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The Willing Woman: On Epic Women and Will Power 2

Continued from 1

The epic woman from whose son our land gets its name too shows the same independence and determination as Gandhari, Kunti, Draupadi and Sita do. Shakuntala’s marriage is by her own decision. She meets the emperor Dushyanta in her foster father Sage Kanva’s ashram. The two fall in love and decide to become husband and wife according to the ancient customs of Gandharva marriage, which said that a man and a woman in love with each other can wed on their own. Dushyanta goes back after a while, promising he would send for her shortly. Shakuntala waits for Dushyanta’s people to come and take her to his palace. They do not come. She gives birth to her child in the ashram and names him Sarvadamana, Subduer of All. Yet no one comes from Dushyanta. Eventually, when her son is twelve years old, Kanva, her foster father, reminds her it is time for her to hand over her son to his father and let him live in the palace, where he belongs, learning the ways of kings. That is how Shakuntala reaches Dushyanta’s court. [In Kalidasa’s version, it is a pregnant Shakuntala who reaches the court.]

Dushyanta refuses to acknowledge that he had ever met Shakuntala or had any relations with her. He refuses to acknowledge the adolescent she has brought along as his son. He calls Shakuntala a whore and the mother of a bastard child born of shameless lust. He shows no respect even for the clothes she was wearing, in which she had come from an ashram.

At his words, Shakuntala becomes like a snake that has been stepped upon. This is the man she had chosen for herself thirteen years ago. This is the man to whom she had surrendered her body. This is the man who had begotten a child in her and left, promising to send his people to fetch her and then forgotten all about it. And now he is insulting her in the middle of an assembly, in the presence of ministers and noblemen – insulting her in such brute, merciless words.

The young woman who grew up in an ashram does not know what fear is. She does not know what treachery is. She does not know what weakness is. She has received the best possible upbringing: in an atmosphere of love, kindness, truth and fearlessness. She does not care she is standing in the presence of an all-powerful monarch. She does not care his ministers and nobles are listening to her. She lashes out at him, in the only language she knows: the language of truth.

“You know me well, great king,” she tells him, “and yet you shamelessly say you do not, showing total lack of culture.” She reminds him that culture demands that a wife who comes to her husband’s place for the first time needs to honoured, she needs to be offered worship. “You err by not worshipping me as I stand here,” asserts Shakuntala, demanding from her man the obeisance that is every woman’s right by Indian culture. “I deserve to be worshipped. And you do not offer me worship that is my due” – archarhām na archayasi mam.

Incidentally, Shakuntala’s power comes from her knowledge of her rights. Our ancient culture held women at the highest level. Our women did not grow internalising a self image that told her that she was the creation of a lesser God. She was the creation of the same God, maybe even a greater God. She was not a source of sin for man, but of dharma, virtue. It is thrilling to see this powerful self-image in woman after epic woman. All the women we have spoken of so far, be it Gandhari, Kunti, Druapadi, or Sita share the same self-image: an equal to her man. There is no feeling in her that she is the second sex. If anything, she is the first sex. Gandhari never once in her life cringes before her husband Dhritarashtra. Kunti never once feels she is inferior to Pandu. Draupadi knows she is in every way equal to her husbands. And Sita says she will walk not in Rama’s footsteps, but ahead of him, so that she can crush the thorns on his path with her feet and make his journey easier for him. This amazing self-perception of power is not born of arrogance or haughtiness, but of her culturally given status.

We see this same status of women in their husband’s home spoken of by the Vedas. The standard Vedic blessing for a new bride was:

Samrājñī śvashure bhava
Samrājñī śvaśvrām bhava
Nanandari samrājñī bhava
Samrājñī adhi devrshu
[RV 10.85.46] [AV 14.144]

“Be thou an empress to your father-in-law. An empress be though to your mother-in-law. Be thou an empress to your husband’s sister. An empress be though to his younger brother.”

Coming back to Shakuntala, she says Dushyanta needs to worship her for she is his wife come home for the first time.

Shakuntala tells Dushyanta that a wife is not a man’s plaything – she is an equal half of his being, his best friend in the journey of life, the root of his dharma, artha and kama [virtue, wealth and pleasures]. And for a man who wants to cross the ocean of samsara and reach moksha, she is his most powerful ship. She reminds him that woman is the sacred ground where man is reborn as his own son.

