MBK: 2.2: Śikhaṇḍī’s Destiny

(as told by Bhīṣma)

As you know, I long ago accepted a vow neither to occupy the throne nor to have children who could lay claim to it. My father, Śantanu, then married the beautiful Satyavatī and had two sons, Citrāṅgadā and Vicitravīrya. He died before his sons were grown and I was left as their protector. Citrāṅgadā was killed in a battle with the Gandharva king, and Vicitravīrya was left sole heir to the throne.

As he came of age, I thought it time to find him a wife. I heard that the king of Kashi had arranged a svayamvara for his three daughters, Amba, Ambikā and Ambālikā. I decided to ride into Kashi on my chariot, prepared for battle. Kings and princes had assembled at the svayamvara from all over the world, all hoping one of the girls would choose to marry them.

Upon seeing this, I remembered that the wise approve of many kinds of marriage, but for a kṣatriya the best is when the bride is snatched from an assembly of warriors after defeating them in a fight. I then announced to the kings that I had decided to carry away all three princesses for my younger brother, and challenged them to prevent me if they could.

Then I took all three maidens onto my chariot and sped away. The kings were at first surprised, then furious. They pulled on their armor and mounted their chariots. Soon hundreds of them were in pursuit. Thousands of arrows showered down upon my chariot, but I dexterously avoided them all. As the princesses trembled in fear, I took up my own bow and turned to face the kings. I countered the shower of their shafts with my own. At the same time, I pierced every one of my antagonists. So swiftly did I shoot my arrows that my foes were completely confounded and could only applaud my prowess. Some were killed and others had their weapons smashed and their armor torn off. They retreated and fled in various directions.

Shalva, however, continued to chase me. He was determined to win the hand of one of the maidens, and he rushed after me shouting, “Stay, stay!”

Provoked, I faced him. A furious but short-lived battle ensued. I soon overpowered Shalva and destroyed his chariot, although I decided not to kill him. I then returned to Hastināpura with the three maidens.

When I arrived in Hastināpura, the eldest princess, Amba, approached me and said, “I had already chosen Shalva as my husband. He too accepted me in his heart and my father agreed to the match. I would have chosen him in the svayaṁvara, but you kidnapped me and I did not have the opportunity. O knower of virtue, tell me what I should now do.”

I asked her to wait while I discussed the matter with the Brahmins. It was concluded that Amba should be allowed to go to Shalva’s city and offer herself to him. We gave her an escort of priests and maidservants, and sent her to Shalva. When he saw her, however, he said, “O lady of fair complexion, I no longer desire to accept you as my wife, for you have already been taken by another. You were led away cheerfully by Bhīṣma before all the other kings. How can I, who must lay down the law for others, now accept you? You have been touched by another. According to holy books, I cannot now accept you as my wife.”

Amba tried to change Shalva’s mind, pleading that she had not been happy to be kidnapped. She had gone to Shalva at the first opportunity. The king was adamant. He would not accept her. He told the disappointed princess to return to Hastināpura. Weeping like a she-osprey she thought, “What woman in the world could fall into greater trouble than the predicament I now face? I have been robbed of my friends, Shalva has wronged me, neither can I now return to Hastināpura, and neither can I go home in such shame and rejected by everyone.”

Reflecting on the cause of her troubles, Amba decided that I was to blame. She wanted revenge. Rather than return to Hastināpura, she chose to go to a hermitage and stayed the night. In the morning, the ṛṣis saw her weeping and inquired about her sorrow. The lady told them everything and asked them to help her, but the ṛṣis replied, “We have renounced all worldly action. What can we possibly do to help your cause?”

Amba asked that they allow her to remain with them and to engage in asceticism. She had decided that the calamity that had befallen her was the result of her past sins, and that by practicing penance, she could become freed of them.

The ṛṣis consulted among themselves. Some thought Shalva should have accepted her, while others proposed that I should marry her. Eventually they decided that she should return to her father, for a woman must always be under the shelter of a husband, son or father. But Amba refused to go. She said she would never return to her father’s city and suffer disgrace.

