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.
Shikhandi is born as a gift from Shiva to Drupada. The latter wishes for a son who would be powerful enough to kill Bhishma.
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.
True to these words, Shikhandini (as she is named) becomes a man during an adventure that she has as a young woman. In the Mahabharata war, Shikhandi fights on the side of the Pandavas.
(For a full list of important Mahabharata characters, see 56 Mahabharata Characters that will Amaze You.)
Is Shikhandi Amba reborn?
We don’t know this for sure. In the Ambopakhyana Parva, Bhishma narrates the story of Amba and how she takes a boon from Shiva that she will take birth in the house of Drupada in her next life.
However, we must remember that all of this is Bhishma’s surmise, gathered from reports given him by his spies.
In order to believe this story to be true, we have to assume the following:
- Bhishma’s spies followed Amba out of Hastinapur into the hermitage of Saikhavatya.
- They shadowed her closely during the many months Amba lives on her own in the forest, praying to Shiva.
- They witnessed the event of Shiva appearing before Amba. And they heard every word of what was spoken between them.
Of these, the last is most difficult to digest. Hypothetically, if a person pleases a god with severe penances and is granted an appearance, do people in the worshipper’s vicinity also see the god?
Or does the god have sufficient magical powers to ensure that the visitation remains private?
In fact, it is generally assumed that all such appearances of gods to mortals happen in the realms of the mortal’s dreams. If this is the case, there is no way that Bhishma’s spies could have heard the Shiva-Amba conversation.
It follows, therefore, that there is at least a possibility that Bhishma received embellished reports about Amba’s rebirth as Shikhandi.
In this story, we must also consider Drupada’s motivations. He wishes to have a son that will kill Bhishma.
This is not unreasonable: Panchala and Kuru have been at loggerheads for generations, and Bhishma is the one pillar of Kuru’s strength. If Bhishma is vanquished, Panchala can potentially take over Kuru.
(This is especially true in the time period we are considering – before the birth of the Pandavas, after Pandu had left Dhritarashtra in charge of the throne.)
Drupada knows the history behind Amba and Bhishma. It is possible, therefore, that Drupada plants the story of Amba being reborn in his house. Bhishma’s spies pick up on this, and carry it back to their master.
The fact that Shikhandi is born a girl and remains a girl until just before her wedding is kept a closely guarded secret by Drupada. But Bhishma comes to know of it anyway.
Either Bhishma has very good spies in Panchala, or Drupada allows this piece of information to leak to Bhishma intentionally, knowing that Bhishma’s reluctance to fight against women might favour Shikhandi in the future.
No Mention of Amba
The interesting thing is that throughout Shikhandi’s life, he never mentions Amba once. Nor does he ever refer to details about his previous birth.
We are left to conclude that either he does not remember who he was, or that he does remember but is stoic enough to detach himself from it.
Of course, the third possibility is that he is not Amba at all. He is another person entirely, and he is just being burdened by Amba’s story thanks to Bhishma – and perhaps to an extent Drupada.
The only time Amba is mentioned in the context of the Mahabharata war is when Bhishma recounts the tale of Amba and Shikhandi to Duryodhana. Bhishma then says that he cannot allow himself to fight Shikhandi – because he was born a girl.
It is important to note here that Bhishma’s decision not to fight Shikhandi is made based on Shikhandi’s transformation from woman to man, not on whether he is Amba reborn or not.
Even if Shikhandi were not Amba reborn, just by virtue of the fact that he was once a woman, Bhishma would still refrain from fighting him.
All in all, then, it is impossible for us to tell for certain if Shikhandi was Amba in his previous life. There are equally strong arguments on either side.
But the crucial point is that it is irrelevant. Regardless of whether or not he is Amba, it is irrefutable that Shikhandi did live for several years as a biological woman. And that is enough for Bhishma to take a stance of nonviolence against him.
Was Shikhandi a transgender?
A transgender person is defined as someone whose gender identity and expression differs from his or her biological sex assigned at birth. A biological male may identify as a female, and vice versa.
If we examine Shikhandi’s birth through this lens, he is born as a biological woman. His ‘sex assigned at birth’ is female.
