Amba reborn as Shikhandi; gender fluidity for a purpose.
The ultimate truth in Hindu philosophy is the Brahman (not to be confused with Lord Brahma). Brahman is formless and beyond gender distinctions. Brahman cannot be given attributes since attributing any quality to Brahman means denying something is not there. So if the primordial energy of the universe - Brahman, is male, then he is not female. If he has a particular colour, he cannot have other colours. So attributing qualities to Brahman amounts to limiting the Brahman. So the Ultimate reality or Nirguna Brahman is defined by the method as "Neti- Neti" (न इति, न इति), not this .. not this. Neti- Neti negates all descriptions of Brahman. This way of defining Brahman was first time used in Brahadaranyaka Upanishad, and later Advaita Vedanta used it exhaustively
So if we reflect deeply on this philosophy of Hinduism, it leads to an understanding that our characteristics and distinctions limit us. They define what we are and represent what we are not, highlighting our limitations. Like all other forms and distinctions, gender distinctions also have a limiting effect as it segregates us.
As we dwell upon the idea of a personal God or Saguna Brahman (सगुण ब्राह्मण - as opposed to Nirgun Brahman- निर्गुण ब्राह्मण), we observe that though they have distinct attributes, they are not rigid. Though the deities assume a form and gender, they still tend towards gender fluidity and form variations. There are various examples like Lord Vishnu taking the form of Mohini, an enchantress to trick the demons. Ardhanarishwar is Lord Shiva, whose half part is a woman; it's a merger of Shiva and Parvati. Vaikuntha Kamalaja, or Lakshmi Narayan, is the composite form of Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi. Lord Krishna assumed various forms in various situations, from a lover to a warrior to a counsellor exhibiting strong feminine and masculine qualities.
Furthermore, Budha ( the lord of the planet Mercury)was born in the neuter gender. The famous Gopeshwar Mahadev is still worshipped as male power during the day and female divine power at night. It is a tribute to Lord Shiva assuming Sakhibhav (सखी भाव) to participate in the cosmic dance of raas leela ( रास लीला) of Krishna, Radha and the Gopis. Various such examples are found in regional stories associated with the deities.
In Hinduism, the purpose of life, rebirth, and past life karmic deposits are interestingly intertwined. An additional element of gender fluidity gets interwoven with the purpose, rebirth, and karmic balance sheet in the story of Shikhandi and Bhisma Pitamah.
Bhisma Pitamah ( Devrata ) and Shikhandi are important and celebrated characters in Mahabharat. Bhisma Pitamah, apart from being seen as an upholder of Dharma, was known for a vow (प्रतिज्ञा- oath ) he had taken for the happiness of his father, King Shantanu. His promise to remain celibate his entire life and act as a guardian to his step-siblings thus born was a difficult promise he made, and he lived up to it. From this terrible vow of Bhisma, a standard term of "Bhisma pratigya"(भीष्म प्रतिज्ञा) became famous for any undoable and challenging oath. Devrata or Bhisma pitamah was also blessed with a boon of Iccha mrityu (इच्छा मृत्यु- death on wish) by his father, King Shantanu. Shikhandi was a child born with no apparent gender ( gender fluid) to Dhrupad. Shikhandi ( Amba in a previous life) was the one who killed Bhisma Pitamah in the Kurukshetra war.
Going a little back in the story, Bhisma Pitamah abducted the three daughters (Amba, Ambika and Ambalika) of the king of Kashipur from their swayamvar (स्वयंवर) ceremony to get them married to his half brother Vichitravirya. Vichitravirya was Satyavati's son, and Satyavati ( Bhisma's stepmother ) was the reason for Bhishma's celibacy vow. If, on one side, Bhishma was celebrated in the world for his pratigya(प्रतिज्ञा- Vow), he was also known for a wrong he committed by abducting three sisters against their wish. In ensuring the welfare of his half-brother, he committed the crime of sacrificing the three princess's individual choices in question.
When Bhishma entered the swayamvar ceremony of the three sisters, he announced his intention and was open to fighting with anyone who opposed this. King Salva, who was in love with the eldest princess Amba, tried to counter Bhishma but was defeated. Bhishma reached Hastinapur with the three princesses, and Satyavati started preparing for the marriage. However, just before the ceremony, Amba, the eldest princess, conveyed her feelings to the gathering of sages and scholars that she was committed to Salva and could not marry Vichitravirya.
Amba was sent back to King Salva, but he didn't accept her as she was abducted, and Salva had lost the fight with Bhishma. Dejected, she proceeds into the deep jungle. According to another version of the story, after being rejected by Salva, she approached Bhishma to marry her as he was responsible for her plight. But due to his celibacy vow, he denied the proposal.
Disheartened, Amba went to the jungle and underwent a deep penance to avenge her loss. According to one version of the story, moved by her deep penance, Lord Shiva blessed her to be born as a man and a great warrior who would remember her purpose against Bhishma and kill him. According to another version lord, Karthikeya gifted Amba a Garland of ever-fresh flowers and said that whoever wore that Garland could defeat anyone, including Bhishma. However, being a woman, she could not bring Bhisma to fight her. She requested many kings, including Dhrupad, who denied picking up a war with Bhishma. Frustrated, Amba left Garland at Dhrupad's palace gate, went into the deep jungle and ended her life.
In her next life, She was born to Dhrupad as Shikhandi. Childless king Dhrupad was undergoing deep penance for a child, and Lord Shiva blessed him with children. Shikhandi, Draupadi and Drishtidyumana were born to Drupad. Shikhandi was Amba reborn.
Shikhandis's gender was unclear or somewhat fluid and displayed feminine and masculine characteristics. Despite having a fluid gender, he was well accepted in Drupad's palace and was trained to be a great warrior. Neither did Pandavas discriminate against Shikhandi's androgynous status, and he was made commander of one of the seven akshauhinis of the Pandava's army. In the war, he made a significant contribution by being the cause of Bhishma Pitamah's death which was essential for the Pandava's side and, at the same time, fulfilling the purpose of his previous birth as Amba.
The gender fluidity of Shikhandi was to grant him the flexibility to achieve his objective.
On the battlefield, Bhisma lowered his arrow When Shikhandi faced him. According to some versions, Bhisma recognised Amba born as Shikhandi and thus lowered his arm. According to some, Shikhandi exhibited a feminine form at that moment. Bhisma, not wanting to attack a woman, dropped his arrows, and at that moment, Arjun, ready behind Shikhandi, shot Bhisma.
Hinduism is an inclusive religion with plants/ trees, animals, elements of air, water, fire, space and earth, human beings, mountains, and rivers all sacred and carrying the divinity within. The inclusive philosophy of Hinduism equally accepts male, female, and the third or neuter gender. The concept of God in Hinduism Varies, ranging from androgynous to being only male or only female. But even the Gods who assume a specific position in terms of gender display an all-embracing position of totality. Goddess Kali derived her energies and power from all major male Gods when she had to kill the demon Mahishasur. Even the commonly worshipped male Gods are primarily associated with a female power or Goddesses who don't threaten the male Gods' position but complement the Gods' power. Lakshmi is associated with Vishnu, Parvati with Shiva, Saraswati with Brahma, Agni with Svaha, Krishna with Radha, and various wives. So, either the female consorts were the manifestation of the Gods' creative energies or were their complementing energies; the critical fact remains that both masculine and feminine qualities completed the Divine.