In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Amba is the eldest daughter of the king of Kashi, who considers the Kuru prince Bhishma responsible for her misfortune and her sole goal in life becomes his destruction. During her swayamvara (marriage ceremony), Bhishma abducts her with her sisters Ambika and Ambalika, seeking the princesses for his step brother Vichitravirya, the king of Hastinapur. Amba loves another king Salva, and is permitted to go to him. However, Salva rejects her as she is spoiled by her captor's touch. An infuriated Amba blames Bhishma for ruining her life. She seeks help of the sage Parashurama to defeat Bhishma, but he fails. From Bhisma, she goes to King Drupada, who also refuses to marry her. She hangs a garland on his palace gate as a reminder for revenge. Finally, she gets fed up with all men and turns to asceticism and pleases the god Shiva, who grants her the boon that she will slay Bhishma in her next birth. She kills herself to hasten the fulfillment of the boon. Amba gives birth to a daughter (with Drupada) and calls her/him as Shikhandi, who becomes the cause of Bhishma's death.
Amba was the eldest daughter of the king of Kashi (Varanasi). She had two younger sisters Ambika and Ambalika. Amba is a commonly used word in Sanskrit meaning mother, also with Vedic linkage as the mother of the Vedas.
Bhishma was the son of the Kuru King Shantanu of Hastinapur and his wife Ganga, the goddess of the river Ganges (called Ganga in India). Bhishma took the vow of celibacy when Satyavati, who Shantanu was in love with, was married on the condition that the then crown-prince Bhishma and his children would renounce the claim to the throne and her children will be the heir. Subsequently, Satyavati had two children: Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Chitrangada succeeded Shantanu. On Chitrangada's untimely death, the throne was passed on to Vichitravirya. Bhishma ruled the kingdom as regent on behalf of his step-brother till he attained adulthood, under the command of Satyavati.
The Adi Parva of the Mahabharata narrates about Amba's swayamvara. The king of Kashi organized a swayamvara (a ceremony of choosing a husband from among assembled suitors by the bride) for his three daughters. Bhishma came to know of the ceremony of the three beautiful princesses and on the command of Satyavati, went to the swayamvara to win the princesses for Vichitravirya. Bhishma announced to the assembly of the kings (suitors) that he had chosen the princesses for Vichitravirya and was abducting them and challenged them to fight him. Bhishma forced the princesses in to his chariot and rode away. The kings followed and showered Bhishma with arrows, however Bhishma returned the attack and defeated them. Salva, the king of Saubha, challenged Bhishma for a duel; a mighty duel followed. While Salva was able to wound Bhishma, Bhishma retaliated killing Salva's charioteer and horses, and wounding the king, but sparing his life. Bhishma proceeded to Hastinapur and presented them to Satyavati, who made arrangements for their marriage to Vichitravirya. Amba approached Bhishma and the council of Brahmins (priests) and revealed that she and Salva were in love with each other and she was going to choose him as her husband in the swayamvara. Bhishma conceded that her reasoning was sound and then decided to let her go to marry the person of her choice, while Ambika and Ambalika were married to Vichitravirya.
In the Ambopakhyanaparvan chapter of the book Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata, the rest of Amba's tale is narrated by Bhishma when Duryodhana Vichitravirya's grandson and the leader of the Kauravas, questioned him as to why he did not kill Shikhandi, an ally of the Pandavas, cousins and foes of the Kauravas as well as grandchildren of Bhishma.
Bhishma ensured that Amba was escorted safely to the kingdom of Salva. Amba informed Salva that she had come for him. Salva retorted that he no longer desired her, as she was to be wed to another man. He declared that she was rightfully won by Bhishma, who defeated and insulted him and other kings and accused her of happily leaving with him. Plagued by love, Amba tells Salva that she was forcibly abducted by Bhishma and had convinced her captor that she was in love with Salva and come there with his permission. Amba pleaded Salva, whom she considered her true love, to accept her. But Salva was not convinced of her fidelity during the abduction by Bhishma and rejected her plea to marry him. Rejected, the angry and sad Amba left Salva's city and went to the forest.
