When the Mother is Guru
Yudhishthira’s Dharma-lessons began with Kunti.
In fact, Yudhishthira had his first lessons in practical Dharma from Kunti.
After escaping from Varanavata, and post-Hidimba episode, while the Pandavas and Kunti had been roaming in the forest, Kunti ordered Bhima to kill Baka Rakshasa in order to save their Brahmana host in Ekacakra. When Yudhishthira asked about the matter, Kunti replied, “Bhima, that chastiser of foes, will at my command, do this great deed for the good of the Brahmana and the liberation (Moksha) of this town.”[i]
In Kunti’s Dharma, the term ‘Moksha’ does not relate to self liberation, but liberation of others, i.e. doing good to others. Moksha thus implies a fight against tyrannous power.
Initially, Yudhishthira could not accept Kunti’s decision. He charged her:
“What rash act hast thou done, O mother! It is difficult of being performed and almost amounteth to suicide! The learned never applaud the abandonment of one's own child.”[ii]
The young Yudhishthira thought at this time that he was learned because he knew what the learned had said. He thought he could lecture Kunti on custom and Vedas:
“Why dost thou, O mother, wish to sacrifice thy own child for the sake of another's? Thou hast, by this abandonment of thy child, acted not only against the course of human practices but also against the teachings of the Vedas.”[iii]
The nature of Yudhishthira’s Dharma and thought on Vedas at this phase is further understood when he said:
“That Bhima, relying on whose arms we sleep happily in the night and hope to recover the kingdom of which we have been deprived by the covetous son of Dhrtarashtra, that hero of immeasurable energy, remembering whose prowess Duryodhana and ?akuni do not sleep a wink during the whole night and by whose prowess we were rescued from the palace of lac and various other dangers, that Bhima who caused the death of Purocana, and relying on whose might we regard ourselves as having already slain the sons of Dhrtarashtra and acquired the whole earth with all her wealth, upon what considerations, O mother, hast thou resolved upon abandoning him?” (1.150.7-10)
Clearly, Yudhishthira’s Dharma was self-centric at this phase; Vedas were mere book-learning to him. He became even harsher: “Hast thou been deprived of thy reason? Hath thy understanding been clouded by the calamities thou hast undergone?”[iv]
Kunti calmly told Yudhishthira not to be anxious, and said that she had not come to this resolve (of sending Bhima to Baka-killing mission) owing to any weakness of understanding.[v] Kunti taught that willingness to help others in dire need is not ‘buddhidaurbalya’. She said:
“Respected by the Brahmana, and with our sorrows assuaged, we have been living in the house of this Brahmana, unknown to the sons of Dhrtarashtra. For requiting, O son, that Brahmana, I have resolved to do this. He, indeed, is a Purusha upon whom good offices are never lost. The measure of his requital becometh greater than the measure of the services he receiveth.”[vi]
Kunti thus not only taught humanistic values but also defined Purusha and Paurusha. She explained that her decision to appoint Bhima for the job was not based on any blind idealism. She had weighed the practical sides too. It was on the basis of her observation of facts (Bhima’s killing of Hidimba) that she had formed opinion on Bhima’s might and was confident that he could kill Baka Rakshasa:
“I have not acted in this from foolishness or ignorance or from motive of gain. I have deliberately resolved to do this virtuous deed. By this act, O Yudhishthira, two objects will be accomplished; one is a requital of the services rendered by the Brahmana and the other is the acquisition of high Dharma merit.”[vii]
Kunti here illustrates what it is to be Shishta – the one who decides on firsthand observation - Pratyaksha. She also explained her definition of true Kshatriya, and said that a true Kshatriya helps, protects life of all Varnas – Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra – and liberate them.
Kunti’s teachings on Dharma (and Karma) can be summed up thus –
a) Humanistic values and willingness to help others irrespective of social identity
b) Practical weiging of facts based on observation and experience (Pratyaksha) to decide on the nature of that help
c) Going beyond self-concern and self-centricity
d) Pursuit of an ideal
All these constitute Dharma.
