The most fierce duel in Mahabharata war was fought between Ganga putra Bheesma and his teacher, Parashurama. The context of this battle was Bheesma’s unfair treatment towards Kashi Princess – Amba.
Bheesma was unbeatable at war, no army dared to stand against him. This caused Bheesma to relentlessly cross lines as he pleased, he would execute what he thinks is right in his book of Dharma, not considering how it is going to affect the other person. This behavior gave birth to many enemies, and one of them was the King of Kashi.
Prelude – The Insult of Kashi King
Long before the abduction of Kashi Princess Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, Kashi had friendly relations with Hastinapura. Kashi princess Sunanda was the Queen of King Bharata and both the states were in friendly terms, until Bheesma’s ego and arrogance turned the relationship bitter.
Bheesma had ridiculed the King of Kashi when he wanted to marry his sister to Bheesma’s father Shantunu. Bheesma had questioned the meritocracy of Kashi King, his sister and rejected the proposal stating that an arranged marriage is possible only between equals, while both the state of Kashi and its princess are nowhere close to the higher standards of Hastinapura and King Shantunu.
Kashi king was insulted and he wanted to avenge this insult.
Decades later, when he decided to arrange the swayamvar of his three daughters Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, he ordered his ministers to invite all the prince and kings except the prince of Hastinapura. At that time, Hastinapura’s king Vichitravirya was without a child. Queen Satyavati and Bheesma were worried about the heir of the throne, they were seeking a suitable alliance. They were expecting an invitation from Kashi but that invitation never came.
The courtiers repeatedly instructed the king of Kashi to send an invitation to Hastinapura and not infuriate Bheesma. At the end of the day, the decision of wedding lies in the hands of the three daughters – Amba, Ambika and Ambalika. If they decide not to select the Hastinapura prince, that itself avenges the insult. There is no need of inviting unnecessary trouble by not sending the invitation to the prince of Hastinapura for the swayamvara.
However, Kashi king was adamant from his point of view. His point was that if I invite them to the wedding, I am not doing justice to the insult which was done years ago when my sister’s marriage proposal was rejected on the ground that we were not considered equal in status and merit with that of Hastinapura. By not giving the invitation to the prince of Hastinapura, I am passing the message that I don’t consider the prince of hastinapura worthy enough for my daughters. It is not to insult the prince of Hastinapura, it it to settle scores with my arch rival – Bheesma.
Bheesma infiltrated the Swayamvara and forcefully abduct the three princess for two reasons. First, he wanted to remind Kashi king that he is still the same Bheesma who is “higher” in status, merit and power than Kashi. Second, he wanted to send the message to all other kingdoms what happens when the kingdom of Hastinapura is insulted.
But all things said and done, Bheesma committed a serious error by kidnapping the three princess of Kashi. He never asked the girls what they wanted, whom they wanted to marry. Why should the girls suffer because of the rift between Bheesma and Kashi king? The girls had the right to choose their own husbands and Bheesma paid no attention to their rights and wants, he only cared about establishing his own dominance in the courtroom of Kashi and achieved it forcefully.
The Insult of Amba
Amba, Ambika and Ambalika were forcefully brought in the kingdom of Hastinapura. But before this, Amba was in love with Shalva, the prince of Salwa kingdom. On reaching Hastinapura, Amba revealed this to Queen Satyavati and both Satyavati and Bheesma decided to return Amba to the kingdom of Salwa and let her marry the man she was in love with.
A depiction of Amba, a lone princess abandoned by her lover, her abductor, her father and the king. She is fully dressed in bridal costume, yet it is shown she is in the middle of a desert, completely hopeless and searching for truth.