While the ṛṣis thus sat pondering about what to do, the royal sage Hotravahana arrived at the hermitage. He took special pity on Amba because he happened to be her maternal grandfather. He became enraged that I had stolen her and thus ruined her life. With his lips trembling in anger he said, “O Amba, you have grieved enough. Do not go to your father’s house, for that will only increase your grief. You should place your case before the great Paraśurāma. He is my good friend and well-wisher. For my sake he will surely remove your grief. Either he will convince Bhīṣma to accept you, or he will slay him in battle. Only this sage is powerful enough to do either.”

It so happened that Paraśurāma was due to arrive at the hermitage the next day. He arrived early in the morning, clad in black deerskins and surrounded by his disciples. With an axe over his shoulder and a bow in his hand, he was a frightening sight. Long matted locks hung down to his shoulders, and his eyes blazed like fire. After he had been properly received and worshipped by the other sages, he sat down with Hotravahana and was told of Amba’s plight. He called for her and said, “You are as dear to me as you are to Hotravahana. Tell me what I should do for you. If you like, I can order Bhīṣma to accept you. If he will not, then I will consume him and all his ministers in battle. Or, if you prefer, I will order Shalva. Tell me your decision, O princess.”

Amba replied, “It seems that Bhīṣma is the cause of my present calamity. I think you should slay him. I have become so vengeful that I now wish only to bring about his death. O great sage, kill that covetous and mean-spirited man for my sake.”

Paraśurāma was reluctant to take up arms against me and said, “I will only use my weapons if the Brahmins request it. This is my vow. I can, however, make either Bhīṣma or Shalva accept my order. Therefore, select one of them as your husband, fair maiden, and I will do the rest.”

Amba had already concluded that all she wanted was for me to die. She asked Paraśurāma again and again to challenge me to a fight. At that time another ṛṣi, Akritavana, feeling compassion for Amba, also requested him to fight. Because a Brahmin requested him, Paraśurāma finally said, “All right, I will go to Bhīṣma to seek a solution by peaceful means. If he will not accept my words, then I will certainly slay him.”

The following day he made his way to Hastināpura with Amba. I worshipped him with all respect, and then he said with anger in his voice, “O Bhīṣma, in what consciousness did you kidnap Amba? Although you took her by force, you then sent her away. You have robbed her of her virtue, for no other man will now accept her. Therefore, you should accept her either for your brother or for yourself.”

I replied, “I cannot by any means take back this maiden, for she has given her heart to another. It is always wrong for a virtuous man to accept such a woman. I cannot renounce my duty out of fear, greed, attachment or pity. This is my vow, O Rāma.”

The sage blazed. “If you do not act according to my instructions, then I shall slay you and all your ministers.”

He said this repeatedly, and I tried in many ways to calm him with gentle words. Realizing that he was bent upon fighting, I asked, “Why do you wish to fight with me, O best of your race? In my childhood I was your pupil, and you taught me the military arts.”

Paraśurāma replied, “Although I am your preceptor, you have not obeyed my command. There is only one way to gratify me: either accept this maiden and perpetuate your race, or prepare yourself for death.”

But my guru’s words found no place in my heart. I replied, “O lord, what you are commanding me to do I cannot do. What is the use of laboring for it? What foolish man would accept into his house a woman sighing for another? Furthermore, I have made a solemn vow never to marry. I see no virtue in your order. The god Vāyu has stated that a preceptor may be abandoned if he is vain, has swerved from the right path, or does not know his proper duties. I see no sin in fighting with you on this occasion rather than accepting your order. You are asking me to engage in an unrighteous act only for your profit. Witness now the strength of my arms and my superhuman prowess. Let us go to Kurukṣetra. Slain by my arrows, you will attain the glorious regions you have earned by asceticism, O you whose only wealth is devotion.”

By then, I was myself infuriated. I added, “You boast that you have conquered the entire kṣatriya race, but today I will prove that boast false. When you defeated the kṣatriyas, I had not yet been born, nor anyone like me. You consumed straw. He who will end your boasts and your desire for battle has now been born. I will destroy your pride. Do not doubt it.”

The sage smiled. “It is fortunate, O Bhīṣma, that you wish to fight. I will thus curb your arrogance. We will fight at Kurukṣetra. There your mother Gaṅgā will see you thrown down and turned into food for vultures. O ruler of the earth, your mother does not deserve to see such a sight, but it must be so, for you are foolish and overly proud.”

