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: Why did Amba want to marry Bhishma?
Amba wants to marry Bhishma because (a) she does not have any prospects after being rejected by Vichitraveerya and Salva, (b) she thinks that her ruined life is Bhishma’s responsibility, and (c) she hopes that by becoming Bhishma’s wife, she might still compete against Ambika and Ambalika to become queen of Hastinapur in the future.
(For a comprehensive guide on Amba, see Amba: Your Complete Guide to the Mahabharata Heroine.)
Amba’s True Love
While growing up as the princess of Kosala, Amba meets and falls in love with a king named Salva, who rules over a small kingdom called Saubha.
(Saubha is sometimes described as a capital city of a clutch of kingdoms that are together called the ‘Salva’ kingdom. Whether the kingdom took the name of the king or the king took the name of the kingdom is not clear.)
A couple of points to note about this love story:
- The kingdom of Salva is situated near Madra, to the far west of Kuru on the Gangetic plain. Kosala is on the opposite edge of the country, to the east. How Salva met Amba and courted her, we do not know. Also unknown is how deep their friendship is.
- Salva is a much smaller kingdom than Kosala. A marriage to Kosala’s first princess is politically advantageous to Salva, whereas the match might not be that appealing to Kasya.
Nevertheless, when Kasya calls for a swayamvara for his three princesses, Amba and Salva both go into it knowing that they are going to wed each other.
It is only when Bhishma arrives at the swayamvara, unannounced, that their plans begin to unravel.
Bhishma Abducts Amba
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.
A fierce battle erupts between Bhishma and Amba’s other suitors on the bank of the Ganga. Bhishma is more than a match for them all, and it does not take him long to win against every warrior that challenges him.
(We are not told explicitly, but one must assume that Salva is one of the warriors to lose to Bhishma on this day.)
Was Bhishma right to abduct Amba?
Modern readers may flinch at the thought of a man taking away three women by force, and getting them to marry his younger brother.
But in the world of the Mahabharata, it is acceptable for a hero to interrupt a groom-choosing ceremony if he believes that he is heroic enough to ward off challenges from the girl’s other suitors.
Abduction by force from within the girl’s house or kingdom is also considered normal, provided that the man is able to fight off all the people tasked with the girl’s protection.
Later in the Mahabharata story, Krishna cites the same logic and encourages Arjuna to abduct Subhadra.
Some modern storytellers have taken it upon themselves to introduce an element of consent into the story – by suggesting that Subhadra secretly invites Arjuna to carry her away – but by all indications, usually the maiden is clueless about what is going to happen.
Having said this, it is also true that the practice is frowned upon. Both Bhishma and Arjuna come under criticism for the way in which they handle themselves.
So we can conclude that while Bhishma was not wrong to abduct Amba, he was not completely right either.
Amba Leaves Vichitraveerya
After being abducted by Bhishma, Amba essentially has two choices:
- Resign herself to her fate, and accept that by virtue of winning against all her suitors (including Salva), Bhishma is her master now and that she has to obey whatever he says.
- Make an appeal to Bhishma’s good nature, tell him about her lover, and hope that he would be kind enough to let Amba go to Salva.
For better or worse, Amba makes the second choice. It must be said that at this point, the possibility that Salva might reject her does not even enter Amba’s wildest imaginations.
In hindsight, though, it is easy to see that Salva probably does not love Amba much – or in the same way – as Amba thinks he does. He is more concerned about his reputation in the community of kings than about being with Amba.
Whether this is right or wrong is immaterial. The point is to note that men and women are driven by different pressures and motivations – even in matters that concern universal emotions like love.
Return to Hastinapur
If Amba is jolted by Salva’s response, yet another surprise awaits her on her return to Hastinapur. By this time, Vichitraveerya has already married Ambika and Ambalika.
When he learns that Amba has returned, he shows no interest in marrying her either, because she had already spurned him.
Politically speaking, Vichitraveerya would have been better advised to marry Amba – because after all, Kuru and Kosala’s alliance would have been stronger then. And Bhishma would have tried to convince his brother of this.
That Vichitraveerya still refused to marry Amba means that Bhishma must have failed in his attempt.
Suddenly, therefore, Amba finds herself without a prospective husband. Just a short while back, she was in the position to choose between two. And now she has none.
As she frantically watches her prospects evaporate, Amba becomes more desperate. She begins to evaluate her recent past and concludes that Bhishma is responsible for everything that has happened.
(While she is partly correct about this, it is also not true that Bhishma alone is responsible. Amba also has a hand in her fate, especially in choosing to leave Hastinapur and go to Salva even after being won for the sake of Vichitraveerya.)
But understandably, Amba only sees Bhishma’s part in this. She accosts him and says, ‘Since you played such a big part in ruining my life, it is now your responsibility to marry me.’
One must note that Amba does not beg Bhishma to marry her; she takes the morally superior stance, and insists that it is Bhishma’s responsibility to marry her.
An Impossible Demand
Now, anyone with an iota of knowledge about Bhishma’s life would have seen the impossibility of this demand. Bhishma has taken the vow of lifelong celibacy. It is out of the question for him to marry anyone.
But even if he had not taken the oath of Brahmacharya, even if he had been a normal person, would he have married Amba of all people, the elder sister of his younger brother’s wives?
That would set up a scenario whereby his children with Amba will be in direct competition with Vichitraveerya’s children.
For Amba to make this request shows how out of touch she is with the political forces at play in Hastinapur. And the fact that she is disappointed at Bhishma’s refusal shows how self-centred she is at this point in her life.
She is only concerned with Bhishma righting her wrongs. But ultimately, Bhishma is the wrong man to ask such a favour.
After rejecting Amba’s proposal, Bhishma might have (though we do not have a record of it) offered Amba the chance to become the wife of a wealthy nobleman in Hastinapur.
That way, Amba will not want for anything. While her life will be a step down in luxury from that of a princess, she will not be consigned to living as a commoner without a husband.
But this would have been too humiliating for Amba to consider, because her younger sisters would occupy a much higher position in the Kuru court than she. If she is not to become Bhishma’s wife, the alternative is to go away from Hastinapur altogether.
This choice also gives us a glimpse into the working of Amba’s mind: in trying to become Bhishma’s wife, Amba was hoping that she would one day compete with her younger sisters in status.
But now that Bhishma has closed that path, Amba is no longer interested in crumbs. Instead, she leaves Hastinapur in a huff, vowing revenge upon Bhishma.
If you found this post interesting, you will like Mahabharata Parva 64: The Ambopakhyana Parva.