But he is raised by Drupada – under Shiva’s instructions – as a boy. He is given a prince’s training. His social reality is closely monitored to give him the best ‘boy’s upbringing’ as possible.
We do not know for sure exactly how Shikhandi identified himself during these years. Did he think of himself as a boy? Or did he imagine that he was a girl being made to play the role of a boy?
If we agree that Shikhandi’s identity as a young person was at the very least conflicted, we can safely call him a member of the transgender community.
Shikhandi’s Birth Youth
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.
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.
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.
(Suggested: How did Shikhandi become a boy?)
How did Bhishma know about Shikhandi?
It is difficult to know just when Bhishma comes to know about Shikhandi’s secret. The story of Shikhandi’s transformation from female to male happens in strictly private moments.
Shikhandi’s childhood as a girl-raised-as-a-boy is also a closely guarded secret kept by Drupada. The only time Shikhandi’s gender becomes a hot talking point is when Hiranyavarma makes a hue and cry about it.
But when Hiranyavarma sends his attending women to Shikhandi’s bedchamber to ascertain that the prince is indeed male, they come back with a positive report.
So as far as Hiranyavarma knows, Shikhandi has always been a man. His suspicion was just a misunderstanding.
Shikhandi’s actual transformation happens in the forest, with just the Yaksha in attendance. How did Bhishma know about it, then?
Once again, we are left guessing. The most likely explanation is that some of Bhishma’s spies shadowed Shikhandi wherever he went, so they witnessed the meeting of the prince with the Yaksha. They reported their findings to Bhishma.
We must also not discount the possibility that Drupada deliberately leaked this information to Bhishma’s spies – knowing that Bhishma would then take a vow not to fight Shikhandi, which would of course given the Panchala prince an edge.
Why did Bhishma not fight Shikhandi?
No matter how Bhishma comes to know about Shikhandi, the moment he does, he decides that he is never going to fight the son of Drupada directly.
Interestingly, this is a piece of information he only reveals right on the eve of the Mahabharata war to Duryodhana. One wonders why he does not confide in his king a bit earlier.
One of Bhishma’s self-imposed rules of battle is that he will never fight against ‘a woman, or anyone who has once been a woman’.
This raises interesting questions about the Kshatriya rule that one must never strike a woman. What if a woman attacks a Kshatriya with the intention to kill? Is the man expected to receive the attack without once hitting back?
Is there any line beyond which it becomes okay for a Kshatriya to attack a woman? Is self-defence one of those lines?
Alas, Bhishma does not touch upon any of those points. He merely states that he will never fight a woman come what may, and because Shikhandi was once a woman, Bhishma says he will not strike him.
The most important qualifier is this: Bhishma will not attack Shikhandi no matter what the provocation.
That means that theoretically, Shikhandi can kill Bhishma with an incessant shower of arrows secure in the knowledge that the grandsire will not once hit back at him.
The Tenth Day
During the first nine days of the Mahabharata war, the Pandavas struggle to make inroads against Bhishma. On the tenth, driven by desperation to get rid of Bhishma, they change their strategy.
On the tenth day, Shikhandi is placed in the middle of the Pandava formation with one single brief: continually pummel Bhishma with arrows.
Arjuna and Bhima protect the wheels of Shikhandi’s chariot, with the intention of warding off any Kaurava warriors that will ride up to defend Bhishma against Shikhandi’s arrows.
The theory is that if Shikhandi is given a clear path to Bhishma for one full day, and Bhishma does not shoot back at Shikhandi, then sooner or later the grandsire will be weighed down by the sheer number of arrows that are flying at him.
But in truth, even this attempt turns out to be futile.
Help from Arjuna
As the tenth day progresses, it becomes clear to the Pandavas that even when Bhishma is unprotected and openly available, Shikhandi does not possess the requisite skill to bring down the Kaurava commander.
Shikhandi’s arrows are simply not powerful enough – not hefty enough – to pierce the armour of Bhishma. And Shikhandi does not seem to have the skills necessary to shoot Bhishma in places uncovered by armour.
