By Swami Tattwasarananda
When the queen mother Vidula saw King Sanjaya lying in his inner apartments shedding tears, following his defeat at the hands of the king of Sindhu-desha, she was enraged. Showing no sympathy for her cowardly son, she reproached him in no uncertain terms:
O unworthy son of mine, O enhancer of the delight of foes, I know not from what place you have come; you are no son of mine, nor of my husband. Do not disgrace yourself, do not remain satisfied with little, set your heart on your own welfare and do not be afraid. Get up, O coward! Do not take defeat lying down. Let not your enemies delight and your friends grieve over your fall. It is better to court death in plucking the fangs of a snake than die miserably like a dog. Fight bravely even at the risk of your life. It is far better to fare up even for a moment than go on smoking for ever. Let none born of royal blood be a mild ass. Son! Either show your valor or court the way to death. For, indifferent to your duties that you are, there is no need for you to live.
After his embassy to the Kaurava court—a last ditch effort on his part to secure an honorable reconciliation between the Kauravas and the Pandavas—had failed due to the intransigence of Duryodhana, Krishna asked Kunti, who was then staying with Vidura at Hastinapura, what message she had for her sons? It was then that Kunti asked Krishna to tell Yudhishthira the conversation that had transpired between Vidula and her son. She also said: ‘O Keshava, tell King Yudhishthira:
Do not act in a fruitless manner, like a reader of the Vedas incapable of catching their true import. You view virtue only in terms of the literal meaning of the Vedas. Take a look at the duties of your own order as enjoined by Brahma. That is not the conduct of a royal sage in which you now wish to abide. He that is afflicted by weakness of heart and unsteadiness never obtains the merit born of cherishing one’s subjects with love. Sacrifice, charity, merit, bravery, subjects and children, largess, might, and energy—these are what I always prayed for you. You are a Kshatriya and therefore the protector of all who are in distress. You are to live by your prowess. Recover your share of the kingdom of which you have been deprived by persuasion, or stratagem, or gift, or force, or diplomacy. That I, deprived of friends, should live on food supplied by others, even after having mothered you, the enhancer of the joy of friends—what can be a matter of greater grief ?
A Chequered Life
Kunti’s is a story of nobility, fortitude, and sacrifice. Through her all-too-apparent humanity peers a human being who has a larger perspective on life, and who tries to realize those ideals on which tradition placed a high value. As Swami Siddhinathananda points out: ‘Kunti has an individuality of her own. There are smiles and inquisitiveness, joy and happiness in Kunti’s life. Dangers and calamities shadow it. Gratitude adorns it. She loved her sons more than herself and was ever anxious for their well-being. Courage and initiative, harshness and revenge, sadness and ambition, bitterness and doggedness add color to that life. Humility, service of the elders, simplicity, serenity, and peace sustain that noble life.’
Daughter of the great Yadava king Sura, Kunti or Pritha—is Krishna’s paternal aunt. She was adopted by Kuntibhoja, a cousin of Sura who was childless. That she was devoted to the service of the gods and guests while still a young girl is evidenced by the fact that even the irascible Durvasa was pleased with her service and taught her a mantra that would enable her to have sons from any god that she wished to invoke.
Unfortunately, Kunti did not fully realize the implications of this boon, and overcome by curiosity she decided to invoke Surya, the Sun, with it. The mantra was, of course, potent and Surya appeared in person before her. The powerful mantra also ensured that she conceived by Surya. Unlike Parashara—who brought up his son Vyasa, born of Satyavati out of wedlock—Surya did not help Kunti care for the newborn son, Karna. For fear of public disgrace, Kunti set the child afloat in a basket on a river, praying with tears in her eyes as she did so:
Svasti te’stvāntariksebhyah pārthivebhyaśca putraka;
|O child! May good befall you at the hands of all that inhabit the land, the waters, the sky, and the celestial regions. May all your paths be auspicious! May no one obstruct your way!
Karna was picked up and reared by the charioteer Adhiratha and his wife Radha. He grew up to be a brave warrior, an expert in archery, a man noted for his generosity, an ally of the Kauravas, and an arch enemy of the Pandavas. The sorrow of having had to part with her first son never left Kunti. After Karna had been killed in the Kurukshetra War, Kunti asked Yudhishthira to offer the traditional oblations in the Ganga for Karna, their eldest brother.
