When the Queen of Kasi, Kausalya gave birth to her first daughter, she must have been a very happy person. Such a beautiful princess! Verily like Uma Haimavati! They named the child Amba. And when two other girls followed, the royal family was delighted. Ambika and Ambalika! The terrors and joys of future times remain as much a mystery today as it was thousands of years ago when Amba was born to the king of Kashi. The three princesses grew up into lovely girls and the King announced a swayamvara for all of them on the same day.
In Hastinapura, Bhishma had the responsibility of finding a suitable bride for his brother Vicitravirya. The succession to the throne had to be assured, Bhishma himself had taken a vow of life-long brahmacharya, the elder son of Santanu had died in battle and so Vichitravirya had to marry and give a son to the kingdom. Having heard that the king of Kashi was holding a swayamvara for his three daughters and that they were worthy brides, Bhishma went to Kashi. He raised the girls to his chariot and dared the assembled kings to oppose him. In the ensuing battle, Bhishma defeated them all single-handed. He was pursued by King Salva and the two were locked in battle. Bhishma emerged victorious and Salva returned to his country.
The wedding festivities were on in Hastinapura. Since Amba said that her heart was already given to the King of Salva, Bhishma permitted her to go away to Salva. The marriage of Ambika and Ambalika with Vichitravirya was solemnized and all seemed well in the land of Hastinapura. Amba herself would have been forgotten completely by posterity. What happened to her when she was permitted to go away from Hastinapura? Did she go to Salva? Were they married and did they live happily ever? Or was she discarded on the dirt heap?
Millions of Indian women have been consigned to the fate of Amba for one reason or other. We know nothing about them. But in the case of Amba, a guilty conscience could not forget her. The conscience kept track of her movements and buried in the heart’s silence the terror and sublimity of Amba’s life. That was Bhishma’s conscience. It all comes to us as Ambopakhyana much later when we have almost forgotten the incident of Amba’s abduction.
We are now in Udyoga Parva. So many years have gone by since the day Amba left Hastinapura for meeting the king of Salva. Bhishma had tried to assure the succession for the Kuru throne and now it has resulted in a terrible confrontation. Duryodhana’s camp is counting its armed divisions and he is closeted with Bhishma who enumerates the various strengths of the Pandava camp. Among them is Sikhandin, the son of Drupada. Bhishma would oppose any one of the opposite camp including Krishna. But not Sikhandin. Sikhandin was born a woman and then was metamorphosed into a man. A life-long brahmacharin, Bhishma will not fight Sikhandin even if the Drupadan prince rushes towards him with his bow strung with arrow. On Duryodhana asking him the reason, Bhishma launches into a longish remembrance of things past.
Permitted by Bhishma to go, Amba had gone straight to Salva, escorted by her nurse and Brahmanas. He had rejected her laughing derisively. Had she not been forcibly taken away by Bhishma? Had she not looked happy as she was being taken away? She demurred:
“I swear by my head,
O tiger among men
I will marry no one but you,
O lord of the Salvas.
I have not come as one betrothed to another,
This is the truth. I swear by my atman,
Salva, this is the truth.” 46
Salva would not listen. He was in terror of Bhishma and urged Amba to go away fast (gachcha gachcheti taam salvah punah punarabhashata) from his kingdom. Helpless, not willing to go back to her natal home, that very moment she desires to humble Bhishma’s pride. She goes to a hermitage where ascetics live and seeks their help to perform austerities for she wants to wreak vengeance on Bhishma somehow, anyhow. On hearing her woes, the ascetics are full of pity and rishi Saikhavatya promises to help her. They also seek to dissuade her from undertaking austerities. Even as she is arguing, the venerable Sage Hotravahana comes to this camp of ascetics. Soon he recognizes her to be his maternal granddaughter. He comforts her and advises her to go to his close friend Parashurama who could even compel Bhishma to obey his behest as Bhishma was his disciple.
Meanwhile Rrishi Akritavrana comes there and tells them Parashurama is on his way. He also agrees with Amba that Bhishma’s pride should be humbled. When Parashurama comes, she submits her problem. He wants to know what he should do. Uncompromising are the words uttered by Amba, Bhishmam jahi mahabaho!
“O maha-muscled tiger-brave Bhargava!
