Shikhandi is one of the minor but significant characters in the Mahabharata. He is the older brother of Dhrishtadyumna and Draupadi. He is the son of Drupada, the king of Panchala in the years leading up to the Kurukshetra war.
However, Shikhandi is born as a girl. Shiva asks Drupada to raise her as a boy, and that she will transform into a man when the time is right.
In this post, we will answer the question: How did Shikhandi become a boy?
Shikhandi becomes a boy when he temporarily swaps his gender with that of a Yaksha named Sthuna. His manhood becomes permanent when Kubera, the lord of wealth, curses Sthuna (for having performed this exchange) that he will remain a woman forever, and that the recipient of Sthuna’s masculinity will remain a man forever.
(For a comprehensive guide on Amba, see Shikhandi: Your Complete Guide to the Mahabharata Hero.)
Drupada, the king of Panchala for much of the Mahabharata story, suffers a bad loss at the hands of Drona and the young Pandavas at the time of the Pandavas’ graduation ceremony.
As a result of this battle, Drupada loses Northern Panchala to Drona.
As a result of this battle, Drupada performs a sacrifice and asks for a son who will kill Drona for him. In return he gets a fully grown Dhrishtadyumna and a fully grown Draupadi – both of whom are cited by divine voices to be future causes of Kuru destruction.
There is no mention of Shikhandi at the Drona-Drupada battle, but we know that Shikhandi was born as a child and grew up as a prince in Drupada’s palace, so he must have been present.
He must have participated in the battle, and he must have lost.
Drupada’s wish to procure a son that will kill Bhishma, therefore, must have come many years before this battle of Northern Panchala.
All of this suggests that the feud between Panchala and Kuru is an old one. At the time of Shikhandi’s birth, Pandu would have just left for the forest after leaving Dhritarashtra in charge.
That means the birth of Shikhandi would have happened a few years before the birth of the Pandavas.
Why did Drupada want to kill Bhishma?
We are not given precise answers to this, but we can speculate.
We know, for instance, that Pandu went on an expedition of conquest soon after his ascension to the throne. Panchala is one of the kingdoms that he subjugates.
Panchala may not have fought with Pandu; they may have peacefully agreed to pay tribute, because lurking behind Pandu is the towering figure of Bhishma. Panchala knows that if they do not submit, the next expedition will be led by Bhishma.
It is not inconceivable that Drupada resents this arrangement. Why should Panchala be forced to pay tribute to a weak king? Why can it not be an independent power?
The answer, of course, is Bhishma. Drupada, therefore, wishes to possess some way by which he will be able to kill Bhishma. Because once Bhishma is removed, Panchala can wriggle free of Kuru’s grasp.
He performs a ritual in Shiva’s honour, and asks the lord for a son that will grow up to kill Bhishma.
(Drupada seems to be the kind of man who chooses to perform yagnyas to ask gods to fulfil his wishes – rather than focus on efforts in the real world. We see the same pattern of behaviour when he wants to kill Drona.)
Shiva’s Promise to Amba
It is instructive to note that the same god is propitiated by both characters wanting to kill Bhishma: Amba and Drupada.
To Amba, Shiva promises that she will take birth in Drupada’s family as a prince, and then go on to become a prime cause for Bhishma’s death. To Drupada, he promises a son who will kill Bhishma in time.
Whether Amba’s request came first or Drupada’s, we do not know. The timeline of events is a little confusing. But from Shiva’s wording, it appears that by the time he appears before Drupada, he had already given his promise to Amba.
This explains why he makes Shikhandi a biological woman – because otherwise, presumably, he would not be Amba in any sense of the word.
Or perhaps Shiva knows what has to happen – because he has seen it happen time and again – and is simply playing his role in the cosmic order of things.
In either case, the end result of all that is that Drupada has a girl child that is supposedly Bhishma’s future killer. And Shiva tells Drupada to raise her as a boy.
Ordained by Fate
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 Hiranyavarma’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.
Shikhandi Passes the Test
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.
The women return the following morning to joyfully report that the prince is indeed a powerful specimen of masculinity.
Sthuna gets Cursed
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.
One of Bhishma’s many vows of virtue is that he must not fight or defend himself against a woman on a battlefield.
On the face of it, this is a reasonable rule to impose upon oneself. It is embedded in Kshatriya conduct that one must not strike a woman. But it is less obvious as to whether a Kshatriya must not defend himself when a woman attacks him.
If this were the case, one would have thought female assassins would be commonly employed to kill problematic kings. If one knows that a king will never defend himself against a woman, why not start an army of women to defend your borders, for instance?
Another way in which Bhishma extends this rule is by saying, ‘Not only will I not fight or defend myself against a person who is a woman, I will also not fight and defend myself against a person who has ever been a woman.’
This adds more flavour to the issue, because one assumes that only Shikhandi in that known world could answer to the description of being a man who was once a woman.
In any case, that is the rule that Bhishma works under. He thus orchestrates a situation in which Shikhandi can place himself between Bhishma and Arjuna, and bring down the Kuru grandsire.
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