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.
In this post, we will answer the question: How did Amba die?
In her first life, Amba dies when she immolates herself in a fire soon after Shiva gives her a boon that she will become the cause of Bhishma’s death – but in her next birth. Her second life as Shikhandi ends when she dies at the hands of Ashwatthama during the night-time raid of the eighteenth day.
(For a comprehensive guide on Amba, see Amba: Your Complete Guide to the Mahabharata Heroine.)
Amba’s First Death
Since Amba lives two lives – the first as the princess of Kosala, and the second as Shikhandi the prince of Panchala – she dies two times during the Mahabharata.
The first of these deaths occurs a short while after she leaves Hastinapur and seeks to right the wrongs done to her by Bhishma.
At first she employs Parashurama to persuade Bhishma to marry her, but when that fails, she takes matters into her own hands and propitiates Shiva.
The lord of destruction gives her a boon that she will eventually become the reason for Bhishma’s death, but only in her next life.
‘You will be born in the house of Drupada,’ Shiva tells her, ‘and you will fight against Bhishma in the war that is destined to happen many years since. So cease your worry.’
Faced with this prospect, eager to begin her next life straight away, Amba kills herself by stepping into a fire.
Enmity with Bhishma
Why does Amba hate Bhishma so? Here is a quick recap of their relationship:
- Amba is the princess of Kosala. Very early on in her life, she falls in love with King Salva. She plans to choose him at her swayamvara.
- But Bhishma interrupts her plan and abducts her (along with her two sisters, Ambika and Ambalika) from the ceremony.
- After they reach Hastinapur, Amba requests Bhishma to let her go to Salva. Bhishma accepts.
- But Salva refuses to take Amba as his wife because, he says, Bhishma had already won her publicly, and that he would become a laughingstock among his people if he were to marry her.
- A dejected Amba returns to Hastinapur, only to find that Vichitraveerya had already married Ambika and Ambalika. Now he is not interested in marrying Amba either, because she had just recently spurned him.
- With all of this, Amba asks Bhishma to marry her. Bhishma refuses.
The above events convince Amba – with some reason – that Bhishma is the main cause of all her troubles. She leaves Hastinapur immediately, finds refuge in a hermitage, and plots her course.
Amba’s Second Life
In her rebirth, Amba is born as Shikhandini, the daughter of King Drupada in Panchala.
Interestingly, Drupada asks Shiva to give him a son who would grow up to kill Bhishma. And Shiva gives Drupada a daughter.
When Drupada complains about this, Shiva tells him, ‘Do not worry, O King. Your daughter will become a man in due course. Raise her as a boy, and train her just as you would a prince.’
Despite the Panchala king’s scepticism, Shiva’s words come true. As a young maiden, Shikhandini goes through an adventure that ends with her becoming a man.
From then on, he takes on the name of Shikhandi.
(More on Shikhandi’s life here: Mahabharata Episode 38: Amba and Shikhandi.)
Amba’s Second Death
Amba’s second death in the body of Shikhandi happens during the night of the eighteenth day of the Mahabharata war. The events leading up to this are described in the Sauptika Parva.
Spurred by the desire for revenge for the manner in which his father had been killed, Ashwatthama raids the Pandava camp in the dead of the night, after having sought and received Shiva’s blessings.
In this final act of the Kurukshetra war, Ashwatthama hacks everyone in sight and plunders everything he sees. Shikhandi is one of the casualties of this night.
Interestingly, it is Dhrishtadyumna who kills Drona unjustly on the fifteenth morning, so Ashwatthama’s ire is directed at him. But Shikhandi just happens to be in the way.
A few days earlier, on the tenth day of the war, Amba had helped Arjuna defeat Bhishma. By allowing herself to become Arjuna’s shield, she enables the third Pandava to land some telling blows on Bhishma.
Did Amba have her revenge?
After all of this single-minded devotion to revenge, one must ask: did Amba, in her dying moments, consider her lives well-lived?
Despite the promise of Shiva, it must be said that Amba had only partial satisfaction with respect to her cherished goal: she only saw Bhishma fall on the bed of arrows. She saw him lie in pain for eight long days.
But she did not see him die.
In fact, Bhishma only dies long after the Mahabharata war comes to a close, after he and Yudhishthir have had a long conversation about politics and ethics – all of which is recorded in the Shanti and the Anushasana Parvas.
So at the time of her death, with Ashwatthama slicing her innards with a sword, Amba might have been forgiven to feel that her thirst was still unquenched.
The Manner of Amba’s Revenge
Also, the manner in which Amba gets her revenge is not quite satisfactory.
When Shiva gives Amba the promise that she will one day become the cause of Bhishma’s death, what images would have flashed through Amba’s mind?
She would have imagined herself as a highly skilled warrior who would challenge Bhishma to single combat. She would wear down Bhishma with her fighting prowess, and she would shoot the fatal arrow that would pierce Bhishma’s heart.
But in reality, she receives a life in which she is made painfully aware every waking moment that she is nowhere close to matching Bhishma in battle.
Even during the Kurukshetra war, the Pandavas and other allies are always taunting her about her inability to kill Bhishma. Despite her destiny as Bhishma’s killer, she is found wanting.
At the end, when the moment does arrive, Amba plays only an enabling role to Arjuna. And she uses her femininity as a weapon against Bhishma, not her prowess as a warrior.
It is therefore reasonable to presume that Amba was dissatisfied with how she fulfilled her life’s purpose.
The first life of Amba is recorded in the Ambopakhyana Parva. The story of Ashwatthama’s raid on the Pandava camp is narrated in Mahabharata Episode 54: Ashwatthama Rages.