While the epic Mahabharata has served as the holy and moral ”Grantha” of Hinduism. There are life lessons to learn about morality, karma, destiny, etc., from this great epic. While the story revolves majorly around the male protagonists, the Pandavas and Kauravas, the truth remains that the epic war might have never occurred if not for the female characters who birthed and molded the chronicle.
We look at the most underrated yet important female characters of Mahabharata.
According to the scriptures, Shantanu was a powerful king of the Ikshvaku dynasty named Mahabhisha in his previous life. Through his merits, he reached the Devaloka after death and attended the court of Indra, where Lord Brahma was present. It is said a gust of wind displaced Ganga’s clothes, revealing her body. Everybody present there bashfully bent their heads except Mahabhisha, who kept gazing lustfully at her.
Brahma lost his temper and cursed him to be born as mortals upon seeing this act. Ganga, who also enjoyed this act, was cursed to be born as human and come back only after breaking Mahabhisha’s heart. Mahabhisha then requested Brahma to be born as the son of Kuru king Pratipa, and Brahma granted his wish.
A child was born to Pratipa and his wife, Sunanda, in their old age. He was named Shantanu because his father controlled his passions by ascetic penances when he was born. Pratipa then installed Shantanu as king of Hastinapura and retired into the woods to perform penances. Bahlika, who was elder than Shantanu, also permitted him to become the king of Hastinapura.
One day king Shantanu was hunting at the bank of river Ganga. He saw Ganga, the Divine River and the Goddess Ganga. Shantanu at once was enamored with her and approached her and proposed to her for marriage. She agreed but kept a condition that King would never question her actions. Shantanu gave his words to Ganga that he wouldn’t. Ganga also warned King that if he were to question her in the future, she would leave him after answering.
Soon time passed, and Ganga gave birth to her first son. Hasthinapur was filled with joy. Shantanu saw Ganga going towards the river with their son the next morning. King was confused, so he followed her but was shocked to see that Ganga had drowned their son. Bound by his promise never to question her, Shantanu remained quiet. The same thing happened when Ganga gave birth to her second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and Seventh Son. King was struck with grief. The whole kingdom was talking about Ganga and her doings.
When the 8th child was born, Ganga walked to the river with the same intention. Shantanu could hold himself no longer. He cried out, “Stop! You heartless woman. Why do you do this wretched act? Why do you do what no mother would? You are as insane as beautiful”.
As Shantanu restrained Ganga from doing this horrible act, Ganga replied, “Dear King, you have broken the promise you made to me, and the time has come for me to leave you. However, before leaving, I shall answer your question and reveal my origin and the reasons for my actions.” “I am goddess Ganga and am in this human form due to Sage Vasishta’s curse on the 8 Vasus. And by obstructing the flow of destiny, you have managed to save your eighth child, but happiness is not something that he will know for long. He is a great soul but not destined to be an heir nor see his progeny inheriting the throne.”
She went on to say,” I’ll take him away and impart him education from the best teachers in the world. He will be a master in politics, philosophy, religion, and martial arts. He will follow the code of conduct of a Kshatriya like no other man has ever followed, and no other man ever will. After he graduates, I will send him back to his father well prepared”.
This child, known as Devaratha, would become Bhisma Pitamaha. One of the central characters of Mahabharata.
After Ganga left Devaratha over to King Shantanu, Devavrata (Bhisma) flourished in Hastinapur. He was now a handsome prince, but King Shantanu was all alone—a feeling of loneliness and sadness had crept into him. At such times, Shantanu used to take long walks in the forest beside the Yamuna. On one such walk, a particular fragrance attracted him, and he wanted to find the source of such a beautiful aroma. This led him to the riverbed, where he met Satyavati, the daughter of the head fisherman, and immediately was smitten by the love bug. Satyavati was indeed a very charming and beautiful woman. Satyavati’s father agreed to the marriage on the condition that the son bore by her daughter would be heir to Shantanu’s throne.
