Despite bearing the names of two legendary warriors, Arjuna Bhishma played a key but little-known role in the history of peacemaking.
Orphaned at an early age by a mother who died in childbirth and a father who perished fighting for the British army in Afghanistan, Bhishma was raised in the house of his uncle, who had abandoned the family's martial tradition, converted to a sect of pacifist Jains, and emigrated from India to South Africa.
The uncle saw promise in the young Bhishma, but also much that needed correction: Like his father, the boy was prideful, competitive, and given to violent bursts of temper. Such was the lot of mankind, the uncle believed, but through spiritual discipline a furnace of character could be built to contain those inner fires.
Bhishma was a diligent student. Despite his lack of aptitude for his uncle's pacifistic ways, he worked hard to master them. Inwardly, however, he could not help but question their value. In the world he saw around him, man dominated man and race dominated race. Society seemed predicated on violence and threats of violence. Economies functioned through competition and aggression. Unless entire generations could be taken from their violent, competitive households and raised by stern but peaceful foster parents, what was the hope of it?
In 1893, in response to a dream whose contents he never divulged, a Jain monk chose Bhishma, now in his 20s, to accompany him to the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago. Simultaneously puzzled, curious, and eager to see the fabled World's Fair that surrounded the Parliament, Bhishma accepted this mysterious summons. Leaving his young wife Lakshmi behind, he journeyed to America.
The Parliament was a revelation to Bhishma. Seeing people of all races and creeds conversing respectfully about their beliefs and sharing their practices with one another shook the young man's core assumptions about human nature and its possibilities. Perhaps the ways of peace could flourish in more than just isolated communities. Perhaps, someday, the world itself could be such a community.
And yet ... Bhishma need only look inside to see all forces that led to violence and war. He had not purged or purified his father's aggressive nature, but only contained it with arduous practices. Even if everyone like himself could be taught to do so, would not those forces inevitably, someday, somewhere, break out again? And once they did in even a single man, would not that man's violence break the shells of character that contained the violent natures of other men?
After the Parliament ended, Bhishma spent a day pacing the Chicago lakefront, turning the question over in his mind. He could see no answer. The vision of world peace that the Parliament had shown him seemed fatally unstable. No matter how well bottled, competitiveness and aggression would always break out again, and he saw no way for the contagion to be stopped.
During his wanderings Bhishma entered the Columbian Exposition, the vast White City of the World's Fair, now in its final weeks. He became entranced by a display of horseback riding by a tribe of aboriginal Americans, oddly called "Indians" like himself. Most interesting of all was the demonstration of "counting coup," a practice in which one Indian warrior proved his superior bravery and dexterity by quickly riding up behind an enemy and touching him with a brightly decorated coup stick, then riding away unharmed. In this way, an enemy might be shamed but not injured. It was a contest, but not a fatal one.
Suddenly Bhishma saw that this practice held the seed of a solution to his problem, if only he could develop it and teach it to the modern world. Given the right practices, aggression did not have to stay bottled up, but could be released without the bloodshed that motivated reprisal.
All during the voyage home, he turned this possibility over in his mind. The men of the 19th (and soon the 20th) century would not dress up in war paint and ride horses carrying ribboned sticks. What could be the modern equivalent of counting coup?
When he arrived home, his wife Lakshmi had prepared a meal for him: several vegetarian dishes and the pancake-like bread that Indians call nan. He took a nan from the stack and began tearing it into pieces, dipping each one into the vegetables and sauces as he explained his vision to Lakshmi.
Unlike many Indian wives of that era, Lakshmi was both educated and outspoken. Her mother had warned that her sharp tongue would keep her from finding a husband, but Bhishma had been charmed by this young woman who was so different from any other he had met. He had encouraged her to read and learn, and he rejoiced to have a wife who could share in his thinking.
"That," Lakshmi said when her husband finished describing his idea, "is the dumbest idea you've ever had."
Surprised and offended, Bhishma's long-contained temper burst out. The only available object was the nan in his hand, so he threw it at his wife, spraying green bits of palak all over her dress.
But Lakshmi was not easily intimidated into silence. She tore off another piece of nan and threw it back at him, then for good measure, grabbed an entire nan and struck him across the face with it.
Of course the soft bread did no harm, but Bhishma had never before felt so affronted. He grabbed a nan and struck her in return. In seconds they were chasing each other all over their home and whaling away at each other with soft pieces of bread.
Later, neither could remember who was the first to start laughing. But before long the food fight had turned into play rather than battle, and husband and wife eventually collapsed laughing onto the floor, the shredded nan still in their hands.
His long-contained aggression now released, Bhishma had seldom felt so light. As he lay laughing on the hard tiled floor, he realized that he had found what he was looking for. In a state of excitement, he lifted himself up and ran next door to describe his discovery to his neighbor, a young lawyer recently arrived in South Africa from Bombay: Mohandas Gandhi.
War and conflict, Bhishma told his neighbor, could be eliminated if everyone were taught the practice of nan violence.
Gandhi misunderstood completely.