He caused my grief, myhelplessness,
my lingering loneliness.
He is greedy, and mean and victory-flushed.
O Bhargava, O faultless one,
it is right that he receive
his deserved punishment.
From the time of my abduction, O radiant lord,
I made up my mind
to get maha-vowed Bhisma of the Bharatas
killed one way or other.
Which is why I want you to fulfil my desire,
O maha-muscled one!
O faultless Parasurama! Kill Bhisma,
as Purandara Indra killed Vrtra.” 47
Parashurama takes Amba to Hastinapura. He tries conciliation first. Bhishma should marry her. This is, of course, not possible for the doughty warrior. And as she had publicly spoken about her love for Salva, Bhishma would not solemnize her marriage with Vichiravirya. Parashurama’s words are in vain. Bhishma waxes eloquent about giving a proper fight and in any case, here was a chance to avenge all the Kshatriya blood shed by Parashurama! They exchange harsh words and battle on the field of Kurukshetra. Even the appearance of mother Ganga to dissuade him has no effect on Bhishma. There is a terrible clash and Vyasa is in his element describing it, referring to arrows and missiles that criss-crossed for twenty-three days. It is a draw because the Manes and Mother Ganga persuade them to stop the battle. Parashurama confesses his failure to Amba who thanks him for what he had done so far. Come what may, she would not go to Bhishma. Instead she will take to tapasya and find a way to wreak her vengeance.
Bhishma confesses to Duryodhana that he had set spies to track the movements of Amba and that is how he is able to give her history in all its details. Certainly either out of a feeling of guilt or simply fear, Bhishma could not forget her even for a moment. Meanwhile Amba undertakes tapasya on the banks of Yamuna. It is quite possible that Kalidasa’s description of Uma’s tapasya in Kumara Sambhava had its inspiration in that of Amba in the Mahabharata
“She fasted, she became thin and dry,
her hair was matted,
her body dust-covered;
her only wealth was tapasya;
for six months she stood motionless,
living on air.
For one year she remained submerged
in the waters of the Yamuna,
eating absolutely nothing,
She broke fast by munching on a dried leaf.
for another year,
she stood on one leg, erect,
sustained by her extreme wrath.
For twelve years she continued thus,
setting aglow both earth and sky.
Even her relatives could not persuade her
to change her mind.” 48
Amba continued thus and travelled around to pilgrim places while taking on rigorous disciplines. One day Mother Ganga asked her the reason for her tapasya. On being told that it was for killing Bhishma, Ganga cursed her to become a crooked river infested with crocodiles. It is said that half of Amba became the river Amba that flows through Vatsabhumi and is a terror with its crocodiles, and has water flow only in the rainy season. She was reborn as a girl again in Vatsa land.
Some more time passed as the girl continued the tapasya of her previous life. And Lord Shiva appeared and granted her the boon that she would indeed slay Bhishma and for that purpose she would be a man as well in her next birth. Further she would remember all the events of this birth too. Shiva disappeared having given these boons. Amba made a fire and entered the blaze, uttering with wrath: (I do so) for Bhishma's destruction, Bhishma vadhaaya!
Amba born as Shikandin to King Drupada of Panchala who had been performing austerities to get a son to kill Bhishma. The queen concealed the gender of the babe and brought her up as a male child. Sikhandin soon became an adept in warfare. Relying upon the boon of Shiva to Drupada, they got her married to the princess of Dasarnakas. When the truth came to be known, there was a big outcry from the bride’s people. As King Drupada and his queen were trying to defend themselves by relying upon Shiva’s boon to Drupada, Sikhandini left the palace, unable to bear the shame.
In the forest she came to the abode of the Yaksha, Sthulakarna. She began performing austerities which made the kindly Yaksha help her. He was a servant of Kubera. He exchanged his manhood for her female form and asked her to come back for returning to their original state, after the danger to her parents was over. And so it happened and she came back to the Yaksha. Unfortunately, in the meantime Lord Kubera had happened to visit the place. Learning from the Yaksha how he had taken on a woman’s form, Kubera had cursed him to be permanently a woman. Fortunately he softened and said that when Sikhandin dies, the Yaksha would regain his original form. The Yaksha did not show any anger. It was destined, he said philosophically.
