Mahabharata Episode 3: Amba, Ambika and Ambalika

Amba, Ambika and Ambalika - Featured Image - Bhishma on top of a chariot shooting an arrow

In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 2: Satyavati Marries Shantanu)

After the wedding of Satyavati and Shantanu, the next big dramatic event of the story happens when Bhishma rides out alone to the swayamvara of Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, three princesses from the kingdom of Kosala.

But before that, we have to see what happens to Chitrangada, the first son of Satyavati.

Chitrangada Dies in a Duel

Soon after marrying Satyavati, Shantanu has two sons by her named Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya. He does not live long enough to see them grow into adulthood, though. He dies (of natural causes) when they are both little children.

Bhishma steps into the role of a regent at this point, and begins to rule Hastinapur on Chitrangada’s behalf.

Chitrangada is made heir-apparent to the throne at a suitable age (some people say it’s twelve, some sixteen), but around the same time, a strange event occurs.

A Gandharva named Chitrangada arrives in Hastinapur and throws an open challenge to Chitrangada the prince. On the banks of the river Saraswati, the two of them fight for a period of three years (this is probably an exaggeration). At the end of it, Chitrangada the prince loses his life.

We’re not told what Bhishma was doing at this time; there is no record of anyone taking his advice on the matter. We’re also not told why a king had to fight single-handedly against a challenger.

(The most often cited explanation is that Kshatriya Dharma forced Chitrangada to accept the challenge thrown by the Gandharva, but of course there are safeguards against this sort of reckless fighting. Kings, as a rule, did not fight even in battle scenarios. The protection of a king mattered more than anything else to a kingdom.)

In any case, to make a long story short, Chitrangada dies without ever making it to the throne in any meaningful sense.

Bhishma Wins

Bhishma does not waste any time at the death of Chitrangada. After a suitable time of mourning has passed, he anoints Vichitraveerya as king. And when the time comes for the perpetuation of the Kuru race, he sets out to participate in the groom-choosing ceremony of Amba, Ambika and Ambalika.

The ceremony in Kosala is originally meant to be one of self-choice, where each of the three princesses will choose a groom for herself from the attending guests.

Bhishma, however, upends the process and announces his intention to abduct the princesses.

‘I am about to carry off the three maidens back to Hastinapur, to be wedded to my brother Vichitraveerya,’ he says. ‘If anyone wishes to stop me, challenge me to a fight and defeat me.’

This may seem like a despicable thing to do for the modern reader, but we’re assured that this practice of carrying a maiden from her swayamvara by force is an acceptable one. Indeed, Bhishma tells everyone present at the ceremony that this is one of the eight forms of marriage that has the approval of scripture.

(For more on the eight forms of marriage, see Story 7 in: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Adi Parva.)

The kings who have assembled at Kosala challenge Bhishma to a battle, but of course they are no match to the son of Ganga. Bhishma wins the three princesses all by himself, and carries them back to Hastinapur.

Amba’s Choice

Now, there may be political reasons as well for Bhishma’s actions. Kosala is a strategically located kingdom that makes for a good ally, so by forcing all three of the kingdom’s daughters to be wedded to Vichitraveerya, Kuru does not have to share Kosala’s support with anyone.

As for the three girls, under normal circumstances this is a good outcome for the oldest – Amba. She is now assured of being queen of Hastinapur, and of being mother to a future king.

Prospects are not great for Ambika and Ambalika, who are now destined to serve as secondary personalities to their elder sister whereas if they had married someone else, they may have become queens themselves.

But Amba has a secret. She’s already been in love with another man, a man called Salya (sometimes called Salva), the king of a small kingdom called Saubha. She had been planning the whole time to garland Salya at the ceremony, only for Bhishma to appear out of nowhere and foil everything.

Regardless, Amba musters enough courage to tell Bhishma of this matter. For his part, Bhishma behaved honourably: he holds a consultation with Satyavati, and on getting her approval, lets Amba go.

(The diplomat in Bhishma would have paused to consider the consequences of sharing Kosala’s alliance with Saubha. But he would have reasoned that Saubha is a small kingdom, nowhere close to the might of Kuru. Also, Vichitraveerya is going to be marrying two of Kosala’s daughters while giving up just one. So he would have considered the option fair.)

Vichitraveerya Marries

With Amba choosing to become queen of Saubha instead of Hastinapur – which is practically speaking a foolish decision, but she is a woman in love – Vichitraveerya marries Ambika and Ambalika in a single ceremony. As the older wife, Ambika gets the status of queen, while Ambalika settles in as the second wife.

