CHITRANGADA, the son of Satyavati, was killed in battle with a Gandharva. As he died childless, his brother, Vichitravirya, was the rightful heir and was duly crowned king. And as he was a minor, Bhishma governed the kingdom in his name till be came of age.
When Vichitravirya reached adolescence Bhishma cast about for a bride for him. And as he heard that the daughters of the king of Kasi were to choose theirhusbands according to the ancient Kshatriya practice he went there to secure them for his brother.
The rulers of Kosla, Vanga, Pundra, Kalinga and other princes and potentates had also repaired to Kasi for the swayamvara, attired in their best. The princesses were so far-famed for beauty and accomplishments that there was fierce competition to win them.
Bhishma was famous among the Kshatriyas as a mighty man-at-arms. At first everyone thought that the redoubtable hero had come merely to witness the festivities of the swayamvara. But when they found that he was also a suitor, the young princes felt themselves let down and were full of chagrin. They did not know that he had really come for the sake of his brother, Vichitravirya.
The princes began to cast affronts at Bhishma: "This most excellent and wise descendant of the Bharata race forgets that he is too old and forgets also his vow of celibacy. What has this old man to do with this swayamvara? Fie on him!" The princesses who were to choose their husbands barely glanced at the old man and looked away.
Bhishma's wrath flamed up. He challenged the assembled princes to a trial of their manhood and defeated them all. And taking the three princesses in his chariot he set out for Hastinapura.
But before he had gone far, Salva, the king of the Saubala country who was attached to Amba, intercepted and opposed him. For that princess had mentally chosen Salva as her husband. After a bitter fight Salva was worsted, and no wonder, as Bhishma was a peerless bowman. But at the request of the princesses Bhishma spared his life.
Arriving in Hastinapura with the princesses, Bhishma made preparations for their marriage to Vichitravirya. When all were assembled for the marriage, Amba smiled mockingly at Bhishma and addressed him as follows: "O son of Ganga, you are aware of what is enjoined in the scriptures. I have mentally chosen Salva, the king of Saubala, as my husband. You have brought me here by force. Knowing this, do what you, learned in the scriptures, should do."
Bhishma admitted the force of her objection and sent her to Salva with proper escort. The marriage of Ambika and Ambalika, the two younger sisters, with Vichitravirya was duly solemnised.
Amba went rejoicing to Salva and told him what had happened: "I have mentally chosen you as my husband from the very start. Bhishma has sent me to you. Marry me according to the sastras."
Salva replied: "Bhishma defeated me in sight of all, and carried you away. I have been disgraced. So, I cannot receive you now as my wife. Return to him and do as he commands." With these words Salva sent her back to Bhishma.
She returned to Hastinapura and told Bhishma of what had taken place. The grandsire tried to induce Vichitravirya to marry her. But Vichitravirya roundly refused to marry a maiden whose heart had already been given to another.
Amba then turned to Bhishma and she sought him to marry her himself as there was no other recourse. It was impossible for Bhishma to break his vow, sorry as he was for Amba. And after some vain attempts to make Vichitravirya change his mind, he told her there was no way left to her but to go again to Salva and seek to persuade him.
This at first she was too proud to do, and for long years she abode in Hastinapura. Finally, in sheer desperation, she went to Salva and found him adamant in refusal.
The lotus-eyed Amba spent six bitter years in sorrow and baffled hope. And her heart was seared with suffering and all the sweetness in her turned to gall and fierce hatred towards Bhishma as the cause of her blighted life.
She sought in vain for a champion among the princes to fight and kill Bhishma and thus avenge her wrongs but even the foremost warriors were afraid of Bhishma and paid no heed to her appeal.
At last, she resorted to hard austerities to get the grace of Lord Subrahmanya. He graciously appeared before her and gave her a garland of ever-fresh lotuses, saying that the wearer of that garland would become the enemy of Bhishma.
Amba took the garland and again be sought every Kshatriya to accept the garland gift of the six-faced Lord and to champion her cause. But no one had the hardihood to antagonise Bhishma.
Finally, she went to King Drupada who also refused to grant her prayer. She then hung the garland at Drupada's palace gate and went away to the forest. Some ascetics whom she met there and to whom she told her sorrowful tale advised her to go to Parasurama as a suppliant. She followed their advice.
On hearing her sad story, Parasurama was moved with compassion and said: "Dear child, what do you want? I can ask Salva to marry you if you wish it."
Amba said: "No, I do not wish it. I no longer desire marriage or home or happiness. There is now but one thing in life for me, revenge on Bhishma. The only boon I seek is the death of Bhishma."
Parasurama moved as much by her anguish as by his abiding hatred of the Kshatriya race, espoused her cause and fought with Bhishma. It was a long and equal combat between the two greatest men-at-arms of the age. But in the end Parasurama had to acknowledge defeat. He told Amba: "I have done all that I could and I have failed. Throw yourself on the mercy of Bhishma. That is the only course left to you."
Consumed with grief and rage, and kept alive only by the passion for revenge, Amba went to the Himalayas and practised rigorous austerities to get the grace of Siva, now that all human aid had failed her. Siva appeared before her and granted her a boon, that in her next birth she would slay Bhishma.
Amba was impatient for that rebirth which would give her heart's desire. She made a pyre and plunged into the fire pouring out the flame in her heart into the scarcely hotter blaze of the pyre.
By the grace of Lord Siva, Amba was born as the daughter of King Drupada. A few years after her birth, she saw the garland of never-fading flowers that still hung at the palace gate and had remained there untouched by anyone through fear. She put it round her neck. Her father Drupada was in consternation at her temerity which he feared would draw on his head the wrath of Bhishma.
He sent his daughter in exile out of the capital to the forest. She practised austerities in the forest and in time was transformed into a male and became known as the warrior Sikhandin.
With Sikhandin as his charioteer, Arjuna attacked Bhishma on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Bhishma knew that Sikhandin was born as female, and true to his code of chivalry he would not fight him under any circumstance.
So it was that Arjuna could fight screened by Sikhandin and conquer Bhishma, especially because Bhishma knew that his long and weary probation on earth was finished and consented to be vanquished.
As the arrows struck Bhishma in his last fight, he singled out those which had pierced him deepest and said: "This is Arjuna's arrow and not Sikhandin's." So fell this great warrior.