In another version, Amba peeved by this rejection then went to Bhishma and accosted him saying that he was responsible for all her problems. Bhishma tried to convince Vichitraviraya, who was married to her two younger sisters, but he rejected her on the plea that she was in love with someone else. She then approached Bhishma to marry her as he was responsible for her plight. He also refused as he was under an eternal vow to remain celibate all his life. He further told her to go back to Salva and plead with him to marry her. But Salva refused again. This further infuriated Amba, as she was spurned by three people. She appealed to various kings to defeat Bhishma and do her justice; but all of them refused. Finally, she went in to the forest.
Vengeance on Bhishma
Amba reflected on her condition and considered all the people responsible for it, including herself (as she did not escape Bhishma's chariot when Bhishma was fighting Salva), Bhishma (who abducted her), Salva (who rejected her) and her father (who arranged her swayamvara). She finally arrived at the conclusion that Bhishma was the main culprit and swore to destroy him by austerities (Tapas) or battle. She sought shelter with a group of ascetics that night and narrated her tale to them. There the learned sage Shaikhavatya consoled Amba and promised to guide her in her austerities.
Other sages discussed amongst themselves Amba's situation and contemplated her alternatives and advised her to return to her father as there are only two true protectors of a woman: a father and a husband. However, Amba declined saying that her relatives would ignore her and she had decided to practice austerities. On the next day, the sage Hotravahana (of the Srinjaya race), a former king and Amba's maternal grandfather passed by the place. Upon listening to the tale of Amba's ordeal, the sage advised her not to return to her father and instead approach the sage Parashurama (Rama, son of Jamadagni). Akritavrana, one of Parashurama's disciples, also arrived at the place. Hotravahana introduced Amba to Akritavrana and both of them explain Amba's case to him. Akritavrana gave Amba two options: either Parashurama should approach Salva to marry her or Bhishma should be defeated by Parashurama. Amba asked Akritavrana to decide who was her culprit. Akritavrana agreed with Amba that Bhishma was the root cause of her plight and should be the target of her revenge. Akritavrana and Hotravahana explained Amba's predicament to Parashurama, whom Amba herself prayed for help. Parashurama – an eternal foe of the Kshatriyas (ruler class to which Bhishma also belonged) gave his word to Amba that he would slay Bhishma, who was his disciple in the past, and destroy his pride.
When Parashurama arrived with his retinue at Kurukshetra in the Kuru kingdom and sent a message to Bhishma of his arrival, Bhishma came to see his guru and worshipped him. A pleased Parashurama commanded Bhishma to accept Amba, who was blemished by his kidnapping, to save her from further insult. Bhishma said that he could not marry her as he had taken a vow of celibacy nor his brother would marry her as she loved Salva. An infuriated Parashurama threatened Bhishma with death. Bhishma tried to calm the sage, but in vain and finally agreed to battle his guru to safeguard his Kshatriya duty. Ganga tried stopping the battle by beseeching her son as well as the great sage, but failed. The great battle lasted for 23 days, without any result. On the 24th day when Bhishma chose to use a deadly weapon, at the behest of the divine sage Narada and the gods, Parashurama ended the conflict and the battle was declared a draw. Parashurama narrated the events to Amba and told her to seek Bhishma's protection. However, Amba refused to listen to Parashurama's advice and left angrily declaring that she will achieve her objective by asceticism.
Amba gave up food and sleep and practised asceticism standing still for six months in the Yamuna river valley, surviving only on air. She became emaciated and developed matted locks. After that, she stood in the waters of the Yamuna, without food and practised austerities. After that, she spent time standing on her tip toes, having eaten only one fallen leaf of a tree. Her penance for twelve years started burning the heavens and the earth. She then went to Vatsa kingdom, in which many renowned sages lived. She roamed the kingdom, bathing in the sacred waters of the Ganges (Ganga) and the Yamuna. Then, she visited the ashrams of many sages like Narada, Uluka, Chyavana, Vishwamitra, Mandavya, Dwilipa, Ramhrada and Garga as well as sacred sites like Prayag, Bhogavati and holy groves. During her journey, she observed difficult vratas (vows) and performed ablutions in the holy waters.
The goddess Ganga appeared before Amba and listened to Amba's tale that her austerities were aimed to destroy Bhishma, Ganga's son. The angry goddess Ganga replied that since Amba's mind was crooked, she would be become a crooked and tortuous river, which will remain dry for eight months and flow in the four months of the rainy season. Ganga declared that the bathing places along the river's course would be in difficult terrain, and it will be infested with crocodiles and other fierce creatures. The cursed Amba wandered practising severe vows and forgoing food and water for months. She visited many tirthas (sacred water bodies) in this time and finally returned to Vatsa, where Ganga's curse materialized. Half of her became the river Amba; the other half remained human, due to her ascetic merit.
