The story of Amba, Ambika and Ambalika. The marriage of Ambika and Ambalika to Vichitraveerya and how Amba vows to kill Bhishma and becomes Shikandhi .
Before we get into this chapter, I think this is a time to recap the genealogy that we have learnt so far. Shantanu married Ganga and had a son called Devavrata who is now known as Bhishma. Shantanu remarried and his second wife was Satyavati. Satyavati and Shantanu had 2 children and their names were Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya. Note that Bhishma is the half brother of Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya. Also that Bhishma was significantly older than his brothers. He was about 16 years old when Shantanu married Satyavati. The name of the kingdom that was ruled by Shantanu was Hastinapura.
Chitrangada died at a young age and thus Vichitraveerya was the next in line to rule the kingdom. However, since Vichitraveerya was also quite young, Bhishma ruled in his place. It also became Bhishma's responsibility to find Vichitraveerya a suitable wife.
The king of Kasi had 3 daughters. Amba, Ambika and Ambalika. And there was a Swayamvara held in the kingdom. Swayamvara was an ancient Kshatria practice wherein a princess would choose her husbands. The potential suitors – usually kings and princes - would be present and on occasion may be asked to perform a brave deed to demonstrate their capabilities.
Bhishma went to Kasi for the Swayamvara in place of his half brother – representing him of course. The other kings and princes naturally thought that Bhishma was there for himself and mistook him to be a potential suitor for the three Kasi Princesses. They did not know that he was there for Vichitraveerya. They felt disgusted that Bhishma would intend breaking his vow of non-marriage and chastity and started taunting the great man. They threw verbal arrows at him and called him names. They said that Bhishma was unfit to be a Kshatriya and his behavior was a disgrace to the entire race.
Angered by these words, Bhishma challenged the entire group of Kings and Princes and fought them single handed. No one was a match for the great Bhishma and they were all soon defeated. With no one else in the way, Bhishma took the three sisters in his chariot and drove back to Hastinapura.
There is a note to mention here. Of the Kings that Bhishma defeated on his way back to Hastinapura there was a King called Salva. Salva had his heart set on marrying the first of the three sisters, Amba. The defeated Salva was humiliated and returned to his kingdom.
When he returned to Hastinapura, Bhishma arranged the marriage of Vhichitraveerya to the three sisters. To this, Amba, the eldest protested. “O Great Warrior”, she addressed Bhishma, “My heart belongs to King Salva and I cannot accept anyone else as my husband. Please send me back to the one I love.”
Bhishma, who was a man well versed in Dharma, understood Amba’s feelings, and sent her back to King Salva with due respect.
Bhishma then arranged for the wedding of Vichitraveerya with Ambika and Ambalika. It is important to understand the custom of Kings during those times. Kings married more than one woman not for the sake of pleasure but for the sake of Progeny – to ensure that there are enough children so that the worthy one would carry on the throne. You may ask if this is reason enough to have 2 wives. As you will see later, Vichitraveera had one son through Ambika and one through Ambalika. Ambika’s son was Dhiritarashtra, and was born blind. If Vichitraveerya, as king, did not have another son, in Pandu, the kingdom would have been under the mercy of a blind king. This would be extremely unsafe for the kingdom and they would constantly face threats of invasion from their enemies.
Of course, such practices are not accepted in our time and some of you may not understand or accept the reasoning behind the customs followed 3000 years ago. The prudent thing to do is to merely observe the story and imbibe the lessons of Dharma that it imparts.
Thus, Vichitraveerya married the sisters Ambika and Ambalika.
But what happened to Amba. The following story is important in the larger context of the Mahabharata. As I mentioned, this is an epic and there are several intermingled stories which, if understood well, will all tie together in the latter parts of the narrative.
Here is the rest of Amba's story.
Bhishma had sent Amba back to King Salva at her request. When she reached Salva, to Amba’s horror, Salva did not accept her. He said “Amba. I was defeated in public by Bhishma and he won you. I cannot accept you as a pity from him. Please go back to Bhishma and do what he says.”
The disgruntled Amba went back to Bhishma and narrated what happened. Bhishma tried to ask Vichitraveerya to accept Amba as his wife, but he refused citing “I cannot accept someone who has her heart set on another man”.
Amba – thus having nowhere to go asked Bhishma himself to marry her. But how could he? He was bound by the sacred vow of Chastity he had taken. Bhishma refused and Amba was stranded.
Vichitraveerya wouldn't take her. Salva wouldn't take her. Bhishma wouldn't take her.
Amba held Bhishma responsible for this sad situation she had been brought to. One day ago, she was a princess. Now, she had nowhere to go. And in her heart, Bhishma was the sole reason for her suffering. She was bent on revenge on Bhishma. She went from Kingdom to Kingdom requesting every brave Kshatriya to fight Bhishma to avenge her but everyone refused. No one was brave enough to fight the mighty Bhishma.
Once every mortal abandoned her, she went to the Himalayas and practiced rigorous austerities to Lord Shiva. Eventually, Shiva appeared before her and granted her a boon stating “Amba. You cannot slay Bhishma in this life. But I grant that you will be the one to Slay Bhishma in your next birth”.
Amba was impatient and wanted her next life to come immediately and therefore she jumped into a fire and ended her life.
Amba was reborn as King Drupada's daughter. When she grew up, she went to the forest and performed rigorous austerities and penances. As a result of these difficult practices, in time, she was transformed into a Man and became known as the warrior Shikandi.
In the Kurukshetra war that resulted many years later, which we will come to, it was Shikandi who fights Bhishma at his time of death.
Here is a recap. Amba, the daughter of the King of Kasi, believing that Bhishma was the reason for her suffering obtained a boon from Shiva that she would slay Bhishma in her next birth. In her next birth, she was born as a girl to King Drupada and through the powers of penance, transformed into the Male Warrior Shikkandi and waited for the time to come to kill his arch enemy – Bhishma.
The story that we have heard so far makes a case in point as to how intricate this epic really is.
Who was Bhishma. He was originally Prabhasa – one of the 8 Vasu Devas - born as Devavrata to Godess Ganga to fulfil Vashishta's curse.
Who was Shikandi? He was Amba who was to be reborn to kill Bhishma.
See how the Mahabharata is spread across several generations and different worlds. And how the Law of Karma works it's wonders. We shall be witnessing such interesting and thought provoking instances throughout the epic.