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 Choate

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.

  • Sonu

    Amba was one of the 3 daughters of Kasi king. Kasi king did not invite
    Vichitravirya, the King of Hastinapur (whose ancestor Bharath was
    emperor of the country) to his daughters’ svayamvar, this enraged
    Bhishma who was Vichitravirya’s regent. Bhishma felt that the Kasi King
    had insulted the empire of Hastinapur. Satyavati,the step-mother of
    Bhishma ,initially advised him to quit the idea of avenging insult and
    that Amba,Ambika and Ambalika were not the only princesses in the
    country but Bhishma feared that his empire would be derided by other
    kingdoms and hence in a political move to retain his kingdom’s honour,
    Bhishma went on to abduct the 3 princesses for Vichitravirya. At the
    svyamvar, king Salva in an attempt to stop Bhishma from abducting the
    princesses, fought Bhishma but failed. He did’nt stop there, he followed
    Bhishma with his army on a chariot and started a battle and lost once
    again. Upon arriving Hastinapur, Amba revealed to Satyavati that she and
    king Salva loved each other…..realizing his mistake, Bhishma let Amba
    seek Salva but Salva rejected her saying that she was won by Bhishma.(I
    think,after losing the duels with Bhishma, to Salva ,accepting Amba
    would only be like accepting a charity, which no warrior can stomach,
    morever he was upset that Amba struck by fear of Bhishma didn’t raise
    her voice against him during the svyamvar. She didn’t let all in the
    court know that she loved Salva whereas Salva fought for her in that
    same court……Amba’s inactivity in the court must have made Salva
    doubt Amba’s love I guess……..this teaches us a lesson that we must
    speak up, when we need to ……untimely raising of voice is of no
    use.) So Amba returned to Bhishma and asked him to marry her but
    Bhishma’s vow of celibacy made him decline her request. Humiliated Amba
    then sought revenge on Bhishma and so she begged many kings to fight
    against the injustice done to her but none dared to go against the
    mighty Bhishma. Eventually, Parasuram ,taking pity on her plight,
    decided to fight his former

    student Bhishma. The battle lasted 23 days and Bhishma won……..it was
    the only time in the history where Parasuram lost a fight or duel to
    someone. Amba then did penance to please Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva gave her
    the boon that she will be the cause of Bhishma’s death in her next
    birth. In her next life, she was known asShikhandi, a eunuch. Now you
    can imagine the scene of Mahabharat(the battle) and an evening where the
    Pandavas and their team are tearing their hair out while thinking of a
    way to defeat the invincible Bhishma. Krishna joins them and advises
    Arjuna to have Shikhandi as his charioteer and since Shikhandi was
    half-woman, the warrior ethics of Bhishma would not allow him to
    confront/attack a woman and thus Arjuna could pierce the skin of Bhishma
    with his arrows.

    • Ambaa

      I love how complex Mahabharata is! It’s hard to tell the whole story because there is so much to every story :)

      • Sonu

        I too love that about the Mahabharata…..I also like how it suggests us to act in a moral dilemma….I don’t think there could be any other epic in the world as great as the Mahabharata……..this is not coming out of arrogance, mind you :-)

        • Ambaa

          I agree!

  • Sonu

    A Kshatriya’s duty is to guard/protect his country/kingdom and not necessarily to rule and pitamah Bhishma safeguarded the kingdom of Hastinapur till the end of his life….he did not err in his Kshatriya duty by choosing not to rule, but he erred when he stayed quiet or inactive while Draupadi was being disrobed and abused in his presence.

    • Ambaa

      Interesting discussion. The Gods certainly supported Bhisma’s act since he got an amazing boon for his selflessness.

      • Sonu

        Sorry, I didn’t understand u….did u mean to say that Gods supported him cos he was empowered with a boon ? or cos he was selfless ? ……Only as a justification for that boon, I’d like to say something……..it’s that Shantanu didn’t grant Bhishma that boon out of pleasure but out of sorrow and respect…….Shantanu (as any father in his place wud be) was very sad that Bhishma’s lineage was going to end with Bhishma himself (as a result of the vow), so he granted him the boon which would allow him to live as long as his last successor (or great grandson?) would have lived,if there was to be one. I am not sure if I have explained my point clearly, I wish I were as articulate as you, Amba :-)

        • Ambaa

          Oh, interesting. I had not heard it that way before. (I’ve read only one translation of The Mahabharata so far so I’m a little stuck on that one though I’m working on a second one now!)


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