When I was four years old, I killed myself.
I was the daughter of the king of Shurparaka. Though my father was a kshatriya, neither he nor his men had the hearts of that warrior caste. They spoke fearfully of the power of the House of Kuru and the invincible might of the great Bhishma who watched over the Kuru king. They would never have risked war against Hastinapura. And I knew, by instinct deeper than bone, that I could not accept such cowardice.
I took my sari, filled it with stones, and tied it around my little body. Then I jumped into the river and knew no more.
In my next lifetime I was born in the land of Kalinga, where warriors had courage and honor—but no strength. Our kingdom was dwindling, a shadow of what it had once been. I was three when the armies of Hastinapura overran us, burning as they went.
My mother escaped the palace with me in her arms. I did not know what fate awaited us in the hands of our conquerors, but I had no wish to find out. I squirmed free of her grasp and ran back into the flames.
My father in one life had made a sacred vow to Ganga, swearing he would not take up arms against the House of Kuru and the man who was the holy river’s son. Another celebrated my birth, because now he had a daughter he might wed to one of the hundred Kuru princes and thereby gain an alliance. A third lived too far away: his people, the Tusharas, had heard only distant tales of Hastinapura and had no contact with it in those days.
Again and again I died. Better to cut my thread short and start again than waste lifetimes on a path that would not lead me to my goal.
In those days men lived for centuries, if they were not killed. I could die as many times as necessary. However long it took, Bhishma would still be there.
My soul was no stranger to hardship and suffering.
For twelve years I practiced austerities in the woods, astonishing even the sages and ascetics. I abandoned the luxuries I had known as a princess and allowed my hair to grow into matted locks. I let dirt and ash cover my skin, where once I had worn nothing harsher than silk.
One year spent standing in the waters of the Yamuna, whose goddess is the sister of death, but I did not die. One year spent standing on the tips of my toes, my balance never wavering, held aloft by my unflinching will. Advised by my grandfather Hotravahana, I learned to live without food, to survive for months on the nourishment of a single leaf or the vitality of the air itself.
I traveled to Prayaga and made sacrifices there; I studied at the ashrams of Narada, and Chyavana, and Vishvamitra, and many more. I bathed in the waters of Ganga, and she, knowing my purpose, cursed me: to be reborn as a river, bearing water only four months of the year, difficult to approach, haunted by crocodiles. But such was the power of my austerities that only half my soul fell to this curse; the other half continued onward, burning the heavens themselves with the heat of my determination.
Until Lord Shiva himself appeared before me and granted my wish, the vengeance that had driven me to such extremes.
Then I built a pyre on the banks of the Yamuna and gave my body to the flames.
No one dared to touch the garland of lotuses that hung from a pillar outside the palace of the Panchala king Drupada. For long years they hung there, but their petals never withered; they remained fresh and soft, awaiting the hand of a courageous warrior. Lord Karttikeya, son of Shiva, had declared that whoever took up the garland would destroy Bhishma, the holy river’s son.
No such warrior lived in Panchala, nor in any of the kingdoms of Bharatavarsha. The garland’s maker had carried it from one end of the land to the other without finding anyone willing to bear its burden. Even Drupada, that mighty king, refused to take it up.
By the time I was born to Drupada, all his court were accustomed to its presence. And young as I was, small as I was, no one thought I would reach up to touch the ever-fresh lotuses.
My father shouted in fear, but it was too late. The garland slipped from the pillar into my hand, and I placed it around my neck.
And I remembered.
Remembered flinging the garland onto that stone in fury and contempt. Remembered the countless refusals of kings and princes, all of them too frightened to face Bhishma, even with the blessing of great Lord Karttikeya. Remembered returning to the forest and my austerities and my pyre.
Remembered why I had begun.
A grand gathering of kings and princes, noble warriors all. My father was the king of Kashi, and he made a promise to myself and my two sisters: that we would choose our own husbands. And so all the men came, resplendent in their silks and their armor, bearing weapons and gifts, hoping to win our favor.
