Who is Ambaa?

I’ve spoken about this before, but for the new people: My namesake is a very interesting and rather tragic character from the massive Indian epic The Mahabharata (I first realized that actors aren’t big readers when I saw a tabloid magazine do a “what’s your favorite book” blurb with different celebrities. One person said his favorite book was The Mahabharata. I was impressed. Until he gave his reason: because it’s about the love that went into building the Taj Mahal. *facepalm* I have to wonder if the person who told him to say that was purposefully making him look like an idiot or if they also had no idea what The Mahabharata is).

Anyway. I got the name of Ambaa because I’ve always been fascinated by her story. I was asking my mother’s Sanskrit teacher about her and what her name means and he needed a Sanskrit name to call me, so there it was. I know there was no deep thought behind giving me the name, but I hope I don’t have too, too much in common with my namesake.

Ambaa was a woman who fell in love. This was a big mistake because marriage for love was not common. She was put up in a swyamvara with her sisters (a contest where men compete to win the brides). Bishma fought in the contest to win brides for his younger brother. Bishma himself would never marry because he had promised his father and step-mother that he would never father children and that the line of succession would go through his younger step-brother. The step-brother was physically weak and could not win his own wives, so Bishma again helped out. When Bishma brought Ambaa home she was crying. He asked her why and she told him that she was already in love and begged to be allowed to go and marry by choice. Bishma allowed it.

However, when Ambaa went back to the man she loved, he rejected her. He was afraid of Bishma’s power and afraid that he would anger Bishma, taking something away from him. He told Ambaa to leave, that she was dead to him.

Furious, Ambaa went back to Bishma only to find that the younger step-brother had died and there was no one for her to marry. Ambaa demanded that Bishma himself had to marry her. She blamed him for her situation (even though it really seems like her father and her lover were the ones at fault here!) Bishma refuses because of the vow he made that he would remain chaste.

Rather than go back to her father, Ambaa takes a vow of her own. She swears that she will spend her life wandering as a beggar looking for the man who could kill Bishma for her.

Unfortunately, as a gift for his selflessness, Bishma had been granted the ability to choose the time of his death. No one could kill him.

Years and years go by in the story before Ambaa appears again. Forty years later she is still hunting the world for a champion capable of killing Bishma. She remains youthful as the years go by, preserved by the drive of her hatred and anger.

When even the strongest man alive, half man and half wind God, refuses to fight Bishma, Ambaa goes to the mountains and performs austerities to get the attention of the Gods. She spends twelve years balanced on one toe in the snow when the Gods finally ask what she wants. She explains that she wants to kill Bishma and she is told that only death can outwit death.

Inspired, she builds a fire and throws herself into it. Even as her body burned, she kept the thought of her revenge strong. (The real tragedy here is that she had such incredible strength and discipline that she could have used it towards a good cause, like enlightenment! The thought we hold at death is enormously powerful).

But her story is not over. She is reborn as a man and is just old enough to fight when the great war that is the central part of the story breaks out. When at last she faces Bishma on the battlefield, she feels confused. She cannot remember being Ambaa, yet she has such hatred for this old man. Bishma recognizes her, though, and he lays down his weapons and allows death in. But Ambaa is not the one who actually kills him. It is another who takes advantage of his weakness and pierces him with an arrow (at the prompting of Krishna).

Ambaa is the quintessential example of a woman scorned and just how powerful such a woman can be.  Though she never gets what she wants, I admire her strength and determination.

About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.


    @ Ambaa

    A good story from past. :) Are you sure it wasn’t the botox that kept her young? Like I said you don’t want to meet her in a back alley if you had done something wrong to her.

    Do you know why the gurus gives names to the new born babies in Hinduism when they are asked to by their parents? I will tell you if you want to know tomorrow because today I’m exhausted, I took my son to an open day of a university. Time soon goes.

    Normally it’s babies aunty ( Sister of baby’s father ) gives name according to our culture.