When Amba reached Salwa kingdom, she got this answer
Prince of Salwa –
Tell Bheesma, I am a Khastriya and so is he. A Khastriya cannot accept something he has lost in battle. It could be a state, it could be a woman, makes no difference. If I have lost something, I cannot accept it back in charity, either I will fight him in the battlefield and win it back or I will die. But I cannot accept you now, since he has defeated all of us in the Swayamvara. By the Khastriya code of conduct, you belong to him. I cannot live with the guilt of accepting a woman whom I had lost in the battlefield to another man.
He came to the Swayamvara and forcefully kidnapped all three of us. According to the code of conduct of Swayamvara, I have the right to choose my own husband. Only I can choose my life partner. I am not a Kingdom that can be won or lost in a battle or gifted in charity. I am an individual.
Prince of Salwa
If that was the case, you should have stopped Bheesma before he kidnapped you and told him that you wanted to marry me and not the prince of Hastinapura. If you are not stopping the abductor and not protesting on the spot, Khastriya code confirms your affirmation to that act. Hence, I cannot accept you O Amba, please return to Hastinapura and either marry the prince of Hastinapura or Bheesma himself
I get it O Salva, I get it. It is not khastriya code, it is your masculine ego stopping you from accepting me. A defeat in the hands of your old rival is more important to you than spending the life with the woman you love. Ego is more important to you, so please keep it together with both arms.
But don’t instruct me what is to be done hereafter, once I cross the borders of Salva, I am free to do whatever I want to with my life. I thought I had chosen a worthy man as my husband. But how wrong I was, I see a coward swimming in ego and vengeance having no consideration about the future of the woman he loves.
We live in a strange society. A man even controls the honour and insult of a woman. She has neither personal honour nor any definition of insult because men consider it as their own objects, a playground to prove their merit and establish control. I am unwilling to accept this. Good bye and fair well.
Amba returns to Hastinapura and goes to the court of Vichitryavirya. She explains the situation in front of him and all ministers. Vichitryavirya instructs the ministers to attack the kingdom of Salwa, to which Amba objects saying
Wait, what is the fault of all the soldiers of Hastinapura and Salva who will be killed in this ensuing battle? Why should other men die because two men could not control their ego, forgot dharma and code of conduct? I have been insulted by Ganga putra Bheesma. So it is my request that you order him to marry me, so I can beget a child from him and lead a peaceful family life.
But I have pledged not to marry and remain a Brahmachari all my life, I cannot marry you O woman. You should marry the prince of Hastinapura – Vichitravirya
But I have already rejected the prince of Hastinapura and went back to the man I loved, the prince of Salva. If I accept him now as my husband, it will be an insult to him. Only Bheesma can be my husband, since he is the one who kidnapped me and Khastriya code tells us that the abductor has to marry the woman who was kidnapped (with or without her wish).
But I told you I have pledged to be a Brahmachari and can never marry.
If you cannot marry, why did you kidnap me? Who gave you the right to ruin my life? How will I ever be a mother? Who will accept me now, knowing that you have kidnapped me and that I have been rejected by both you, Salva and the prince of Hastinapura? Only you are responsible for this situation and you have to break your pledge and marry me.
Amba accusing Bheesma for her predicament, while her sisters weep at a distance accompanied by Queen Satyavati and the weakling king Vichitravirya, mere spectators to this unfortunate incident.
That’s impossible devi.
Beware o Bheesma, beware. Beware of a wounded Lioness, a wounded serpent and a humiliated woman. In this Kuru Court, with the king and courtiers as my witness, I am taking an oath – I will never forgive Ganga putra Bheesma for this insult. I will be the cause of his death, no matter how many times I have to take birth in whatever form
Bheesma Parashurama Duel
Kashi princess Amba left to seek revenge like a wounded lioness. She swallowed her humiliations and reached the hermitage of Hotravaan, not seeking refuge but seeking a medium to fulfil her oath of slaying bheesma.
O great sage, I cannot return to Kashi, there I will be ridiculed by my own people. I cannot go to Shalva because he has already rejected me and considers me a gift of charity from Hastinapura. I have only one path left – the path of penance. There is no other alternative. I have to tread this path, no matter how difficult it is.