So around the afternoon of the day, Arjuna decides that the time has come for a change in plan.
Now, not only does Arjuna protect Shikhandi from Kaurava warriors (as originally intended), he also begins to shoot some of his own arrows at Bhishma.
Crucially, he does this from behind Shikhandi’s chariot, while protecting the wheel. So Bhishma does not have a clear line of sight to Arjuna. He thinks that all the arrows flying at him are being shot by Shikhandi.
Bit by bit, Bhishma begins to realize that Shikhandi’s arrows seem to be wearing him down. He takes a closer look and realizes what is happening: mixed in with the mass of Shikhandi’s arrows are some of Arjuna’s.
Bhishma tries to separate Shikhandi from Arjuna, so that he might defend himself against the latter while leaving the former alone. But Arjuna and Shikhandi are fighting so close together – with Arjuna situated behind Shikhandi – that this turns out to be impossible.
More and more of Arjuna’s arrows begin to appear in the mix now. Some of them draw blood.
Bhishma knows that it is only a matter of time before he will be brought down. He announces to the world that he is not falling to Shikhandi but to Arjuna.
‘It is not Shikhandi’s arrows that are breaking my armour, but Falguna’s!’ he says, as he leaps to the ground, arrows sticking out of him.
After several more minutes of this, Bhishma finally gives up. He falls to the ground, and is propped up by the arrows that have pieced him.
Why did Shikhandi kill Bhishma?
There are three distinct motivations behind Shikhandi’s killing of Bhishma:
- The Panchalas and the Kurus are at war. Shikhandi fights for the Panchalas, and Bhishma for the Kurus. Even if there is no personal animosity between the two, Shikhandi wants to take down Bhishma and win the war for his side.
- Assuming that Shikhandi remembers his previous life as Amba, he is motivated by revenge for all the ways in which Bhishma interfered with her well-being. Now he wants to right all those wrongs.
- All through his life, Shikhandi has been told by Drupada – and by everyone around him – that the primary purpose of his life is to kill Bhishma. So when the chance arises, he knows that he is about to fulfil his destiny.
The above three reasons are not mutually exclusive. In fact, we can certainly say that at least two of them are together at play during most of Shikhandi’s life.
In other words, Shikhandi has lived for several years salivating at the prospect of killing Bhishma. So on the tenth day of the war, when the opportunity lands in his lap, he grabs it with both hands.
Having said this, we should remember that Shikhandi does not kill Bhishma. He only helps Arjuna remove Bhishma from the battlefield. Bhishma dies later, some time after the war concludes.
How did Shikhandi die?
During the Sauptika Parva, Ashwatthama takes it on himself to raid the Panchala camp on the night of the eighteenth day.
By this time, the Kaurava army is completely routed. Only Kritavarma, Ashwatthama and Kripacharya survive among the heroes. The Panchalas believe that they have won the war, and they put aside their weapons to sleep soundly in their tents.
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.
Did Shikhandi kill Bhishma?
Technically, Shikhandi did not kill Bhishma. The events of the tenth day of the war only bring Bhishma down on his bed of arrows, to the brink of death.
Not to death itself. This is because Bhishma has a boon – given to him by Shantanu – which allows him to choose the moment of his death. He can literally call to Death to come take him when he is ready.
This means that no one can hope to kill Bhishma. No matter how much you injure him, he can still choose not to summon Death just yet.
But this is commonly known to everyone. Shikhandi would have known that ‘killing Bhishma’ would only entail rendering him immobile and inflicting upon him a world of pain. Actual death will not happen until Bhishma wishes it.
So it is likely that despite not having killed Bhishma, Shikhandi would have been pleased with himself on the night of the tenth day. He played an important role in bringing Bhishma as close to death as is humanly possible.
In this, Shikhandi has fulfilled his life’s purpose. And if someone asks whether he has killed Bhishma, he can truthfully say, ‘Yes.’
(Suggested: Did Shikhandi kill Bhishma?)
Shikhandi’s full role in the fall of Bhishma is worth looking at. Also, his relationship to Amba and how the two lives are intertwined is explored in Mahabharata Episode 38: Amba and Shikhandi.