“Kunti, what can I give you?”
“A son.”’ (123.4)
There is no coy coquetry here, no bashfulness. A need is voiced to someone who is known and is fulfilled. When Kunti summons Vayu (123.15), she is described as smiling shyly, for he is a newcomer. Does this not remind us of another woman whose smile was also so mature and meaningful, the adolescent Kali smiling at the obsessed Parashara? Moreover, Kunti will not be dictated to by Pandu in choosing the person who will impregnate her. Her smile indicates precisely her assertion of freedom of choice, selecting the father of her son four times over.
Thereafter, too, Kunti has the last word where Pandu’s desires are concerned. Very much like his grandmother, Pandu urges Kunti to give him more and more sons. Kunti bluntly refuses, quoting the scriptures to him, just as he had quoted Shvetaketu to her:
“The wise do not sanction
a fourth conception, even in crisis.
The woman who has intercourse
with four men has loose morals;
the woman who has intercourse
with five is a prostitute.” (123.83)
Kunti shows remarkable control over her libido here. It is not that she will go on indiscriminately satisfying her sexual or maternal urges. However, while her mastery of scripture is admirable, her words also give her away. Arjuna is her fourth conception and she has had relations with four different men. If she had summoned gods, this prohibition should not have been invoked by her. For, Pandu would seize upon this flaw and command her to gratify his hunger for sons. The fact that he accepts her argument shows that the fathers of her three sons were not gods. Thus, out of her own mouth Kunti appears to condemn herself unawares. It also explains why she did not confess regarding Karna, for that would have put her into the “loose morals” category. Her last words bristle with tragic irony: this is precisely the fate into which she thrusts her daughter-in-law. In the dice-game it is Karna, her first-born, who, on the basis of this very pronouncement, declares Draupadi a whore.
Kunti’s determination to protect her interests, Satyavati-like, is brought to the fore when she flatly refuses Pandu’s request to help Madri have more children. Despite the bravado he displays before Madri (“I know that if I ask Kunti/she will not refuse me”), Pandu slinks away before Kunti’s fury:
“She deceived me”, said Kunti.
“With one mantra I gave her,
she managed to get two sons.
I am afraid she will get
more sons than I. Scheming woman!
What a fool I was!
Had I known, I too
would have summoned the Ashvins,
and obtained twins.
Don’t come to me again, my lord,
saying, ‘Give her the mantra.’” (124.26-28)
There is also an element of jealousy in this, because in one-upwomanship Madri has consistently upstaged her.
Kunti herself tells Madri who is in the arms of the dead Pandu,
“Princess of Vahlika!
You are fortunate indeed—
I never had the chance to see
his face radiant in intercourse.” (125.23)
This reinforces 123.83 which implies that she has not had sexual relations with Pandu, for then she would have had intercourse with four men and thereby already be condemned as of loose character. Actually, in the Brahmavaivarta Purana (4.115.72) this is precisely what happens. Bana, berating Aniruddha’s clan, scornfully refers to Kunti having been a lover four times over [kunti caturnam kamini bhuvi]. Madri’s tribute to Kunti brings out the beauty of character that makes her a true leader. “Could I bring up your children/as if they were mine?” (125.42) asks Madri, lacking that firmness of will that rises above the ego’s petty bounds (Kunti always takes special care of the Madreyas, particularly the youngest, Sahadeva). Madri continues,
“You are blessed. There is none like you…
…you are my light,
my guide, most respect-worthy,
Greater in status, purer in virtue.” (125.66-68)
How true a thumbnail portrait of Kunti! She brings up five children in a hostile court, bereft of relatives and allies. Neither Kuntibhoja nor the Vrishnis come forward to provide shelter or support. Quickly she turns to Satyavati’s favourite grandson by a servant-maid: Vidura. He proves to be her fast friend and more. It is he who saves them from being burnt alive and it is in his home that Kunti takes shelter when her sons are exiled. He even accompanies her at the very end into the forest.
It is not for nothing that Iravati Karve[] surmised that Dharma, the first “god” summoned by Kunti, is none other than Vidura, known as Dharma’s incarnation in the epic, for it is the younger brother (stepbrother in this case), devara, who is the first appropriate person to turn to for niyoga. Once Bhishma has provided a roof over her head, it is Kunti who guards her children. The insecurity is of such dimensions that she dare not inform anyone but Vidura, not even Bhishma, of the attempt to poison Bhima. It is she who alerts Yudhishthira to mull-out the secret message in Vidura’s strange parting words couched in mlechcha dialect.