King Shantanu could not give his word on accession as his eldest son Devavrata was the heir to the throne. However, when Devaratha came to know this and for the sake of his father, gave his word to the head fisherman that he would renounce his claims to throne, in favor of Satyavati’s children. To reassure the skeptical ferryman, Devavrata also vowed lifelong celibacy to ensure that future generations of Satyavati would also not be challenged by his offspring. Thus, that day, he got the name: Bhishma. But there was more to her story.
The Mahabharata, Harivamsa, and Devi Bhagavata Purana assert that Satyavati was the daughter of a cursed Apsara named Adrika. Adrika was transformed by a curse into a fish and lived in the Yamuna River. When the Chedi king, Vasu (better-known as Uparicara-Vasu), was on a hunting expedition, he emitted his sem*n while thinking of his wife. He sent his sem*n to his queen through an eagle but due to a fight with another eagle, it dropped into the river and was swallowed by the cursed Adrika-fish. Consequently, the fish became pregnant.
The chief fisherman caught the fish and cut it open. He found two babies in the womb of the fish: one male and one female. The fisherman presented the children to the king, who kept the male child. The boy grew up to become the founder of the Matsya Kingdom. The king gave the female child to the fisherman, naming her Matsya-Gandhi or Matsya-Gandha (smell like fish).
Once Satyavati was ferrying the Rishi Parashara across the river Yamuna, the sage wanted Kali to satisfy his lust and held her right hand. She tried to dissuade Parashara but eventually gave in. She was given two boons, one that she would change from Matsyagandhi into Yojanagandha (“she whose fragrance can be smelled from across a Yojana”). She now smelled of musk and so was called Kasturi-Gandhi (“musk-fragrant”) and the gift of re-virginity. He also mentioned she would bear a son who would be a great sage who would re-write history.
Ecstatic with her blessings, Satyavati gave birth to her baby on an island in the Yamuna the same day. The son immediately grew up as a youth and promised his mother that he would come to her aid every time she called on him; he then left to do penance in the forest. The son was called Krishna (“the dark one”) due to his color, or Dvaipayana (“one born on an island”). He would later become known as Vyasa – compiler of the Vedas and author of the Puranas and the Mahabharata, fulfilling Parashara’s prophecy.
After her marriage to Shantanu, she had two sons. The younger one was married to sisters Ambalika and Ambika. But their premature death left the kingdom without an heir, so Satyavati wanted Bhisma to marry them, to which he declined. Revealing to Bhishma the tale of her encounter with Parashara, Satyavati knew that this was the time to call her son Vyasa to aid her. Satyavati suggested Vyasa have Niyoga with his brother’s widows. Vyasa finally agreed to that “disgusting task” but suggested that the offspring of perversity cannot be a source of joy.
Consequently, due to Dhritarashtra’s blindness and Vidura’s birth from a maid, Pandu was crowned king of Hastinapur. However, he was cursed (by a sage), renounced the kingdom, and went to the forest with his wives Kunti and Madri. Vyasa warned Satyavati that happiness would end in the dynasty and devastating events would occur in the future (leading to the destruction of her kin), which she would not be able to bear in her old age. At Vyasa’s suggestion, Satyavati left for the forest to penance with her daughters-in-law Ambika and Ambalika. In the forest, she died and attained heaven.
Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika
They were the three daughters of the King of Kashi, who were famed for knowledge, virtue, and beauty. Since Bhishma was more or less ruling Hastinapur, he decided not to invite his half-brother, And he had taken the vow of not marrying. Vichitraviryan, the actual ruler, was nothing more than the paper head. Kashiraja had no intention of his daughters getting married to someone weak.
Just as his eldest daughter Amba came forward with the garland in her hand towards King Shalva of Saubha Kingdom, there was a loud commotion outside the palace. A furious Bhishma thundered inside the palace. He challenged the kings and princes to gather and fight with everyone. While Ambika and Ambalika were delighted to be fought over, Amba was distraught as she loved king Shalva.