Kunti’s marital life was also unusual. Having chosen Pandu as her husband in a svayamvara ceremony, she never had a child by Pandu. Her husband had received a curse from the sage Kimdama that he would die on having intercourse with his wife because he had shot the sage with an arrow when he was united with his wife in the guise of a deer. Deeply hurt by the turn of events, Pandu decided to retire into the forest and live the life of renunciation. Kunti accompanied him and lived like an austere celibate for several years. Later, Pandu was worried about the continuance of his lineage and wanted Kunti to have children through the process of niyoga—by getting someone suitable to help her bear a child. Kunti was averse to this idea, but when Pandu was insistent she used the mantra obtained from Durvasa to have three children—Yudhishthira from Dharma, Bhima from Vayu, and Arjuna from Indra. She also helped her co-wife Madri to have a pair of twins through the Ashwini-kumaras. Pandu wanted her to have more children, but Kunti would not consent, considering this dishonorable.
Not long after this, Pandu failed to restrain himself in the presence of Madri and died from Kimdama’s curse. Following the practice of the day, Madri gave up her life on her husband’s funeral pyre. Kunti too wanted to follow the same course, but had to abstain from doing so on the advice of some rishis, as she was needed to mother the five young Pandava princes. This duty she carried out right up to her ripe old age.
Kunti returned to Hastinapura with her five children to live under the care of Bhishma and Dhritarashtra. The following years were marked with a mixture of joys and sorrows for Kunti and the Pandavas. The joys of the palace that the Pandava children enjoyed while growing up under the watchful eyes of Bhishma were soon marred by the jealousy of the Kauravas. If they narrowly escaped a plot to have them burnt alive in a house of lac and managed to enjoy the glories of the newly founded city of Indraprastha, with its magical court created by Maya, Yudhishthira was soon lured into a game of dice with Duryodhana and Shakuni who conspired to defeat him with cunning and deceit. The brothers were forced to retire into the forest for twelve years and then live another year incognito. But the most tragic of all events, which eventually proved to be of crucial importance in sealing the fate of the Kauravas, was Duhshasana’s dragging the proud Draupadi—whom Yudhishthira had pawned in the game of dice and lost—into the Kaurava court and attempting to disrobe her. Only the divine intervention of Krishna—who ensured that Draupadi’s cloth did not run out even as Duhshasana kept pulling at it—saved Draupadi from total humiliation as, barring Vidura, virtually every member of the Kaurava court, including Bhishma, remained a silent witness to the tragedy.
Seeking a Just Requital
Neither Draupadi, nor Kunti—who considered her daughter-in-law to be more dear than her own sons—could forget or forgive this insult, and their hearts were always seeking requital. So, while addressing her children through Krishna, before the actual outbreak of war, she told Arjuna to ‘tread that path that Draupadi points out to you. The loss of kingdom did not grieve me; the defeat at dice did not grieve me. That the illustrious and beautiful princess of Panchala was dragged into the assembly while dressed in a single cloth and made to bear bitter words grieved me most. Alas, ever devoted to the kshatriya customs and endued with great beauty, the princess, while ill, underwent that cruel treatment, and though possessing powerful protectors was then as helpless as though she had none.’
Kunti was never really blinded by rage or behaved in a thoughtless or unreasonable fashion. She faced troubles bravely and she wanted her children to do the same. This is amply demonstrated in what she did while the Pandavas were living with a brahmana family at Ekachakrapur, after having escaped being burnt in the lac house at Varanavata. The village was terrorized by a demon whom the villagers had to provide with daily food; and his menu included a live human being. One day it was the turn of the brahmana family to supply the provisions. When the family was grieving over the impending loss of a member, Kunti pacified them and had Bhima take the provisions to the demon. Even Yudhishthira was apprehensive about this proposal, for they had no idea how strong the demon was. But Kunti was sure of Bhima’s strength. Besides, as she she says: ‘I have resolved upon this course after due deliberation for the sake of duty and righteousness. By this act two objects will be accomplished: requital of our host’s generosity and the acquisition of high religious merit.’ Bhima gladly obeyed his mother and put the demon to death.
Not only is Kunti firm in her conviction about rights and justice, she is also possessed of great devotion. When she expresses her sorrow over the plight of her homeless children to Krishna, who is visiting her at Vidura’s house in Hastinapura, the latter reassures her saying:
What woman is there, O aunt, in the whole world like you? The daughter of King Surasena, you are, by marriage, admitted into Ajamida’s race. High-born, and highly married, you are like a lotus transplanted from one mighty lake unto another. Endowed with every prosperity and great good fortune, you were adored by your husband. The wife of a hero, you have given birth to heroic sons. Possessed of every virtue and endowed with great wisdom that you are, it behooves you to bear with patience both happiness and misery. Having overcome sleep and languor, anger and mirth, hunger and thirst, and heat and cold, your children always enjoy the happiness that, as heroes, is their due. Possessed of great power and might, your sons always pursue that happiness which, as heroes, they should. You shall soon see them become the masters of the world.
