Bibek Debroy’s fifth volume of the Mahabharata starts with the Amba Upakhyana Parva which is so named because Upakhyana means short tale, and this is the short tale of Amba who is reborn as Shikhandi to cause Bhishma’s death.
Every Indian probably knows the highlights of this story, but there are a lot of nuances to the entire tale, and I absolutely loved it.
The timing of this story is perfect because Bhishma narrates it to Duryodhana just before the beginning of the war, and it emphasizes that Bhishma is the greatest warrior in the field, and perhaps the greatest kshatriya in all history.
Duryodhana asks Bhishma why he won’t raise weapons against Shikhandi, and Bhishma begins narrating the story.
He tells him that in earlier times the king of Kashi held a Swayamvara forhis three daughters – Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, and Bhishma went there to get a bride for his half brother Vichitravirya whom he had instated as king. A swayamara is a ceremony where the bride chooses her husband. Swayam means self, and vara means husband.
Bhishma tells Duryodhana that knowing that the maidens were being offered as “viryashulka”, he raised them to his chariot, and told all other kings that he was taking the three sisters by force, and challenged anyone to stop him. Viryashulka is a ceremony where the maiden is offered to the suitor who shows the most valor (virya), shulka meaning price.
This is an inconsistency in the text because just a few lines ago Bhishma says that there was a Swayamvara which is not the same as a Viryashulka. Regardless, all the kings come together to attack Bhishma, but they aren’t able to defeat him even when all of them have joined forces.
When Bhishma reaches his home, Amba tells him that she had chosen the king of Shalva to be her husband and he had also agreed to it, and they were in love. In the Swayamvara, she was going to finally choose him formally, and get married to him. Knowing this she asked Bhishma to let her leave, and go to the king.
Bhishma consulted his advisors and decided that he will let Amba go to the king of Shalva because she is in love with him, and ensured that she reaches there safely. The king of Shalva however told Amba that she seemed to be happy when Bhishma took her to the chariot, and he can’t accept her as wife now because she has already been won by another man, and he can’t take one as wife who has been with another man. Amba pleaded with him that she is innocent, and was never happy to be with Bhishma, and that he should accept her as his wife, but to no avail.
Unhappily she sought refuge in a hermitage, and blamed her father for holding the swayamvara, the Shalva king for refusing her, herself for not jumping off the chariot but chiefly Bhishma for abducting her, and bringing this misery upon her.
At this time her maternal grandfather Hotravahana reached the hermitage, and she recounted her misfortune to him. He told her that he is a good friend with Parashuram who is one of the greatest sages that lived, and is also a sworn enemy of kshatriyas having destroyed them 21 times from the earth.
Parashurama is the sixth avatar of Vishnu, and is known to have several celestial weapons, and decades of military training with Shiva. The next day Akritavrana who is one of Parashurama’s followers also reach the hermitage, and listens to Amba’s plight. Akritavrana asks Amba there are two wrongs that have happened to her, and she should decide which wrong she wants to right. He asks her whether she wants to have Bhishma punished or for King Shalva to accept her. She says that Bhisma abducted her without knowing her love for King Shalva, so keeping that in mind he decide on the best course of action.
Akritavrana says that in his opinion Bhishma is in the wrong because now that Bhishma has abducted her King Shalva won’t accept her. Amba agrees with this, and says that in her heart she has always thought Bhishma to be the root cause of her misery.
Finally, Parashurama arrives, and decides to intervene on Amba’s behalf. Amba however asks him to kill Bhishma which he says he cannot do because he cannot voluntarily take up arms in this situation. Instead, he takes Amba to Bhishma and asks him to take her back, and marry her to his brother.
Bhishma adamantly refuses this, and says that she has gone to Shalva with his permission, and knowing that she desires Shalva, he can’t marry her to his brother and that is against dharma and is like establishing a snake in the house.
Parashuram is enraged by this, and challenges Bhishma to a duel. Bhishma tries to pacify Parashuram because he was his teacher, but Parashuram is enraged, and there is no way out.
The next day they engage in battle in Kurukshetra, and a terrible battle ensues between them for 23 days in which both warriors are equal.
