Meaning in the Mahabharata:
Amba's Revenge
A remarkable story is told in the Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata.
Just before the two parties go to war, when the wicked Duryodhana demands to know why Bhishma will never kill the warrior Shikhandi, and why he is avoiding his chariot, Bhishma explains Shikhandi was formally a woman, the Princess Amba.

And there on the battlefield, as different warriors range to and from in their chariots, Bhishma tenderly relates the astonishing story of the one woman capable of bringing him down, a tale of love, shame, and revenge.
As elephants pound the dust with their footprints at the battlefield at Kurukshetra, Bhishma, wiping a tear from his eye, tells the story of how Princess Amba, abused and rejected by the world of men, seeks revenge by appealing to his own guru, Ram of the Axe.

Princess Amba's lust for revenge leads to a duel fought between Bhishma and his guru, Ram of the Axe. When that duel ends, Amba performs great austerities and even walks through fire hoping that the god Shiva will grant her the power to kill Bhishma when she is born as a warrior in her next life.
In many ways, the Princess Amba is central to the conflict which reaches its dénouement at the battle of Kurukshetra.
When Tolstoy remarked that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, he might have been referring to the Kauravas and Pandavas, the principal families of the Mahabharata. After all, his correspondence with Gandhi reveals that the history of the Bhagavad-Gita was known to the great Russian author.

And no family has ever been unhappier than that of Bhishma and his political grandchildren, the Kauravas. For a while Bhishma Gangeya, son of Shantanu is the nominal grandfather of the royal line, he is the family patriarch only indirectly.

In many ways, the Princess Amba is central to the conflict which reaches its dénouement at the battle of Kurukshetra. Had it not been for Bhishma's vow of celibacy – his promise to his father never to rule and never to have children – he might have married the Princess, sired a generation of heirs and ruled the city of elephants peacefully.
Bhishma explains that because of his sacred promise he had renounced his rule. He rode to the kingdom of Kashi in his white chariot to abduct the three most beautiful princesses of the realm only for his brother, Vichitravirya. He has no intention of marrying them.

But why not? They are certainly eligible, and Bhishma shows no sign of any lack of masculine vigor. We are told he has made a promise to his father. He has taken a vow.

This may seem strange in our era. We live in an age of broken promises. Vows are made to be broken. But for Bhishma, his word is his bond. If the golden age saw the perfect observation of dharma, the iron age of Kali has only the last vestige of dharma: truthfulness. Without Bhishma's promise, he has nothing.
Bhishma prefers to lose his kingdom and wait for death, his broken body shot through with a thousand arrows, rather than to break his promise. This, then, for Bhishma is dharma: To remain true to his word, despite everything.

At the moment of uttering his stern vow, Bhishma is hailed by the gods who shower him with flowers from heaven. They recognize the power of his divine vow. Bhishma's other name is Devavrata, which means "divine vow." He is defined by his divine promise; he cannot give up his vow.

If Bhishma found dharma in his promise, Amba found promise in her youth. Her wedding ceremony was to fulfill that promise. And her cruel abduction at the hands of Bhishma destroyed the promise of her youth.
A virgin princess, Amba reveals to Bhishma that she is betrothed to young king Shalva and appeals to Bhishma's chivalry. Bhishma sets her free, but now her reputation is tainted. Shalva will not have her. Rejected, she returns to her family home in the city of Kashi. But her father the King also rejects her. She is no longer marriageable. She is cast out and exiled.

Spurned by her father the King of Kashi, Amba seeks shelter in the forest where the saintly persons dwell. Perhaps they will teach her the art of mystic yoga and the power of penance.

She hardly knows who to blame for this catastrophe. She feels guilty that she didn't jump from the chariot as the battle raged. But she was only a helpless woman. She is angry at Shalva; she gave up a position at the court of Hastinapura and defied Bhishma and the royal family to run to Shalva and declare her love. Shalva's rejection stings her heart. But she realizes that he is not the man of her dreams; is a coward who ran from Bhishma's chariot in her moment of need.
If Bhishma had returned the love of this virgin princess, the history of India might have changed.
Perhaps she fell in love with Bhishma at the very moment that he swept her off her feet into his white chariot in a fight with princes and suitors. As she sped along in his chariot with her sisters to the City of the Elephants, she thought of escape. But it was too late. Perhaps she had fallen in love with him. And yet his indifference was the cruelest of all. If hate is often born from love, Amba hates Bhishma with all her heart. She curses him again and again as she departs into the forest. There she will meet Rama of the Axe, proud avatar of angry Brahmanas who seeks revenge against despotic warlords. In the end, Amba finds a new promise: revenge.