What an implacable will we find revealed in what follows! It is she who gets the Nishada woman and her five sons drunk in the House-of-Lac so that no evidence is left of the Pandavas’ escape from the gutted dwelling: “instigating Macbeth-Bhima (to set fire to the house) was Kunti, bringer-forth of men- children only.”[] With this ruthless holocaust of six Nishadas it is fitting to realise that the Nishada dynasty Satyavati sought to establish continues only through Dhritarashtra, not through Pandu. Thus, the Nishada dynasty of Hastinapura lasts for just two generations, through Dhritarashtra and his sons, all of whom are slain.
Even the forest, with what unerring instinct Kunti rallies their drooping spirits:
“Hai! I am Kunti,
mother of five sons, and I thirst
for water sitting in their midst!” (153.13)
Where Yudhishthira stops short with preventing Bhima from killing the infatuated Hidimba, Kunti, with remarkable foresight, seizes upon this fortuitous occurrence to cement an alliance for the friendless five:
“I can see no way
of taking fit revenge
for the terrible injustices
that Duryodhana has done us.
A grave problem faces us.
You know Hidimba loves you…
Have a son by her.
I wish it. He will work
for our welfare. My son,
I do not want a ‘no’
from you. I want your promise
now, in front of both of us.” (157.47-49)
We know how useful the fruit of this union, Ghatotkacha, is for them in exile and as Arjuna’s saviour from Karna’s infallible weapon at the cost of his own life. It is again Kunti who instructs her first grandchild in order to ensure his loyalty:
“You are one of the Kurus.
To me you are like Bhima himself.
You are the eldest son of the Pandavas,
Therefore, you should help them.” (157.74)
Thus, the Pandava dynasty is slowly but surely structured into an entity with multiracial affinities. Earlier, because of Kunti, Bhima was befriended by the nagaAryaka, her father’s maternal grandfather. Now an alliance with the forest-dwellingrakshasas is established. Later Arjuna will forge alliances with the Nagas and others.
Kunti teaches her children a lesson in attending to the welfare of the common man even at the risk of their lives. In Ekachakra she overrules Yudhishthira’s frantic remonstrance and deputes Bhima to meet the ogre Baka as the substitute for the impoverished Brahmin who has given them shelter. In this exchange between mother and son, Kunti, as earlier with Pandu, emerges totally triumphant. Yudhishthira exclaims,
“Mother, what right had you
to expose him like this?
have you lost your reason?
have our sufferings unbalanced you?” (164.11)
Never again will he upbraid his mother in such strong terms, except once after the war when she reveals that Karna was his elder brother.
Yudhishthira’s outburst only shows his failure to appreciate the profound wisdom and practical sense underlying this decision, apparently rash and fraught with life-risk to their sole protector. After pointing out that they ought to repay the kindness of their host, for “He indeed is a man whose gratitude/exceeds the favour he receives” (164.15), she reminds Yudhishthira of Bhima’s extraordinary strength and then teaches him a lesson in kingship:
“It is a king’s duty to protect
even the Shudra if the Shudra
seeks protection” (164.28)
It is in failing to protect that Bhishma’s greatest failure lay as a Kshatriya. Kunti now pulls up her son masterfully and then explains the reasons for the decision:
“I am not foolish: don’t think
me ignorant; I’m not being selfish.
I know exactly what I am doing.
This is an act of dharma.
Yudhishthira, two benefits
will follow from this act —
one, we’ll repay a Brahmin,
two, we’ll gain moral merit…
a Kshatriya who helps
a Brahmin gets the highest
heaven in his after-life.” (164.20-22)
Kunti’s maturity and foresight, the ability to observe life closely and use the learning from experiences to arrive at swift decisions that benefit both society and her children, set her apart and above all characters in the epic, except perhaps Krishna.
In commanding Bhima to marry Hidimba, Kunti showed her clear desire for righting the injustices done to her and her sons. Her decision to proceed to Panchala is another step in that direction, aiming at winning Draupadi to forge a princely alliance with the traditional enemy of Hastinapura and challenge the Kauravas. In Panchala she chooses to stay in the hut of a potter, even lower down in the caste and economic hierarchy than in Ekachakra. She brings up her sons from virtually the lowest rung of society to become rulers of the kingdom. In that process she turns necessity to glorious gain. The enforced exile brings her sons into intimate contact with the common people, so that they develop the feeling for the felt needs of the vast majority that equips them as true rajas, those who discharge the duty of pleasing their subjects.