I bowed before the sage and said, “Be it so.” After performing propitiatory rites to invoke the Brahmins’ blessings, I mounted my chariot and headed out of the city. Equipped with all my weapons, I shielded my chariot with a white umbrella and yoked my white horses, which can move with the speed of the wind. As I moved off, bards and singers eulogized me. I arrived at Kurukṣetra and saw Rāma waiting there, grasping his huge bow. Thousands of his followers were present, and around the battlefield stood numerous ṛṣis. In the sky I saw the gods, headed by Indra. Celestial music sounded and flowers fell from the heavens.

My own mother, assuming her divine human form, came before me and asked, “What do you wish to do, my dear son?”

When I told her, she reproved me. “You should not fight with a Brahmin. Do not fight Jamadagni’s son. His strength is equal to that of Śiva. He exterminated the kṣatriya race. You know all this. Why, then, have you come to fight with him?”

I explained to my mother all that had happened and made it clear that I would not now turn back. She then implored the sage not to fight with me. I was, after all, his disciple, which is nondifferent than his son.

The sage said he was determined to teach me a lesson. Helpless to stop either side, my mother retired from the battlefield, feeling anxious for my sake.

I looked across at Paraśurāma and saw that he had no chariot or coat of mail. I called out, “How can I fight you while you stand upon the earth, O Rāma? Mount a chariot and put on your armor, for I will now release my weapons.”

Rāma laughed back, “The earth is my chariot, the Vedas are my horses, and the wind is my driver. The mothers of the Vedas--Gayatri, Savitri, and Sarasvatī--are my armor. Well protected by all of them I shall fight, O delighter of the Kurus.”

The sage immediately covered me on all sides with a thick shower of arrows. Repelling his shafts, I saw him mount a blazing chariot that resembled a city. Celestial horses were yoked to it and it was protected and ornamented by golden armor and decorations. The chariot was wonderful to behold and had been created by his will. Clad in brilliant armor, he stood upon it looking like Yamarāja surrounded by the personified astras. His disciple, Akritavana, who had requested him to fight, had become his charioteer, and he dexterously wheeled the chariot about as Rāma now called out, “Come! Come!”

I repelled another two showers of arrows. Then I dismounted my chariot. Putting down my weapons, I went over to the sage and prostrated myself on the ground. “Whether you are my equal in battle or my superior, I will fight with you, my lord, even though you are my preceptor. Bless me that I may obtain victory.”

Rāma smiled. “O best of the Kurus, your behavior is proper and I am pleased by it. If you had not come to me in this way, I would have cursed you. I cannot bless you to gain victory since I myself want to vanquish you. Go and fight fairly and with patience, O hero.”

I returned to my chariot and blew my conch, signaling the start of the battle. Both of us hurled every kind of weapon at each other. Each desiring victory, we fought furiously. Laughing, I released broad-headed shafts which chopped his bow into fragments again and again. Other arrows passed clean through his body and came out dripping blood, entering the earth like hissing serpents, but by his spiritual power the sage maintained his life and fought back with fearsome energy.

Covered with blood, Rāma stood in his chariot like a mountain pouring forth lava. He responded with well-sharpened arrows that struck me like thunderbolts. Pierced in my vital organs, I trembled and held onto my flagstaff for support. I summoned all my patience and, regaining my composure, released a hundred deadly shafts at Rāma. Struck by my arrows, Rāma fell senseless to the floor of his chariot.

I was immediately seized by remorse. “What have I done! I have slain my own preceptor, a virtuous Brahmin.” I dropped my weapons and held my head in anguish, but Rāma soon rose again, his charioteer having expertly removed the arrows and tended him. The sun set and we retired for the day, coming together in the evening as friends.

The next day at sunrise we faced each other again on the battlefield. Rāma shot blazing arrows with serpent-like mouths. I cut them down with my own arrows even as they sped through the air. The sage then resorted to celestial weapons, which I countered with my own. During the violent exchange of weapons, I was suddenly caught on the chest by a dart that rendered me unconscious. My charioteer quickly removed me from the battle and all of Rāma’s followers, along with Amba, sent up a cheer.

After some time I regained consciousness and ordered my charioteer to take me back into battle. He urged on my horses, which seemed to dance as they bore us toward Rāma. As soon as I saw him I fired hundreds of straight-flying arrows that screamed through the air, but Rāma cut every one of them into pieces with his own arrows and they fell uselessly to the ground. Then I sent hundreds more shafts at Rāma, even as he was countering my last assault. He was caught off guard and knocked unconscious. As he fell from his chariot a loud cry of “Alas” went up from his followers.