As it turns out, though, Salya the king of Saubha is no longer interested in taking Amba as wife. ‘Bhishma won you in front of the whole world at the swayamvara, Princess,’ he says. ‘If I accept you, my own people will laugh at me.’

Amba is puzzled by these strange rules of honour among men, and with a heavy heart she returns to Hastinapur, only to find that Vichitraveerya too is no longer willing to marry her. His reason: the princess has chosen someone else and we have let her go. Now she has come back only because her lover spurned her. I do not wish to marry someone rejected by another.

Frantically watching her options evaporate right in front of her eyes, Amba asks Bhishma to marry her. And of course he says no.

Unable to consign herself to a life in which she would be subservient to her younger sisters, Amba sets out to find her own fortune. She is seething with anger at Bhishma, and she would try to find a way by which ‘justice’ could be given to her.

Amba’s Adventures

In her quest for revenge against Bhishma, Amba first goes to Parashurama, who tries to persuade Bhishma to forget his oath and marry Amba. But Bhishma does not relent.

Then, taking matters into her own hands, Amba propitiates lord Shiva and asks him for a boon that will allow her to destroy Bhishma. Shiva replies, ‘You will be the cause of Bhishma’s death, but in your next life.’

Eager to enter her next life, Amba consigns herself to flames. And she takes birth as a girl called Shikhandini in the palace of Drupada, king of Panchala.

Shikhandini grows into adulthood as a woman, but owing to a strange sequence of events, turns into a man named Shikhandi.

And on the tenth day of the Mahabharata war, Arjuna uses Shikhandi as a shield (because Bhishma refuses to fight ‘a woman’) and peppers the Kuru grandsire with arrows.

Thus, Amba becomes responsible for Bhishma’s death, but not in a particularly satisfying manner.  

Vichitraveerya Dies

Meanwhile, just as Ambika and Ambalika are getting used to the idea of life as queens of the Kuru kingdom, Vichitraveerya dies of a sudden illness without getting either of them pregnant.

Once again the question of whether Bhishma should forswear his oath arises. This time Satyavati tells him point-blank to take Ambika and Ambalika as wives.

This is a logical suggestion. The circumstances that surrounded Bhishma’s oath no longer existed now. Satyavati’s child-bearing years are behind her. She does not have a husband to bring forth more children to the world. There is no reason anymore for Bhishma continuing his vow of celibacy.

However, Bhishma refuses to go back on his word. Instead he proposes that Ambika and Ambalika should participate in the ancient process of niyoga, by which a Brahmin can be called upon to bring forth children with wives of dead kings.

The resulting progeny will be considered by the world as belonging to the king who had died childless, not the Brahmin who helps out by offering his seed.

Satyavati Calls upon Vyasa

While considering options on which Brahmin to invite to Hastinapur for the purposes of impregnating Ambika and Ambalika, Satyavati tells Bhishma about a son she once had before she married Shantanu.

He is Sage Dwaipayana, also called Vyasa.

(For a more detailed account of how Vyasa was born, please see Episode 2: Satyavati Marries Shantanu.)

As the son of Satyavati, Vyasa is a half-brother to the dead Vichitraveerya. And since the process of niyoga is often performed by the dead king’s brother, Bhishma thinks that this is an appropriate arrangement. Also, Sage Parashara is considered one of the wisest men in the world, so Vyasa brings with him pedigree on both sides.

Vyasa, of course, answers Satyavati’s call, and in due course of time brings forth two sons: Dhritarashtra with Ambika, and Pandu with Ambalika.

He also fathers another son called Vidura by an unnamed Sudra woman who serves as a maid in Ambika’s chambers.

The Three Princesses

Dhritarashtra goes on to become the father of hundred sons, the Kauravas. Duryodhana is the eldest of this lot.

Pandu – also through the process of niyoga – fathers five sons, the Pandavas. Yudhishthir is the eldest of these.

Dhritarashtra is born blind, so Bhishma makes Pandu king ahead of his older brother. This brings about yet another flip in the relative statuses of Ambika and Ambalika. It is Ambalika now who becomes Queen Mother despite being the younger wife.

Vidura, for his part, lives his entire life as the advisor to the king of Hastinapur. He is an incarnation of Yama, the god of justice.

Of all the three princesses of Kosala, it is Amba who has the most interesting life, but also the shortest. Ambika and Ambalika end their lives in fairly sedate fashions, retiring to the forest in the company of Satyavati around the time of Pandu’s death.

The details of the births of Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura are rather interesting, though, and warrant an episode of their own. We will look further into this in our next post.

Further Reading

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