For Sikhandin it was a problem solved well. Drupada sent Sikhandin along with Dhrishtadhyumna to Dronacharya who taught him the four-fold division of the science of warfare. Since he could remember his past, the wrong done to him when he was Amba smouldered still. It must have blazed higher when he heard of Draupadi’s disrobement and Bhishma’s reluctance to help a woman in distress. So characteristic of that grandsire!
We see Sikhandin next in the closing pages of the Bhishma Parva. On the tenth day of the battle, Sikhandin is in the forefront of the attack on Bhishma, closely followed by Arjuna whose chariot is being driven by Krishna. There ensues a fierce battle between the Pandavas led by Sikhandin (of extreme tejas, amitaujasa) and the Kauravas who try to protect Bhishma. Vyasa says that it was not unlike two vultures fiercely fighting for a piece of flesh, syenayoraamishe yathaa.
Bhishma could never forget Amba since the moment he had seized her for the sake of Vichitravirya and carried her to Hastinapura. Just as he had kept track of her constantly through spies disguised as idiots, visionless or dumb, even in his last moments he thinks of her if only to resist the thought of her succeeding in her vow. Sikhandin keeps attacking him with thunderous, fatal arrows but Bhishma keeps smiling as if they do not hurt him. Amba must not have the joy of victory! Bhishma appears like a person who is troubled by extreme heat and is now receiving heavy rain, cooling his body! Just before he falls from his chariot, deeply wounded by the arrows shot at him by Sikhandin and Arjuna, he prefers to think that only Arjuna’s arrows could cause him pain. He says so to Duhshasana:
“Arjuna is shooting
deadly thunderbolt arrows at me
from his fierce Gandiva-bow.
They pierce me deeply.
They fly in a continuous stream.
They cannot be Sikandin’s.
They cut through my armour
and strike my weakest parts
as heavily as bludgeons.
They cannot be Sikhandin’s.
They are swift as thunderbolts,
they are like adamantine thunderbolts.
They oppress me,
they are messengers of Yama,
they suck my life-breath,
they cannot be Sikhandin’s.
They hit like maces,
they bite like venomous snakes
they cannot be Sikhandin’s.
They drain my vital energies,
they cannot be Sikhandin’s.
They are Arjuna’sarrows,
they cannot be Sikhandin’s.
Like baby-crabs emerging
after cannibalising their mother,
they are devouring me.
No ruler of men can hurt me so,
except the brilliant ape-emblemed
Gandiva-bow-wielder Jisnu-Arjuna.” 49
Ne me bhaanaah Sikhandinah! So the sublime tale of revenge comes to an end. Sikhandin was one of the fiercest heroes of the Kurukshetra war and was almost invincible. Even after Dhrishtadhyumna was slain in the stealth of night by Aswaththama, the hero did not lose heart but shot at Drona’s son between his eye brows. Aswaththama could kill him only because he had procured the rudra-astra from Shiva which he now directed against Sikhandin. Shiva had granted Amba’s wish and now Shiva had become the cause of killing the unconquerable Sikhandin. These are mighty thoughts and Amba-Sikhandin’s life is too full of knots to speak in terms of black and white. Who can contend against inexorable fate?
If in all of Mahabharata Amba is the loneliest of women, Karna is the most lonely man of the epic, the typical tragic hero, an epic Hamlet. However, Karna is visible to us almost all the time. By the time we come to Kunti invoking Surya with the chant bestowed on her by sage Durvasa, we have had a good deal of astonishing interaction between mortals and the gods above. So one is not surprised either with the appearance of Surya, the reluctance of Kunti, the persuasion of the heavenly being or the birth of a child adorned with an armour and ear rings. Karna is born. Afraid of social calumny, Kunti puts him adrift on the river. In the course of the next few verses, we are given a glimpse of his life which turns out to be a tragedy because of a virtue that is fatal for him, the virtue of giving charity.
The baby was picked up by the charioteer Adhiratha and brought up by him and his kindly wife Radha. As they found that he was already clothed in an armour and had shining ear-rings, they named him Vasusena. Unconsciously he turned to the Sun as his personal deity:
“He grew up tall and strong,
expert in all weapons;
he worshipped the sun
from dawn to midday,
his back was tanned
by the light of the setting sun.