Hortravaan suggested Amba to go to Parashurama at mount Mahendra and tell him her predicament. Parashurama listened to her story and called for Bheesma, his ex student
A depiction of Sage Parashurama with his deadly axe, he would mercilessly slaughter all Khastriyas who crossed their lines. The Kshatriya class, with weapons and power, had begun to abuse their power, take what belonged to others by force and tyrannise people. Parashurama corrects the cosmic equilibrium by destroying these Kshatriya warriors.
When you did not want to marry, who gave you the right to kidnap the princesses of Kashi? And now that you have kidnapped her, why have you rejected her? The result is that she is alone and helpless. It is because of you that Shalva refused to accept her. You must accept her, that is my order. Honour the code of a warrior.
O teacher, by sending her to the man she loves, I had already maintained the code of a warrior. I could have forcefully married her to the prince of Hastinapura, but I chose not to do that and I honoured her freedom of choice.
If you do not obey my order, you will have to fight me in the battlefield.
You are my teacher, why do you want to fight me in the battlefield?
It is the teacher’s duty to punish an erring disciple. I repeat – accept Amba or face me in the battlefield.
Very well. I am grateful that you have given me a choice, I chose to face you in the battlefield. I cannot accept Amba because I am tied with my vow of celibacy. Let’s head towards Kurukhestra.
Bheeshma and Parashurama then made their way towards Kurukshetra. Bheesma was on his chariot laced with all sorts of weapons and protected by thick armoury, while Parashurama was on foot with his axe, bows and arrows.
O teacher, I am on a chariot while you are on foot. I am fully armed and protected by armour while you are not. I cannot fight you, since as per your teachings, a charioteer can only fight a charioteer and a foot soldier can only fight a foot soldier. Wear an Armour and fetch a Chariot
यह भूमि मेरा रथ है, वेद अश्व हैं, पवन सारथी है, वेद माता गायत्री, सावित्री और सरस्वती मेरा कवच हैं
This land is my chariot, the clouds are my horses. The wind is my charioteer, the vedas are my armour.
Very well. O teacher, please give me permission to fight you and bless me with Victory
I am pleased by your humility. Anyone who desires success must be humble. In particular, those who fight their elders. Had you not done this, I would have cursed you. Now go, fight the war such that your teacher is not shamed.
Then ensued a fierce battle between the teacher and the student. Both sides heavily wounded each other and the battle did not reach any conclusion, it seemed neither side could overpower the other one. When Parashurama fired a volley of arrows, Bheesma defended his position. When Bheesma attacked, Parashurama defended. This continued for 22 days and it appeared that it is a stalemate.
On the night of the 22nd day, Bheesma had a dream wherein eight brahmanas appeared before him and chanted a mantra to invoke the dangerous weapon – praswapa asthra. This weapon has no counter and cannot be stopped by Parashurama.
The next day, when the battle resumes, Bheesma invoked praswapa asthra ready to slay Parashurama once and for all. That very moment, a divine voice stopped him
O son of Ganga! Do not release praswapa asthra against your guru. You will cause humiliation to him, do not use that weapon against your teacher. Never humiliate the man who taught you the art of warfare, retract the weapon.
Bheesma saluted the divine voice and retracted the weapon.
Parashurama on seeing Bheesma withdrawing the weapon, accepts his defeat
O son of Ganga! There is no kshatriya equal to you on earth. You have pleased me with your prowess and your humility. I accept my defeat. But I cannot step back in the battlefield and neither can you. Hence, either slay me in this battlefield or go back to Hastinapura.
My beloved teacher, I was fighting the war because you ordered me to do so. Now when you are telling me to retreat to Hastinapura, I will follow your order. I had no intentions to defeat you in warfare, please forgive your student and give me your blessings.
Bhishma then offered respects to his teacher and returned to Hastinapura.