Seeing him dropped to the earth like the sun fallen from the sky, the Kashi princess, along with his many disciples, ran over and comforted him. They sprinkled his face with cool water and uttered benedictory hymns. Rāma slowly rose and looked across at me, seated on my chariot. Enraged, he shouted, “Stay, Bhīṣma. You are already killed!”

Even before remounting his chariot, he shot an arrow which seemed like the rod of death. It hit my right side and sent me spinning. As I reeled Rāma killed my horses. He simultaneously covered me with a thousand more arrows. Without becoming confounded, I countered his attack with lightness of hand. As I struck down his arrows my charioteer quickly fetched fresh horses for my chariot. A terrible exchange went on between us. Our celestial arrows met in mid-air and stayed there without falling. The sky became covered with a network of arrows that screened the sun. Rāma shot thousands, then tens of thousands, then millions of arrows at me, which I duly countered with divine weapons. A great fire appeared in the sky, reducing the surrounding forests to ashes. As we fought on in this way, the sun set and the battle subsided.

We fought for many days, utilizing every celestial weapon and all forms of combat the Vedas describe. Rāma released missiles which can hardly be described. They assumed diverse forms and came from every direction. I was continuously whirling in my chariot, repelling his weapons and trying to counterattack with my own. Both of us sought gaps in our opponent’s defenses, and we both defended ourselves closely. The battle raged through the day, and at night we rested. We were both extremely exhausted from the fighting.

On the twenty-third day of the battle, Rāma fought with redoubled strength. All of a sudden he fired a number of arrows which fell upon my horses and charioteer like venomous serpents. They were all slain and I was left standing on an immobile chariot as Rāma shot arrows charged with death at me. As I fought off his shafts, Rāma fired a powerful missile that came at me like a streak of lightning. It caught me on the chest and threw me backwards off the chariot. I fell on the ground a full fifty paces away.

Thinking me dead, Rāma roared like a thundercloud and all his followers cheered. The Kurus who had accompanied me were overwhelmed with sorrow. As I lay there stupefied, I saw eight brilliant Brahmins with celestial forms surrounding me. They raised me off the ground and gently supported me. Sprinkling my face with cool water, they said, “Do not be afraid. You will soon be successful.”

Revived and comforted, I stood up and saw my chariot yoked to fresh horses that my mother was tending. I touched her feet and worshipped the memory of my ancestors. Then I ascended the chariot and sent her away. I took the reins and continued fighting. I managed to catch him with an arrow of great power that pierced him deeply. He dropped to his knees and his bow slipped from his grasp as he fell down senseless.

I then saw many inauspicious omens. The sky rained blood and meteors fell. The sun was eclipsed, high winds blew, and the earth trembled. But Rāma was only stunned. In a short while, he got back to his feet and continued the fight. Both of us threw our fiercest weapons at each other until the sun set, when we again retired for the night.

That night, as I lay on my bed, my mangled body being tended by physicians, I thought that the battle would never end. I prayed to the gods that they would show me some way to overcome Rāma. Then, while I was sleeping, I again saw the eight Brahmins who had visited me on the battlefield. Comforting me again, they said, “Fear not, O son of Gaṅgā. You are our own body and we will give you all protection. You will surely vanquish Rāma. Here is a weapon which was known to you in your previous birth. Manufactured by Viśvakarmā, it is called the Prashwapa, and no one on earth knows it--not even Rāma. Call it to mind in the battle tomorrow and it will come to you. Rāma will be thrown down by that weapon, but not killed. He cannot be slain, but he will be defeated and rendered unconscious by the Prashwapa. You will then be able to revive him with the Samvodhana weapon.”

The luminous Brahmins vanished and I awoke with joy. The sun rose and the battle began again. Encouraged by the celestial Brahmins, I was enlivened and fought with renewed energy. After a furious exchange of weapons I thought of the Prashwapa. The mantras suddenly appeared in my mind, but as they did I heard a tumultuous uproar of heavenly voices: “O Bhīṣma, do not release the Prashwapa missile.”

