By the middle of the legendary eighteen-day bloodbath that was the Kurukshetra war in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, the war had been inconclusive. However, the power of Bhisma, the leader of the Kauravas’ massive army, was undeniable until Lord Krishna saw a ray of hope through Shikhandi, a young male soldier who was born a woman.
“A woman on the battlefield?” sneered all the five Pandavas, somewhat conveniently forgetting that they themselves worshiped the warrior goddess Durga. Shikhandi, the man in the middle of this debate, was born Shikhandini – daughter of King Draupada and elder sister of Draupadi who married all five of the Pandava brothers. Although she was born a female, Shikhandini was raised as a man – she was taught warfare and statecraft.
In his previous life, Shikhandi was born as a woman named Amba. Amba was the eldest of the three daughters of the king of Kashi. Along with her sisters Ambika and Ambalika, she was taken forcefully by Bhisma who took the princesses and presented them for marriage to his sickly brother Vichitravirya, the crown prince of Hastinapura. Amba was the only one of the three sisters brave enough to speak her mind. She told Bhisma that she had fallen in love with Salva, another warrior, and was not willing to marry anyone else. As it was against the code of honour among the kshatriyas (warriors) to take a woman who loved another, Vichitravirya married only her sisters and Bhisma sent Amba back with grandeur to Salva.
One might think that this was where the trouble ended. But Amba paid dearly from voicing her resistance. There is a certain cruelty in the act of sending Amba back knowing that the same kshatriya code would be used by Salva to reject her. Now Salva refused to marry Amba, who he considered soiled by contact with another man (Bhisma). The distraught Amba then returned to Hastinapura only to have Vichitravirya turn her away. In desperation, Amba then demanded that Bhisma married her himself, but Bhisma had sworn an oath never to marry. “When you have taken the vow of never being with a woman, what gave you the right to abduct me?” Amba cried as Bhisma ignored her. To defend her honour, Amba asked other warriors to kill Bhisma in her name, but Bhisma the most powerful and respected warrior in his generation and no one would stand against him on her behalf. The one man who was willing to fight Bhisma for her was Parashurama, a great warrior and Bhisma’s own teacher. However, even he failed in his mission.
All hope lost, Amba renounced everything and began the most severe austerities, living only on fresh water and air. One day, the god Shiva appeared before her. Amba told him her story and her wish to avenge herself on Bhisma. Shiva blessed her, “in your next life, you will remember all the sorrow that Bhisma caused you. You shall be born as the son of Drupada and become a maharatha (master of all battle formations and strategies). You shall cause the death of Bhisma.” To accelerate this process, Amba immediately leapt into a funeral pyre. However, she was not reborn as a man – she was reborn as Shikhandini, the daughter of King Drupada of Panchala.
Shikhandini’s father, King Draupada, raised Shikhandini as a man – teaching her warfare and statecraft just as he would a son. As Shikhandini was treated as a man in every aspect, she was later given a wife. On her wedding night, Shikhandini’s wife, daughter of king Hiranyavarna of Dasharna, was horrified to discover that her husband was a woman and ran home to her father. Feeling insulted, her father raised an army and threatened to destroy King Draupada’s kingdom. Holding herself responsible for this crisis, Shikhandini went to the forest intent on killing herself. In the forest, she met a yaksha (nature spirit) called Sthunakarna who took pity on her and gave her his manhood for one night. With the yaksha’s manhood, Shikhandini (now Shikhandi) returned and made love to a concubine sent by his father-in-law to prove that he was no woman. However, Kubera, king of the Yakshas, was furious with what Sthunakarna had done. He cursed Sthunakarna so that he would never get his manhood back as long as Shikhandi was alive. Therefore, Shikhandi spent the rest of his life as a man.
Literature is always seen as a representation of life, therefore reinforcing existing social orders and belief systems. Although Mahabharata celebrates the male valour, it cannot be denied that it comes at the expense of the women. The epic has many well-defined male characters in its heroes such as Krishna, Bhisma, and the Pandavas, as well as villains such as Duryodhana and Shakuni. However, as the roles of the women are defined by their relationships to the men, women are placed merely on the periphery of the epic – typecast as devoted mothers, virtuous wives and innocent maidens. Amba, and to some extend Draupadi, are different characters from the women in the epic – they found themselves in the world of men and struggled to be treated as more than just an extension of husbands, sons or fathers.
Bhisma has always been projected as a powerful warrior, as well as a man of great virtue and honour. His secession of the throne in favour of his step-brother was considered an honourable gesture. This meant that whoever went against Bhisma would always find themselves marginalized, even ostracized. However, it is worth noting that Bhisma abducted Amba, Ambika and Ambalika at their swayamvara. In ancient India, a swayamvara was a practice of choosing a husband from among a list of suitors by a girl of marriageable age. Therefore, Bhisma, through his actions at the swayamvara for Amba, Ambika and Ambaalika, changed the entire principle of a woman having the right to choose her own husband into a veera sulka (a reward for bravery) for himself, thus obliterating the voice and choice of the woman. The reason for this act did not have anything to do with the sisters, but with their father. Bhisma felt that the king of Kashi has insulted Hastinapura by not inviting them for the swayamvara. Therefore, Bhishma’s abduction of the three princesses was never even about desire, love or lust, the women themselves or even about honoring his brother and his kingdom, but about shifting power into his hands.
One may debate about why Amba did not speak up earlier and assert her wishes before or when she was being dragged into the chariot by Bhisma. However, realistically, do we really think that when a woman is being abducted or abused, the abducter would have ever consulted her wishes? For a man who did not factor the woman’s wellbeing in his decision to begin with, do we really think that he would ever hear her screams as anything more than an indication of her weakness?
In the end, when Amba should have spoken and whether or not Bhisma would have listened was irrelevant because, when she did speak up against Bhisma’s treatment of her, it was Amba who paid the price. When her silent sisters became queens, Amba became an outcast. In her next life as Shikhandi, his sister Draupadi also paid the price when she chose to speak out against the ksatriyas who treated women as objects. Ironically, Bhisma was also present at court, this time as a silent spectator, during Draupadi’s disrobing where she was humiliated and denounced as a loose woman for marrying five men. Later, it was also Draupadi who was blamed the great war, exonerating the men who actually demanded and fought in it. This implies that, as Amba before her, if Draupadi stayed silent or begged for her honor, the men would have shown her clemency and her honour would remain intact. In the epic, the flaw Amba and Draupadi is that they questioned, the flaw of the men is that they stayed silent.
In the battle of Kurukshetra, Bhisma recognized Shikhandi as Amba reborn and, not wanting to fight a woman (or someone who had previously been known as a woman), he avoided battling Shikhandi. On the tenth day, Shikhandi rode in Arjuna’s chariot, and together they faced Bhishma, forcing him to lower his weapons. “I will not fight this woman.” Bhisma said without even looking at Shikhandi’s direction, believing that it is against dharma (virtue)to let “women” hold weapons and step on the battlefield. Therefore, even after physically changing her gender, Shikhandi still faced discrimination. Although Shikhandi was acknowledged as a man by his family and the society of those times, when Bhisma refused to acknowledge Shikhandi as anything more than a version of Amba, Shikhandi became a non-entity, and his role in the death of Bhisma was relegated to a decoy for Arjuna to shoot his arrow. As it would have been also unvirtuous for Shikhandi to fight Bhisma when he had lowered his weapons, Arjuna attacked Bhisma with a devastating volley of arrows. Therefore, although he could not kill Bhisma by his own hands, Shikhandi got his wish in the end and became instrumental in Bhisma’s death.