King Shantanu married Satyavaty and Devavrata became Bheeshma. Shantanu and Satyavaty had two sons, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Chitrangada was killed in battle with the Gandharvas. Young Vichitravirya was crowned the King and as he was a minor, Bheeshma ruled until he came of age.
When Vichitravirya became of marriageable age, Satyavaty entrusted Bheeshma with finding suitable bride for Vichitravirya. King of Kashi was arranging a swayamvara according to the old Kshatriya practice for his three daughters Amba, Ambika and Ambalika to choose their husband. The daughters of Kashi were famed for their beauty. When Bhishma heard about it, he decided to go there for Vichitravirya.
The Kings of Kosala,, Vanga, Pundra, Kalinga and other potential candidates were there in their best attires. When Bheeshma reached there, all the assembled Kings and Princes thought he had come to witness the Swayamvara as a guest. When he declined his seat as a guest, the assembled suitors began to ridicule him not knowing that he was there for Vichitravirya. “The wisest of the Bharata clan is not wise enough to realize he is old and has forgotten his vow.” The princesses of Kashi turned their eyes away from Bheeshma.
This flamed Bheeshma’s wrath. He challenged all the Kings and Princes and defeated them all. Taking the three princesses in his chariot Bheeshma set out to Hastinapur.
On his way to Hastinapur, Bheeshma was intercepted by Shalva, the King of Saubala. He was attached to the princess Amba. Shalva was defeated since Bheeshma was an invincible warrior. Amba pleaded Bheeshma to spare his life and so Bheeshma let Shalva go.
Arriving at Hastinapur with the princesses, the preparations for the marriage began. Everyone assembled for the wedding, Amba addressed Bheeshma mockingly, “You are the wisest of the Bharata clan and have read all the scriptures. I have chosen Shalva as my husband. What do the scriptures say about it, do what is morally right.”
Bheeshma acknowledged the forced abduction and Amba’s argument. The marriage between the Vichitravirya and Ambika and Ambalika, the two younger sisters of Amba was solemnized.
Bheeshma sent Amba with proper escort and respect to King Shalva. Amba was rejoiced at the prospect of marrying Shalva. “I have chosen you as my husband in my mind. I have come here to you, so we can marry according to the sastras.”Amba said to Shalva. However, Shalva refused her proposal, “Bheeshma defeated me in front of every one and carried you away. I have been shamed and I cannot marry you. You have been won by Bheeshma, go back to him and do as he says. I cannot marry you.”
Amba came back to Hastinapur and told Bheeshma what had transpired. Bheeshma advised Vichtrvirya to marry Amba. However, Vichitravirya refused to marry Amba saying that she is already some one else’s wife in her mind. Amba then turned to Bheeshma and asked him to marry her. Bheeshma was sorry for Amba and the situation she was in, but he could not marry her because of his vow. He appealed again to Vichitravirya to marry Amba and solve the tricky problem. However, Bheeshma’s attempts went in vain to change Vichitravirya’s mind. Bheeshma then suggested to Amba to go back Shalva.
Amba was too proud to go back to Shalva and grieved over her situation for four long years in Hastinapur. At last out of sheer desperation she went back to Shalva. Shalva however, adamantly refused to marry Amba. The lotus eyed Amba spend six years in bitter sorrow. All the beauty and sweetness inside her turned into hatred for Bheeshma. She blamed him for the root of all her sorrows. She then began her quest to find a warrior who would fight and kill Bheeshma. She searched long and hard but could not find any one. She then turned to Lord Subramanian and prayed to help find the enemy of Bheeshma. The Lord answered her prayers and gave her a garland of ever-fresh lotus flowers. One who wears the garland will be the enemy of Bheeshma. She took the garland and again sought to find a Kshatriya who will wear the garland. Bheeshma was an invincible warrior and no one wanted to incur his wrath by wearing the garland. Amba was once again dejected. Finally, she went to King Drupad and challenged all the Kshatriya’s , when none came to the front to wear the garland, she hung it by the gates of King Drupad’s palace and went away to the forest.
In the forest, Amba met some ascetics who advised her to go to Parasuram for help. Amba went in search of Parsuram. When she met him, she told him all that had transpired. Parasurama was moved by her plight and the lack of courage amongst the Kshatriyas to champion Amba’s cause. Due to his abiding hatred towards the Kshatriya race, he challenged and fought Bheeshma. It was a long and equally contested battle. When it seemed like no one was winning and the battle was getting long drawn, the gods intercepted and asked both Bheeshma and Parsurama to stop. Parasurama addressed Amba, “Dear child, I have done everything I can with Bheeshma. I can ask Shalva to marry you.” Amba replied, “I no longer have any desire to marry any one. I am filled with hatred towards Bheeshma. I want to be avenged.”
Filled with grief and rage, Amba began her penance to please Lord Shiva as all human aid had failed. Lord Shiva appeared before her and granted her the boon that she would slay Bheeshma in her next life. Amba was impatient to wait for the rebirth. She lit a pyre and with the hatred in her heart hotter than pyre, she jumped into the fire.
Amba was born again as King Drupad’s daughter. When she grew up and saw the ever-fresh lotus garland hanging by the palace gate, all the memories of her past life came flooding back to her. Enraged that no one had yet worn the garland, she went and wore it herself. Drupad was mortified, at the thought of incurring Bheeshma’s wrath. His own daughter was to be Bheeshma’s enemy. He exiled her to the forest. Amba was baffled that she was born again as a girl. How could she challenge Bheeshma to a fight and slay him. Angry at the cruelty of fate, she began her austerities in the forest to turn into a man. After long tapasya, she transformed into a man and became a great warrior Shikhandi.
During the war of Mahabharata, Shikhandi faced Bheeshma. Knowing that Shikhandi was born a girl, Bheeshma refused to raise his arms against a woman as was his code of chivalry. Screened by Shikhandi, Arjuna was able to fell Bheeshma. Bheeshma as he fell was able to tell the arrows that came from Shikhandi and those that came from Arjuna his favorite grand sire.