During the penultimate night Bhishma is worried, and is thinking about how this battle would end because the two warriors are in a deadlock. Then eight of his ancestors come to him in a dream and tell him to use the Prasvapan weapon. This weapon was created by Vishwakarma and its knowledge given to Bhishma in an earlier body. Prasvapan means to put one to sleep, and this weapon will not kill Parashurama but put him to sleep, and thus no sin will be attached to Bhishma. They also tell him that he can then use the Sambodhana weapon to wake him up after he has defeated Parashurama.
On the final day, Bhishma remembers the dream and raises the weapon to attack Parashuram, but Narada appears in the sky and asks him not to commit this act as it will be a huge affront to a great sage like Parashurama. The eight also appear in front of him, and tell him to follow Narada’s words.
Bhishma withdraws the weapon and seeing this Parashurama gets humbled and accepts his defeat because he knew that he didn’t have any answer to this weapon.
He then tells the maid Amba that though he tried with all his might he couldn’t subdue Bhishma and now Bhishma is her only refuge.
Amba thanks Parashurama but doesn’t give up her effort to get her revenge on Bhishma. Shes goes from one place to the other, and performs austerities to please the gods, and get a boon to kill Bhishma. At one point Ganga herself comes to Amba and tells her to give up this intent to bring the downfall of Bhishma, but Amba doesn’t listen, and continues austerities. Finally Lord Shiva appears before her and grants her the boon that she will be born as a great warrior in the kingdom of Drupada, and she will kill Bhishma.
Now, the story forwards to Drupada, and the king is praying to Lord Shiva for a son because he has no offspring. Lord Shiva appears before him and tells him that a girl will be born to you who will later become a boy. A girl is indeed born to Drupada whom they name Shikhandi. But because he has no sons and because of what Shiva has said he declares that a boy has been born, and no one except his wife, Parshata, and himself know this. Amusingly enough, even Shikhandi doesn’t know that she is a girl. Shikhandi grows and soon reaches a marriageable age. The king is now despondent on what to do and on the advice of his wife he marries his daughter to the daughter of Dasharna who is king Hiranyavarma.
Shikhandi marries and brings back the maiden to his house, and she discovers that Shikhandi is in fact a girl, and is terribly distressed by this. She reports this to her nurses who sends messengers back to Hiranayavarma who is extremely angry at this deceit and sends messengers to Drupada to tell him that he is marching with a large army and will kill Drupada and Shikhandi, and instate a new king.
Drupada is terribly frightened by this because he is timid by nature, and Hiranyavarma is a powerful ruler. He tells his wife that it has been discovered that their son is actually a daughter, and what are they supposed to do now?
Shikhandi hears this conversation, and realizes for the first time she is a girl, and will now cause the death of her parents, and a war on her kingdom. She is saddened and goes to a forest in her grief. In this forest she meets Sthunakarna who is a yaksha. Yakshas are semi divine beings who protect riches hidden in trees, and forests, and Lord Kubera who is Ravana’s cousin is their king.
Sthuna asks Shikhandi her misery’s cause, and has pity on her after listening to her. Out of pity he tells her that he will help her escape this calamity. He tells her that he will give her his penis, in exchange of her vagina, so that she can go back to her city and prove to her wife and father in law that she is in fact a man. After the king has been placated she must promise to come back to Sthunakarna and exchange back the gender.
Shikhandi is delighted at this; becomes a man and goes back to her kingdom, and invites the king Hiranyavarma to come and see for himself that he is a man. The king and his advisers come to ensure this, and when they are convinced that Shikhandi is a man they gift elephants and chariots, and return back to their own kingdom.
In the meantime Lord Kubera visits the forest that Sthuna lives in, and is enraged at the fact that Sthunakarna has not come to welcome his king. Sthunakarna’s servants tell Lord Kuber that he is now a woman and out of shame over what he has done he is not showing his face to Lord Kuber.
Lord Kubera is wrathful on Sthuna and says that you have done what no one else has done before and your punishment is that you will always remain a woman from this point on. The other yakshas try to pacify Kubera and asks him to set a time limit on this curse. Kubera agrees to this and says that since the other yakshas are asking him to have mercy on Sthuna he will set a time limit, and when Shikhandi is killed in battle, Sthuna will become a man again.
Bhishma concludes this story by saying that all this is known to him through his own spies and Narada and since he has taken a vow earlier not to shoot arrows at a woman, one who was earlier a woman, one who has a name of a woman, or one who has the form of a woman he knows that at the appointed time Shikhandi will cause his death.