Kunti has full faith in Krishna’s words:
O Janardana let that which you think is proper be done, without sacrificing righteousness and without the least guile. I know of your truthfulness and of your lineage. I also know what judgment and prowess you bring to bear upon the accomplishment of all that concerns your friends. You are the very self of virtue and truth and you are the embodiment of ascetic austerities. So, whatever you say must be true.
When Krishna’s embassy to the Kaurava court proved futile and Vidura expressed great concern about the inter-familial war, Kunti said to herself:
Fie on the wealth for the sake of which this great slaughter of kinsmen is about to take place. Indeed, in this war, they that are friends will sustain defeat. What can be greater grief than this, that the Pandavas, the Chedis, the Panchalas, and the Yadavas, assembled together, will fight the Bharatas? I see only demerit in war. On the one hand, if we do not fight, poverty and humiliation will be ours. On the other hand, the extermination of kinsmen is not victory. As I think of this my heart overflows with sorrow.
Kunti reflected over the balance of forces and felt that Bhishma and Drona, the main generals of the Kauravas, had no reason to hate the Pandavas. It was only Karna who was insistent on harming the Pandavas and was advising Duryodhana accordingly. So she decided to approach Karna, reveal the truth about his parentage, and dissuade him from siding with the Kauravas. If Karna were not to support him, Duryodhana was much less likely to insist on war. Unfortunately, Kunti had not reckoned with the depth of Karna’s hatred towards the Pandavas. Not only did he refuse her proposal, he told her in no uncertain terms that she was a mere self-seeking woman, kevala ātma-hitaisinī, who had performed none of her motherly duties towards him. Of course, as a concession to her sentiments, he promised to kill none of the Pandavas in battle except Arjuna.
The Kurukshetra War is described as having resulted in the victory of dharma. But the price it exacted was overwhelming. Even the Pandavas lost their army and their sons. Kunti’s own cup of sorrow was full though she tried bravely to see that family honor was upheld. When Dhritarashtra and Gandhari decided to take to vānaprastha, the third stage of life, in preparation for leaving this world, Kunti joined them. Her children were dumbfounded at her decision. Yudhishthira said:
After goading us on for war with the story of Vidula, it is improper on your part to go away like this now. It was after hearing your message from Krishna that I embarked on this destructive war and won the kingdom. After advising us to stand by the duties of the kshatriyas, why are you now going away from them?
Bhima said: ‘Why this decision, Mother, when you ought to be enjoying the riches that your sons have acquired? Why then did you make us ruin the land?’
Kunti was unmoved by these pleas:
It is true, son, that I egged you on to fight for your rights when you were roaming about with empty stomachs and grief-laden hearts. Deprived of your rightful patrimony, insulted by your kinsmen, when you were living on the bread of beggary, I did goad you on to fight for your rights. You ask me, why? In order that you may not wait on your inferiors, you who are veterans of war and are as noble as the gods. So that you, Yudhishthira, who are righteous and the rightful heir to the throne may not wander about in the woods. So that Bhima, who is far-famed for his prowess, may not suffer humiliation at the hands of his enemies. So that Arjuna, Indra’s son, may not drink the cup of misery. So that your dear younger brothers Nakula and Sahadeva may not know the pinch of poverty and hunger. So that Draupadi, this dear daughter of mine, may not fall prey again to vile molestation. My dear son, it was to rouse you to your own glory that I pushed you into war through the words of Vidula. I encouraged you to fight in order that the noble line of the great King Pandu may not come to an end with my sons. There is no hope or future for one who brings about the ruin of one’s family. My children, I have enjoyed in full all the royal pleasures which my departed husband had earned for me. Charities without number have I performed. And I have sipped the soma juice in solemn sacrifice. I do not crave for any enjoyment earned by my sons. I intend reducing my body through penance and service to my elders. May your mind ever remain steadfast in righteousness; may your mind be noble: Dharme te dhīyatām buddhirmanaste mahadastu ca.
Steadfastness in dharma—this is the keynote of Kunti’s life. Dharma or righteousness, tyāgaor renunciation, ksamā or forgiveness, and sevā or service are four eternal ideals of civilization. And all these were manifest in Kunti’s life. In the Mahabharata we see Krishna, Bhishma, and Vidura calling Kunti prajñāvati, a woman of wisdom, mahāprājña, endowed with great wisdom, and manasvinī, a reflective mind. Vyasa elaborates upon two great qualities of Kunti, her patience and perseverance in every situation and her unique attitude of seva. And as though befitting this sacrificial nature of her life, her body was finally consumed in a forest fire as she was on her way to the hermitage after a bath in the Ganga. Kunti met this fire as nobly as she did the other fires that tried to singe her all too often in her checkered life.