Kunti’s foresight perceives that any split among the united five will frustrate the goal of mastering Hastinapura. Moreover, in Ekachakra Vyasa had already briefed them that Draupadi was fated to have five husbands because of the boon Shiva had given her in a previous birth and had urged them to proceed to Panchala to win her as their common wife (Adi Parva, 168). Hence she plays that grim charade of pretending not to know what Bhima and Arjuna mean when they ask her to see what they have brought home.
In Adi Parva 190.29 we find Yudhishthira and the two Madreyas slipping out of thesvayamvara after Draupadi has been won. These three are already with their mother when Draupadi arrives. Kunti knows that the only way to forge an unbreakable link among the five is not to allow them to get engrossed in different wives. So long their lives have been governed by her and have revolved only around her. She can be replaced only by a single woman, not five, if that unified focus is to persist. It is as though she were bringing into practice the Atharva Vedic injunction[]::
“May your drink be the same, may your food be common.
I bind you together with one common bond.
United, gather round the sacrificial fire
like the spokes of a chariot-wheel round the nave.” [III.30.6]
Draupadi, of course, is virtually born from the yajnic fire-altar.
Hence, Kunti deliberately asks that whatever has been brought should be shared and enjoyed as usual. After “discovering” her “mistake” her only worry is that something must be done so that her command does not become untrue (Adi Parva, 193.4-5). Yudhishthira’s speech to Drupada amply clarifies that the decision is Kunti’s though the brothers have eagerly acquiesced, each having Draupadi in his heart (193.12). It is also a magnificent tribute to the total respect and implicit obedience paid by the brothers to Kunti which is unparalleled in the epic. Despite all the paeans to Gandhari’s virtues, her complete failure as a mother to command any respect from Duryodhana only serves to highlight the qualities which make Kunti pre-eminent among all women in Mahabharata:
“My mother’s will is my will
because I think she is right…
Isn’t it said that obedience
to gurus is a supreme virtue?
What greater guru than one’s mother?…
To me this is the highest dharma.” (197.29; 198.17)
It is instructive to see how desperate Kunti is that her stratagem should not be foiled. As udhishthira finishes, she immediately appeals to Vyasa:
“What dharma-firm Yudhishthira says
is right. I fear my words will
become as pointless as lies.
And if that happens, will I
not be tainted with untruth?” (198.18)
She is also protecting herself, perhaps subconsciously. By maneuvering raupadi into having five husbands (the same number of men as Kunti had “known”), she effectively ensures that her daughter-in-law will never be able to point an accusing finger at her for having had sexual relations with persons other than her spouse.[]As usual, Kunti ensures that she has her way, this time with the help of Vyasa, her father-in-law. Kunti’s ambition for her children is finally voiced openly when she formally blesses Draupadi after the marriage ceremony:
“May you be queen of
the kingdom of the Kurus
with your dharma-loving husband
in the capital of Kurujangala.” (209.9)
Her nephew, Krishna, comes forward with Yadava wealth to build up the power of the Pandavas. The soundness of Kunti’s strategy is proved when the Kauravas plan to destroy the Pandavas’ unity by despatching lovely hetaerae to seduce them. Karna points out that as they are wedded to a common wife of extraordinary beauty, this ploy is bound to fail.
Hereafter, Kunti retreats into the background, giving up pride of place to Draupadi. Proof of her astonishing self-effacement is seen in the Pandavas not consulting her when invited to the dice-game, which is so very unusual in the context of her overarching influence over them till the marriage. This first instance of her removing herself from the decison-making role leads to disaster. After this, she emerges from the shadows to intervene decisively thrice. When her sons are exiled, she decides to stay back in Hastinapura as a silent but constant reproach to Dhritarashtra about her sons’ violated rights. Later, in the Udyoga Parva, she tells Krishna, who has come on a peace-embassy, to urge Yudhishthira to fight for their rights as Kshatriyas must. She reprimands him for abandoning his duty as king and mistakenly believing that espousing peace is the proper dharma. To inspire him she repeats a tactic used in the Varanavata exile:
“Can anything be more humiliating than
that your mother,
friendless and alone, should have to
eat other’s food?
