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, and 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 your 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 with 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 avenge 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, "Sure. 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 kill Bhisma."
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 another 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 his 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 Panchala, and was ready to go in, kill Drupada and Sikhandi, and burn the place to the ground. Yowch!
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 celebrations.