Amba is one of the minor but significant characters in the Mahabharata. She is the eldest daughter of King Kasya of Kosala (a city sometimes called Kasi). She has two younger sisters, Ambika and Ambalika.
Amba’s story arc begins when a young Bhishma arrives in Kosala to win the hands of the three princesses at their swayamvara. Instead of allowing the princesses to choose their husbands, Bhishma decides to abduct them by force.
Amba was going to choose her lover, King Salva, at the ceremony. But Bhishma’s intervention prevents that.
This sets up Amba’s life as primarily antagonistic toward Bhishma. At the end, she kills herself in despair, and is reborn as Shikhandi, the prince of Panchala.
(For a full list of important Mahabharata characters, see 56 Mahabharata Characters that will Amaze You.)
Life before the Swayamvara
Amba enters the Mahabharata universe as a young woman ready to be wedded to a man of her choosing at her swayamvara, as the princess of Kosala.
Kasya, the king of Kosala, does not seem to have any reservations about who Amba will marry. Salva, the man that Amba loves, is the king of a smaller kingdom called Salva. (We should note here that the man Salva is sometimes referred to as Subala.)
Usually, fathers of princesses of big kingdoms like Kosala frown upon the idea of their daughters marrying kings from smaller cities.
But perhaps Kasya does not worry too much because he has three daughters. Even if Amba marries below her station, he can hope that the other two daughters will find more suitable matches.
All in all, Kosala will form three worthy alliances.
How Amba and Salva met and how they fell in love (especially since their kingdoms are so far apart in distance), we do not know. But we know that Amba goes into the swayamvara fully expecting to garland him.
Around the time of the Kosala princesses’ swayamvara, matters at Hastinapur’s royal court are not all that rosy.
Chitrangada, the elder son of Satyavati, had just succumbed to an ill-chosen fight with a Gandharva. Vichitraveerya, Satyavati’s second son, had just ascended the throne.
When Bhishma comes to know about the Kosala alliance, he resolves that it is Kuru that must win it. Crucially, he decides that he does not wish to share the Kuru-Kosala friendship with anyone else.
This means that the Kuru king (Vichitraveerya) has to win the hands of all three princesses.
Even as he prepares to journey to Kosala, Bhishma would have known that was an impossible prospect. Vichitraveerya is not particularly desirable. Even if he were, it is too much to expect all three princesses to choose him.
The only other option that Bhishma has is to abduct the three girls by force, and issue an open challenge to the other suitors.
Why does Bhishma abduct Amba?
The true answer to this question is: we do not know. Here are some speculations:
At the time, the Kuru kingdom is a bit vulnerable, with a weak king on the throne. Bhishma might have been on the lookout for strong alliances to the east of Panchala. When the Kosala swayamvara is announced, he decides to make his move.
It is instructive to observe Bhishma’s approach here. He is not merely content with taking one of the princesses home. That way, he would have had to contend with a four-way alliance with Kosala.
No. Bhishma wants all of the Kosala alliance for Kuru alone. This speaks to Bhishma’s desperation to strengthen the Kuru empire. We can only surmise from this that the death of Chitrangada had rattled him.
Another aspect of this to note is that Bhishma does not allow Vichitraveerya to attend the ceremony. That suggests that he is taking great pains to prevent Vichitraveerya from fighting – a mistake that caused Chitrangada’s death.
Of course, it is entirely possible that Kosala has some natural resources on which Bhishma has an eye – or perhaps some trade secrets that Kuru wishes to exploit. We are not told what these are.
At the Swayamvara
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.
Eight forms of Marriage
The eight forms of marriage that Bhishma refers to at Amba’s swayamvara are the following:
- The first form, the Brahma, is when the father of the bride chooses a groom fit for his daughter, and invites him to his house. He then gives his daughter, adorned with ornaments and dresses, to the boy along with some dakshina in the form of gifts.
- The second form, the Daiva, is when the father of a bride, after having waited in vain for proposals to arrive for his daughter, gifts her to a suitable priest.
- The Arsha form of marriage is when the father of a bride gives his daughter away to a sage who lives an austere form of life. Here the dakshina is limited: all that the groom gets from the bride’s family is a cow and a bull.
- In the Prajapatya form, the focus is on progeny. During the wedding ceremony, the bride’s father takes a promise from the groom that he will never become a Sanyasi. In return the bride promises her husband that she will accompany him always.
- The Gandharva style is when the man and the woman, having confessed their feelings for each other, get married without any witnesses besides the elements such as air, water and fire.
- The Asura form describes a situation in which a man effectively purchases a woman by giving a high bride-price to the girl’s father. After thus satisfying the father’s cupidity, the groom takes the girl away and marries her.
- The Rakshasa form of marriage occurs when the bride is carried away by force. Sometimes, when this abduction happens during the groom-choosing ceremony, the abductor throws an open challenge to the other suitors to stop him from carrying the girl away.
- The Paishacha is a variant of the Rakshasa form, whereby an unconscious or sleeping girl is carried away.
These are originally told by Dushyanta to Shakuntala, after which the former convinces the latter to wed him by the Gandharva code, so that they may consummate their union that very night.
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. As we know, she’s already in love with another man. She had been planning the whole time to garland Salva 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 behaves 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 Salva. But he would have reasoned that Salva 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.
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.
Why did Amba want to marry Bhishma?
At this juncture, a modern reader may pause to ask: why did Amba ask Bhishma to marry her? Did she love him?
Did she not have any other options? Could she not have, for instance, gone back to her father’s place?