If Bhishma had returned the love of this virgin princess, the history of India might have changed. There would have been no night visit by the prophet Vyasa to a lady's chamber. There would have been no conflict between the sons of Pandu and their cousins, sons of the blind king. Divisions of warriors would never have met to settle the issue at Kurukshetra. And the Bhagavad-Gita would never have been spoken by Krishna to Arjuna.
In any case, the current of meaning that runs like an underground river through the entire Mahabharata informs us that we are all nothing more than dolls in the hands of the puppetmaster. Krishna is the Lord of the Dance. The different figures who appear and disappear on the stage of the Mahabharata doubts according to his will. The Bhagavad-Gita was destined to have been spoken at the greatest moment of crisis the world has ever known: the confluence of ancient armies on the battlefield in Kurukshetra.

The Bhagavad-Gita is the most sacred moment of the Mahabharata, where Arjuna's doubt leads Krishna to reveal deep truths about the universe. And without the strange dynamic of love and revenge between Amba and Bhishma perhaps that sacred moment would never have taken place.
For an in-depth understanding, what follows is my own translation of this particular section of the Udyoga Parva. The Sanskrit version is from the Bandharkar Oriental Research Institute's Critical edition.
Udyoga Parva, Ambopakhyayana-parva
Section 173 [1]

भीष्म उवाछ||
सा निष्क्रमन्ती नगराछ्छिन्तयामास भारत |
पृथिव्यां नास्ति युवतिर्विषमस्थतरा मया || १|| [2]
bhīṣma uvācha||
sā niṣkramantī nagarāch chintayāmāsa bhārata |
pṛthivyāṁ nāsti yuvatir viṣamas thatarā mayā || 1||

बान्धवैर्विप्रहीनास्मि शाल्वेन छ निराकृता || १||
bāndhavairvi-prahīnāsmi śālvena cha nirākṛtā || 1||
Bhishma said,
"O mighty armed Duryodhana, son of Bharat: As Amba left the city she reflected:
'No woman ever has suffered like me. Rejected by all, I have neither father, nor lover nor friends. I am even exiled from my own family. I have been abused by Bhishma, scorned by Shalva.
न छ शक्यं पुनर्गन्तुं मया वारणसाह्वयम् |
अनुज्ञातास्मि भीष्मेण शाल्वमुद्दिश्य कारणम् || २||
na cha śakyaṁ punar-gantuṁ mayā vāraṇa-sāhavayam |
anujñātāsmi bhīṣmeṇa śālva-muddiśya kāraṇam || 2||
"Bhishma had me leave Hastinapura, because I wanted to go to Shalva. [3] But now Shalva has spurned me and I can't go back to that fair city named for elephants."
किं नु गर्हाम्यथात्मानमथ भीष्मं दुरासदम् |
आहो स्वित्पितरं मूढं यो मेऽकार्षीत्स्वयंवरम् || ३||
kiṁ nu garhām-yathātmāna-matha bhīṣmaṁ durāsadam |
āho svitpitaraṁ mūḍhaṁ yo me'kārṣīt-svayaṁvaram || 3||

ममायं स्वकृतो दोषो याहं भीष्मरथात्तदा |
mamāyaṁ svakṛto doṣo yāhaṁ bhīṣma-rathāttadā |

प्रवृत्ते वैशसे युद्धे शाल्वार्थं नापतं पुरा || ४||
तस्येयं फलनिर्वृत्तिर्यदापन्नास्मि मूढवत् || ४||
pravṛtte vaiśase yuddhe śālvārthaṁ nāpataṁ purā || 4||
tasyeyaṁ phalanirvṛttir-yadāpannāsmi mūḍhavat || 4||
Amba said, "And who's to blame? Myself? Or shall I blame the invincible warlord Bhishma? Or my father? Fool. It was he who made the bridal contest-at-arms. Am I to blame for staying in Bhishma's chariot? Is it my fault that I did not escape that champion? Was I the fool?"