Shakuntala tells Dushyanta that she has not come to him for his charity – she does not need any of it. What she demands is justice – what is hers by right. In fact, she does not need even that. She is perfectly willing to go back to the ashram from where she came – she will always be welcome there. She does not care for the comforts of the palace – such things do not tempt her. She needs just one thing: that his child is acknowledged as his. And she warns him: “Ignore me, Dushyanta, and your head shall shatter in a thousand pieces”.

Dushyanta still does not acknowledge her or her son. Instead, he insults her father, the sage Vishwamitra, calling her wanton; and insults her mother, calling her a whore.

Before answering him this time she apologises, for she says what she is going to say is going to hurt him. And then she tells him the difference between a fool and a wise man is that the fool chooses evil where the wise man chooses the good. “Truth,” she tells him, “is superior to a thousand ashwamedha sacrifices; the study of all the Vedas, bathing in every sacred teertha in the world – nay, even these are not equal to truth.” Dushyanta was clearly proving himself to be a fool by choosing lies over the truth.

As she turns around to leave, she tells Dushyanta her son does not need his kingdom. She did not bring him to Dushyanta in the hope of her son inheriting his kingdom. No, he does not require it. For, her son will rule over all the earth bounded by the oceans even without his help.

The gods interfere here on Shakuntala’s behalf and testify that she is Dushyanta’s wife and Sarvadamana is his son, suggesting he be renamed Bharata now; from his name India gets the name Bharata.


Perhaps no other story in world literature speaks of the will power of a woman more eloquently than the story of Amba does.

Amba of the Mahabharata was born a princess – one of the three daughters of the king of Kashi. As the girls become nubile and ready to chose their husbands, a swayamvara is arranged for them, and kings and princes from across the land come, to prove their valour and claim their hands. While the swayamvara is in progress, in comes Devavrata Bhishma, a prince who has sworn never to marry. He is unaccompanied and comes all alone riding his chariot. Bhishma challenges the royal assembly of heroic men and claims the princesses for himself in the name of his valour. He leads the princesses into his chariot and challenges the kshatriyas to stop him if they can. Accepting the challenge, they surround Bhishma’s single chariot in a hundred chariots and elephants. In the fierce battle that ensues, Bhishma vanquishes them all with a smile on his face. The princesses are taken to Hastinapura and handed over to his stepmother, Queen Satyavati, so that they could be wedded to Bhishma’s half-brother Vichitravirya.

As the wedding arrangements progress, Amba, the eldest of the three princesses takes a bold decision. She is not going to wed Vichitravirya, unlike her two sisters who are ready to. She approaches Bhishma and confesses that she belongs to another man. She has mentally given herself to King Shalva and he too has accepted her as his wife, unknown to her father. As a righteous Bharata prince, she tells him, it is his duty to let her go too Shalva.

Bheeshma consults his stepmother, his ministers and wise men and sends her to Shalva in honour, accompanied by old brahmanas and her old retainer. Shalva refuses to accept her, telling her she has been had by another man. You are an anyapurva, he tells her repeatedly – a woman who has belonged to another man. Amba tells him Bhishma had carried her away by force and she hadn’t gone to him of her own choice. She has never thought of another man, she has never belonged to another man, she is not an anyapurva but an ananyapurva. Shalva now says he is terrified of Bhishma and cannot have her and asks her to forget him and go wherever she liked. Amba keeps begging the man to whom she had given her heart once and who had reciprocated her love with equal ardour, but Shalva sticks to his stand.

Amba leaves Shalva and thinks things over. Bhishma is certainly to blame for what has happened. Her father too is responsible, for declaring that any man who displays great valour could have her. She herself is responsible – why didn’t she jump out of Bhishma’s chariot and run to the man she loved? She blames Shalva, she blames herself and finally she blames God.

She considers her options. She cannot go back to Bhishma. She cannot go back to her father – she does not want that. Shalva has rejected her. And there is no to her place for her go to. Eventually she goes to an ashram outside the city to spend the night there.

She explains her situation to the ascetics in the ashram and tells them she wants to lead the life of an ascetic from now on. They discourage her, telling such a life is not suitable for her and her staying there will not be appropriate, considering that she is a beautiful, young princess.

In the ashram she meets Hotravahana, once a king and now an ascetic, who reaches there by chance. Hotravahana is Amba’s maternal grandfather. He consoles her and tells her the right person to help her is Parashurama – the great warrior who has spent his life destroying corrupt kshatriyas, but who is now living an ascetic life on the Mahendra mountains. He asks Amba to go to him there. By then Akritavrana, a disciple of Parashurama comes to the ashram, with the message that Parashurama is coming to the ashram the next day to meet Hotravahana, his friend.