Disregarding them, I placed the weapon on my bow and aimed it at Rāma. Suddenly, Nārada Ṛṣi appeared before me. “The gods are stationed in the sky and they forbid you to use this weapon. Rāma is an ascetic, a Brahmin, and your preceptor. O son of Kuru, do not humiliate him by any means.”

As Nārada spoke I again saw the eight Brahmins in the heavens. They smiled and said, “O best among the Bharatas, obey Nārada. This will benefit all creatures.”

Paraśurāma, seeing the irresistible Prashwapa upon my bow and not realizing that I had been forbidden to release it, shouted, “Alas, O Bhīṣma, I am vanquished!” and he dropped his bow. His father, Jamadagni, along with other heavenly ṛṣis, then came to him and ordered him to stop fighting. They told him that I was one of the eight Vasus and that he could not slay me in battle. Jamadagni said, “Arjuna, the powerful son of Indra, will later cause Bhīṣma’s death. Brahmā has ordained this.”

So the battle ended. Severely wounded, I went before my preceptor and prostrated myself at his feet. After this he said to Amba, “O princess, you have seen me exert myself to defeat Bhīṣma. Still I have not been able to overpower him. Therefore, you may go where you please. There is nothing more I can do.”

The maiden replied mournfully, “Be it so, O holy one. You have done your best on my behalf and I am grateful. Still, my heart burns with revenge. I will practice asceticism. In this way I will gain the power to personally bring about Bhīṣma’s death.”

My preceptor was highly pleased with my prowess and he blessed me that I would be without any equal in battle. After Amba had bowed before him, he left with all his followers.

Amba then entered the forest. She went to the Yamunā and performed severe penance. I knew everything because when I returned to Hastināpura I appointed men to watch over her constantly. They gave me regular reports. For one year she stood on the river bank without eating. Emaciated and rough-skinned, bronzed by the sun, her hair matted--she stood with hands upraised.

After one year she broke her fast by eating a single dry leaf. Then she remained waist-deep in the water for another year, standing on one foot, fired with indignation.

For twelve years she went on in this way. Neither her relatives nor anyone else could convince her to desist. Then she left the Yamunā and wandered at will, visiting the sacred hermitages of many ṛṣis. All the while she continued her austerities, bathing three times daily, meditating silently, and fasting. Her appearance changed from gentle to fierce, and she began to glow with ascetic power.

One day as she was bathing in the Ganges, my mother said, “Why do you perform such terrible penance, O maiden?”

Amba replied, “I desire to destroy Bhīṣma, who is so powerful that not even Paraśurāma could defeat him. Thus I am set upon achieving insuperable power by my austerities.”

My ocean-going mother became angry upon hearing her words. “O lady, you act crookedly. You will not be able to attain your object because you are so weak. O daughter of Kashi, if you hold to your determination, I will curse you to become a terrible river in which water flows in you only during the rainy season. May you be full of crocodiles and other fierce aquatics.”

After saying this and pretending to smile, my mother vanished, leaving Amba in her waters. Still, the princess did not desist. She performed even more severe austerities, abstaining from all food and water and controlling even her breathing. She wandered on, and when she arrived at Vatsabhumi, she fell down and began to run as a river. It is recorded that the river in Vatsabhumi runs only during the rainy season and is unapproachable due to its many crocodiles and dangerous fish.

By merit of her austerities, however, only half of her body became a river while the other half continued as before. She went on with her asceticism, and after some time the ṛṣis at Vatsabhumi approached her. They asked her what she desired and when she had explained they said, “You should seek Mahadeva’s favor, for that deity can fulfill any desire.”

Amba supplicated Śiva and he soon appeared before her asking to know her desire. When she asked the god for the power to kill me, he replied, “You will slay him.” Amba then asked how it would be possible, since she was a woman. Śiva replied, “My words can never be false. O blessed one, you will become a man and kill Bhīṣma in battle. You will remember all this in your next life. Born in Drupada’s line, you will become a maharatha, quick in the use of weapons and highly skilled and fierce in battle. This will come to pass soon.”

When Śiva vanished, Amba gathered wood and built herself a funeral pyre in the sight of all the ṛṣis. Setting fire to it, her mind burning with wrath, she hurled herself onto the pyre, crying, “For the destruction of Bhīṣma!”

