Jaya jaya mahabharatham prema Nandakumar narayanam namaskritya naram chaiva narottamam / devim sarasvatim vyasam tato jaya udirayet

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but first he must give up

his supreme weapon.

He has no use now

for the Gandiva bow.

That gem of a weapon,

the unique cakra

of mahatma Krishna

has vanished from the world.

When needed again

it will return to his hand.

The magnificent Gandiva

was brought by me

from Varuna

to give to Partha-Arjuna.

It must now be returned

to Varuna.”45
Arjuna obediently casts the Gandiva and the two inexhaustible quivers into the waters and the Pandavas and Draupadi walk away from the green crests of earthly life.

6. Amba

When the Queen of Kasi, Kausalya gave birth to her first daughter, she must have been a very happy person. Such a beautiful princess! Verily like Uma Haimavati! They named the child Amba. And when two other girls followed, the royal family was delighted. Ambika and Ambalika! The terrors and joys of future times remain as much a mystery today as it was thousands of years ago when Amba was born to the king of Kashi. The three princesses grew up into lovely girls and the King announced a swayamvara for all of them on the same day.

In Hastinapura, Bhishma had the responsibility of finding a suitable bride for his brother Vicitravirya. The succession to the throne had to be assured, Bhishma himself had taken a vow of life-long brahmacharya, the elder son of Santanu had died in battle and so Vichitravirya had to marry and give a son to the kingdom. Having heard that the king of Kashi was holding a swayamvara for his three daughters and that they were worthy brides, Bhishma went to Kashi. He raised the girls to his chariot and dared the assembled kings to oppose him. In the ensuing battle, Bhishma defeated them all single-handed. He was pursued by King Salva and the two were locked in battle. Bhishma emerged victorious and Salva returned to his country.

The wedding festivities were on in Hastinapura. Since Amba said that her heart was already given to the King of Salva, Bhishma permitted her to go away to Salva. The marriage of Ambika and Ambalika with Vichitravirya was solemnized and all seemed well in the land of Hastinapura. Amba herself would have been forgotten completely by posterity. What happened to her when she was permitted to go away from Hastinapura? Did she go to Salva? Were they married and did they live happily ever? Or was she discarded on the dirt heap?

Millions of Indian women have been consigned to the fate of Amba for one reason or other. We know nothing about them. But in the case of Amba, a guilty conscience could not forget her. The conscience kept track of her movements and buried in the heart’s silence the terror and sublimity of Amba’s life. That was Bhishma’s conscience. It all comes to us as Ambopakhyana much later when we have almost forgotten the incident of Amba’s abduction.

We are now in Udyoga Parva. So many years have gone by since the day Amba left Hastinapura for meeting the king of Salva. Bhishma had tried to assure the succession for the Kuru throne and now it has resulted in a terrible confrontation. Duryodhana’s camp is counting its armed divisions and he is closeted with Bhishma who enumerates the various strengths of the Pandava camp. Among them is Sikhandin, the son of Drupada. Bhishma would oppose any one of the opposite camp including Krishna. But not Sikhandin. Sikhandin was born a woman and then was metamorphosed into a man. A life-long brahmacharin, Bhishma will not fight Sikhandin even if the Drupadan prince rushes towards him with his bow strung with arrow. On Duryodhana asking him the reason, Bhishma launches into a longish remembrance of things past.

Permitted by Bhishma to go, Amba had gone straight to Salva, escorted by her nurse and Brahmanas. He had rejected her laughing derisively. Had she not been forcibly taken away by Bhishma? Had she not looked happy as she was being taken away? She demurred:

“I swear by my head,

O tiger among men

I will marry no one but you,

O lord of the Salvas.

I have not come as one betrothed to another,

O Indra-among-rajas,

This is the truth. I swear by my atman,

Salva, this is the truth.”46

Salva would not listen. He was in terror of Bhishma and urged Amba to go away fast (gachcha gachcheti taam salvah punah punarabhashata) from his kingdom. Helpless, not willing to go back to her natal home, that very moment she desires to humble Bhishma’s pride. She goes to a hermitage where ascetics live and seeks their help to perform austerities for she wants to wreak vengeance on Bhishma somehow, anyhow. On hearing her woes, the ascetics are full of pity and rishi Saikhavatya promises to help her. They also seek to dissuade her from undertaking austerities. Even as she is arguing, the venerable Sage Hotravahana comes to this camp of ascetics. Soon he recognizes her to be his maternal granddaughter. He comforts her and advises her to go to his close friend Parashurama who could even compel Bhishma to obey his behest as Bhishma was his disciple.

