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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Who is Aamba?

Aamba is the name that I use to sign my posts, but it is not my real name.

Where did I get the name from? Aamba is a character in The Mahabharata (one of the epics I spoke of yesterday). She is a character who fascinates me and one of my mother's Sanskrit teachers decided that her name should be my "Indian" name for the purpose of his class. People seem to see a similarity between her and me. I don't know if that's a good thing.

Here is the basics of her story:

There is a prince whose name is Bishma. He is his father's only child and stands to inherit the kingdom. However, his father, the king, falls in love with a girl whose family will not allow them to marry unless there is some way to guarantee that her son will be king and not Bishma.

Because his father is so unhappy at not being able to marry this girl, Bishma takes an oath that he will never marry, never have relations with a woman, father no children. That would make him ineligible to be king.

In return for his generosity and selflessness to his father's desires, the gods grant Bishma a gift, the ability to choose the time of his death. No one can kill him unless he allows it.

The king marries the girl and she has a son. Sometime later the king dies and the younger brother is installed as king. However, he is weak and sickly. He needs a wife, but the method for getting a wife at that time was to enter a contest of arms (a swyamvara) to win a wife.

So, Bishma goes and wins three wives for the king. They are sisters. The youngest is Aamba and she is crying. Bishma asks her what is wrong and she tells him that it was not her choice to be up for offer in the swyamvara, that she is in love with someone already. She begs Bishma to let her go to the man she loves.

He agrees and she goes to meet her lover. However, that king is afraid of Bishma and he tells Aamba that he no longer wants her.

By the time Aamba gets back to Bishma's kingdom, the young king she was supposed to marry has died (how he got children to carry on the kingdom is very complicated and i won't go into that here). Aamba tells Bishma that he must marry her since she has been rejected by the man she loves and it is his fault. He won her, she is his.

He insists that he cannot because of the vow he took. He tells her to go back to her father, but she says she will not return to a man who bartered her like an animal.

Instead she takes her own oath. She swears that she will wander the world looking for someone to kill Bishma. Though it is impossible, she does so anyway. In the movie (see more about the movie at the end of the story) she has a very creepy line, "Never forget me, Bishma, I am your death."

She disappears from the main story, but shows up again forty years later, a wandering beggar woman. Her looks have hardly changed and she tells the main characters that her hate keeps her young. She has found no one willing to challenge Bishma.

Eventually she performs austerities in order to get gifts from the gods. She stands on one toe for twelve years and things like that. The gods, impressed with her discipline, speak to her. They tell her that only death can outwit death.

She builds a fire and throws herself into it, holding on as she dies to her one wish, to kill Bishma.

She is reborn as a man and lives a life whose only purpose is to kill Bishma.

In the midst of the great battle, Bishma (who has ended up by fate, not by choice, on the opposite side as the main characters) recognizes her and allows her to kill him.

A very sad story of a passionate woman. She is my namesake.

By the way, if you are interested in the story of The Mahabharata, there is a wonderful western adaptation by director Peter Brook. It is six hours long, broken into two hour segments. It is easy to watch and is quite a wonderful telling. Brook's premise was that this story is not just an Indian story, it is the story of mankind and it is universal.

Along that theme he cast actors from all over the world. One character is played by a French actor, another by an Italian, another by a African, another by an Indian, another by a Japanese. The beautiful accents blend together and weave an entrancing story.

I have shown this movie to many, many of my friends and they have all been riveted by it, whether they have any previous knowledge of Indian mythology or not.

There is also a 24 hour long Hindi mini-series of it. I have not seen it yet, but I hope to.

In the next post I will plan to tell you some other stories, some of the short fables that I grew up hearing.


  1. Story of The Mahabharata is universal. I guess each of us play a role as in Mahabharata.

  2. Amba is usually used as the name of Parvati, consort of Shiva. The first a is pronounced as in 'umbrella' and the second one as in 'barter'.

    By the way, do you have an email-id where I can contact you directly? I came to your blog from Sharell's and have read some nice posts here.

  3. In this case, the name Aamba has a long "a" in the front, so it is a different name. Both "a"s are pronounced like "barter."

  4. In mahabharatha, Aamba will be reborn as a "transgender" by name Shikandi. And Shikandi will be made to fight with Bhisma. Bhisma declines to kill a woman, and thus gets wounded and later dies by his own will. More at

  5. I did simplify the story a bit, I'll admit. The Mahabharata is the longest book ever written in the world, so for these purposes it has to be summarized a bit!

  6. Bythe way the bets part I remember from my grandmother.. (As a hindu we never read these books or stories in one go.. I learned it by frequent recitals from my grandmother..) Shikandi used his father's thigh bones as his dice for the match in which he defeated the pandavas!