So, Śikhaṇḍī was Amba in his last life. He was born first as a woman and then attained his present form. Listen as I tell you how this occurred.

Drupada’s queen was childless for a long time. Together, she and her husband worshipped Śiva for a child. He prayed for a powerful son, but Śiva told him that his wife would give birth to a daughter who would later be transformed into a man. Although Drupada beseeched the god for only a son, Śiva replied, “It shall be as I have said, for it has been decreed by destiny.”

Soon after, Drupada’s queen conceived. In due course she gave birth to a daughter. Remembering Śiva’s words, Drupada announced that a son had been born. He had all the rituals performed for a boy. No one saw the baby; only a few trusted palace staff knew the truth.

Drupada raised his child with love, teaching her writing and all the arts. He also had her instructed in bowmanship and other martial skills. When she became a youth, the queen asked Drupada to find her a suitable wife. Drupada was anxious. The child had not been transformed into a son. Were Śiva’s words false? But his wife was fixed. Mahadeva’s promise cannot fail. Śikhaṇḍī will become a male, and therefore should marry a woman.

Drupada was convinced by the queen’s faith and arranged for a marriage. He chose the daughter of Hiranyavarman, king of the Dasharnakas. That king was unconquerable, and he was happy to give his daughter to Drupada’s son. No one suspected anything when the wedding ceremony was performed. The youthful Śikhaṇḍī, beautiful like a god, appeared dressed as a boy in fine armor. She remembered the events of her previous life and Śiva’s words, so even though she had been born a woman, she conducted herself as if she were a man.

But it was only a matter of time before Hiranyavarma’s daughter discovered the truth. She sent messengers to her father to inform him that Drupada’s son was actually a woman. Her father was furious. He sent an emissary to Drupada saying, “I am insulted by your wickedness. How could you have accepted my daughter in marriage for your own daughter? I am preparing now to come and punish you for this act. Soon I will slay you and all your ministers.”

Drupada was caught like a thief. There was nothing he could say. He tried to convince Śikhaṇḍī’s wife that her “husband” would in fact soon become a male, but all to no avail. The girl’s father amassed a large army and marched on Kāmpilya. Drupada was alarmed. He said to his wife, “Fools that we are, we have brought a great calamity onto our heads. We are in danger. What should we do now, in your opinion?”

Drupada and his wife concluded that their only recourse was to worship the gods. Drupada supplicated the deities, while Hiranyavarma advanced on his country.

Meanwhile, Śikhaṇḍī, in sorrow at the danger she felt she had brought on them all, left the city. Resolved to take her own life, she entered the forest in an area that was home to a powerful Yakṣa named Sthuna. Finding his abode, a white palace washed with lime, she entered it and sat down to practice austerities. A few days later, Sthuna returned and saw her sitting there, her body reduced from fasting. Kind by nature, he asked her why she was performing asceticism. The Yakṣa said, “Tell me if I can do anything to help you.”

Śikhaṇḍī replied, “No one can give me what I desire.”

But Sthuna didn’t agree. “I can surely give you whatever you wish, O princess. I am Kuvera’s attendant and can grant boons. I will bestow even the unbestowable. Tell me then what you desire.”

Śikhaṇḍī related the whole story in detail, concluding, “The only way to save the present situation is that I attain my manhood, O faultless one.”

The Yakṣa, saddened by her story and feeling afflicted by destiny, considered her request carefully. Finally he replied, “Truly this must be so. I will, however, make a condition. I am able to grant your wish only by changing my sex with yours, but you must return my manhood after a short time.”

Śikhaṇḍī agreed to return to Sthuna as soon as Hiranyavarma left Kāmpilya. The two then exchanged sexes and Śikhaṇḍī went back to her father’s palace.

When Hiranyavarma’s army arrived at Kāmpilya, he dispatched his priest to Drupada, saying, “Come out and give me battle, vile one. You have cheated me.” But by then Śikhaṇḍī had returned in a male form. Drupada said, “There has been a mistake, O holy one. The king has been misinformed. See for yourself my son’s gender.”

The surprised Hiranyavarma had a number of beautiful maidens sent to examine Śikhaṇḍī. When they informed him that Drupada’s son was indeed male, he entered Kāmpilya with a glad heart. He stayed with Drupada for some time and finally returned to his own country, happy in his newfound alliance with Drupada.

