The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Ambopakhyana Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
On the eve of battle, Bhishma gives Duryodhana an account of how he once travelled to the land of Kasi to abduct the three princesses – Amba, Ambika and Ambalika – from their groom-choosing ceremony.
Bhishma is younger and brasher then, so he has no trouble fighting against the other suitors who have come to the city with hopes of winning the hand of one of the princesses.
He returns to Hastinapur triumphant, and announces that the three daughters of the king of Kasi will soon be wedded to Vichitraveerya, with the eldest, Amba, taking up the mantle as the next queen of the Kuru dynasty.
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, 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. If I were to accept you as wife now, my lady, the entire world will laugh at me.
‘My own subjects will think me an imbecile ignorant of the ways of dharma. So go back to Bhishma if you must, because you and I can never be man and wife.’
Amba then goes back to Hastinapur, but realizes that the wedding between Vichitraveerya and her two sisters has already happened, and that Vichitraveerya himself is reluctant to marry a lady whose heart belongs to another man.
‘Since it is you who has abducted me from my groom-choosing, O Bhishma,’ says Amba, in desperation, ‘it is only right that you should marry me.’ And of course Bhishma says no to that, because he had taken the vow of Brahmacharya a few years before.
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.
On being ousted from Hastinapur a second time, Amba is understandably distraught. She does not quite know whose fault all this is. Do I blame Bhishma for my plight, she thinks.
Or is it Salva who made me promises that he could not fulfil? Or am I responsible for it all because I dared to step out of my station when my wedding to the prince was fixed?
Thinking thus, she wanders into a forest and toward the hermitage of a sage called Saikhavatya.
‘I do not know quite how ascetics of our ilk can assist you in your situation, my girl,’ he says, after listening to Amba’s story. ‘After all, we are detached from the normal course of life in the real world.’
‘I do not seek any justice, Sage,’ replies Amba. ‘I only desire a quiet life in the woods, having renounced the world. All that has happened to me must be the result of some sin I committed in a previous life.
‘I would like to live among you, perform the strictest of austerities, and make amends for all my follies, known and unknown.’
As Amba lives with Saikhavatya, one day she receives a visit from her maternal grandfather named Hotravahana.
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.’
The hope given by Hotravahana gladdens Amba, but she is also struck by trepidation at the mention of Parashurama’s name. ‘The venerable one is notorious for being inaccessible and short-tempered. How shall I get him to do my bidding, Grandfather?’
‘Parashurama is generally seen performing his ascetic penance in the Mahendra Hill,’ says Hotravahana. ‘He lives there accompanied by many great sages, Gandharvas and Apsaras.
‘You will most definitely find him, my girl, and he will most definitely attend to your trouble because he is a dear friend of mine. Tell him that you are my daughter’s daughter and he will do anything for you.’
While Hotravahana is saying these words, though, 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 gets lost in a moment of thought herself, because Akritavrana has asked her the question that has been puzzling her as well. ‘I cannot decide for myself whose fault this really is, O Sage,’ she says. ‘Bhishma, when he abducted me, did so out of ignorance.
‘He did not know that my heart belonged to another man. As for Salva, he cannot be blamed either for being reluctant to accept a woman taken so ostensibly for another man. So I shall leave it to you to decide who it is that deserves punishment in this matter.’
Akritavrana says, ‘My opinion is this: if Bhishma had not taken you away to Hastinapur, then Salva would not have had any hesitation in marrying you.
‘Indeed, it is only due to this rash and arrogant act that the suspicions of all the kings of Aryavarta have been aroused with regards to Bhishma. So the prime cause of your plight is none other than Bhishma, who is both too powerful and too proud for his own good.’
With that, Amba finally finds a target for all the anger that has been bubbling within her. This is the moment from which the sole aim of Amba’s life becomes the annihilation of Bhishma.
And this is the request that she takes to Parashurama the next morning.
Bhishma is Summoned
After first trying in vain to urge conciliation, 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.