During the time of his japa-meditation
the noble and intelligent Vasusena
refused nothing to any Brahmin
who asked for his help.” 50
Indra had noted this. Already his son Arjuna was growing up and was expected to be an invincible hero. Who could defeat Karna in his armour, with his ear-rings on? Surya comes in his dream and warns Karna about Indra. Karna replies in the dream:
“If Sakra-Indra comes to me,
as you say, disguised as a Brahmin,
how will it be possible for me
ho refuse a twice-born one?
Brahmins are to be honoured
even more than one’s well-wishing gods.
even if I see through this ruse, I cannot refuse
the god of gods Indra.” 51
So it comes to pass and early in his youth Vasusena gives up his kavacha and kundala. In return Indra gives him the Sakti missile. As he gave away his ear-rings and tore away the armour from his flesh, Vasusena came to be known as Karna (Ear) and Vaikartana (the Cutter).
When there is a kind of passing-out parade of Drona’s students, Arjuna’s feats are highly acclaimed. Karna who is an onlooker challenges Arjuna. Duryodhana is delighted that here is someone who is prepared to take on Arjuna. Kunti is aghast to see her eldest born here. Just then Kripa proclaims Arjuna’s lineage and wants Karna to reveal the names of his parents, for royal princes do not fight with lesser men. Immediately Duryodhana anoints Karna as the king of Anga. Bhima is derisive at this short-cut to high birth and there is a war of words between him and Duryodhana. At this moment, the aged foster-father of Karna enters. Karna bows to him in deep respect. A king bow to a charioteer! Bhima laughs while Duryodhana leads Karna out as a bosom friend. By now Kunti is sure that Karna is her first-born, and feels happy that he has become the king of Anga. But she keeps silent still. That is the tragedy of Karna. From today, his hatred of Pandavas would not merely lie smouldering but keep itself ablaze till his death.
At the opening of Santi Parva we find Yudhistira lamenting the death of Karna. If only he had known that Karna was their elder brother! But Karna knew and yet desisted from killing the brothers (except Arjuna) because of the word he had given to Kunti. Yudhistira recollects that even when Karna ranted against the Pandavas and Yudhistira became angry, a mere look at Karna’s feet would cool him down. For they resembled the feet of Kunti! Narada then recounts the story of the curse which rendered Karna helpless on the battlefield.
When Drona had refused to teach Karna the usage of the Brahma missile because Karna was neither a Brahmin nor a Kshatriya of high austerities, he went to sage Parashurama. Concealing his identity, he announced himself as a Brahmin. Parashurama was pleased and soon Karna acquired knowledge of powerful missiles. During these days of residence in Mahendra, Karna happened to kill unwittingly the cow of a Brahmin and was cursed by the owner. At the critical moment of his most important battle, his chariot-wheel would get stuck in the mud! This was first of the many curses which would weaken Karna on the last of his war in Kurukshetra.
Karna had acquired the Brahma missile too and all seemed well. One day, when Parashurama was sleeping with his head resting on Karna’s lap, an Alarka beetle with eight feet and keen teeth began biting Karna’s lap. He allowed it to bore through his limb and suck his blood and remained still, lest Parashurama be disturbed. When Parashurama woke up, the beetle was transformed into the Asura Dansa, saluted the sage for releasing him from the curse of being a beetle and went away. Meanwhile Parashurama was aghast at the manner in which Karna had faced the torture. It could only mean that he was no weakling Brahmin. Karna confessed and begged for forgiveness. The sage was moved but could not refrain from punishing a deliberate lie:
“Since thou hast, from avarice of weapons, behaved here with falsehood, therefore, O wretch, this Brahma weapon shalt not dwell in thy remembrance. Since thou art not a Brahmana, truly this Brahma weapon shall not, up to the time of thy death, dwell in thee when thou shalt be engaged with a warrior equal to thyself! Go hence, this is no place for a person of such false behaviour as thou! On earth, no Kshatriya will be thy equal in battle.” 52
No kshatriya will be Karna’s equal in battle! But what was the use of this boon? Repeatedly his alleged low birth causes disappointments to Karna that only helps his hatred of the Pandavas wax strong. We see him next in Draupadi’s swayamvara. Just when he is about to string his bow, and there was no doubt in his mind that he would win, he hears a sharp, loud voice that stops him: ‘No Suta will marry me!’ It is Draupadi who has called out. Reading the message, Karna can only smile bitterly and look up to his personal deity Surya (saamarshahasam prasameekshya suryam), fling aside his bow and withdraw.