The usually observant Bhishma failed to note the eldest princess. Upon being presented to Satyavati, finally princess Amba came forward and said she was about to garland King Shalva. Bheesma was upset and ordered his servants to deck the princess and send her to King Shalva. Ambika and Ambalika were married to Vichitravirya. After some time, Dhritrashtra was born to Ambika, and Pandu was born to Ambalika. The sons of Dhritrashtra and Pandu were known as Kauravas and Pandavas, respectively.
But Amba was rejected by King Shalva, she came back and asked Vichitravirya to accept her, but he denied saying she was a gift to someone else; she then asked Bheesma to marry her he denied stating his vow. Furious at her humiliation, she tried to persuade other kings to wage war with Bhishma and compel him to wed her. None agreed, for they were afraid of incurring the wrath of the great warrior. Amba got Parashurama, Bhishma’s guru, to champion her cause. However, not even Parashurama could defeat Bhishma.
Amba did severe penance to Lord Shiva for a boon to cause Bhishma’s death. Eventually, her prayers were answered. But, being a woman with no military training, she asked Shiva how she would accomplish her task, and he responded that her future incarnation would be the one to bring about Bhishma’s demise. Amba was reborn as Shikhandini, the daughter of King Drupada.
In the battle of Kurukshetra, Bhishma recognized Shikhandi as Amba reborn and, not wanting to fight a “woman,” avoided battling Shikhandi. On the tenth day, Shikhandi rides in Arjuna’s chariot, and together, they face Bhishma, forcing him to lower his weapons. Knowing that this would happen, Arjuna hid behind Shikhandi and attacked Bhishma with a devastating volley of arrows. Thus, Shikhandi was instrumental in Bhishma’s death.
Kunti, daughter of King Sura and adopted by king Kuntibhoja, was Krishna’s paternal aunt. A young girl; devoted to the service of gods, sages, and guests, Kunti so pleased the sage Durvasa that he taught her a mantra that enabled her to invoke any god of her choice and have a son born out of him. Though still unwed, a curious Kunti could not resist the temptation to try out her newly learned mantra and invoked Surya – the Sun God, and lo and behold, Surya appeared and blessed her with a son, Karna. Afraid of being a single mother, she floated the child away in the river.
She went on to choose Pandu as her husband. Sometime later, Pandu married the extremely attractive princess Madri. 0ne day, Pandu shot an arrow at the couple sage Kindana and his wife while hunting, taking them to be a deer due to their copulating forms, and the dying sage cursed Pandu that he would die as soon as he tried to make love with either of his wives – Kunti or Madri. Dejected and heirless, he left the palace along with his wives and made Dhritarashtra the king.
At this point, Kunti was reminded of the mantra taught to her by Sage Durvasa, and she used it reluctantly to invoke Dharma, Vayu, and Indra gods, who gave her three sons Yudhisthir, Bheem, and Arjun, respectively. Kunti then taught the mantra to Madri, who invoked the celestial physician brothers Ashwini Kumaras, who blessed her with two sons, Nakul and Sahadev. After Pandu’s death and Madri’s Sati, she raised the kids.
The Game of thrones nearly cost them their lives when Duryodhana and Sakuni managed planned to burn them in a Lakshagraha while they were at a festival at Varnavat. They lost their palace Indraprastha, the kingdom, and even her daughter-in-law Draupadi in a dice game. In all this upheaval, she remained a positive influence on her sons. She was a woman with high moral and social values who constantly guided her sons on their actions and kept the family bound as one, never having them fight with each other.
Despite supporting her children, Kunti stayed in the Kaurava camp and her sister-in-law Gandhari during the 18 days of the Mahabharata War. After the Kurukshetra war, Kunti moved to a forest near the Himalayas with her brothers-in-law Vidura and Dhritarashtra and sister-in-law Gandhari. All four of them later perished in a forest fire, attaining heaven.