Yudhishthira learnt his lessons well and said:
“What thou, O mother, hast deliberately done, moved by compassion for the afflicted Brahmana, is, indeed, excellent. Bhima will certainly come back with life, after having slain the cannibal.”[viii]
If we compare Yudhishthira’s initial objections that Kunti had been acting not only against the course of human practices but also against lokavrtti [ix], we understand how Yudhishthira learnt to redefine his ideas of learning, custom and Vedas. In short, Yudhishthira symbolizes evolution, and that is Dharma. This learning is reflected in his arguments for the polyandrous marriage.
Where did Kunti learn such Dharma?
Interestingly, or perhaps as expected, it leads us back to Vyasa, because Kunti acknowledged Vyasa as her Guru in her learning on Dharma:
“The illustrious Vyasa of wisdom acquired by hard ascetic toil told me so in bygone days. It is therefore, that I have resolved upon accomplishing this.” [x]
Indeed, Vyasa’s social reforms would not have been possible without Kunti.
After the Pandavas married Draupadi, Kunti removed herself from their life leaving her legacy to Draupadi, and leaving the fate of Pandavas in her hand. This is indeed another great lesson taught by Kunti – one should know the timing to retire from a particular involvement.
One may find here a great lesson on family management too.
Kunti however, remained vigilant about the activities of Pandavas and Draupadi, and her role in their life thereafter was one of Dharma-guide.
During Krshna’s emissary on the eve of Kurukshetra War, Kunti sent a powerful message to her sons through Krshna. She also narrated Vidura-Sanjaya Samvada (5.131-134) to inspire and goad the Pandavas. Interestingly, the narrative was titled Jaya (5.134.17a); and the purpose of the narrative was to create Protectors of practisers of Dharma (goptaram dharmacarinam, 5.134.21a) – Arthashastra and Rajadharma.
The original title of Mbh. is Jaya and Bharata. I would say, why Vyasa titled his Vedan Pancaman as Jaya might have many reasons, however, one reason was surely to honour Kunti.
The other important thing to note: Dharma and Gopta – the ideology of Kunti’s Jaya-narrative. Vyasa’s Mbh. – Bharata has the same purpose.
More significant for us: Draupadi too teaches Dharma and Gopta ideology. Kunti and Draupadi are thus not only framed together as Panca-Kanyas, but also in ideology.
The Guptas who pioneered a Golden Age in Bharatavarsha’s Itihasa, cherished the Gopta ideology as evident from numerous inscriptions.
- [i] mamaiva vacanad esha karishyati paramtapah /
brahmanarthe mahat krtyam moshkaya nagarasya ca (1.150.4)
- [ii] kim idam sahasam tikshnam bhavatya dushkrtam krtam /
parityagam hi putrasya na prashamsanti sadhavah // (1.150.5)
- [iii] katham parasutasyarthe svasutam tyaktum icchasi /
lokavrttiviruddham vai putratyagat krtam tvaya // (1.150.6)
- [iv] tasya vyavasitas tyago buddhim asthaya kam tvaya /
kaccin na duhkhair buddhis te vipluta gatacetasah // (1.150.11)
- [v] na cayam buddhidaurbalyad vyavasayah krto maya // (1.150.12)
- [vi] iha viprasya bhavane vayam putra sukhoshitah /
tasya pratikriya tata mayeyam prasamikshita /
etavan eva purushah krtam yasmin na nashyati // (1.150.13)
- [vii] nedam lobhan na cajnanan na ca mohad vinishcitam /
buddhipurvam tu dharmasya vyavasayah krto maya //
arthau dvav api nishpannau yudhish?hira bhavishyatah /
pratikarash ca vasasya dharmash ca carito mahan // (1.150.19-20)
- [viii] upapannam idam matas tvaya yad buddhipurvakam /
artasya brahmanasyaivam anukroshad idam krtam /
dhruvam eshyati bhimo 'yam nihatya purushadakam // (1.150.26)
- [ix] katham parasutasyarthe svasutam tyaktum icchasi /
lokavrttiviruddham vai putratyagat krtam tvaya // (1.150.6)
- [x] evam sa bhagavan vyasah pura kauravanandana /
provaca sutaram prajnas tasmad etac cikirshitam // (1.150.25)