Duryodhana and others would not give up so easily. When Arjuna (as a Brahmin) had won Draupadi’s hand, there was a huge clamour. The assembled kings attacked Drupada and the Pandavas. Arjuna and Karna were locked in a straight fight. But at some point of time Karna gave up as he did not want to fight the Brahmin anymore:
“‘Brilliant Brahmin’, Karna said,
‘you impress me
with your ceaseless skill in arms.
you deserve to win.
You seem to be Bowcraft itself!
Or are you Parasurama,
or Visnu as Acyuta the Undeteriorating One?
Have you come disguised
as a Brahmin
after mastering the science of arms
in order to defeat me?
None except Saci’s husband Indra
or Pandu’s son
Kiritin-Arjuna can equal me
when I am roused to battle.’” 53
Arjuna assured Karna that he was only a Brahmin and had learnt the Brahma and Paurandhra missiles by the grace of his teacher and he was ready to defeat Karna. And yet, Karna went away thinking he could never defeat a Brahmin who had brahma-tejas. In his arrogance he was sure that only a Brahmin possessing brahma-tejas could be such a marvellous archer, and his own kshatra-tejas will be no match for him.
But the sting of Draupadi’s words remained. Thus he became one of the Inglorious Four (Dushta Chatushtaya) for all time. Duryodhana, Duhshasana, Karna and Sakuni would be the major players in the management of the Dice Game in Hastinapura. The lone sane voice in the Kaurava camp, Vikarna says that Draupadi has not been won by the Kauravas, manye na vijithaamimaam! While the assembled kings applaud Vikarna and Duryodhana and others are silent, it is Karna who speaks hate-filled words, because he is as one who has lost his senses due to hatred, krodhamurchitah. Waving his hands in agitation he bellows:
“Vikarna! This world has all kinds
Wood feeds fire, and fire devours wood;
so a son sometimes destroys his family.
Disease grows in the body,
and disease eats up the body.
Cattle graze on grass,
and cattle trample grass.
And you, you were fed on Kaurava glory,
and now you are out to destroy it!
maha-intelligent Vidura, Dhritarashtra,
and Gandhara – all wise elders –
all of them here,
in spite of Krsna-Draupadi’s pleas,
are silent. They feel Drupada’s daughter
has been won by dharmika means.
Son of Dhritarashtra,
callow in years, and loud in words!
You’re a boy, yet you come here
and preach like an old man!” 54
From time to time the Kauravas and Pandavas get locked in fight and Karna is in the forefront as Duryodhana’s right hand man. Repeatedly Karna gets defeated by Arjuna and this only feeds the flame of hate in his heart. There is no doubt that Karna was a great warrior but his boastfulness proves to be his undoing. Vyasa reports one of the scenes when the war-clouds had gathered thick in the sky and discussions are going on. Karna boasts that single-handed he can take on the entire Pandava army. Has he not been a disciple of sage Parashurama?
“Through the grace of that rishi
subduing the Panchalas,
the Matsyas, the Karusas,
the Pandavas, their sons
and grandsons, I’ll offer
the worlds in your hands.
Let Bhisma Pitamaha,
let Drona and others
all protect you.
I and my warriors
will take on the task
of killing the Pandavas.” 55
Immediately Bhishma stops him with words of anger and derision. How can one forget that Arjuna is being guarded by Krishna? Incensed Karna declares that he is laying down arms. Bhishma will see him only in the Audience Hall but never in the battlefield. He will show his strength only when Bhishma is silenced. Sulking, Karna goes home. Bhishma declares to those present that all this boasting is of no avail, and Karna’s dream to prove his valour in the presence of Jayadratha and other great Kings will never come true.
“But he lost both tapasya
and dharma when, posing
as Brahmin,he tricked
to give him the missile –
a despicable deed.” 56
As a result, when Bhishma is being anointed as the Supreme Commander of the Kaurava forces, he lays down a condition that in this war either he goes first to fight or Karna. This is because Karna has always been boasting that he is a better warrior than Bhishma and could destroy the Pandavas single-handed. Bhishma would rather not lay himself open to odious comparisons on the battlefield. Karna immediately says that he would not fight as long as Bhishma is alive. Thus the first ten days of war Karna has no part in the war he was eagerly looking forward to.
