Reading Guide. Bhishma brings back three women to be the wives of Vichitravirya, but as it turns out only two of them will become brides to the young king. The third woman, Amba, has a story of her own, and in a future incarnation she will become part of Bhishma's life once again near the end of the epic.
Note that in this version of the story, Amba's beloved is called "the king of the Shalwas," while he was called "King Shalwa" in the other version. As you will see, it is often the case that the kings are known in the epics by the name of their kingdom, and so are queens and princesses. For example, in the Ramayana, Kaikeyi grew up in the Kekaya kingdom, which is how she got her name.
Image: The depiction of Amba below is a shadow puppet from Java in Indonesia, and the Mahabharata is a favorite topic of the Javanese wayang theater tradition; you can read more at Wikipedia.
Source. Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists by Sister Nivedita (1914). [800 words]
As the wedding-day itself drew near, Amba, the eldest of the three princesses, sought an audience of Bhishma, the guardian of the imperial house, and with much shyness and delicacy disclosed to him the fact of her prior betrothal to the king of the Shalwas. It seemed to her a far from noble deed that she should marry one man while secretly longing, she said, for another, and so she was allowed to leave Hastinapura and proceed to the capital of the king of the Shalwas.
And when she reached the city of the Shalwas, she came before the king and said simply to him, "I have come, O king. Here I am."
But some blindness and perversity had come upon the king of the Shalwas. Perhaps he was really angry and mortified by his defeat at the hands of Bhishma. Perhaps at first his attitude was taken half in play and gradually grew more and more bitter and earnest. Or perhaps — and this seems the most likely — he was indeed an unknightly man, and the girl had done ill to trust him. In any case, he proved utterly unworthy of the great and faithful love of the Lady Amba. Though she made her feeling clear over and over again with a sincerity that all her life after it made her hot to remember, he showed not the slightest affection for her, but turned away from her, casting her off, say the chronicles, as a snake discards his old skin, with no more feeling of honor or of affection.
And when the maiden, eldest daughter of the king of Benares, at last understood that this was King Shalwa's intention, her heart was filled with anger, and in the midst of her tears of sorrow and pride she rose and said, "Though thou dost cast me off, O king, righteousness itself will be my protection, for truth cannot be defeated!"
And with these words she turned, crying softly, and haughtily went forth from the city. Suffering the deepest humiliation as she was, and scarcely knowing where to turn, the royal maiden for that night took refuge in one of the great forest-hermitages.
Rejected on two sides — for she could not now return to Hastinapura — and too proud to ask shelter in the home of her childhood, there was nothing before the royal maiden save a life of austerity and penance. And gradually, as she grew calm and took the help and advice of the old sages of the ashram, her mind began to settle on Bhishma as the source and root of her woes, and the destruction of Bhishma gradually became the motive to which all her self-severities were to be directed.
From this time her course of conduct became extraordinary. Month after month she would fast and undergo penances. Beauty and charm became nothing in her eyes. Her hair became matted and she grew thinner and thinner. For hours and days she would stand in stillness and silence as if she had been made of stone.
At last Shiva, the Great God, appeared before her, drawn by the power of her prayers and penances, and standing over her with the trident in his hand, he questioned her as to the boon she sought.
"The defeat of Bhishma!" answered Amba, bowing joyfully at his feet, for she knew that this was the end of the first stage in the execution of her purpose.
"Thou shalt slay him," said the Great God.
Then Amba, filled with joy, and yet overcome with amazement, said, "But how, being a woman, can I achieve victory in battle? It is true that my woman's heart is entirely stilled. Yet I beg of thee, O thou who hast the bull for thy cognizance, to give me the promise that I myself shall be able to slay Bhishma in battle!"
Then answered Shiva, "My words can never be false. Thou shalt take a new birth and some time afterwards thou shalt obtain manhood. Then thou shalt become a fierce warrior, well skilled in battle, and remembering the whole of thy present life, thou thyself, with thine own hands, shalt be the slayer of Bhishma." And having so said, the form of Shiva disappeared from before the eyes of the assembled ascetics and the Lady Amba there in the midst of the forest ashram.
But Amba proceeded to gather wood with her own hands, and made a great funeral pyre on the banks of the Yamuna, and then, setting a light to it, she herself entered into it, and as she took her place upon the throne of flame she said over and over again, "I do this for the destruction of Bhishma! To obtain a new body for the destruction of Bhishma do I enter this fire!"