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 37: Rathas and Atirathas. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
Amba’s Capture and Release
As we have seen in Episode 3, Bhishma gives Duryodhana an account of how he once went to the kingdom of Kasi to win for Vichitraveerya three princesses: Amba, Ambika and Ambalika.
However, Amba has a secret lower named Salva, who had come to the ceremony and had lost to Bhishma in the battle. She approaches Satyavati and tells her that she would rather marry her loved one than be anointed queen of Hastinapur.
When Bhishma comes to know of the matter, he does what is actually quite out of character for a Kshatriya man; he allows Amba to leave.
But when Amba approaches Salva and tells him that they are now free to be united, the king laughs.
‘Princess,’ he says, ‘how can I, a king, desire to make as my wife a woman who has been taken so publicly to be wedded to another? Bhishma won you fair and square with the might of his bow; it does not befit you to dishonour him thus and come to me.’
Amba tries to reason with Salva, but when all her entreaties fall on deaf ears, she returns to Hastinapur.
But by then, Vichitraveerya is already wedded to her two younger sisters, and he himself is reluctant to marry Amba.
Desperate, Amba tells Bhishma: ‘Since it is you who has abducted me from my groom-choosing, it is only right that you should marry me.’ But of course Bhishma says no to that.
This leaves Amba in a bit of a lurch, not sure where to turn. She eventually finds her way to the asylum of a sage called Saikhavatya, who advises her on her options.
Refuge under Saikhavatya
Amba is at first not sure whose fault this whole thing is. Do I blame Bhishma for my plight, she thinks. Or is it Salva who made me promises that he could not fulfill? Or am I responsible for it all because I dared to step out of my station when my wedding to the prince was fixed?
At the hermitage of Saikhavatya, the sage says they may not help her in any practical manner, detached as they are from the normal course of life. But Amba wants just to stay with them and spend her life quietly, to which Saikhavatya agrees.
For a time Amba lives with him and his disciples, studying the scriptures and performing chores. Then, after her story had become known to everyone there, the sages get together and begin to discuss ways in which they could perhaps solve her predicament.
While the Brahmins are puzzling over the matter, Amba’s maternal grandfather called Hotravahana comes to the very asylum and stays there for a while.
After hearing of his granddaughter’s plight, he makes her sit on his lap and consoles her. Then he says, ‘Parashurama, the son of Jamadagni, is a dear friend of mine, my girl. Go to him, and he will drive away all your afflictions.’
While Hotravahana is saying these words to Amba, it so happens that a sage called Akritavrana – one of the staunchest disciples of Parashurama – comes there to the asylum. After he is welcomed with due honour, he sits down and asks after Hotravahana’s welfare.
‘My master Parashurama often remembers you, Your Majesty,’ he says. ‘If you stay here just one more night, you will be able to meet him tomorrow, for he is due to come here at the crack of dawn.’
Hotravahana and Amba are pleasantly surprised at this. The king fills in Akritavrana on the maiden’s story, and tells him that they wish Parashurama to do something about it. Akritavrana listens with a knotted brow, and at the end, grunts a little and rubs his beard.
‘This is certainly an unfortunate plight to visit any woman, let alone the eldest princess of a Great Kingdom,’ he says. ‘But I must ask you, my lady, which of the two afflictions you hope Sage Parashurama will remove. Is it that you wish the lord of Saubha – Salva – to be wedded to you? Or do you intend the son of Jamadagni to chastise and defeat Bhishma?’
Amba is also puzzled by this question, and asks Akritavrana what he thinks.
Akritavrana says, ‘In my opinion, it is the rash and arrogant act of Bhishma – that of abducting you from your swayamvara – that is the cause of all your ills.’
With that, Amba finally finds a target for all the anger that has been bubbling within her.
Parashurama Summons Bhishma
Parashurama’s first instinct is to offer protection and help to Amba, because she is the granddaughter of his good friend. He also tells her despite her protests that he will first seek to make peace between the two parties before taking up arms.
For Amba’s part, she is way past the point of conciliation and wants revenge against Bhishma.
Parashurama takes Amba and goes to Kurukshetra. Setting up camp there on the bank of the river Saraswati, he sends a message to Bhishma saying, ‘I have come here from my northern sojourn. Come and wait upon me.’
Bhishma comes straight away with a cow mounted on the van of his chariot, and accompanied by many of his courtiers. After the required rituals between student and teacher have taken place, Bhishma enquires after the purpose of Parashurama’s visit.
‘I ask you as your preceptor,’ says Parashurama, ‘as the man who taught you everything you know today about the science of arms. Undo the suffering that this maiden had to endure because of you, in my name!’
‘I shall do anything that you command, sir,’ Bhishma replies, ‘but I cannot marry her to Vichitravirya. Nor can I marry her myself, for that would break the vow of brahmacharya that I have lived with all my life.’