Meanwhile Rrishi Akritavrana comes there and tells them Parashurama is on his way. He also agrees with Amba that Bhishma’s pride should be humbled. When Parashurama comes, she submits her problem. He wants to know what he should do. Uncompromising are the words uttered by Amba, Bhishmam jahi mahabaho!

“O maha-muscled tiger-brave Bhargava!

Kill Bhisma!

He caused my grief, myhelplessness,

my lingering loneliness.

He is greedy, and mean and victory-flushed.

O Bhargava, O faultless one,

it is right that he receive

his deserved punishment.

From the time of my abduction, O radiant lord,

I made up my mind

to get maha-vowed Bhisma of the Bharatas

killed one way or other.

Which is why I want you to fulfil my desire,

O maha-muscled one!

O faultless Parasurama! Kill Bhisma,

as Purandara Indra killed Vrtra.”47

Parashurama takes Amba to Hastinapura. He tries conciliation first. Bhishma should marry her. This is, of course, not possible for the doughty warrior. And as she had publicly spoken about her love for Salva, Bhishma would not solemnize her marriage with Vichiravirya. Parashurama’s words are in vain. Bhishma waxes eloquent about giving a proper fight and in any case, here was a chance to avenge all the Kshatriya blood shed by Parashurama! They exchange harsh words and battle on the field of Kurukshetra. Even the appearance of mother Ganga to dissuade him has no effect on Bhishma. There is a terrible clash and Vyasa is in his element describing it, referring to arrows and missiles that criss-crossed for twenty-three days. It is a draw because the Manes and Mother Ganga persuade them to stop the battle. Parashurama confesses his failure to Amba who thanks him for what he had done so far. Come what may, she would not go to Bhishma. Instead she will take to tapasya and find a way to wreak her vengence.

Bhishma confesses to Duryodhana that he had set spies to track the movements of Amba and that is how he is able to give her history in all its details. Certainly either out of a feeling of guilt or simply fear, Bhishma could not forget her even for a moment. Meanwhile Amba undertakes tapasya on the banks of Yamuna. It is quite possible that Kalidasa’s description of Uma’s tapasya in Kumara Sambhava had its inspiration in that of Amba in the Mahabharata.

“She fasted, she became thin and dry,

her hair was matted,

her body dust-covered;

her only wealth was tapasya;

for six months she stood motionless,

living on air.

For one year she remained submerged

in the waters of the Yamuna,

eating absolutely nothing,

performing tapasya.

She broke fast by munching on a dried leaf.

for another year,

she stood on one leg, erect,

sustained by her extreme wrath.

For twelve years she continued thus,

setting aglow both earth and sky.

Even her relatives could not persuade her

to change her mind.”48

Amba continued thus and travelled around to pilgrim places while taking on rigorous disciplines. One day Mother Ganga asked her the reason for her tapasya. On being told that it was for killing Bhishma, Ganga cursed her to become a crooked river infested with crocodiles. It is said that half of Amba became the river Amba that flows through Vatsabhumi and is a terror with its crocodiles, and has water flow only in the rainy season. She was reborn as a girl again in Vatsa land.

Some more time passed as the girl continued the tapasya of her previous life. And Lord Shiva appeared and granted her the boon that she would indeed slay Bhishma and for that purpose she would be a man as well in her next birth. Further she would remember all the events of this birth too. Shiva disappeared having given these boons. Amba made a fire and entered the blaze, uttering with wrath: (I do so) for Bhishma's destruction, Bhishma vadhaaya!

Amba born as Shikandin to King Drupada of Panchala who had been performing austerities to get a son to kill Bhishma. The queen concealed the gender of the babe and brought her up as a male child. Sikhandin soon became an adept in warfare. Relying upon the boon of Shiva to Drupada, they got her married to the princess of Dasarnakas. When the truth came to be known, there was a big outcry from the bride’s people. As King Drupada and his queen were trying to defend themselves by relying upon Shiva’s boon to Drupada, Sikhandini left the palace, unable to bear the shame.

In the forest she came to the abode of the Yaksha, Sthulakarna. She began performing austerities which made the kindly Yaksha help her. He was a servant of Kubera. He exchanged his manhood for her female form and asked her to come back for returning to their original state, after the danger to her parents was over. And so it happened and she came back to the Yaksha. Unfortunately, in the meantime Lord Kubera had happened to visit the place. Learning from the Yaksha how he had taken on a woman’s form, Kubera had cursed him to be permanently a woman. Fortunately he softened and said that when Sikhandin dies, the Yaksha would regain his original form. The Yaksha did not show any anger. It was destined, he said philosophically.