Amba’s Solo Journey Towards Vengeance
Parashurama then called for Amba and remorsefully said to her,
O princess of Kashi, I have fought to my best ability, but I could not defeat Bheeshma. I have fought with the weapons of the heavenly gods, but still I could not slay him. O beautiful lady, fate seems to have you in her strong grip. It will not be possible for me to change what destiny has in store for you. I suggest you do penance of Mahadeva, only he can come to your aid.
Thus began Amba’s solo journey towards the fulfilment of her oath of slaying Bheesma – something which a warrior of Parashurama’s caliber has failed to achieve. She inhabited the forest and practiced severe austerities. She gave up all food and water and lived only on air. She stood immovable like a tree for six months. After this she increased her austerities by entering the waters of the Yamuna for one whole year. She then stood on her toes for twelve years, scorching the heavens by her austerities.
After twelve years of severe penance, Lord Shiva appeared before her
I am pleased by your determination and dedication, Amba. You will be born in your next life as a girl child in the family of King Drupada. But you will gain manhood as you grow up. You will become a great warrior, remembering all incidents of this life, you will be the cause of Bheesma’s death in a decisive battle.
After getting the boon from lord Shiva, Amba could wait no more. She entered a body of fire praying for Bheesma’s death. In her next birth, she was born as Shikhandi, and she did fullfill her oath of slaying Bheesma on the 10th day of Kurukhestra war.
Amba – A Strong Feminine Voice
When talking about the role of women in Mahabharata war, most people associate Draupadi and Kunti alone but if you look objectively, Amba has a far more stronger character than both these women. Only because of Amba’s pledge and determination, Krishna had a wild card against Bheesma and he could even decide to go at war with Kauravas. Without Amba or Shikhandi, it’s a stalemate and no conclusion can come out of the war, no matter how many soldiers fight on either side. Bheesma won’t kill Pandavas and he himself cannot be killed without his own wish. So it is a stalemate.
This is where Amba (Shikhandi) plays a crucial role and she creates the solution generations before the problem was even conceived.
There are some striking similarities between Amba’s situation and Draupadi’s situation. Vyasa was of the opinion that Amba’s soul bifurcated itself into two. The feminine part went on to become Draupadi’s soul while the masculine part went on to become Shikhandi.
Amba was insulted by Bheesma. A part of the same soul of Amba went on to become Draupadi and she was insulted a second time during the disrobing incident in the presence of Bheesma yet again. During the disrobing incident, Draupadi (the feminine soul of Amba) had asked Bheesma about the definition of Dharma, to which Bheesma had replied
The weak cannot write the definition of Dharma. Only the strong can, o pious lady! If I could, I would have helped thou but I am as weak as you are in this court room. There is nothing I can do to protect you, forgive me for my helplessness.
Draupadi had told Bheesma –
Surely o grandsire, you cannot protect a woman being disrobed in your courtroom but you can always abduct maiden princesses by force and bring them to the king as gifts. Later, you would abandon them and not marry them because you have vowed of celibacy. And why did you vow of celibacy? Because you were arranging the alliance of another woman with your father. O grandsire, may your ignorance towards women eventually lead to the destruction of the clan you are trying to protect all your life. May hastinapura be free’d from this old school of thought so that a new society can be re-constructed where women had equal rights with that of men.
Amba’s character is an inspiration to women who are suppressed in society and always depending on men to get what they seek. Draupadi depends on her husbands and her sons to seek revenge for her lost honour. But Amba does not. Amba though rejected by her lover, her abductor, her country and the society vows to destruct Bheeshma solely on her own.
Amba’s character not only symbolises determination, dedication and believing in the unthinkable, she represents a strong feminine voice willing to go to extreme lengths to protect the rights of a woman, mistreated by male subjects.
It also means that often times, women have to see beyond the horizons of a patriarchal society and create conditions wherein existing masculine norms are challenged so that a new society can be re-constructed where women have equal rights with that of men.