  • Seeker

    The story of Ambaa that I read in the Mahabharata as told by Ramesh Menon is one of the many that haunt me and make me wish I had been born in the Hindu culture. There has to be layers of meaning or ways of understanding what happened to her that aren’t apparent to a Westerner. She was never a typical victim; Ambaa fought for herself right from the start when she persuaded Bhisma to set her free. She then focused all her efforts on just one goal which at the end she couldn’t even fully understand. It makes me think of the times in my life when I’ve been so intent on righting what I perceived as a wrong that I lost all perspective. In a way Ambaa was consumed by her own self-will, not the fire.

    • Ambaa

      So true. Like I said, I think if we can channel that energy into a better direction instead of revenge, we’d be enlightened in no time!


    @ Seeker

    Exactly, everythings have deep and dual meaning when it comes to Hinduism. I think people often miss this due to no relation to culture and a story as one. Most westners only sees this as a story and nothing more, and they think it’s only about her and forget the real bigger picture. She was insrumental in demise of Bhishma, which was more important then Ambaa as a person. People always seem to think that she was a victim of all this but in reality she chose her own fate in what she did. people also makes this as a common mistake in thinking that it was her fathers fault or her lovers fault ( King of Salva ) who she fell in love with but in real life it’s neither of them at fault.

    The concept of Swyamvara is about finding the best suitor for the girls, which the girls controled by puting conditions and stipulation on what they wanted to see happen and why? and in reality this also determine who won as well Because they also knew which suitors was good at what, and they wanted only the one thay think should have won rather then a randomer. And bearing in mind they also participate in design of the challenges for suitors, which in turn the best one would win. Win win for all. Past and present, women every where have same goal when looking for a man. Only best will do. But in this case Bhishma cheated because the bride wasn’t for him.

    • Ambaa

      One of the things that I love about Mahabharata is how every event has at least two and sometimes more causes. Every thing that happens is part of someone’s past action, someone’s curse or blessing, and someone’s fate. Several causes come together and result in each event.

      The tragedy to me is that Ambaa couldn’t see how much control of her life she really was able to take. She had so much passion and commitment, she could have used that for anything. But then again, Bishma had to be killed for the Pandavas to win.

  • seeker

    Harry, you make an excellent point that never occurred to me. It wasn’t honorable for Bhisma to have acted as he did because he wasn’t the actual suitor. That makes me think that he actually started the problem when he promised not to inherit the kingship. There was the pressure from his father but because he gave in the outcome was a war that wiped out his class. The point could be made that he was in a no-win situation;however so was Arjuna at the beginning of the war. Wouldn’t you say that Bhisma betrayed the essential duty of the ksatriya–to rule?

    • HARRY

      @ Seeker

      You ask very deep questions my friend, sometime I get blown over by them. Mind you, I used to ask same question when I was young, because I never took anything face value.

      The problem with our culture I find sometimes disturbs me, and the reason for that is very simple. People have often asked me why do you guys fight, when you guys proclaim to have advanced philosophical knowledge on past present and future, well the answer is very simple. You will realise that only two kind of people will fight, the first is the igorant kind who doesn’t understand the differences with each other, and that is the main cause of their fight, and the others are on the opposite scale who will fight are the civilized ones.
      I think you are aware of the fact that Hinuism is liberal and free from most of the constrains of what other religions have, and it’s appoach to faith is some what different then any other dogmatic based religion. Due to this, it fosters the ides of free thinking, and total new approach to the practise of the faith, which kinds of way creates free to do what ever you like in terms of faith. There is no ridigit ideology regarding Hinduism. One can do what ever it likes and there is no right or wrong formula in this practice.

