· Marriage of Amba
· Further Events
· Amba’s anger
· Parashuram’s mediation
· Parashurama and Bhishma
· Amba’s austerities
· Ganga’s curse
· Kartikeya’s blessings
· Shiva’s boon
· Amba’s death
· Amba’s rebirth
· Battle of Kurukshetra
· Death of Shikhandi
In the Mahabharata, Bhishma’s father King Shantanu was the Kuru King of Hastinapur. He was a descendant of the Bharata race, and he later married Satyavati. They had two sons Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Bhishma, though the eldest son of King Shantanu and Mother Ganga had given up his right to the throne and had taken a vow of lifelong celibacy and service to the throne of Hastinapur. Hence, when Shantanu died, Chitrangada was crowned King and he died childless when he was killed in a duel with a Gandharva. Though Vichitravirya was still a child he was crowned King, and Bhishma was appointed as his regent by Satyavati and the ministers of the kingdom. When Vichitravirya reached marriageable age, Bhishma began to search for a suitable bride for him. He heard that the King of Kashi had three daughters and he was holding a Swayamvara for them. Unfortunately, the King of Kashi had not sent the invitation to Hastinapur as he felt that Bhishma was a celibate and Vichitravirya being very young was not yet worthy of being selected for marriage. However, as per Satyavati’s command Bhishma was ordered to go to the kingdom and bring away the three princesses.
Marriage of Amba
Amba was the eldest of the three daughters of the King of Kashi, the other two being Ambika and Ambalika. Her story is mentioned in the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata. She was in love with Salva, the King of Saubala and they had decided that she would select him as her husband in the Swayamvara organised by her father. Unfortunately before she could do so Bhishma rushed into the Swayamvara and abducted the princesses after challenging the assembled princes to fight him. He rode away with the princesses in his chariot and all the assembled princes who were too shocked at that time followed him and attacked him but Bhishma defeated all of them. When Salva challenged him to a duel, a bitter battle was fought in which though Bhishma was wounded he defeated Salva killing his charioteer and horses and wounding him. But he spared Salva’s life and proceeded on his journey and handed over the princesses to Satyavati at Hastinapur.
Amba was shocked and she approached Bhishma and explained to him about her love for King Salva and her refusal to marry Vichitravirya. Bhishma agreed that she should rightfully proceed to marry the person of her choice. The remaining story of Amba was said to have been related by Bheeshma to Duryodhana in the Ambopakhyanaparvan chapter of the Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata. Bhishma ensured that Amba was safely escorted to King Salva’s kingdom. Unfortunately, King Salva was angry at his defeat at the hands of Bhishma and refused to accept her stating that she was carried off by Bhishma to wed another man and was no longer fit to marry him. Inspite of Amba’s pleadings and explanations Salva refused to accept her.
Angry and frustrated at the turn of events Amba retired to the forest. Another legend states that when she narrated her plight to Bhishma he took her back to the kingdom but Vichitravirya refused to marry her on the plea that she was in love with someone else. Amba then requested Bhishma to marry her, but he pleaded helplessness as he had vowed to be a lifelong celibate. As Amba was spurned by all the three men she was infuriated and decided that as Bhishma was the one responsible for the whole chain of events she would go to the forest to perform rigorous penances to take revenge on him.
After hearing about her plight the sages in the forest advised her to restrain her anger and return to her father but Amba refused. They then asked her to approach the sage Parashurama. One of his disciples advised her to either approach Salva to marry her or request Parashurama to fight against Bhishma. She agreed to the second option and approached Parashurama. He was the eternal foe of the Kshatriyas and he promised Amba that he would slay Bhishma.
Parashurama and Bhishma
Parashurama then set out to Kurukshetra in the Kuru kingdom and sent word to Bhishma to come and meet him. Bhishma was very happy as Parashurama had been his Guru in the past and rushed to meet him. Parashurama was pleased with his humility and devotion and requested him to save Amba from further humiliation and ignominy by marrying her. But Bhishma was determined not to break his vow. This infuriated Parashurama who challenged him to battle. Since both were very powerful the great battle is said to have lasted for twenty-three days without yielding any result. Bhishma chose a deadly weapon on the 24th day and the Gods felt that it was time to intervene. The Gods along with Sage Narada requested them to cease fighting and they ended the conflict declaring it a draw. Amba was upset and decided to achieve her objective by the power of her own penances.
