The Tragic Trio: Amba

by Prof. Debalina Roychowdhury

Mahabharata, the greatest epic can be considered as a heritage of India. It imbibes the saga of human struggle, conflict of ethics and many more. As it popularly goes that, ‘anything that is not in Mahabharata does not exist anywhere in the world’. True it is, that we can find the vivid range of human culture and conflict.

The feminine struggle identity crisis and establishment of self-respect strongly echoes throughout the epic. The women characters of the epic are prominent in bravery and courage; be that Ganga or Satyavati, Gandhari or Kunti, Draupadi or Subhadra – all are bright and dazzling in their own struggle and ‘self’ establishment. The female characters of Mahabharat are brilliant in their royal nature, beauty and impetus. Each of them are distinct and indomitable. Among all other women, three rarely explored ones are Amba, Gandhari and Uttara.

Amba, the princess of Kashi first strikes a different note of struggle in the epic. Betrothed to Salvaraaj, she awaits her groom in the Swayambar with her sisters Ambika and Ambalika. Despite of getting married all other three sisters are abducted by Mahamati Bhisma. Bhisma’s attack could not be restricted by other kings of the ‘Sabha’ and the nearly aged hero carries away the three princess to Hastinapur to get married to Bichitrabirya. The three princess kept silence.

On the way, Bhisma encounters an attack by Salvaraj which is immediately turned down by the former. But Amba retained her silence even there which is stunning; she did not confess about her affair at that juncture. Naturally the question arises – why? What made Amba, betrothed to Salvaraj, willing and wishing to marry him, remain quiet?

It may be considered that Amba developed an admiration for the Kurusreshth Bhishma. When Kashi Swayambar sabha was attacked by Gangaputra, she probably developed an intense appreciation for the valiant, worthy Bhishma. Amba was fascinated with the Ksatriya style of abducting the princess and grandeur of fight. Thus she did not express her feeling for Salvaraj in front of Bhishma. This was the reason she retained her silence even when Salvaraj attacked and lost the war with Devabrat.

This becomes more confirmed by her time of confession. She admits the fact when she discovers that all the three spinster sisters are to be married with Bichitrabirya and not Bhishma. Probably then, Amba decided to return to Salvaraj and confessed the truth. This was accepted by Bhishma with full esteem and she is sent back to her betrothed lover. There again Amba is hindered by her lover and denied. Salva says that she is abducted by someone and this retards him to marry her. Amba, here is treated as a commodity and abnegated by her fiance. Amba, then, as lore say, went back to Bhishma and asked him to marry her. But Mahabharata never says this.

According to the great epic, Amba having enough self-respect never went to Bhishma directly but reared up a deep hatred and grudge for him. This malice, is an outcome of thwarted passion and attraction. Thus Amba’s anger shifts towards Bhishma – not for Kashiraj who gave a swayambar of a betrothed girl or even not for Salvaraj who rejected his fiancé only for a baseless pride. This unreasonably acute antipathy comes from nothing but barred attraction and suppressed passion.  But, unlike legends, she never came back to Bhishma and asked him to marry due to her staunch self respect, “Na cha sakyang gantang tatra baroshahyam”.

Then she started to plot his devastation. She requested her grandfather Srinjay Hotrovan to fight against Bhishma. Hotrovam appealed to his friend Parashuram to teach Bhishma, his student a lesson. Unwillingly Parashuram summoned this Kurusreshth for a war. This war is treated as an exceptional one were a student triumphs over his adept teacher, Parashuram. This made the Acharya elated to see the expertise of his student and blessed him from the core of his heart.

Amba was left with only the second and protracted way of avenging her revilement, that was her ‘Tapasya’. She, then, devoted her rest of the life in her ‘sadhana’ and never returned in a normal life.  Mahabharata says that Bhishma appointed some officials to keep an eye on this exasperated ‘mystery’ lady who focused only on the way to take revenge on Bhishma. This is again striking because what what made Bhishma appoint spies to look on her? And if he would not have sworn for his lifelong bachelor-ship, would he not marry Amba? There is a deep laden strain that Bhishma developed an affection for Amba. Then silent becomes Mahabharata.

Later on rebirth of Amba was possible for her grave ‘Tapasya’ at Drupad’s dwelling as Shikhandi, the Bramhastra against Bhishma. There are other tales and lore regarding Shikhandi that Shikhandi was born as a woman and he exchanged his genitals with a ‘Yaksa’ for the sake of avenging. Shikhandi, then arrives in the Kurukshetra, deeply inclined to confront with ‘Gangaputra’.

According to Srikrishna’s scheme Shikhandi accompanied Arjuna to pull down the curtain of Bhishma’s life. Bhishma the pioneer of the epic leaves his arms as he confronts Shikhandi in the war field, he considered Shikhandi as a woman and as a true ‘kshatriya’ and he denounced his weapon and invited the arrows of Arjuna. The wearied and valiant soldier took his ‘Sarasajya’. He stayed in the war front but accepted his last defeat that too for the reason, – Amba. An exceptional love-hate relationship. The struggle and loneliness of Amba plays a trenchant note in the epic. A woman driven by passion unknown to her and derided by revenge. Fate leaves her incomplete in both the two lives.
13-Jun-2012 –

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