  7. Shikandi did NOT defeat the Pandavas in the Dice game .It Was Shakuni who did that.Shikandi is Draupadi's brother.

  8. how do you spell it in hindi अम्बा or आम्बा
    if its अम्बा then change ur name to amba.
    just a suggestion.
    also u can use epic browser it will provide an option for typing in hindi just type da words phonetically in english and u will get the hindi equivalent for it by using space bar (it supports indian languages including sanskrit)

  9. Hi Aamba,

    Nice blog. I am a software engineer and Mahabharat is my favorite. Following link takes you to a web application that gives great information about Mahabharat family and their relations. It can also generate nice family trees. It is developed in Microsoft Silverlight. Take a look when you get a chance.


  10. I haven't read Mahabharata in the original, so I'm not really sure how her name is written. I assumed it was the long "a" because of how it is usually pronounced.

    Either way, I've been using it this way, so I'll continue to do so.

    That family tree is really neat! So much more organized than when I scribble it out to try to explain the story to people!

  11. In Farsi, aamba is a mango. Gulf Arabs also use the word aamba for mango since there are many Farsi and Hindustani words in their dialects of Arabic. When I saw your name on other blogs, I thought you might be married to an Iranian or Gulf Arab :-)

    Nice to meet you. I like your writing style and am enjoying your posts.

  12. Thanks! I think Mango might be a better name than the sad story of Aamba from Mahabharata :/ In Hindi, mango is "aam" I suppose they must be related.

  13. The word Amba means mother. In the Mahabharata, all the characters relate to specific Vedic deities. And the story has a deep philosophical import.

    Amba refers to the divine mother - nature. It is the same word as meaning Parvat as somebody mentioned earlieri.

    The original name for Bhishma is Devavrata - meaning "that who does sacrifice / ritual for invoking the devas". Any such sacrifice should not desire output. Thus Bhishma remains unmarried. Amba (nature) is conquered by Bhishma, but he rejects her. She tells him that his death will come through her.

    She takes rebirth as Shikandi - half man & half woman. This means the non-dual state of Advaita (neither the experiencer nor the experienced). Bhishma refuses to fight before it, and voluntarily lets himself be conquered. Thereby attaining salvation.

    I hope I didn't make a mess in this comment. Explaining Indian myths in English is quite hard

  14. Ah, my teacher did tell me that Aamba meant "mother," but it seemed very strange to me. Her story just feels so tragic and yet I relate to it. I am intrigued by your interpretation, I have not heard it put quite that way before.

  15. liked the interpretation of Ray!

  16. Sorry, but the Mahabharata character you're referring to is Ambaa, not Aamba. It's pronounced as follows: um-baa.

  17. Okay, I don't mean to be difficult, but the subject of my name is closed. I have chosen to represent it in the Roman characters as Aamba, and that is my name.

    I know how it is pronounced, I know who she is, I don't need more lessons on this.

    I'm sorry if my choice of Roman characters doesn't line up with what other people think it should be, but what's done is done, and my name is my name.

  18. You should watch miniseries, its of 1989 ,nw n youtube.
    Bhishma was son of Shantanu , a great king and Mother River Ganga. Shantanu falls n love with Satyavati , a fisherman's daughter Also MOTHER OF MAHARISHI, VEDA VYAS, (bhadarayana govinda govinda, let vyas bhagavan lead us)
    But her father asks king , he should make satyavati's son king n future, if he wantd to marry.
    King disagrees and goes back.
    Later Bhishma then his name was then devavrata, takes said oath. And gods gift hm the name bheeshma. And his father gives him ICHA MRUTYU or death at desire.
    Shantanu was a great king, thats why he could gv it.
    Bheeshma also takes Oath nt to die until Hastinapura kingdom s safe frm all sides and to selflessly serve whoever sits on throne.
    Bheeshma knws its amba re incarnatd as Shikandi for revenge but he s neither afraid or offended,.
    Arjun attacks hm standing behind shikandi and bheeshma s laid n bed of arrows piercd nto his body. But he doesnt leave earth until pandav won and hastinapur became safe. He is a great son of Bharat mata, Our Mahatma Gandhi of present time can be compard to bheeshma.

  19. Without Mahabharat hinduism isn't complete.
    MAHABHARAT IS PERFECT AND COMPLETE, no series or film can show it fully.
    It contains wotever science discoverd and wotever s to be discoverd yet.
    Bhagavad gita n Mahabharat is ART OF MAN MAKING, AS TOLD BY CHINMAYANANDJI.

  20. Yes, I know the stories very well. Didn't want to go through all the detailed parts of Mahabharata or my blog would be miles long!

  21. Namaste Aamba
    I am a great follower of Rama.
    There are hundreds of versions of Ramayana(biographies of Rama, just like gospels).
    However there is no bible of Rama,s words,
    It would be a great contribution to the world if you would publish a bible based on Rama's words

    Rama bhakta

  22. My dad worships Maa Durga, my mom Bhagwaan Shiv, my grandmother is Vishnu bhakt and I am still looking..