      Because of all the above issues, this creates the differences in peoples mind, and due to this they all want to put their two bits worth ( Idea ) in, when it comes to contribute to it. This creates vast array of differences, when their two bits worth ( idea ) are not taken in to the account and entertained. The dispute will occurre, and as you know, the only way to resolve the dispute is by fight ( primitive way ). They know that this is the wrong way to go, but they still do it. Thus the war ( Mahabarata). Now the question is would you leave two free thinker in one room and not have any sparks. Then you are living in denial. This is the main reason we have lots of fights. This is also very simmilar to when your kids will fight in back of your car when nobody has lost anything or gained anything extra and they are not deprived either but they will still fight regradless of the distance of the journey.

      I wouldn’t go as far as saying Bhishma betrayed the essential duty of the ksatriya to rule but what Bhishama did and knew the differences between right and wrong but still choose the wrong side knowing full well that what he has done is wrong. He knew in his heart that this was no win situation but he still did it. The question is why would you do that knowing all the facts are in front of you. We will never know the answer to this question, until we ask him personally. You and I may think that what Bhishma did was not honorable for to have acted as he did because he wasn’t the actual suitor but according to Bhishama, it was his choice what he did with his price. Bhishma knew every choice he made will have the profound effect on everybody surrounding him, but it was still his choice in what he did.

      So we can say one thing, that everything we do in the world is based on our choices and only our choices changes the outcome and what happens in the future. Future is in our hands, and no one elses. Like Lord Krishna could not change Bhishmas mind, no god can change our mind either in what we do. What one thing god can do is take part in our demise, this is where Amba is instrumental in gods plan. But we are still responsible for our own actions and no one else is. Period.


      PS I think this put more questions in your mind, then answers, but the only thing that I can say in my defence is, we are not meant to have all the answers to all the questions in world. This is called Maya. You and I will never understand this, and it’s same as mesuring how much water is in Hoover dam with liter jug. :)

      • Ambaa

        I’m a big fan of having more questions than answers!

  • Jasdev Moun

    Dear Ambaa,

    I am sorry to say this but a lot, actually too much, has lost in “Translation”. You just know the skeleton of the story not the whole body and let us not forget the “Atman”(which you call soul but they are wholly different concept) as well. If you really want to know Hinduism, you got to learn Sanskrit else you won’t get anything different than Christianized Hinduism.

    I have nothing against Christianity.

    BTW it was really nice to read your post.


    • Ambaa

      The Mahabharata being the longest story in the world, I can’t exactly do justice to every nuance in this post. Just because I tell the skeleton, that doesn’t mean that’s all that I know.

      My concept of the soul is the Atman. I am not squeezing the idea of the Atman into the Christian concept of soul, my idea of what the soul is is Atman.

      I have studied Sanskrit. Not to the extent that my parents have (hey, they’ve got some thirty years on me). However, I completely disagree that I am not able to know Hinduism and I’m rather insulted that you think what I practice is Christianized Hindusim. I couldn’t disagree more.

  • seeker

    Another wonderful thing about the Mahabharata is that the people in it are so real. They’re weak, strong, envious, noble, giving, selfish, everything that is human. I think one of the reasons that it generates such discussion is that we can see ourselves in these characters and come to care about them. In the version I read, I sobbed through a good deal of the final battle because people I cared about were dying. At the same time, I could see the mythic aspects of the story.

    As Harry noted, Bhisma’s behavior can be seen as both honorable and dishonorable but he did the best he could in difficult circumstances and accepted the consequences. He did have to die but the way he chose to die defined his character.

    • Ambaa

      The character I most relate to is, somewhat sadly, Duryodhana. He is the most human to me.

  • seeker

    Yes! He is so often demonized but that is just a way to put failings “out there” rather than “in here.” Duryodhana was born in the worst possible way then raised by a father who gave him little guidance. Of course he could have chosen a different path but he was another one who was obsessed with a single idea, destroying the Pandavas. When I get obsessed with something there is often anger and bad judgment involved so i can understand how it would be for him. I think that at some level Duryodhana could see where his behavior could lead but giving into his obsession was too seductive and easy.