The sage points to Amba, who has concealed herself all this time behind a half-closed door. ‘Is it true, my son,’ he asks, ‘that you abducted the princess of Kasi against her will, and then refused to marry her to your brother?’
‘It is not, O Sage,’ replies Bhishma. ‘The princess expressed a desire to marry a man of her choosing. After consultation with Mother Satyavati, I decided that it was prudent to allow her to do so.
‘But by the time she had returned, sir, Vichitraveerya’s wedding was already in the past. Ambika was already crowned the main queen of Hastinapur. Amba’s marriage to the king would have complicated matters.’
‘I ask you as your preceptor,’ says Parashurama now, ‘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 Vichitraveerya. 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 over there.
‘Remember that when you wiped away the race of Kshatriyas from the earth, there was no Bhishma to thwart you. Nor was there a king like Bhishma. Now you will see the power of my bow.’
With these words Bhishma rattles off in his carriage toward the battlefield, and when he sees that Parashurama has to fight on foot, he arranges for a chariot himself for the rishi. ‘Fight from atop a vehicle, O Sage,’ he says, ‘for otherwise the battle can scarce be termed fair.’
Bhishma and Parashurama fight for a long time. As the battle turns bloodier and bloodier, Sage Narada descends to Earth to stop the two warriors.
‘Over there, Prince,’ he says, pointing up at a portion of the sky, ‘the gods have gathered to watch this duel. And they all wish that you would not use the weapon in your hand.
‘While the Samvodhana will bring to life the dead body of Parashurama, it will still leave the rest of creation fallow and parched.’
After a moment of indecision during which Bhishma debates with himself whether to heed Narada’s words or the exhortations of the Brahmins in his dream, he lowers the weapon and gives it up to Narada.
At the same time, the three worlds heave a collective sigh of relief.
Parashurama, for his part, is ashamed that he had to be saved by Narada from Bhishma. He throws his bow and axe into the dust. ‘I am vanquished, O Bhishma!’ he cries out. ‘Do what you will with my body now that you have won it.’
But Bhishma pays his respects to Parashurama and lets him go. 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. ‘There is no other way.’
The Austerities of Amba
Amba’s reaction to Parashurama’s defeat is not one of despair. She offers him condolences. ‘I thank you, O Rishi,’ she tells him, ‘for fighting this battle for me despite risks to your life and limb.
‘I see that you have been wounded much, both in body and in soul. As for me, I cannot even think of approaching Bhishma once again. This fight is mine alone, and I will make sure that I do everything in my power to kill that vain prince.’
So saying, she 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.
The sages living at Vatsabhumi (the region where Amba lives) attempt to dissuade Amba from her course, but she remains steadfast.
During this time, she realizes that if she is to kill Bhishma on her own, she will have to shed her womanhood and don the form of a man. In her prayers, therefore, her mind begins to focus on this possibility.
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.’
Saying this, Shiva disappears.
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 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 the king of the Panchalas was engaged in worship to gain a son that would kill Bhishma.
(We are not told why Drupada wanted to kill Bhishma; one guesses that there may have been a skirmish or two in which he was defeated by the Hastinapur regent.)
A Daughter for Drupada
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 fulfil your ambition of killing Gangeya.’
Drupada is not satisfied with this arrangement, and tries to reason with the Destroyer, but the latter stays firm. ‘Thus it has been destined,’ he says, ‘and thus it shall happen.’
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.
Growing up a Boy
Following the command of Shiva, Drupada makes sure that the growing Shikhandi gets treated in every respect as a boy, not just with rituals and ceremonies but also with the kind of education she receives.
She learns to ride a horse, study the Vedas, the ins and outs of polity, matters of statecraft, and other such matters reserved solely for boys. She also learns writing, painting and the arts (out of her own natural inclination) to a degree not attained by many princes of that era.
(We are also told here that Shikhandi is one of the disciples of Drona, which means that her growing up years would have coincided with Drona’s time as king of North Panchala, after he had fought and humiliated Drupada.
