Bhishma knew that the gods weren’t capable of endowing the world with this kind of subtlety. The gods revealed themselves when the man who sought them was ready to receive them. This attraction to be a god himself – to make oneself a site of revelation – as many longed to be, seemed like a foolish bargain to make, for Bhishma had seen for long the vitriol and jealousies the gods indulge in. This intricate play of movement and frolic in the river, its shifting shades, could only be from the living. From beings, whose ends were circumscribed by their finitude.

Many years ago, right around the time the Pandava and Kaurava brothers were born, the sage Vyasa – the very same who hoped to write the histories of mankind – had told him that it was merely a matter of time that the gods let loose the malevolent spirits into the home of the Kurus. Since then, as one catastrophe followed another, and as betrayals and tragedies commingled, Bhishma saw the handiwork of the gods.

In passing, Bhishma had responded to Vyasa that perhaps there was some divine author who was writing out their stories. Vyasa laughed and said, perhaps one day he would write the story of the Bharatas – a poem, perhaps, of Bhishma’s own family.

Bhishma nodded, and they had sat in silence. One meditating on his creation to be, another on the mechanics of such a creation. Together they, manas and vac, mind and speech, author and actor, exhausted the poetic universe that was to be. In that silence, Vyasa spoke – “the gods who also contain evil can poison any world they desire, to counter their capacities for violence, they demand that words be spoken to them, in metre, in chhandas, in rhythm and order, so that they too are constrained”.

Just as the evil inherent in words is circumscribed by poetic metre, in life too, continued Vyasa to Bhishma, one must restrain the mind through order and rectitude. Only a life that is thus lived, will keep evil out, will prevent the rise of villainy and avarice. Hearing this Bhishma asked, “How does one do this?”

“Be true to your own personal dharma, to the dharma of your occupation, to the dharma of the times.”

“And how do I know which of these dharma I must choose, if they contradict each other?”

Vyasa amusedly smiled and asked in return, “How does a mother know which child must she feed first at the morning rituals?”

“It is self-evident to her,” said Bhishma, unthinkingly.

“Similarly, when the time comes, you’ll know which dharma to choose. That awareness is there deep within you. The only question is: do you have the courage to choose it?”

With his feet still immersed in the Mandakini’s waters, Bhishma wondered about Vyasa. Why did that ancient sage suddenly come to mind? Was Vyasa, or another scribe elsewhere, thinking of Bhishma’s life?

Bhishma knew that he had privileged his own dharma as the Lord Protector of the kingdom over all else, including when he saw injustices meted out to his nephews, the sons of Pandu. He had failed to find courage and in due course, the ineluctable laws of the world had pushed them all onto the battlefields of Kurukshetra. Now, it was too late. Blood had flown into all the wells and rivers, human heads had been piled up into pyramids, and vultures and jackals ate into human remains faster than the chandalas could cremate the remains.

The war, of course, would end, and the worlds before this holocaust would vanish from memory. Only he would remember the old days, the wondrous years when there was peace, when life seemed willing to reveal itself to him, when he chose to explore it. His long life had been a curse, no doubt, for he saw his young, moon-faced nephews become human-shaped ogres who sought battle more than any other thing in life. But, there by the Mandakini river, Bhishma felt a sense of gratitude for the astonishing life that he had led. There were few wonders of the world he had not seen and fewer still among all the wonders that he had failed to understand.

Over the years, in that space left unfilled by a wife’s presence, or a mistress’ laughter, the emptiness of his life had allowed him to experience the world in new ways. Unlike others, he willed his mind to study the physical world and the habits of the living.

When his royal duties were over, he spent his time investigating the formation of rocks, the means to extract honey without hurting bees, the ways of the black magicians who could kill by stabbing shadows, the disputes between philosophical schools, the battle formations that efficaciously won wars, the manuals of those who claimed that there existed worlds beyond Jambudwipa, the techniques to spray poisons on enemies so that they could be defeated without being killed, the art of torturing prisoners to extract truth, the science of perfumes, the habits of city thieves and country robbers, the analytical books of geometers who calculated the arc of moving constellations, the inner workings of pregnant wombs especially among horses, the habits and routines of those born with mental illness, the arithmetic to summarise information about large populations and perhaps, most unexpectedly, he even began to learn the art of singing. All these opened him to new wonders.

But most wondrous among all these phenomena was the wheel of Dharma that revolved untiringly. It ground and swallowed men, leaving behind in its wake bones and the remains of empires. The wheel of Dharma oiled itself with the vanities of those who foolishly thought themselves immortal.