Until meeting with Akritavrana, Amba is not sure who exactly should be held ultimately accountable for her tragedy. It is Akritavrana who puts the blame squarely on Bhishma. Amba makes up her mind finally. And from now on nothing on earth, or even beyond, would change her mind.

Amba meets Parashurama and explains her condition. Moved, Parashurama promises help. He is sure Bhishma, his disciple, would listen to him.

As Parashurama goes to Bhishma, Amba clarifies her position. She tells Rama: Slay Bhishma, as Indra slew Vritra. She insists it is the death of Bhishma she wants, nothing else would satisfy her. Perhaps she knew Bhishma better than the sage-warrior did and was sure Bhishma would not listen to his old teacher in this matter.

Rama however goes to Bhishma and asks him to take Amba to himself, since there is no other solution to her problem, adding the threat that unless he did so, he would kill him in battle. Bhishma refuses to have Amba back and challenges his guru in battle. The battle rages for many days, but neither is able to defeat the other. Eventually Bhishma’s mother Ganga and the gods interfere and stop battle. Parashurama admits his failure to fulfil his promise to Amba and asks her to seek Bhishma’s refuge once again. Amba answers, her eyes blazing in rage: On no account will I ever go back to Bhishma. She will now go where she will be able to destroy Bhishma in battle by herself.

Amba is no more the helpless maiden who ran from man after man seeking love, kindness and justice. She is a transformed woman now. She has made up her mind and no power, human or divine, will be able to change it, such is her determination.

She engages in superhuman tapas on the banks of the Yamuna. She gives up food, grows emaciated and dry, her hair grows matted, but she stands motionless with for six months. The Mahabharata tells us the only food she ate those six months was the air.

Following the six months, she enters the waters of the Yamuna and standing there does tapas for another year, fasting throughout.

For the next one year she performs austerities standing on her toes and eating only a single leaf that has fallen by itself.

Possessed by her scorching anger, she continues her tapas for twelve years.

Bhishma’s mother Ganga appears before her and tries to dissuade her from her dark tapas, but Amba’s mind will not be changed.

At this stage there are two versions of her story told. According to one, she continuous her tapas, until she forces Shiva to appear before her by the power of her austerities. According to the other, she dies and is reborn again as a woman, a princess of the Vatsa country, and continuous her tapas in that life too until she forces Shiva to appear before her.

Shiva asks her what she wants and she places her demand before Shiva: she wants to kill Bhishma in battle. When Shiva grants her wish, she asks him how she can kill Bhishma in battle since she is woman. Shiva assures her it will happen in her next life time.

Amba has no interest left in life. She has a single aim before her: Bhishma’s death at her hands. Amba lights a huge pyre and enters it, seeking her next birth. As she does so and as fire begins to consume her body, her lips give expression to her one consuming purpose: bhīṣmavadhāya, for the death of Bhishma.

After a lifetime of tapas as Amba and another as the princess of Vatsa, she is born as a princess once again – as Shikhandini, the daughter of Drupada of Panchala. It will be years before she achieves her purpose. In the meantime she will have a sex change and become a man, and learn archery from her father’s enemy Drona, the greatest teacher of the day, and become a mighty warrior in her/his own right.

I have often wondered if the real reason why Bhishma refuses to take up weapons against Shikhandi is not his respect for Amba and her will and determination.


The list of women in ancient Indian literature who show immense will power as displayed by Amba, Shakuntala, Sita, Draupadi, Kunti, and Gandhari is long and for obvious reasons we cannot discuss them all here.

“Frailty, thy name is woman,” said the bard of the west. It is a statement that our authors from that remote time certainly would not endorse. They did not see women as weak and helpless beings. Instead, they saw them as shaktis, embodiments of power and determination. In the classical period, the perception would change and celebrated authors like Kalidasa would paint women – frequently these same women – in much softer colours. Thus Kalidasa’s genteel Shakuntala is not the tough Shakuntala of the Mahabharata. Many later versions of the Ramayana would make Sita weak and almost a shadow figure. A time would come when a woman would be appreciated for her weakness, in the name of delicateness, rather than for her strength. But such certainly are not the women who inhabit our epic land. The sage-poets who composed those unsurpassed works of literature did not see women as ‘dolls’, but as full human beings made of blood and flesh. Each one of our epic women has a will of her own, and is a person in her own right.



  1. The frailty the bard speaks of is about one characteristic only, which is reflected in the traditional separation of men and women at ashrams. Women are emotionally vulnerable to appealing men, even when they know it will cause chaos in their live. This is their critical weakness.


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