We can assume, therefore, that for all Drupada’s secret hatred for Drona, he must have maintained friendliness and warmth on the outside, enough to send his ‘son’ to be trained under his arch enemy.)
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.
Marriage for Shikhandi
When Drupada’s queen approaches him with a proposal to get Shikhandi married as if she were a man, the king is a little wary. ‘I have raised her like a man only because the trident-bearer commanded me to do so, my queen,’ he says.
‘I have lived in hope all these years that something will come to pass that would change Shikhandi’s life. But nothing has happened! Have we been deceived?’
The queen reposes more faith in the deity. ‘Why will Shiva, one of the Prime Gods, lie to us, O King? I still believe in his words. If nothing has happened so far, it only means that the time has not come yet.
‘We must adhere to our commitment of raising our daughter as a son, and to that end, we must look for princesses that will be a good match for him as wife.’
Drupada is not convinced, but he nonetheless sends out emissaries far and wide, soliciting brides for his son. After a period of search, he settles upon the daughter of the Dasarnaka king, Hiranyavarma.
The two families come together in the capital of the Dasarnakas, and after the wedding, Shikhandi brings his bride back to Kampilya, the capital of Southern Panchala.
Discovery and Anger
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.
Thus a large army begins to march in the direction of Kampilya, with Hiranyavarma at its head.
Shikhandini Becomes a Man
With Panchala under siege, Drupada instructs his courtiers to alert the army. They begin to erect defensive structures to fortify Kampilya from all sides.
At the same time, the royal couple propitiate the gods as well – especially Shiva – in the hope that the Destroyer would stay true to his promise and offer them a solution that does not involve fighting a useless war.
In all of this, Shikhandini (the private name of the girl) watches how her parents and the rest of the city have become aggrieved by anxiety on her account.
She resolves to kill herself, reasoning that that would protect Kampilya from Hiranyavarman. Without telling anyone, she flees into a nearby forest.
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.
A Boon for Shikhandini
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.’
A Test of Manhood
Shikhandini agrees enthusiastically, and they make a covenant to impart to each other – by the powers of the Yaksha – their respective genders. Sthunakarna thus assumes a female form, and Shikhandi acquires the body of a blazing Yaksha.
‘In this guise he returns to Kampilya, and seeking out his father Drupada, tells him all that has happened.
Rejoicing at the turn of events, Drupada now sends a message to Hiranyavarma, inviting him to examine Shikhandi. ‘The child that I have reared,’ he says, ‘has always been a man, and he is a man!
‘If you do not trust me, Your Majesty, you are welcome to witness the fact for yourself.’
The Dasarna king is understandably irate when he receives this message, because he thinks that Drupada is up to some trick or the other once again. He arrives at Kampilya and re-issues the threat.
‘I will punish you and that princess of yours suitably, O King, if what I have heard of her is true.’
But Drupada is unperturbed, and allows Hiranyavarman access to Shikhandi so that his gender could be verified. 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 the masculine sex.
Hearing this, Hiranyavarma is pleasantly surprised, and he apologizes to Drupada for the misunderstanding. He also stays back in Kampilya for a few days, enjoying its hospitality. Shikhandi remains in his male form for the entire duration of this trip.
Manhood Becomes Permanent
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. ‘If he has become too arrogant to show me his face as mere courtesy, then I am afraid I will have to punish him!’
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. You will remain a woman, O Sthunakarna, and that Shikhandini will remain a man.’
The Yakshas then begin to placate Vaishravana. ‘Please set a limit to your curse, O Lord,’ they say. ‘Forever is too long.’ So Kubera decrees that the change of genders will remain until the death of Shikhandi, after which the Yaksha will regain his lost manhood.
In due course, Shikhandi arrives at the mansion to take back his womanhood from Sthuna, but learns of the curse. ‘It has been destined that you should change into a man, O Prince,’ the Yaksha says.
‘Go now and rejoice, and when the time comes, may you have the courage to perform the task that is written into your fate.’
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.’
With this declaration, the Ambopakhyana Parva ends.