But here, amid the slender patch of Himalayan grounds, there was no sign of Dharma as he understood. Nature had evolved its own way of being and Bhishma felt like a trespasser. Here, the Kuru kingdom ended, and the great white northern regions began. Civilised men never went past here, unless one was a sage who communed with Shiva, the great god, or belonged to tribes whose names inspired fear in the common folk of Aryavarta.

But even these paroxysms of the Aryan mind were asleep at this hour. For the pisachas announced their arrival through wild cackle and manipulation of the elements; in person, they usually assumed the form of humans, animals and even trees.

Under Bhishma’s reign, there had been a tacit agreement between the humans and the pisachas that they would be allowed one day every two full moons to enter the kingdom, up to the ends of the Himadri forests that nestled at the ends of the lower Himalayas and feast on whatsoever game they saw – animals, birds and even humans, if a poor bastard was unlucky enough to stray out.

And when that full moon day would pass, the pisachas would return to their snow filled crannies and crags in the ice kingdoms above, leaving the Kuru kingdom in peace. Bhishma had warned them that if this truce came undone, then he would personally annihilate them.

For over a century, the Kurus and the pisachas had kept peace. It was a profitable arrangement for both. No one knew much about them and unlike other parts of Aryavarta, Bhishma never bothered spying on the pisachas. He had told himself that they were the last of their kind – savage, barbaric and truthful – and till evidence proved otherwise, they would be treated as the coming of winter: a nuisance no doubt but also a reminder of other lives out there – inscrutable, prehistoric, and non-human.

As the night deepened, a stream of stars began to pour into the dark firmament above, and the skies acquired a pallor that made Bhishma sigh. The whole place was now bathed in a translucence that cities like Hastinapura had long lost. That he could still be shocked by the beauty of Nature, pleased him. He wasn’t all dead from within, after all, he told himself. The world could still spring surprises on him. Fish, toads, cicadas, leaves and branches, shadows, the shimmering lights from other worlds, planets and star dust, the banks of Mandakini sparkled with the promise of life. How wondrous was this world. If only he had spent more time seeing it instead of trying to govern it.

For years on end, he had studied men and their subterfuges, he had laid traps to ensnare spies, patiently, with deception and cruelty, and when he succeeded, the contentment was fleeting. Another set of problems would come to the fore and the cycle would begin anew. Had he spent that time studying the world of plants and animals, perhaps he could have written a minor treatise.

For a moment, that other life and its possibilities seemed impossible to resist, but he knew that he was deluding himself. He was Bhishma, and he could only conceive of himself as a man in the thick of things. His sense of detachment was towards the outcome of his efforts, but his instincts was to be there amid the rumour, intrigue and subterfuge. A world of scholastic quiet was attractive, but very soon, he knew himself well enough, that discontent would rise to the fore.

He found this act of brooding, wandering amidst the warrens of alternate worlds, in his own thoughts pleasurable; but never had the prospect of imminent death led him to conjecture about life’s other possibilities.

This was new to him, this ailment that he deplored in the new generation of princes and philosophers across Aryavarta, who had made a fashion out of their melancholy and spoke of existence in the abstract, in a disembodied manner which lead many of them to abandon their Dharma as young unmarried men and take up monk-hood in various orders.

At first, he tried to stem this flow, but the stubbornness of the young was hard to squelch. So, he did the next best thing: he ordered that the monks – especially those who espoused tenets of wandering, of abandoning parents in search of the Truth, in name of Dharma no less, of breaking away from society – be offered a chance to recant and return to their previous life.

Those who refused were arrested and thrown into dungeons that were dug up everywhere. And among those, a select few had their heads crushed under the feet of elephants in full public view. Seven years of iron and chains, death and blood later the fever of anti-Dharma sentiments broke.

Concurrently, he began efforts to co-opt this spirit into a formal canon. Monks and sages were given government pensions, places to stay and in a few cases, some were granted villas and estates. The State and social order had to triumph and persist for that was the primordial duty of every regent, every Lord Protector, every King. And for a few years Bhishma ensured it vigorously.

But sitting there by the banks of the Mandakini, he knew that human longing for meaning would reappear and those who ruled Hastinapura in the years ahead might not be able to beat down such a psychological uprising among its citizens. To rule effectively – he had learnt after many mistakes and as he aged – was to rule with the threat of violence rather than with violence itself.

To rule as a great ruler, however, was to let the people enough freedoms so that they saw the wisdom in returning to the fold after their experimentations. He had never been this sort of ruler. He had heard Krishna was one such rare leader among men. Krishna let them be, and their love for him emerged from those freedoms. While thinking of Krishna, his mind suddenly stilled and he experienced a scintilla of peace, the sort of quietude that made him smile.

Excerpted with permission from The Dharma Forest, Keerthik Sasidharan, Penguin Books.