The Ancient Price of Speaking Truth to Power

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.

Selective Focus Photography of Woman Wearing Brown Traditional Dress

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.

Bheeshma oath by RRV.jpg
Bhishma taking oath to never marry and to abdicate his right to the throne,

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