Lessons from Mahabharata: The Tale of Amba's Revenge

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature

By Murtaza Ali Khan
[Pic courtesy: http://rahulsketchbook.deviantart.com/art/Amba-587664299]
Women, in their different roles as teachers, mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, and friends, fill each of our lives with vibrant colors of selfless love. They only give without seeking anything in return. God made women to guard and protect men from the endless perils of the vicious world we inhabit. 

Happy Women's Day!

On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2020, I would like to share a very important episode of Mahabharata revolving around Amba, the eldest daughter of the King of Kashi, who was abducted by Bhishma against her will. Now, Amba had two younger sisters Ambika and Ambalika. The King of Kashi arranges for the swayamvara of his three daughters (an ancient Indian practice wherein a girl chooses her husband from a group of suitors present in the ceremony with the hope of marrying her) but he doesn’t invite Kuru Prince Vichitravirya as he finds him unworthy of his daughters. Now, for centuries the Kashi princesses were getting married to the Kuru princes and the Kashi king would have happily continued with the tradition had Bhishma not taken the oath of celibacy and abdicated the crown for his step brother Chitrangada, and subsequently Vichitravirya, following Chitrangada’s death in the battlefield. But, Bhishma gets enraged on learning that the King of Kashi hasn’t even sent an invitation for the swayamvara of his three daughters. So he comes there unannounced and declares that he is taking Amba, Ambika and Ambalika with himself to be married to Vichitravirya.

Salva, the king of Salwa, who was secretly in love with Amba, challenges Bhishma’s chauvinistic behavior for not letting the princesses choosing their husbands as per the tradition. But Bhishma retorts disdainfully, “These princesses have no right to choose and even if they did have that choice only I am capable of sitting in this swayamvara.”  Deeply hurt by Bhishma’s hubris, Salva challenges Bhisma for a duel. But he is easily overpowered by Bhishma who spares his life before taking the three princesses with him to Hastinapur. Now, Amba too loved Salva and had already made up her mind to choose him as her husband by placing the garland on his neck.  Fearful of Bhishma but unable to forgive herself, Amba finally reveals her love for Salva to Bhishma. He decides to sent Amba to Salva with due respect and marries Vichitravirya to Ambika and Ambalika.

When Amba safely reaches Salwa she narrates the entire story to her lover. But Salva refuses to take her back having lost her fair and square to another man in front of everyone present in the swayamvara. Amba is heartbroken by Salva’s rejection. She decides to approach Bhishma as she has nowhere else to return. But Bhishma refuses to marry her to Vichitravirya now as that would bring bad name to the king. So Amba begs Bhishma to marry her instead. But he tells her that he can’t marry her due to his oath of celibacy and shuns her away. This completely breaks her down. Rejection by not one but three men is too much to take for a young and beautiful princess.  She then appeals to various kings for justice but no shows the courage to challenge Bhishma. At last she retires to the forest and decides to take the advice of the sages so that she can have her revenge.

She then meets many sages and finally learns that only the sage Parashurama can help her.  She narrates him her story and he too agrees that Bhishma is the root cause of her plight. Parashurama promises to teach Bhishma, who was his pupil, a lesson for ruining her life. At first Parashurama asks Bhisma to accept Amba as his wife. But Bhisma refuses owing to his oath of celibacy. So he challenges him for a battle. It is said that their battle lasted for 23 days. On the 24th day Bhishma was about to use a deadly weapon which would have undoubtedly defeated Parashurama who had not counter to that weapon but he was stopped by the gods as that would have brought humiliation to his own teacher. So the battle was considered to be a stalemate. On learning about Parashurama’s helplessness against Bhishma she decides to please the gods as she is hellbent on taking her revenge against Bhisma—the one man she holds responsible for ruining her life.

Amba gives up food and sleep and does severe penance for 12 years before finally she is granted what she desires the most by Lord Shiva. She is blessed by Shiva that she would be born as a man in her next birth and would become the reason for Bhishma’s destruction. That she would be born to the king Drupada of Panchala and become a great warrior and would remember her previous birth and the humiliation she suffered at the hands of Bhishma. Pleased with the boon, Amba decides to end her life. She creates a funeral pyre on the banks of the Yamuna and jumps in the fire pledging to destroy Bhishma in her next birth. Years later, Amba is reborn as Shikhandini.

On the 10th day of the great war of Kurukshetra, Shikhandi accompanies Arjuna on his chariot. On seeing Shikhandi, the hitherto unstoppable Bhishma lowers his weapons as he instantly identifies him as Amba’s reincarnation. The weaponless Bhishma is felled by Arjuna, pierced by innumerable arrows, which form his bed for the next several days, before Bhisma finally decides to leave his body on the holy day of Uttarayana. Thus, Amba's vengeance is finally fulfilled as Shikhandi becomes the cause of Bhishma's death. Here is is important to understand that the unbearable pain that Bhishma would have faced while lying on the arrow bed for days just cannot be described in words. It’s a great lesson for the whole of mankind to never treat a woman unjustly. Mahabharata teaches us time and again to treat women with utmost respect and dignity. Whether Bhishma, Duryodhana or Dushasana or anyone else, whosoever dares to treat women with disrespect actually ends up paying a heavy price. It’s a lesson that mustn’t be forgotten.
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