Shiva's boon and death
The ascetics of Vatsa dissuaded her to refrain from the austerities, but Amba maintained her resolve and told them her desire was to be born a man and slay Bhishma to avenge her misery. The god Shiva appeared to her and blessed her that she would become a man in her next birth and destroy Bhishma. Amba would be born to the king Drupada of Panchala and become a great warrior. Amba would remember her previous birth and hatred of Bhishma. As Shiva disappeared and pleased with the boon, Amba created a funeral pyre of wood on the banks of the Yamuna and jumped in the fire saying "for Bhishma's destruction!".
Garland of ever-fresh lotuses
Another variant narrates that Amba performed austerities and pleased Kartikeya, the god of war and Shiva's son. He granted her a garland of ever-fresh lotuses and declared that whoever wore it will destroy Bhishma. With this garland, Amba made one more attempt to seek help of many kings and princes to support her in her just cause. However, there was no response from anyone of them to help her as they did not want to be on the wrong side of Bhishma. In a final effort she approached Drupada but even he declined; in frustration she cast the garland off on a pillar outside Drupada's palace and went for austerities in the forest again, where ascetics advised her to seek the help of Parasurama, where Parashurama's intervention also failed. Finally, she undertook severe penance and Shiva blessed her to be reborn as Drupada's child and slay Bhishma. While Amba kills herself, no one dares to touch the garland.
Rebirth as Shikhandi
Drupada had no children so he did austerities in the forest seeking the blessings of Shiva for begetting a son. Shiva granted him the boon that a girl would be born to him, but will transform into a boy later. As prophesied, Amba was reborn as Shikhandini, whose true gender was not disclosed and she was brought up as a boy. When Drupada got his daughter in the garb of a son married to the daughter of Hiranyavarna, the king of Dasharna, his true identity was revealed not only to the chagrin of the girl, her father but also to Shikandini himself. The agitated Hiranyavarna declared war on Panchala. Distressed by the turn of events, Shikhandini went into the forest to fast unto death but was saved by a yaksha (a forest deity), Sthunakarna, who helped him by offering his own gender in exchange to Shikandini's female gender. Thus Shikhandini became the male Shikhandi. After Hiranyavarna's death, Shikhandi returned to swap sexes with the yaksha, however the yaksha was cursed by his master the god Kubera to remain female until Shikhandi's death.
In the variant where the garland of ever-fresh lotuses is mentioned, Shikhandini wears the garland once and Drupada realizes that she will slay Bhishma.
Meanwhile over the course of time, Ambika and Ambalika had grandchildren Kauravas and Pandavas, who became arch enemies. Draupadi, the daughter of Drupada, was married to the Pandavas. When a great Kurukshetra war between Pandavas and Kauravas ensued, Shikhandi sided with his brothers-in-law, the Pandavas and Bhishma was with the Kauravas. Bhishma had vowed to "not to shoot at a woman, anyone who used to be a woman or has a woman’s name or appears to be a woman", so he narrated to the Kaurava leader Duryodhana Amba's tale and refused to fight to Shikhandi. When Bhishma led the Kaurava army, Shikhandi rode as the charioteer of Arjuna, the third of the Pandava brothers. On seeing Shikhandi, Bhishma lowered his weapons. Shikhandi and Arjuna pierced Bhishma's body, though most of Shikhandi's arrows were not so effective in wounding Bhishma. At this stage, it was also the desire of Bhishma to die. Before collapsing, he cried out that it was Arjuna’s arrow that killed him and not of Shikhandi. Bhishma lay on a bed of arrows for days and died on the holy day of Uttarayana. Amba's vengeance was fulfilled when Shikhandi became the cause of Bhishma's death.
Feminist writer Githa Hariharan tells the story of Amba in the The Thousand Faces of Night. Her undaunted courage and dedicated approach to do penance seeking revenge against Bhishma got Amba the epithet "incarnation of penance".
The spiritual guru Ganapathi Sachchidananda says Amba was a "great person" and praises her love, fearlessness and resolve, but cautions against emulating the princess, who was never happy driven by revenge. He considers her tale giving the moral to avoid haste in love and life.
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