Strong-armed one, recover the ancestral
use gentleness, dissension, gifts, force
Follow the dharma of rajas, redeem
your family honor.
Do not, with your brothers, watch your
merits waste away.” (132.32-34)
To inspire him further, she assumes the persona of Vidula to her son Sanjaya/Yudhishthira who is reluctant to face battle after defeat:
“Flare up, even if briefly, like
Do not smoulder away in billowing
fireless smoke.” (133.14)
To these twin spurs to prick them on, Kunti now adds the climactic motivation: the insult to her daughter-in-law, mincing no words in upbraiding the five to arouse their hibernating manhood:
“The princess of Panchala followed all dharmas,
yet in your presence
they mocked her— how can you ever
forgive this insult?
The kingdom lost did not hurt me,
the defeat at dice
did not hurt me; the exile of my sons
did not hurt me
so much as the humiliation of Draupadi
weeping in the sabha
as they mocked her. Nothing more painful
than that insult.” (137.16-18 ibid.)
To secure the safety of her sons she takes the conscious decision to undergo the trauma of acknowledging her shame to her first-born, kept secret so long. Not knowing that Krishna has already failed after approaching Karna with the same secret, baiting his offer with the prospect of Draupadi becoming his wife,
“The Vrishni lady, the Kaurava wife
she wilted in the sun’s heat like
a faded lotus garland.
She sheltered in the shade of Karna’s dress.” (Udyoga 144.29 ibid.)
Though she is rejected by Karna, in that apparent failure lies Kunti’s victory. For, she obtains his promise not to kill any Pandava but Arjuna. Moreover, she effectively weakens him from within. While he knows that he is battling his mother’s sons, they are only aware that he is the detestable charioteer’s son who must be slain for his crimes against Draupadi and Abhimanyu.
Kunti has that rare capacity to surprise us which distinguishes the kanya. When all that she had worked for has been achieved, she astonishes everyone by retiring to the forest with, of all persons, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, to spend her last days serving those who were responsible for her sufferings. Kunti’s reply to her bewildered sons’ anguished questions is that she had inspired them to fight so that they did not suffer oppression, and that having glutted herself with joy during her husband’s rule, she has no wish to enjoy a kingdom won by her sons. How effortlessly she transcends the symbiotic bonds of maternity! Seated calmly, she accepts death as a forest fire engulfs her. It is profoundly significant that the epic declares her to be the incarnation of siddhi, fulfilment. She is indeed the consummation of womanhood and the archetype of the modern phenomenon which is of such concern all over the world today: the Single Mother.
Kunti is the pre-eminent example in our mythology of the kanya. An integrated personality, with her libido under control, she has not more than one son from each of the four relationships and does not take advantage of Pandu’s hankering to enter into sexual alliance with more men[]. Making her own way in a hostile world, she establishes her sons and ultimately sublimates the ego. Finally, she transcends the self to give up her life reconciled, made whole, calm of mind, all passion spent.
Even more than Satyavati, Kunti is a “virgin” in the Jungian sense. Originally, this word connoted precisely the opposite of what it has come to mean. Ishtar and Aphrodite, the goddesses of love in ancient Mesopotamia and Greece, were called virgins. The later patriarchal cultures denounced them as immoral and wanton. The boon of virginity is not just a physical condition but refers to an inner state of the psyche which remains untrammelled by any slavish dependence on another, on a particular man. She is “one-in-herself”, an integrated personality who “belongs to herself while she is virgin-unwed and may not be compelled either to maintain chastity or to yield to an unwanted embrace… This liberty of action involves the right to refuse intimacies as well as to accept them… It may be used of a woman who has had much sexual experience; it may be even applied to a prostitute. Its real significance is to be found in its use as contrasted with ‘married.’ ”[]
Madri, Ambika, Ambalika, Gandhari and Subhadra present the exact opposite: the “married” woman who is dependent on what others think and therefore does what she may not actually approve of. Ambika and Ambalika silently accept their mother-in-law’s command to receive the repulsive Vyasa. Madri immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Gandhari blinds herself so that she does not exceed her husband. “She is not one-in-herself, but acts as a female counterpart or syzygy to some male.”[]
On the other hand, “The woman who is psychologically virgin is not dependant in this way. She is what she is because that is what she is. The woman who is virgin, one-in-herself, does what she does—not because of any desire to please, not to be liked, or to be approved, even by herself; not because of any desire to gain power over another to catch his interest or love, but because what she does is true… she is not influenced by the considerations that make the non-virgin woman, whether married or not, trim her sails and adapt herself to expediency dependent on what other people think. Her actions may, indeed, be unconventional.”[] Does this not describe Ahalya, Satyavati and Kunti?