The strategist in Krishna sees an opportunity to get the sulking Karna on the side of the Pandavas. He takes Karna in his chariot for a ride and reveals to him the secret about his birth. As Kunti’s eldest born he must come away with Krishna and the Pandavas will immediately make him their leader. Since Kunti is a sister of Krishna’s father, Karna will have both the Pandavas and the Vrishnis on his side. It is a very tempting picture. It must be said to the credit of Karna that he remains unmoved. He would prefer to be the son of Adhiratha and Radha and offer them pinda. While Kunti had abandoned him, had not Radha brought him up as her own? Had she not cleaned his urine and dirt, saa me mootram pureesham cha pratijagraaha! It is a very honest, moving reply. Krishna must not reveal his birth to the world. Else, the high-souled Yudhistira would handover the kingdom to Karna and Karna will have to give it away to Duryodhana. Soon he waxes eloquent listing all those on the side of the Pandavas as victors, if there is to be a war and likens the war itself to a Yagna, presenting a momentous epic simile.
Karna’s sustained dream-vision is yet another high water-mark in the Udyoga Parva, a close companion to the dream-vision of Trijata related to Sita.
“Cruel-karma-creator Vrikodara Bhima
also climbed a hill, mace in hand,
and seemed to be swallowing the earth,
What can this mean except that he
will kill us all in the maha-war?
I know, Hrishikesa-Krishna,
that where dharma is, victory is.” 57
Viditam me Hrishikesa yatho dharmastato jayah. Karna embraces Krishna and takes leave of him saying that henceforth they will meet thus only in heaven.
Friendliness, admiration, and affection are all gone from Karna’s heart when Krishna and Karna meet again in Kurukshetra. Once Bhishma has fallen and Drona is the Supreme Commander, Karna enters the battlefield and spreads havoc among the Pandava army. Ghatotkacha is killed by the Shakti missile of Karna. He takes part in the shameful act of encircling Abhimanyu and killing him when he is defenceless. Once Drona is gone, Karna becomes the Supreme Commander. But the inspiration is gone for defeat stares the Kaurava army in the face. Karna is the leader for two days and they are full of all-round devastation in the Kaurava camp. Then, the final scene. A battle that rages through many cantos. It is as if universal destruction is at hand. And yet Arjuna seems to suffer from some rare trepidation. His missiles are rendered powerless by Karna. Why? Krishna and Bhima call upon him to give up this unsteady approach to the battle with Karna. There follows a fierce battle but at the most critical moment, Karna’s chariot wheel gets stuck in the mud. Nor can he direct the Brahma missile at Arjuna now since the Brahmin sage’s curse had taken effect, and he could not remember the directing mantra. Karna rails against dharma. Dharma does not protect!
“They that are conversant with righteousness always say that righteousness protects those that are righteous. As regards ourselves, we always endeavour, to the best of our ability and knowledge to practise righteousness. That righteousness, however, is destroying us now instead of protecting us that are devoted to it. I, therefore, think that righteousness does not always protect its worshippers.” 58
Shedding tears of anger and frustration, he asks for a little time to set right his chariot wheel. It is not dharma to kill the defenceless! Now look who talks of Dharma, is Krishna’s pointed reaction. Ah, so you have begun to remember the existence of dharma, smaraseeha dharmam! Now where had gone this consciousness of dharma when Draupadi was dragged into the Assembly Hall and Duhshasana laid his hateful hands on her? Krishna gives a long list of the misdeeds of the Dushta Chatushtaya. Each time the words toll the end of Karna: whither had this virtue of thine then gone, kha the dharmasthadhaa gathah? And the young boy Abhimanyu!
“When many mighty car-warriors, encompassing the boy Abhimanyu in battle, slew him, whither had this virtue of thine then gone? If this virtue that thou now invokest was nowhere on those occasions, what is the use then of parching thy palate now, by uttering that word?”
As Karna dies struck by Arjuna’s Anjalika missile, a light goes out of him and enters the regions of the Sun above. The light of Radha-Adhiratha’s home thus goes back to the Home of Light.
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