‘If you refuse me, your teacher, in such a blatant manner, then I will be forced to fight you.’
Bhishma is unruffled by the threat, though a part of him is saddened that he might have to duel with his preceptor. ‘For the sake of duty, O son of Jamadagni,’ he says, ‘I am ready to fight even you. Let us repair to the field of Kurukshetra and draw up our marks.’
The fight between Bhishma and Parashurama takes place over twenty three terrible days (after a failed peacekeeping mission by Ganga), during which the two men hurt each other in numerous ways with both celestial and earthly weapons.
On the night after the twenty-third day, when Bhishma is in bed, he dreams of eight Brahmins who foretell that Parashurama will soon be defeated at his hands.
‘Tomorrow, O Prince,’ they tell him, ‘you will come by the knowledge of a weapon called Praswapa. It has been forged by the divine artificer just for you, and with its use the son of Jamadagni will be slain.
‘But do not worry that the death of Parashurama will be permanent, O Bhishma, for you will be able to revive him with the use of another weapon called Samvodhana.’
The prophecy comes to pass, and when Parashurama loses the next morning, he throws away his bow in disgust. ‘I am vanquished, O Bhishma!’ he cries out. ‘Do what you will with my body now that you have won it.’
‘I have no use for your body, Venerable One,’ says Bhishma. ‘But from now on, I hope that you will treat all Kshatriyas with care. The path of a Brahmin is not one that you have chosen, so after this battle, I hope that you will take up the vessel of sacred water in your hands, along with a staff that will enable you to perform austerities.’
Parashurama goes to Amba, tells him all that had happened, and states that he was unable to subjugate Bhishma. ‘Your only course of action is to beg forgiveness from the Kuru regent,’ he tells her.
This brings Amba back to where she had begun. Now she resolves to take matters into her own hands
The Austerities of Amba
Amba now goes deep into the forest, away from the hermitage that has been sheltering her all this while, and begins to perform severe austerities in the manner of a yogini.
Bhishma, on the other hand, returns to Hastinapur and assigns a couple of spies to maintain a working knowledge of Amba’s doings. They keep reporting back to him about her whereabouts and deeds.
It is said that during the first year of her practice, she goes without food completely and lives on air alone, standing stationary like a tree. In the second year, she stands in the knee-deep water of the Yamuna.
In the third year she eats just one fallen leaf, and stands on her front toes to perform her prayers. In this way, with each year bringing about a more intense form of worship, she makes the heavens burn over a period of twelve years.
In due course of time, Shiva appears in front of her in his divine form and offers her a boon. And of course, she wishes that she will one day kill Bhishma.
The bearer of the trident raises his free hand in a gesture of a blessing. ‘So be it,’ he says. ‘At the right moment ordained by destiny, you will be the cause of Bhishma’s death.’
‘But how will I do this O Lord,’ asks Amba, ‘as long as I inhabit this weak female body? How can a woman such as I even approach a man such as he?’
‘The words I have uttered cannot be false, Amba,’ Shiva replies. ‘You will obtain manhood in your next birth, and even remember the events of this one. The purpose of your existence, therefore, will not be lost on you.
‘Born in the race of Drupada, you will become a maharatha, and in a battle that is fated to occur in the far future, you will face him. And you will receive your opportunity to avenge all the wrongs that the son of Ganga has heaped upon you.’
Saying this, Shiva disappears, much to the wonder of all the Brahmins assembled at the hermitage. Amba, for her part, immediately sets about gathering firewood for her own funeral pyre.
What need have I of this life, she thinks, when it is in the next birth that I am fated to kill Bhishma.
After having taken the blessings of the Brahmins at Vatsabhoomi, then, she lights up a great fire and enters it, her heart burning with wrath. Her final words as Amba are: ‘For the destruction of Bhishma!’
It so happens that Shikhandin himself is not born in Drupada’s family as a boy. When Duryodhana asks Bhishma about the story of the hero’s birth, we are told from the grandsire’s lips that at the time, the king of the Panchalas was engaged in worship to gain a son that would kill Bhishma.
(Instructive that Drupada first asks for a son to kill Bhishma – Shikhandi – and then asks for one to kill Drona – Dhrishtadyumna.)
In any case, Drupada happens to be childless and performs a sacrifice to please Shiva, in order to gain a son off him that would kill Bhishma.
But Shiva says, ‘It has been ordained by fate that you would have a daughter, O King. But you will raise her as a son, and in due course of time, she will fulfill your ambition of killing Gangeya.’
So Drupada’s wife, the following year, brings forth a daughter, but the royal family keeps the secret safe from everyone else and announces to the world that a son had been born. Drupada causes all rites prescribed for a male child to be performed with full ceremony to the daughter.
And indeed, besides the close family members, no one knows the truth. The only man in the kingdom that knows that Shikhandi is a girl is Drupada. Everyone else thinks that she is a boy.