Sthuna had concealed himself in his palace, waiting for Śikhaṇḍī’s return. As he waited, Kuvera happened to pass by, coursing through the skies in his heavenly chariot. He saw Sthuna’s palace, shining beautifully and adorned with colorful banners, gems, and garlands. Descending, he approached the palace, but when no one came out to greet him he angrily asked his attendants, “What fool lives here? Why does he not greet me?”

Some Yakṣas then informed Kuvera what had transpired. They told him that Sthuna was hiding in shame in his palace. Kuvera replied, “Bring that foolish one here. I will punish him.”

Sthuna came out. In his woman’s form he stood bashfully before his master, Kuvera. “Why have you acted in this way?” Kuvera asked. “You have humiliated the Yakṣas by giving away your sex. Therefore I curse you not to regain your masculinity. Śikhaṇḍī too will not regain her female form.”

The other Yakṣas felt compassion for Sthuna. After all, he had acted only out of kindness. They asked Kuvera to set a limit on his curse so that Sthuna would not be always punished.

Kuvera said, “When Śikhaṇḍī dies, Sthuna will regain his male form. Let him be free of anxiety.”

The powerful Kuvera, who can travel long distances in a moment, then left with his followers. Shortly afterwards, Śikhaṇḍī returned. “O Sthuna, as we have agreed I will now return your manhood.”

Sthuna replied, “It has been ordained that manhood shall be yours for this life, O noble one. Be pleased to return to your abode.” Hearing this, Śikhaṇḍī returned in joy to Kāmpilya.

* * *

When Bhīṣma finished telling the story, he added, “Thus Śikhaṇḍī, formerly Amba, hates me, but because he was first born a woman, I will never raise weapons against him. I have vowed this: I will not fight with weapons against women, or those who bear women’s names, or even those who appear like women. O Duryodhana, I will not fight with Śikhaṇḍī even if he attacks me, desiring my death.”

Duryodhana nodded. He looked at Bhīṣma with respect. Even though the grandfather was often cutting and harsh toward him, the prince could not deny his nobility. Placing his hand on the royal scepter, Duryodhana said, “O son of Gaṅgā, we will now have to fight the mighty Pāṇḍava army. Abounding in heroes equal to the universal protectors, the army will be as difficult to cross as the ocean. Tell me, O Grandsire, how long you feel it will take you to annihilate them.”

Bhīṣma’s old leathery face, adorned with a flowing white beard, broke into a smile. “It is fitting that you should ask, Duryodhana. A leader must know both the strengths and weaknesses of both the enemy and himself before beginning to fight. Hear then of the utmost power I will display in this war. Using ordinary weapons on ordinary soldiers, and celestial weapons on those versed in them, I can slay ten thousand foot soldiers and one thousand charioteers a day. Or it may be more. If I become fired with anger when I release my weapons, I can destroy many more men than that. However, you should know that I will only fight fairly.”

Bhīṣma reminded Duryodhana of the rules of battle, which he would not break. For example, heroes should never use divine weapons to kill lesser warriors. The fight should always be equal. Even if one possessed celestial weapons, he should contend only hand-to-hand with a weaponless enemy if such became necessary.

Bhīṣma’s hand touched his bow. “In this way, O King, by fighting ceaselessly throughout the day, I can slay the enemy army in one month.”

Cheering Bhīṣma, Duryodhana turned toward Droṇa. “O preceptor, what about you? How long do you think it would take you to overcome the enemy?”

Like Bhīṣma, Droṇa smiled at Duryodhana. “I am old and have lost some of my strength. Still, I will exert myself fully and consume the Pāṇḍava army by the fire of my weapons. I also think I can annihilate all the warriors in about a month.”

Kṛpa said it would take him two months, and Aśvatthāmā, bolder, said he could do it in ten days. Karṇa said he could annihilate the enemy in five days, at which Bhīṣma laughed and said, “You may speak in such strains only so long as you do not encounter Arjuna with his weapons and his conch, guided by Vāsudeva. Say whatever you will, son of Radha, for talk is cheap.”

Karṇa frowned, but remained silent. Duryodhana continued questioning his generals and commanders, ascertaining their power and determination to fight. The Kauravas discussed their battle plans well into the night. Soon after sunrise the fight would begin.