My sisters giggled and whispered in the nights preceding the ceremony, speculating as to who might come, whom they might choose. I listened and smiled, but I did not join in, because I already knew my answer.
On the day of the choosing, I stood with a garland of roses in my hands, their petals growing damp against my palms. Waiting for the moment of my choice.
But then came a clamor at the door. A late arrival, riding in a splendid chariot decked not for display but for war. In a voice that rang throughout the hall, he declared that he had come to claim brides for his brother, and he invited the men in that place to oppose him if they could.
He did not invite us. For him, that ceremony of our choosing was a thing of no consequence.
With one strong arm he swept all three of us into his chariot. Paralyzed with shock, my voice frozen in fear, I could make no sound, but the roses crumpled in my hands. The kings and princes gave chase, but he defeated them all. Even Shalva, mighty Shalva, Shalva for whom I waited with my garland, fell to that invader’s hand. And when he did, the roses slipped from my fingers to the ground.
Even then, I thought all was not lost. Shalva was not dead, and when I was brought to Hastinapura with my sisters, I asserted my choice. My sisters might be just as pleased to wed the Kuru king as any other, but I had chosen Shalva. And Bhishma, who had torn us all from that hall, gave me his blessing to go.
But no one would take me in.
Not Shalva, shamed by his defeat at Bhishma’s hands. He would take no woman who had been stolen by another—no woman whose virtue was tarnished by the touch of another man. Not my father, the king of Kashi, who thought I should be pleased to join my sisters in Hastinapura.
And not Bhishma. He who had stolen my happiness for the sake of his brother’s now turned me away. Even when his own guru took pity on me and ordered him to marry me, even when they battled to the brink of death itself, Bhishma refused. For he had sworn a vow of celibacy, and his dharma was too precious to him to sacrifice that vow.
It mattered nothing to him what my own dharma might be. That by his theft, he had robbed me of my love and my future. Great-hearted Bhishma, father to all the kingdom of the Kurus, would have been more kind had he killed me.
So I vowed to give him that kindness in return.
Even in this life, I was not what I should have been.
Drupada of Panchala had his own bitterness, his own wish for revenge, and prayed to Lord Shiva for a son. The Mahadeva answered his prayer—but in sideways fashion: that Drupada should have both a daughter and a son; a daughter who would become a son; a daughter who would be a son.
When his queen conceived, Drupada gave thanks. When she gave birth, he wondered if he was cursed.
For indeed, she had given birth to a daughter. A baby girl—and how could such ever be the instrument of his vengeance? While Drupada’s wife had faith, he doubted.
Together they found an answer of sorts. They resolved in all ways to raise me as a boy: to conduct the ceremonies for the birth of a son, to give me the education in scriptures and war that would befit a prince.
So well did they hide this from all the world that no one ever suspected. So well did they hide it that I myself never understood—never saw the proofs that would have made me realize I was not in all ways a man of the Panchalas.
For only a man of the Panchalas could do as Drupada wished. And only a man of the Panchalas could do what Lord Shiva had promised me, before I burned.
When the great Kurukshetra War began, I was there.
Together with the rest of the Panchalas, with my father and my brothers and my sister Draupadi, I arrayed myself for battle, with my shining mail and my keen-edged weapons and my chariot drawn by horses the color of unbaked clay. I was not the greatest warrior on our side; that honor belonged to the five Pandava brothers, Draupadi’s husbands, and to holy Krishna, and to Krishna’s brother Balarama, and others besides. My own brother Drishtadyumna was greater than I, and our brothers Yudhamanyu and Uttamaujas rode in honor alongside the chariot of Arjuna: the great archer, mightiest of the Pandavas, gifted with holy power by the gods themselves.
But Arjuna rode alongside my chariot, with his brother on the other side. Because I had sworn to kill Bhishma.
