the wheel of his chariot from the ground, Arjuna again was unchivalrous. In my mind, these three acts make Arjuna ineligible.
Karna and Drona:
To try to burn your enemies in a lac palace or cheat them at a game of dice would automatically disqualify someone who hopes to be labeled chivalrous, but in addition, Karna also has behaved unchivalrously on the battlefield. He helped kill Abhimanyu, along with 5 other great warriors of the Kauravas, when Abhimanyu was fighting them singlehanded after being trapped in the Chakravyuha. On Drona's advice, Karna shoots arrows to cut off the reins of the horses using which Abhimanyu was steering his chariot - and that too from behind. This act disqualifies both Karna and Drona.
Karna is a mixed bag, however, since he did give up his greatest protection, his armour, in order to adhere to his vow that he would refuse no gift to anyone after his prayers. He also spared the life of his brothers Yudhisthira, Bhima, and Nakula on the battlefield in order to keep his promise to his mother Kunti that he would only kill Arjuna or die by Arjuna's hand.
Drona has one more strike against him - the treatment of Ekalavya, the Nishada prince who learned archery on his own, using only a clay image of Drona as an inspiration, and became a better archer than even Arjuna. Because of caste bias and because of his favoritism towards Arjuna, Drona commits the very ignoble act of asking Ekalavya for his thumb as guru dakshina, knowing fully well that having given that, Ekalavya could never again hope to be as good an archer.
Although Duryodhana behaved egregiously almost his whole life, scheming against the Pandavas - incidents like the palace of lac, trying to poison Bhima, cheating at the game of dice, etc. - for the entire duration of the war he behaved chivalrously - with the exception of the death of Abhimanyu. He died a warrior's death, and his death was achieved unchivalrously by Bhima striking him below the navel, which was a violation of the rules of war.
I don't think I need to say much about why Krishna doesn't deserve this title - most everything he achieved in the Mahabharata war was done by behaving without chivalry - these include the deaths of Bhishma, Drona (killed because of a lie about the death of his son), Karna, Duryodhana, and Jayadratha (darkening the sky and making people believe the sun had set when it really hadn't). Krishna, of course, justifies everything by saying that the ends (the defeat of the Kauravas) justify the means (trickery). Be that as it may, what he did certainly wasn't chivalrous.
Yudhishthira is often regarded as a noble person. Indeed, often in the epic he is considered to be the epitome of dharma. Even people like Bhishma defer to his understanding of Dharma. But Yudhishthira has three fatal strikes against him. The first one, which is the only one Vyasa seems to consider, is the fact that he lied on the battlefield about Ashwatthama. The Pandavas, on Krishna's urging, decide that they will tell Drona the lie that his son Ashwatthama is dead. Drona does not believe it and, to verify it, comes to Yudhishthira to ask if the news is true - for he is very sure that Yudhishthira would never tell a lie, not for the kingship of the three worlds.
Yudhishthira proves him wrong - and goes along with the lie, with the consequence that Drona lays down his weapons and goes into yoga, upon which Dhrishtadyumna cuts his head off. It is for this sin that Yudhishthira spends a sixteenth day of his life in hell.
But in my opinion, Yudhishthira had two other strikes against him. One was his excessive fondness for dice. In the final ascent to heaven that the five brothers and Draupadi attempt, Bhima asks Yudhishthira what his crime was that he was falling down from the mountain. Yudhishthira replies that he was overly attached to food and was a glutton. If this is the standard, surely addiction to gambling should be a higher crime? In addition, Yudhishthira abandoned his wife, enough in my mind and for my understanding of chivalry to be considered ineligible. For more on this, see Can you Compare Today’s Rape Victims to Draupadi?
So now, having disposed of his rivals, I come to Bhishma.
A man who would keep his word at any cost; a prince who gave up kingship for the sake of his father's happiness; a young man who gave up married life simply so his father could marry the girl he had set his heart on; who served his king and kingdom like a loyal and faithful knight until his death; and who, even when his life depended on it, refused to break his oath never to fight a woman and hence ultimately gave up his life in the cause of dharma - Bhishma is my vote for the most chivalrous person in the Mahabharata.