The Story of Sikhandi
by Maharani dasi
Posted December 1, 2002
When I was in gurukula, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my education was
that our teacher would tell us stories from the Mahabharata every night. But
one thing that always puzzled me was why Bhisma, at the Battle of Kuruksetra,
refused to fight with Sikhandi. The stated reason for this was that Bhisma had
vowed never to raise arms against a woman (thoroughly admirable). But Sikhandi
was a woman -- Princess Amba -- in his *past* life, right? Bhisma surely knew
that we're not our bodies, so I was always confused as to why he would care
whether Sikhandi had been a woman, or a dog, or a tree in his past life. Sure,
I'd always had the impression that Sikhandi was an utterly effeminate wuss,
it was probably better for all concerned that Bhisma wouldn't fight with him,
but I was still confused. Well, when I got older, I read the Mahabharata for
myself, and the following is what I found out, which I'll present here for
edification and entertainment, dear reader. And if you'd like to check this
out for yourself, you can find most of it in Udyoga Parva, Uluka Dutagamana
Parva, Sections CLXXIII-CXCV.
When Bhisma's younger brother, Vichitravirya, was due to get married, Bhisma
figured that the daughters of the King of Kasi would be great wives. So he
took it upon himself to go to their swayamvara and kidnap them. To make a long
story short, Bhisma, not surprisingly, beat the bloody pulp out of all of the
assembled kings, princes, and whatnot, who were all there hoping to get chosen
by one of the three princesses.
Once back in Hastinapura, however, Bhisma was approached by the eldest girl,
Amba, who told him that she'd already promised herself to Salya, the King of
Saubha, and she wanted to be able to go and marry him (Salya), and not crummy
old Vichitravirya (Actually, Vichitravirya is about due to die of excesses
springing from his marriage to her two younger sisters, Ambika and Ambalika,
but that's a whole different story.) Bhisma didn't want his brother getting
married to some girl that was already promised to some other man, so he said,
"Fine, go ahead and go to Saubha, have a wonderful life," and sent her off
a huge escort to go and marry Salya.
But... Salya was still sore about getting a whupping from Bhisma at the
swayamvara, and he was totally humiliated that Bhisma would even send Amba to
him at all! He told Amba, "Bhisma won you fair and square, so go back to him.
I'm not going to marry you, sorry."
So Amba went *back* to Hastinapura. Vichitravirya didn't want to marry Amba,
because she was promised to Salya, and he didn't want to get involved with
another man's woman. Bhisma *couldn't* marry Amba because he'd already taken a
vow to be a brahmacari for the rest of his life. But that wasn't good enough
for Amba, so she talked to Satyavati, Bhisma's step-mother. Satyavati was very
sympathetic to Amba's plight, and she tried to get Bhisma to marry Amba,
because nobody else was willing to take her because he won her at the
swayamvara. Bhisma reminded Satyavati that he'd already taken a vow, and he
was not about to stray from the path of truth.
Amba has to hit the road again, but she couldn't go back to Kasi, and her
family, because she'd been disgraced, and her chastity had been called into
question. However, she did manage to meet up with Hotravahana, her maternal
grandfather, who just so happened to be a good friend of Parasurama (yes, that
Parasurama), Bhisma's guru. Hotravahana and Amba asked Parasurama for advice
on how to rectify her situation. At this point, Amba still wasn't sure who was
to blame for her predicament -- when asked who she'd like punished, Salya, or
Bhisma, or both, she left it to Parasurama's discretion (which is what I'd do
if I were in her shoes, too). Parasurama (mind you, presumably to advance the
Battle of Kurukshetra) declared that Bhisma was the person to blame for the
whole big mix-up. He told Amba He was going to go and fight Bhisma, and either
kill him, or make him marry her. Parasurama and Bhisma fought for days, and
nobody at all ever came out ahead, and finally Ganga-devi and a whole
contingent of other celestials had to show up and beg them to give it up.
Parasurama had to go back to poor Amba, and tell her that He'd failed to
her mistreatment. She was utterly disheartened. All she could think of was
killing Bhisma. She went around to as many kingdoms as she could think of,
trying to find someone who was up to the job, but nobody was brave or dumb
enough to want to fight with Bhisma. Everybody felt very sorry for her, but no
one could help her out. By this point, she wasn't even interested in having a
husband any more. She just wanted to kill Bhisma, because she felt that he'd
ruined her life. So she decided that she'd perform austerities for the purpose
of destroying Bhisma. She told the brahmanas that asked her "What in the three
worlds is a lovely princess like you doing out here in the middle of the
woods?" that she wasn't interested in liberation, or going to the heavenly
planets, or anything, other than just killing Bhisma. I bet they kind of
raised their eyebrows and left.
Actually, though, Bhisma had a soft spot in his heart for Amba. He, like
everyone else, felt really terrible for the way things had turned out for her,
and he used to send spies out to check up on what she was doing, and how she
was faring. So he found out that, after about twelve years of very intense
penance, Lord Siva had appeared to Amba, to grant her a benediction. I bet you
can guess what she asked for.
"I want to become a man and kill Bhisma!"
Lord Siva, ever-merciful and ready to go along with Krsna's plans, said,
In your next life, you'll take birth in the family of Drupada, King of the
Panchalas, and you'll be a Maharathika (great chariot fighter), and you'll
That was just what Amba had been waiting for, so she jumped on a funeral pyre,
and that was that for that body.