Children don’t stay young, however, and a time comes when Drupada and his wife begin to think of getting the young prince(ss) married.
My Daughter for Yours
When the right time arrives, Drupada arranges a match between her ‘son’ Shikhandi and the daughter of a Dasarnaka king named Hiranyavarma. after the wedding, Shikhandi brings his bride back to Kampilya, the capital of Southern Panchala.
Now it does not take long for the new bride to discover that her ‘husband’ is actually a woman disguised as a man. She does not quite know what to do at first. Then she confesses the matter bashfully to her nurses (who are in Hiranyavarman’s employ), who make haste in carrying it to the king.
Hiranyavarma is first bemused at this news. Then he gradually turns angry. He realizes that he had been fooled. He sends a message to Drupada that reads: ‘You solicited my daughter for your daughter?
‘I have not heard of such blatant trickery in my whole life, O King, and I cannot even fathom your reasons for doing so. I am coming to your city at the head of a large army to take back my daughter. By force if necessary.’
Drupada, perplexed as to what he must do, tries to placate the father of his daughter-in-law. But Hiranyavarma sends out a message to all the kings of Aryavarta that Drupada’s son is in fact a maiden.
The kings assemble and decide that if this turns out to be true, Drupada and Shikhandi will be slain, and that a new king will be installed on the throne of Southern Panchala.
With Panchala under siege, Shikhandini (the private name given her by her parents) is overridden by guilt. She resolves to run away into the forest and to take her own life in order to protect her father’s kingdom.
Now this forest happens to be the abode of a Yaksha named Sthunakarna. He lives in a mansion with high walls and a gateway, plastered over with powdered earth, and the air in the garden rich with the fragrance of fried paddy.
Shikhandini wanders into this compound and begins to perform a severe fast in order to starve herself for the sake of her countrymen.
Sthunakarna watches her for a few days, and then he appears before her. ‘Why do you torture yourself so, O Lady?’ he asks. ‘Tell me without delay, for I am a powerful man capable of granting boons.’
‘This is a boon no one can grant,’ says Shikhandini with a sigh.
‘But tell me what it is that you want,’ says Sthunakarna. ‘You might be surprised by the extent of my powers. I am a keen follower of Kubera, the lord of celestial treasures. He has blessed me with many gifts.’
Shikhandini narrates the whole story to Sthunakarna and asks if he could make her a man for the time during which the men of Hiranyavarma visit Kampilya. ‘For as long as the king stays in my city, O Lord,’ she says, ‘can you please make me a perfect man?’
Sthunakarna thinks about it, and agrees at last that he can. ‘If it is ordained, it must happen,’ he says. ‘But I will only give you my manhood for a short period of time.
‘Give me my word that you shall return to me in due course. In return, I shall bear your womanhood for the time the cruel king Hiranyavarma remains in your city.’
Shikhandini agrees enthusiastically, and they make a covenant to impart to each other – by the powers of the Yaksha – their respective genders.
With the return of Shikhandini in the form of a man, an overjoyed Drupada sends a message to Hiranyavarma that the latter can come anytime to ‘inspect’ his son.
The Dasarnaka king is understandably irate when he receives this message, because he thinks that Drupada is up to some trick or the other once again.
But Drupada is unperturbed, and allows Hiranyavarma access to Shikhandi. Hiranyavarman sends a bevy of beautiful ladies to Shikhandi’s chamber with specific instructions, and the women return the following morning to joyfully report that the prince is indeed a powerful specimen of masculinity.
Meanwhile, back in the mansion of Sthunakarna, the Yakshas receive a visit from Kubera, who is puzzled by the absence of his chief follower in the welcoming party. ‘Why has Sthuna not come to attend upon me?’ he asks the rest of the clan members.
But the Yakshas explain to Kubera that it is shame that has compelled Sthuna to stay out of sight. ‘He assumed a female form taken from the princess of Panchala,’ they inform him. ‘It is out of shame, therefore, that he has not come out to welcome you, Lord.’
This angers Kubera even further, because changing genders in this manner is a forbidden act. ‘Bring him to me forcefully!’ he commands the lesser Yakshas.
And when Sthuna appears before him, he places on him a curse. ‘Because you did this highly censorious act without asking me for permission first, I curse you that this change of gender will be permanent.’
Shikhandi, thus, gets transformed permanently into a man just as foretold by Shiva.
Concluding this tale, Bhishma tells Duryodhana, ‘It is thus that Amba has come to be born in the line of Drupada as Shikhandini first, and then transformed herself into a warrior named Shikhandi.
‘I have come to know all this due to the help of my spies. And it is my vow that I shall never strike a woman, a person who has once been a woman or bears a feminine name, or one whose form resembles that of a woman.
‘So if Shikhandi is to advance at me with weapons raised, O Prince, I shall not smite him at all. I will merely look away.’
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