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.

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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.


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