On those broad fields the warriors died in their thousands, in their tens and hundreds of thousands. It was the end of an age: the death of the Dvapara Yuga, when dharma wavered on only two pillars, and the beginning of the Kali Yuga, the fallen age where mankind clings to only a single remaining pillar and righteousness is all but lost. We watered the field of Kurukshetra with blood, built mountains of bones and shattered steel.
I loosed more arrows than I could count and counted every one that struck my flesh. Time and again my bowstring was cut, my bow itself shattered by someone else’s shot; I fell from my chariot and found another and fought with every weapon that came to hand. I strove to avoid Drona, my former teacher, my father’s hated enemy, because it was not my destiny but my brother Drishtadyumna’s to kill him, and my fight lay elsewhere. But I fought Drona’s son Ashvatthama, again and again, flinging the broken remnants of my sword at him and escaping to re-arm myself and return to the fray.
Sunrise to sunset, day after day. Strive how I might, I could not draw near Bhishma. Our Kuru enemies knew of my vow, and knew in turn that Bhishma had sworn he would not fight me.
Not out of guilt for what he had done. Because he refused to fight one who had formerly been a woman.
In the regions outside my father Drupada’s capital was a forest considered to be haunted by spirits and strange creatures. In that forest I found a high-walled mansion, fragrant with smoke but seemingly uninhabited.
In that mansion I sat down and prepared to starve to death.
My secret was a secret no more. My father and mother, clinging to their faith in Lord Shiva, had wed me to a princess of the Dasarnas. And I, all unwitting, had gone to her bed.
Even now the armies of the Dasarnas mustered outside my father’s walls, their king Hiranyavarman swearing to kill Drupada for the insult to his line, that the Panchalas had sent a woman to be a husband to their princess. I had taken up the garland of lotuses, vowed to be the instrument of my own revenge against Bhishma... but I loved and honored my family in this life, and I could not put my desires above their well-being. Instead I would die, and seek another life in which Lord Shiva might grant my prayer.
Starvation felt familiar. In my past life I had known how to endure it, how to live for months without the taste of food. I would not call on that knowledge now. My fixed intention was to die.
Until a voice spoke from the air. It misunderstood the purpose of my fast, thinking I sought through austerity to accomplish some other end. It offered to grant my desire.
Again and again I refused, saying that what I wished could not be done. But the voice revealed itself as Sthunakarna, a chief of the yakshas, the spirits of nature that serve the god Kubera. Finally, despairing, I told him of all that had befallen me.
Laughing, the yaksha materialized before me, leaf-green and wild. For one such as he, my problem was easily solved.
The yaksha’s favor was meant to be temporary. I promised to return as soon as the armies of the Dasarnas had left, as soon as I had carried out my duty to my wife.
I kept my word. But in my absence, Lord Kubera discovered what Sthunakarna had done. That mighty god cursed the yaksha for his presumption—cursed the yakshini for her folly. I would remain a man until I died, and she would not regain the masculinity she had lent me until I was gone.
For Sthunakarna, perhaps Lord Kubera’s decision was a curse.
For me, it was a gift.
Lying in my tent on the final night, I heard my brother Drishtadyumna’s screams, and I did not move.
The war was over. Only a handful survived on the Kuru side; on ours, only a few handfuls more, of the millions who had taken the field in the great battle at the end of the age. One after the other, the commanders of the Kuru army had been slain; the Pandava brothers had vanquished their evil cousin, the whip and goad to all this strife. But in the eighteen days of fighting, the rules of honorable combat had been broken again and again. Arjuna had shot Bhishma while the latter faced me. His brother had struck below the waist in a duel with maces. Drishtadyumna had slain Drona, his own guru.
Such things do not pass without cost.
When Drona’s son Ashvatthama stalked through our nighttime camp, cutting down our few remaining warriors as they lurched out of sleep, I knew from the blood on his hands and his feet that he had not given my brother a warrior’s honorable death. And I knew from the light within him that he was filled with divine power, for Ashvatthama was the avatar of a Rudra, a servant of Lord Shiva, and had fully awakened to his nature.