Amba proceeded to the Yamuna river valley and began her austerities. She remained standing for six months performing penances without food and sleep surviving only on air. She then stood in the waters of the Yamuna and continued her austerities. Later she stood on the tips of her toes after having eaten only one leaf of a tree. This severe penance continued for twelve years and such was its power that it began to burn the earth and heavens. She then went to the Vatsa kingdom where she visited the ashrams of many great sages. She bathed in the sacred Ganga and Yamuna rivers and roamed the kingdom and visited many sacred sites observing difficult vows (Vratas) and penances along the way.
Unfortunately Mother Ganga was extremely unhappy as Amba’s austerities were aimed at destroying her beloved son Bhishma and she cursed her that as her mind was crooked she would become a crooked river flowing over difficult terrain infested with deadly creatures like crocodiles. It would only flow for four months in the rainy season and would remain dry the rest of the year. But Amba was undeterred and continued her austerities and pilgrimages finally returning to the kingdom of Vatsa where Ganga’s curse materialised. But due to the merit accrued from her severe austerities it is said that one half of her remained human while the other half of her became river Amba which even to this day flows tortuously in the hills of the Sahyadri ranges.
Some legends state that pleased with her penances Lord Kartikeya, the son of Lord Shiva, blessed her with a garland of blue lotuses stating that anyone who wore them would become the cause of Bhishma’s death. Amba is then said to have gone back to the kingdom and pleaded with the Kings to accept the garland and champion her cause but all the Kings refused as they knew about Bhishma’s matchless strength. In frustration and anger, Amba is said to have hung the garland on the gates of Drupada’s kingdom and left in pain and agony.
In the Vatsa kingdom, the sages and ascetics dissuaded her from continuing her severe penances but Amba was determined and nothing could sway her from her goal. Finally Lord Shiva appeared before her and blessed her that her wish would be fulfilled and she would be reborn in the home of King Drupada as a male in her next birth and would be the cause of the death of Bhishma.
At last Amba had secured the fruit of her penances. She felt that she no longer had a desire to live and in order to hasten her next birth when she could avenge herself she created a funeral pyre of wood on the banks of the river Yamuna and jumped into it.
King Drupada, the King of Panchala had no children and hence he went to the forest to perform austerities and propitiate Lord Shiva. Shiva blessed him that he would beget a girl child who would later transform herself into a man. She was named Shikhandini and according to some legends when Shikhandini was a young girl she spotted the garland of blue lotuses hung on the palace gate and put it around her neck. When her father saw her wearing the garland he grew fearful of incurring the wrath of the powerful Bhishma and banished Shikhandini from the kingdom. She performed severe austerities in the forest and was transformed into a male named Shikhandi. Another version of the Mahabharata states that when Drupada heard Shiva’s boon he decided to bring her up as a boy and when it was time for marriage he arranged it with a girl. The true identity of Shikhandini could not remain hidden after the marriage and Shikhandini went to the forest and with the help of a Yaksha became the male Shikhandi. Some legends considered him a eunuch while some state that that he had a wife and children.
Battle of Kurukshetra
Meanwhile Amba’s sisters Ambika and Ambalika had got married to King Vichitravirya. Both of them had grandchildren who became the Kauravas and Pandavas respectively. Unfortunately the Kauravas hated the Pandavas which consequently led to the battle of Kurukshetra. During the Kurukshetra war, Shikhandi sided with the Pandavas as Bhishma had sided with the Kauravas. When Bhishma proved a formidable and invincible enemy, the Pandavas decided on Krishna’s advice to put Shikhandi as the charioteer of Arjuna as they knew Bhishma would never fight a woman. Bhishma on seeing Shikhandi remembered her earlier birth as Amba and lowered his weapons and Arjuna aimed his arrows at Bhishma mortally wounding him. Thus Shikhandi became instrumental in the death of Bhishma and Amba’s desire was fulfilled.
Death of Shikhandi
Shikhandi was killed in the battle of Kurukshetra on the 18th day of the Great War by Ashwatthama, the son of Drona.
The story of Amba in Hinduism is a powerful tale of tragedy and revenge and has enthralled generations as it reiterates the famous words of Shakespeare ‘hell hath no fury than a woman scorned’. The trials and tribulations that she underwent and her quest for revenge emphasise the need for eschewing base passions and reiterates the importance of inculcating the virtues of forbearance, forgiveness and compassion in the higher quest for self realisation and truth.