For Sikhandin it was a problem solved well. Drupada sent Sikhandin along with Dhrishtadhyumna to Dronacharya who taught him the four-fold division of the science of warfare. Since he could remember his past, the wrong done to him when he was Amba smouldered still. It must have blazed higher when he heard of Draupadi’s disrobement and Bhishma’s reluctance to help a woman in distress. So characteristic of that grandsire!

We see Sikhandin next in the closing pages of the Bhishma Parva. On the tenth day of the battle, Sikhandin is in the forefront of the attack on Bhishma, closely followed by Arjuna whose chariot is being driven by Krishna. There ensues a fierce battle between the Pandavas led by Sikhandin (of extreme tejas, amitaujasa) and the Kauravas who try to protect Bhishma. Vyasa says that it was not unlike two vultures fiercely fighting for a piece of flesh, syenayoraamishe yathaa.

Bhishma could never forget Amba since the moment he had seized her for the sake of Vichitravirya and carried her to Hastinapura. Just as he had kept track of her constantly through spies disguised as idiots, visionless or dumb, even in his last moments he thinks of her if only to resist the thought of her succeeding in her vow. Sikhandin keeps attacking him with thunderous, fatal arrows but Bhishma keeps smiling as if they do not hurt him. Amba must not have the joy of victory! Bhishma appears like a person who is troubled by extreme heat and is now receiving heavy rain, cooling his body! Just before he falls from his chariot, deeply wounded by the arrows shot at him by Sikhandin and Arjuna, he prefers to think that only Arjuna’s arrows could cause him pain. He says so to Duhshasana:

“Arjuna is shooting

deadly thunderbolt arrows at me

from his fierce Gandiva-bow.

They pierce me deeply.

They fly in a continuous stream.

They cannot be Sikandin’s.

They cut through my armour

and strike my weakest parts

as heavily as bludgeons.

They cannot be Sikhandin’s.

They are swift as thunderbolts,

they are like adamantine thunderbolts.

They oppress me,

they are messengers of Yama,

they suck my life-breath,

they cannot be Sikhandin’s.

They hit like maces,

they bite like venomous snakes

hissing balefully,

they cannot be Sikhandin’s.

They drain my vital energies,

they cannot be Sikhandin’s.

They are Arjuna’sarrows,

they cannot be Sikhandin’s.

Like baby-crabs emerging

after cannibalising their mother,

they are devouring me.

No ruler of men can hurt me so,

except the brilliant ape-emblemed

Gandiva-bow-wielder Jisnu-Arjuna.”49

Ne me bhaanaah Sikhandinah! So the sublime tale of revenge comes to an end. Sikhandin was one of the fiercest heroes of the Kurukshetra war and was almost invincible. Even after Dhrishtadhyumna was slain in the stealth of night by Aswaththama, the hero did not lose heart but shot at Drona’s son between his eye brows. Aswaththama could kill him only because he had procured the rudra-astra from Shiva which he now directed against Sikhandin. Shiva had granted Amba’s wish and now Shiva had become the cause of killing the unconquerable Sikhandin. These are mighty thoughts and Amba-Sikhandin’s life is too full of knots to speak in terms of black and white. Who can contend against inexorable fate?

  1. Karna

If in all of Mahabharata Amba is the loneliest of women, Karna is the most lonely man of the epic, the typical tragic hero, an epic Hamlet. However, Karna is visible to us almost all the time. By the time we come to Kunti invoking Surya with the chant bestowed on her by sage Durvasa, we have had a good deal of astonishing interaction between mortals and the gods above. So one is not surprised either with the appearance of Surya, the reluctance of Kunti, the persuasion of the heavenly being or the birth of a child adorned with an armour and ear rings. Karna is born. Afraid of social calumny, Kunti puts him adrift on the river. In the course of the next few verses, we are given a glimpse of his life which turns out to be a tragedy because of a virtue that is fatal for him, the virtue of giving charity.

The baby was picked up by the charioteer Adhiratha and brought up by him and his kindly wife Radha. As they found that he was already clothed in an armour and had shining ear-rings, they named him Vasusena. Unconsciously he turned to the Sun as his personal deity:

“He grew up tall and strong,

expert in all weapons;

he worshipped the sun

from dawn to midday,

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