We must answer these questions from the Mahabharata’s frame of reference. In that world, a woman would never consider going back to her father’s place for refuge. Once her father has given her away in marriage, it is now her duty to stand on her own feet.
If she is to return to her father’s place, it must be as a happily married woman, not as one spurned and scorned.
(We see a similar choice made by Kunti later in the story: with the Pandavas in tow, with Pandu dead, Kunti does not even consider going back to Kuntibhoja. She braves it all by returning to Hastinapur, her dead husband’s home.)
For Amba, therefore, after being rejected by both Salva and Vichitraveerya, going back to Kosala is not even a viable choice.
At that point, as she watches both of her suitors turn their backs on her, she decides that Bhishma, as the man responsible for putting her in that situation, should marry her.
She has no love for Bhishma, nor does he for her. But Amba perceives it as Bhishma’s duty to marry her.
(Suggested: Why did Amba want to marry Bhishma?)
Why does Amba hate Bhishma?
Thus, despite Bhishma’s best intentions, and none of his actions bearing any personal ill will toward Amba, she ends up hating him.
First, he ruins her perfectly laid plan of marrying the love of her life at her swayamvara. Though Bhishma argues that the act of abducting her is accepted by scripture, there is no doubt that the approach is unusual at best.
Second, he does not marry her after she had been spurned by both Vichitraveerya and Salva.
(One can see Bhishma’s position here: he has already vowed not to marry. Even if he had not, it would have been the height of awkwardness to marry the elder sister of his half-brother’s wife.)
Third, he takes no moral responsibility for Amba’s situation. Bhishma argues that Amba had everything going right for her: she could have been the queen of Hastinapur! It is she who had chosen to go.
Amba leaves Hastinapur and sets out into the forest, seething with hatred for Bhishma and craving vengeance.
In the forest, Amba takes refuge under a sage called Saikhavatya.
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.’
Why did Amba want to kill Bhishma?
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.
(Suggested: Why did Amba want to kill Bhishma?)
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.
How did Amba die?
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!’
(Suggested: How did Amba die?)
Rebirth as Shikhandi
Bhishma recounts in the Ambopakhyana Parva (right before the Kurukshetra was begins) that soon after her death, Amba is reborn in Drupada’s family as Shikhandi.
It so happens that Shikhandi 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.
(Later, Drupada would ask for – and receive – a son that would kill Drona. That boy gets the name Dhrishtadyumna. This gives us an idea of the kind of relationship that Kuru and Panchala had with one another.)
Shikhandini is born as a girl, but on Lord Shiva’s recommendation, Drupada raises her as a boy.
As a maiden, Shikhandini goes through a few adventures that culminate in her becoming an actual man.
How did Amba kill Bhishma?
Therefore, strictly speaking, it is not Amba, the princess of Kosala, that kills Bhishma. It is Amba, the princess of Kosala, reborn as Shikhandi the prince of Panchala, that kills Bhishma.
It is unclear how Bhishma knows that Shikhandi and Amba are the same person. When Duryodhana asks this question, Bhishma vaguely replies that he has had spies posted on Amba’s trail ever since she left Hastinapur.
So we are left to imagine that these spies in Bhishma’s employ followed Amba and found out everything – about Saikhavatya, about Shiva, and about the birth of Shikhandini in Panchala.
Regardless, Shikhandi becomes an important piece in the puzzle of how to kill Bhishma.
First, Bhishma – because of his knowledge of Shikhandi’s past – imposes a rule upon himself that he will not fight against him.
Then, Krishna devises a strategy by which Arjuna fights against Bhishma using Shikhandi as a shield – thus negating the grandsire’s fighting prowess while still allowing Arjuna to shoot at him.
On the tenth day of the Mahabharata war, Amba (as Shikhandi) helps Arjuna in a pivotal way to remove Bhishma from the battlefield.
(Suggested: How did Amba kill Bhishma?)
How did Shikhandi die?
The second incarnation of Amba, in the form of Shikhandi, does not have a happy ending either.
After removing Bhishma and partly satisfying his urge for justice (or revenge, as the case may be), Shikhandi is accosted by Ashwatthama on the night of the eighteenth day of the Mahabharata war.
Ashwatthama attacks the Pandava camp in the dead of the night, and conducts a shameful massacre of sleeping men. He himself is inflamed by revenge: he is out to avenge the unjust killing of his father, Drona.
Shikhandi dies in this carnage. Ironically, Ashwatthama gets all the power to carry out his mission by Shiva, the very god who has assured Amba that she will have her revenge against Bhishma.
Ironically, despite being removed from the battlefield, Bhishma does not die until much after the war is finished.
Shikhandi dies before Bhishma. Amba, therefore, despite all her machinations, fails to see the death of Bhishma.
What does the Amba story tell us?
To the extent that any of the Mahabharata stories impart morals to us, we may read the following messages in Amba’s life:
First, it is instructive to note just how much a woman’s life depended in those days on the political and power-ridden plays of the men surrounding them. Sometimes a woman’s life was upended by the action of a man whom she does not even know.
Amba is a woman who refuses to take this oppression lying down. Despite being starved of options, she seeks protectors and tries to influence them into doing her bidding.
At last, she takes matters into her own hands, and wins the favour of Lord Shiva. She learns to help herself, in other words, after Parashurama fails on her behalf.
It is poignant that she has to take birth as a man in order to right the wrongs done to her. Sometimes, even the gods have to bow before cultural forces.
At the end, though, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that revenge is futile. It never satisfies, it never arrives in the same form as you imagine it, and it is immediately begets more revenge.