King Drupada, meanwhile, was childless. As kings are wont to do when they have
no heirs, he prayed to Lord Siva to bless him with a really special son. As
planned, Lord Siva appeared to Drupada, and told him that his wife would
conceive him a baby. The baby, mind you, was going to start off life as a
female, but later, it would become a male. Drupada tried to finagle a little
bit, and get the baby to be a boy from the start, but Lord Siva wouldn't hear
of it, and Drupada decided that was better than nothing.
So nine months (give or take) later, the Queen of Panchala gave birth to a
beautiful baby girl. King Drupada, confident that Lord Siva's words would turn
out to be true, represented the baby as a boy, and named her Sikhandi. Drupada
raised Sikhandi as if she were a boy, and even sent her to learn the martial
arts from Dronacharya. As she was getting older, approaching puberty, she
still hadn't turned into a man. King Drupada was getting a little nervous,
because it's one thing to say your little girl is a boy, but it's quite
to say that your well-developed teenage daughter is a man! But, he tried not
to let it bother him, since, after all, Lord Shiva did promise...
So what do you think Drupada did? Why, he contracted a marriage between
Sikhandi and the daughter of Hiranyavarma, the short-tempered King of the
Dasarnikas, of course. After the wedding, the Princess of the Dasarnikas sends
a messanger home to Daddy, to ask him why she's been married to a girl. As one
might imagine, this didn't go over too well.
Hiranyavarna, as I mentioned, was the short-tempered type. Not only was he
ther short-tempered type, he was an extremely fearsome opponent (which is why
Drupada thought it would be a good idea to contract an alliance with him).
Hiranyavarna was really, really angry that Drupada had pulled the wool over
eyes, and humiliated him by getting him to marry his daughter to another girl,
and not the strapping and virile young prince that he'd been led to believe.
He had an army at the gates of the fortunately well-fortified city of
and was ready to go in, kill Drupada and Sikhandi, and burn the place to the
Drupada was panicking, and as you can imagine, a dutiful child like Sikhandi
felt terrible. She felt like she was going to be the cause of her family's
destruction, and there wasn't really anything she could do about it. So she
ran away. Her intention was to go into the woods, and starve herself to death,
and she went to the nastiest woods anyone could think of. There was a Yaksa
who lived in the woods, who was so fierce that nobody dared to enter them. But
the Yaksa saw Sikhandi, who was miserable and crying and pitiful, and he asked
her what was wrong. Sikhandi told him to buzz off, because he couldn't help
her anyway, but the Yaksa felt very sympathetic to this poor girl, and he
pressed. He said that he'd do absolutely anything to help her. So she told
him that she wanted to be a man, and explained why: her father was expecting
her to turn into a boy, and he'd married her to this girl, in the expectation
that she'd grow the requisite equipment, and so on and so forth. Plus, she
really wanted to kill Bhisma, ever since her previous life.
The Yaksa (who was named Sthunakarna, if anybody's interested) said that he'd
trade genders with Sikhandi, until the situation with Hiranyavarma had been
resolved. So, that's what they do. Sikhandi got the Yaksa's masculinity
(which is quite a bit more masculine and powerful than a normal man's) and
Sthuna takes Sikhandi's womanhood.
Sikhandi went back to Panchala, and told his father that he was a man now.
Drupada was beside himself with joy! He sent a messenger to Hiranyavarma to
tell him that he (Hiranyavarma) must have gotten hold of the wrong end of the
stick somehow, because Sikhandi was definitely a boy. Hiranyavarma sent a
bunch of beautiful young women (for some reason) to ascertain this for a fact,
and they did, and reported back to him. War averted, and everbody in Panchala
and Dasarnika was happy.
Meanwhile, Sthuna was in hiding in his palace, because he didn't want to be
seen as a woman. Kuvera, the lord of the Yaksas, came to visit, and was angry
that Sthuna didn't come right out and receive him, and he cursed Sthuna that
he'd have to stay a woman until Sikhandi died. So when Sikhandi came back, to
return his manhood, as promised, Sthuna said, "Don't bother, you can keep it."
Naturally, this is just what Sikhandi wanted, and he went on to be the older
brother of Dhristadyumna and Draupadi, etc, etc.
Now I want to reiterate that Sikhandi was not the cream puff that you'll
recognize from the Mahabharata movies. He was the commader of one of the
Pandavas seven akshauhinis, and he was Bhima's nominee for commander-in-chief
of the army. Just in case one is inclined to think that this is all Pandava
pep-talking and boosting, the Kauravas shared the opinion. Karna referred to
Sikhandi as "invincible," and Bhisma himself, when describing the notable
warriors on the Pandava side, told Duryodhana that Sikhandi was one of the
foremost of Yudhisthira's fighters.
Bhisma, however, although he had the highest respect for Sikhandi's skill in
battle, had made a vow that he would never raise arms against a woman, or one
who was born a woman, or one with a woman's name, or one with a woman's shape,
and he made it clear to Duryodhana that he wouldn't fight Sikhandi. So, when
the time came to kill Grandfather Bhisma, the Pandavas, at Krsna's behest,
stationed Sikhandi between Bhisma and Arjuna. Bhisma wouldn't fight, with
Sikhandi between him and Arjuna, and Arjuna and Sikhandi shot Bhisma down.
Sikhandi fulfilled his destiny, to destroy Bhisma.
Probably the greatest testament to Sikhandi's prowess is the fact that he was
one of less than twenty people to survive to the end of the Battle of
Kurukshetra. Sikhandi, along with his brother, Dhristadyumna, and his nephews,
Draupadi's sons, were strangled in their sleep by Ashvattama, Kripacharya, and
Kritavarma, after a long night of carousing in the Pandavas' victory