What was I supposed to do? Was I to jump from his car while the battle raged? To run to the arms of Shalva, even as Shalva ran from mighty Bhishma? It's all my fault, my karma for doing nothing. But then, how could this be my fault? Then who's to blame? Bhishma? Who else could be at fault for this, my woeful state? Who am I to blame or curse or shame, if not myself?
धिग्भीष्मं धिक्छ मे मन्दं पितरं मूढछेतसम् |
येनाहं वीर्यशुल्केन पण्यस्त्रीवत्प्रवेरिता || ५||
dhig-bhīṣmaṁ dhik-cha me mandaṁ pitaraṁ mūḍha-chetasam |
yenāhaṁ vīryaśulkena paṇya-strī-vatpraveritā || 5||

धिङ्मां धिक्षाल्वराजानं धिग्धातारमथापि छ |
येषां दुर्नीतभावेन प्राप्तास्म्यापदमुत्तमाम् || ६||
dhiṅmāṁ dhik-ṣālvarājānaṁ dhig-dhātāra-mathāpi cha |
yeṣāṁ durnītabhāvena prāptāsmyā-padamuttamām || 6||

सर्वथा भागधेयानि स्वानि प्राप्नोति मानव्ः |
अनयस्यास्य तु मुखं भीष्मः शान्तनवो मम || ७||
sarvathā bhāga-dheyāni svāni prāpnoti mānavḥ |
anayasyāsya tu mukhaṁ bhīṣmaḥ śāntanavo mama || 7||
"Bhishma. I blame Bhishma! Cursed be Bhisma. Shame on him! And curses be my wicked father. Fool! He offered me as prize to valiant princes. [4] As if a woman can be given as a prize,

"Cursed be myself. Woe to me. But woe to Shalva! Cursed be that King who scorned my hand.

A curse upon the creator who made this world. Cursed Shalva. Cursed be the creator. Curses to all those whose venal flaws have caused my misery. The human soul endures karma and fate, and all the misery destined to one's lot But the cause of my aflliction is not karma:
Shantanu's son, Bhishma, is who I blame."
सा भीष्मे प्रतिकर्तव्यमहं पश्यामि साम्प्रतम् |
sā bhīṣme pratikartavyamahaṁ paśyāmi sāmpratam |

तपसा वा युधा वापि दुह्खहेतुः स मे मतः || ८||
को नु भीष्मं युधा जेतुमुत्सहेत महीपतिः || ८||
tapasā vā yudhā vāpi duhkhahetuḥ sa me mataḥ || 8||
ko nu bhīṣmaṁ yudhā jetumutsaheta mahīpatiḥ || 8||
Amba said, "Bhishma through his acts has caused my shame. If there is to be vengeance it must be against him. I will do grave penances for power or on the field of battle cause his death. What champion will raise his banner to my cause? What great king or warlord would venture to vanquish Bhishma in battle?' "
एवं सा परिनिश्छित्य जगाम नगराद्बहिः |
आश्रमं पुण्यशीलानां तापसानां महात्मनाम् || ९||
evaṁ sā pariniśchitya jagāma nagarādbahiḥ |
āśramaṁ puṇyaśīlānāṁ tāpasānāṁ mahātmanām || 9||

ततस्तामवसद्रात्रिं तापसैः परिवारिता || ९||
tatastāmavasadrātriṁ tāpasaiḥ parivāritā || 9||

Bhishma said,
"Even so, Amba left the city of her father and traveled to the forest valley of saints. Those sages were quiet holy men of virtuous deeds. There in the forest she entered their ashram. And so it was that protected by those strict hermits of holy vows, she spent a night.
आछख्यौ छ यथा वृत्तं सर्वमात्मनि भारत |
विस्तरेण महाबाहो निखिलेन शुछिस्मिता || १०||
āchakhyau cha yathā vṛttaṁ sarvamātmani bhārata |
vistareṇa mahābāho nikhilena śuchismitā || 10||

हरणं छ विसर्गं छ शाल्वेन छ विसर्जनम् || १०||
haraṇaṁ cha visargaṁ cha śālvena cha visarjanam || 10||

ततस्तत्र महानासीद्ब्राह्मणः स.न्स्हितव्रतः ।
स्हैखावत्यस्तपोवृऋइद्धः स्हास्त्रे छारण्यके गुरुः ॥ ११॥
tatastatra mahānāsīdbrāhmaṇḥ saṁśitavratḥ |
śaikhāvatyastapovṛddhḥ śāstre chāraṇyake guruḥ || 11||
O Duryodhana, mighty-armed of the Bharata! That lady of sweet smiles then told her story, recounting all details of her abduction, How kidnapped and abused by Bhishma, she escaped.