What of Draupadi? Like Ahalya and Sita, Draupadi is ayonija, not born of woman. Where Ahalya is the Tilottama prototype and Sita is ploughed up from a furrow, Draupadi is invoked by a sacrificial rite to wreak vengeance. Actually, she arrives as a bonus because Drupada was performing the yajna for obtaining a son who would take revenge on Drona and had not asked for a daughter at all. Like Athena, she springs full-grown, in the bloom of youth, from the yajna vedi, not requiring the matrix of a human womb, ignoring the absence of Drupada’s queen who is unable to respond to the priest’s summons because her toilet is incomplete. She is the onlykanya whose appearance is described in detail and is therefore worth noting:
Shining coppery carved nails,
nor tall, neither dark nor pale,
with wavy dark-blue hair,
eyes like autumn-lotus leaves,
fragrant like the lotus…
soft-spoken and gentle…
She is the last to sleep,
the first to wake
even earlier than the early-rising
cowherds and shepherds.
Her sweat-bathed face is lovely,
like the lotus, like
the jasmine; slim-waisted like
the middle of the sacred
vedi, long-haired, pink-lipped,
and smooth-skinned.” (Adi Parva 169.44-46, Sabha 65.33-37)
Dark like Gandhakali, hence named Krishna, and gifted with blue-lotus fragrance wafting for a full krosha like Yojanagandha, she “knows”, like her mother-in-law Kunti and great grandmother-in-law Gandhakali, more than one man. Like Kunti she is also described as an amorous lover: draupadi bhratripati ca pancanam kamini tatha (Brahmavaivarta Purana, 4.115.73). Yet, hers is an immeasurably greater predicament. Where theirs were momentary encounters, Draupadi has to live out her entire life parcelled out among five men within the sacrament of marriage[]. Like Satyavati and Kunti, she remains a virgin, regaining that status after each marriage:
‘Devarshi Narada, narrating this wondrous, supernatural and excellent event said,
“Lovely-waisted and high-minded indeed,
she became virgin anew after each marriage”’ (Adi Parva, 197.14)
According to the Villipputtur’s Tamil version of the epic, Draupadi bathes in fire after each marriage, emerging chaste like the pole star[]. The South Indian cult of Draupadi sculpts her holding a closed lotus bud symbolising virginity, as opposed to the open lotus of fertility Subhadra holds. Ahalya-like, she transforms herself into stone when touched by the demon Kempirnacuran by invoking her chastity in an act of truth[]. Like Kunti, she resembles Madhavi, ancestress of the Kurus, in retaining her virginity despite being many-husbanded. Kunti herself describes Draupadi to Krishna as sarvadharmopacayinam (fosterer of all virtues, Udyoga Parva 137.16), using the identical term by which Yayati describes his daughter Madhavi while gifting her to Galava[] (ibid. 115.11). The conjunction of both occurrences of this epithet in the same parva is surely deliberate on part of the seer-poet for drawing our attention to these correspondences.
A true “virgin”, Panchali has a mind of her very own. Both Krishna and Panchali appear for the first time together in the svayamvara sabha and make decisive interventions. It is Panchali’s categorical refusal—wholly unexpected—to accept Karna as a suitor that alters the entire complexion of that assembly and, indeed, the course of the epic itself. The affront to Karna sows the seeds of the assault on her in the dice-game. It is her sakha-to-be, Krishna, who steps in to put an end to the skirmish between the furious kings and the disguised Pandavas.
She alone enjoys the unique relationship of sakhi with her sakha Krishna. Only she, among all the powerful characters in the epic, has the capacity to upbraid Krishna:
“No husband have I, nor son
nor brother, nor father; and
O Madhusudana, even
you are not mine” (Vana Parva 10.125 my translation)
She exhorts that he is bound fourfold to protect her:
“For four reasons, Krishna, you
are bound to protect me ever:
I’m related, I’m renowned,
I’m your sakhi and
you rule over all.” (Vana Parva 10.127, my translation)
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