The gods grant their blessings and their curses where they choose—even on both sides of a war. Mahadeva might have granted my prayer, and that of my father, but he granted Ashvatthama’s prayers as well. And I was not the only one who had begged Lord Shiva for vengeance.
Days of slaughter. All on our side knew the truth: that so long as Bhishma commanded the Kuru armies, we could not prevail.
Again and again he fled from me. Because I had once been a woman: the princess Amba, stolen from her svayamvara and abandoned by everyone; the princess Shikhandini, raised as the man Shikhandi. That I was now a man in body as well as spirit meant nothing to him.
I had never meant anything to him.
Inexorable forces, driving against one another without yielding. Lord Shiva had promised me, his son Lord Karttikeya had promised me, that I would kill Bhishma in revenge for what he had done. But Bhishma’s father had granted him a boon as well: because he yielded the throne to his younger brother, because he vowed never to take a wife whose children might threaten to divide the kingdom, Bhishma would never die until he chose to.
Now the Kuru kingdom was torn in two by his brother’s grandsons instead, and the Dvapara Yuga was dying—but Bhishma yet lived.
Through the screams and the mounting piles of dead I chased his battle-standard, a golden palm surmounted by five stars. Every time I glimpsed his white awning, his white horses, I bent my bow. I was not the greatest warrior on the field, but I was a fine archer; arrow after arrow found a home in his flesh. None of us were easily killed, though, and him least of all.
An eddy in the flow of battle. A sudden swirl of forces, the formations breaking apart, and there before me was the white chariot.
And Bhishma, for the first time since Amba left for the forest, met my gaze.
Afterward, as he lay on his bed of arrows, he asserted again and again that it was Arjuna’s bow that brought him down, Arjuna’s shafts that caused him pain, Arjuna’s hand that killed him. Not mine.
But Bhishma chose his death when he met my eyes. That great man, that revered guru, praised by his allies and his enemies alike, mourned by the very man who slew him, had been caught in a trap of dharma for too long. Forced by one principle to violate another; forced by honor to commit acts of dishonor. He fought against the worthy on behalf of an unworthy king. Though he strove to live righteously, he could not escape his failures.
In the end, he could not escape me.
One glance. In it, I saw regret. Apology. And acceptance.
Then, at last, Bhishma fell.
Humans are not the only ones capable of comprehending dharma. Though many of the rakshasa race fall to evil, they can also rise to great good. And some, like humans, remain somewhere in the middle for lifetimes on end.
My soul is that of a rakshasa. For my enemies, this is cause enough to condemn me: only a rakshasa would pray so fervently for vengeance, or cast aside her femininity for a masculine form and masculine deeds. To them, I am inhuman. Unnatural.
When Arjuna undertook austerities to gain the power to defeat his enemies, he was praised. When the gods transcend the illusory division of male and female, they are worshipped.
I have the soul of a rakshasa. I have been a woman and a man. I have been a princess and an outcast, an ascetic and a warrior. I have done both good and evil.
I fear the judgment of neither man nor god.
He lay dying on the bed of arrows for days, long after the end of the war. Imparting his wisdom to the righteous king who would rule over the final fading of the Dvapara Yuga. Waiting for the heavens to reach an auspicious alignment for his passing.
By then I was dead, cut in half by Ashvatthama in his rage. Ashvatthama in turn was cursed, condemned by Lord Krishna to roam the earth for three thousand years, bleeding and unable to speak. For souls as stained as ours, salvation does not come easily.
But for Bhishma, the time had come. On the first day of Uttarayana, he breathed out for the final time and passed into the heavens.
And I too had my release. Not from the wheel of rebirth, but from the chains that had bound me since the moment Bhishma swept me into his chariot. Whatever would come next—whether I rejoined the rest of my soul as a cursed and inhospitable river, was reborn as a rakshasa, or did penance as an animal for lifetimes to come—I was, at last, at peace.