Sunday, May 17, 2020

Angry women from the Mahabharata: Amba

The story of Amba in the Mahabharata is a heart - rending one. A Princess of Kasi, she was abducted by Bhishma against her wishes at her swayamvara along with her sisters, Ambika and Ambalika. She had chosen King Shalva as her husband and he reciprocated her feelings. Shalva gave chase but he was outclassed by Bhishma in a fierce clash and would have lost his life if Amba had not intervened and begged Bhishma to spare him. Later, Amba approached Queen Satyavati and Bhishma, informing them that she had intended to garland Shalva at the swayamvara and it behooved them to escort her back to her chosen one.

Bhishma complied with her wishes. But Shalva was a sore loser and rejected her, saying that her face would remind him of the defeat he had suffered on her account. Poor Amba returned to Hastinapura, where she was rejected by Vichitravirya, the weakling Prince who counted on Bhishma to fight his battles and win his brides. Then, she swallowed her pride and begged Bhishma to marry her himself but that he could not do. That was when her broken heart hardened with anger and she decided that Bhishma would pay the price for ruining her life and dreams.

Amba's hatred of Bhishma would propel her every action and deed for the rest of her life and the next one too. She received a boon from Shiva that she would be the instrument of Bhishma's death and was re - born as King Drupada's daughter. Determined to see her vendetta through to the bitter end, she defied censure and traditional gender assignment to bring about the grandsire's downfall.
How could even Shikandhin derive any satisfaction from this heartbreaking sight?

While I sympathize with Amba, I have always wondered if as Shikandhin, she was genuinely happy or satisfied to see Bhishma laid low on a bed of arrows, afloat on an ocean of pain. After all, the noble soul knew the truth about her past, and had steadfastly refused to fight her, not because he was trans-phobic or thought of her as unworthy but because he would not hurt her any more than he already had.

 Moreover, the great man was beloved and highly respected by all who fought on the battlefield of Kurukshetra and otherwise. His fall was not celebrated by a single warrior on either side and they all shed tears over his loss. Arjuna who shielded by Shikandhin had taken down the mighty warrior was distraught with grief and even Bhishma comforted him, insisting that he be the one to provide a fitting pillow for his hanging head and quench his thirst as a mark of his high regard and as a sign of his forgiveness. Shikhandin on the other hand was universally reviled for his role in this affair, and it was a continuation of the rejection and hate he had endured all his life unlike the love that was showered on his popular siblings, Draupadi and Dhrishtadyumna, who were jointly exalted as the jewel and pride of Panchala.

There was worse in store for Shikhandin. At the end of the war, he found himself on the winning side but even this victory was short-lived. Ashwathamma knifed him down while he was sleeping off the effects of the revels. An ignominious end to two lifetimes consumed by rage and bitter hate. How could Amba or Shikandhin be gratified by any of it? This always tore at my heart, so I dug around for more on the fate of Amba and found something heartening or at least I insist on seeing it that way.

You can check out my book, Ganga: The Constant Goddess for the details. Ganga was heartsick that there was somebody in the world who hated her son more than all those who loved him to pieces. She chided Bhishma for what he had done to Amba but softened when she realized he was sorrier than he could bear, especially since he was unable to make amends. But as Ganga says, 'She (Amba) may have been wronged but by choosing to carry nothing but hatred and anger in her heart, she has wronged herself even more.' Having failed to dissuade Amba from her chosen path, Ganga gathered together the remains of the poor girl after she had relegated her body to the flames along with all the hopes, aspirations, dreams for a beautiful life that were lost and preserved them as a frozen river of placid beauty, a tributary of her own self. And when the thaw began, in the rush of that crystal cascade, the beautiful river Amba thrives between the glistening rocks, past the twisting path of tall trees in a merry dance of liberation, every one of her troubles forgotten and entirely at peace with herself.
Isn't that much better?

Don't forget to check out #MahabharataWithAnuja and Episode 3 for the tale of Amba, the wronged woman who became a man, and then so much more! 

1 comment:

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