To her own beloved King Shalva and was rejected by him. There lived in that ashram a brahmana, Shaikhavatya, Strict in vows and stern in his penances. He was a forest guru, learned in the scriptures.
ततस्तत्र महानासीद्ब्राह्मण्ः संशितव्रत्ः |
शैखावत्यस्तपोवृद्ध्ः शास्त्रे छारण्यके गुरुः || ११||
ārtāṁ tāmāha sa muniḥ śaikhāvatyo mahātapāḥ |
niḥśvasantīṁ satīṁ bālāṁ duhkhaśokaparāyaṇām || 12||

एवं गते किं नु भद्रे शक्यं कर्तुं तपस्विभिः |
आश्रमस्थैर्महाभागैस्तपोनित्यैर्महात्मभिः || १३||
evaṁ gate kiṁ nu bhadre śakyaṁ kartuṁ tapasvibhiḥ |
āśramasthairmahābhāgaistaponityairmahātmabhiḥ || 13||

And that great sage and guru Shaikhavatya spoke to the afflicted maiden, the chaste Amba, who wept with grievous sighs and broken sorrow, 'O blessed virgin! We see your grief, and yet.
How can poor hermits of the forest help you?'
सा त्वेनमब्रवीद्राजन्क्रियतां मदनुग्रः |
प्रव्राजितुमिहेछ्छामि तपस्तप्स्यामि दुश्छरम् || १४||
sā tvenamabravīdrājankriyatāṁ madanugraḥ |
pravrājitumihechchāmi tapastapsyāmi duścharam || 14||

मयैवैतानि कर्माणि पूर्वदेहेषु मूढया |
कृतानि नूनं पापानि तेषामेतत्फलं ध्रुवम् || १५||
mayaivaitāni karmāṇi pūrvadeheṣu mūḍhayā |
kṛtāni nūnaṁ pāpāni teṣāmetatphalaṁ dhruvam || 15||
"We fortunate souls who live here in the ashram are doing penance here; our life is hard."
नोत्सहेयं पुनर्गन्तुं स्वजनं प्रति तापसाः |
प्रत्याख्याता निरानन्दा शाल्वेन छ निराकृता || १६||
notsaheyaṁ punargantuṁ svajanaṁ prati tāpasāḥ |
pratyākhyātā nirānandā śālvena cha nirākṛtā || 16||
"O King of sages," said the forlorn maiden, Show me mercy. I want to live with you. And wander here. Instruct me in this yoga: Teach me penance and a life of hardship.
I will perform all harsh austerities."
उपदिष्टमिहेछ्छामि तापस्यं वीतकल्मषाः |
युष्माभिर्देवसङ्काशाः कृपा भवतु वो मयि || १७||
upadiṣṭamihechchāmi tāpasyaṁ vītakalmaṣāḥ |
yuṣmābhirdevasaṅkāśāḥ kṛpā bhavatu vo mayi || 17||
"Before this life, I have done many sins. And now I must be suffering for my former life. I think I must purge all these sins and become a hermit, washing my soul clean even as you all. O sages! I cannot return to my relatives. I have been scorned, rejected, and abandoned by those I love. I am unhappy, wronged by Bhishma, Shalva and my father. O Godlike souls, allow me to stay with you. Instruct me in the lonely life of hermits. Please don't reject me. Have mercy on my soul."
स तामाश्वासयत्कन्यां दृष्टान्तागमहेतुभिः |
सान्त्वयामास कार्यं छ प्रतिजज्ञे द्बिजैः सह || १८||
sa tāmāśvāsayatkanyāṁ dṛṣṭāntāgamahetubhiḥ |
sāntvayāmāsa kāryaṁ cha pratijajñe dvijaiḥ saha || 18||

And so addressed, the sage consoled the maiden with sacred words, examples, and good reasons. And together with the other brahmanas present, he promised to act according to her wishes.
Did you like this article?