Damayanti’s story is told in Mahabharata to Yudhisthir, the eldest brother when the Pandavas were completing their exile period. Yudhisthir met Rishi Vrihadashwa in the forest. He told the Rishi about his miserable fate. To relieve Yudhisthir from his pain, he told him the story of Nala and Damayanti.
The story is about a very beautiful woman Damayanti, the princess of Vidarbha, who chose the very handsome Nala as her husband. They had a very happy life and two children. After twelve years of marriage, they confronted their ill fate when Nala’s cousin Pushkara invited him to play a game of dice. Nala lost all his possession in the game. He was asked to leave his palace and was not allowed to carry anything but his garment on his body.
Damayanti decided to accompany him. Nala asked her to leave him, but she was determined to follow her husband, but he eventually agreed. They somehow tried to sleep. Nala was unhappy to see his wife suffer because of him. So he left in the dark of night, hoping that Damayanti would go back to her father in his absence. She instead roamed through the forest in search of her husband and eventually reached the kingdom of Chedi. Initially pelted for her appearance, she was taken in by the queen and hired as the lady in waiting. She never stopped thinking about her husband. One day a priest named Parnada from her father’s kingdom arrived at Chedi and immediately recognized the princess and had her sent to her father.
She wanted to find her husband. So his father appointed a priest called Parnada for the same. But he didn’t know how to recognize Nala. So Damayanti asked her to sing a song during his travel:
“Oh, you who lost crown and kingdom in gambling, who abandoned your wife after taking one half of her clothing, where are you? Your beloved still yearns for you.”
According to her, only Nala would respond to it. So the priest did the same. And when he reached Ayodhya, ruled by Rituparna, the royal cook, an ugly dwarf responded to the song:
“Despair not beloved of that unlucky soul. He still cares for you. The fool who gambled away his kingdom, whose clothes were stolen by a bird, who wandered off in the middle of the night, leaving you all alone in the forest.”
Parnada rushed back to Damayanti and told her everything. She said that it was her husband who responded. But Parnada pointed out that he was an ugly dwarf named Bahuka. But Damayanti knew it could be none other but her husband.
So she came up with a plan. She announced her swayamvara. She asked Sudev to visit Ayodhya and tell the king that there was no sign of Nala, and therefore Damayanti would get remarried. And that the swayamvara would take place the next day of the announcement. The idea behind the plan was that Nala was the fastest charioteer in the world, and hence the king would take his help. And the plan worked. But the dwarf would help him with a condition. He asked the king the trick to win a dice game. The king, an expert in the dice game, promised Bahuka to teach him.
Then Bahuka left for swayamvara with the king. Two children came running as soon as they reached Vidarbha, and their chariot crossed the palace gate. Bahuka jumped off the chariot and hugged them. Rituparna, the king, was shocked. He asked Bahuka about the children, but he didn’t reply. Damayanti watched from far, and she was sure he was her husband. When he walked through the palace, the gates rose to give him the way, as if the whole palace recognized him. Damayanti rushed to him and hugged him in front of everyone, including the king. She told everyone that he was Nala.
Everyone was in shock because the Nala they knew was a handsome man. Nala told how he came upon a dreaded snake, Karkotaka. Its venomous breath transformed him into an ugly dwarf. But the snake gave Nala a magic robe that would transform him back to his original self once he learned his lesson and advised him to visit Ayodhya and learn to play dice game from the King. Nala wrapped the magic robe around himself and transformed. Now there was no doubt.
The king was impressed by Nala and Damayanti’s love. He kept his promise. After a few days, Nala challenged his cousin for a dice game. He told his cousin that he would put his beautiful wife at stake this time. His cousin accepted the challenge. This time Nala won everything back. Damayanti would not look at another male, although her husband’s fate or whereabouts are unknown — the reason for her being eulogized as the ultimate chaste woman.