The men play dice and wage wars in Mahabharata , as anywhere else ; but it is the women who wield power and influence. It is the women who take decisions , direct the course of events and decide the fate of men and their generations to follow. The women are the true leaders of the Epic The three women in particular who wielded power in more than one form were Sathyavathi the dusky fragrant fisher girl who became the queen , Pritha the fair maiden who reluctantly became the mother of five sons and Krishnaa , daughter of the fire , Druapadi. The Epic is interwoven with their remarkable sagacity in exercise of their power and leadership. Some say the Epic , in a way , is a study in use and abuse of power.
These women displayed that the truly powerful do not cling to power. They knew when and how to wield it but also, even more important, to when not to use it
Pritha, wide eyed and beautiful , the firstborn of Devameedha Shurasena of the Vrishni Yadavas who ruled over Mathura , had a rather unusual childhood. Her father had given her away even before she was born . He gifted her to his good friend and childless cousin Kunthibhoja , a Bhoja Yadava of the Kunti Kingdom. Soon after Pritha was born she was adopted by Kunthibhoja ; and since then she came to be known as Kunti. After her arrival, Kunthibhoja was blessed with children. He considered Kunti his lucky charm and doted on her . In the meantime Shurasena had a son and named him Vasudeva who years later married Devaki of Mathura and had a son by her; Krishna Vaasudeva.
Pritha was a happy child; and , yet yearned for a mother in Knthibhoja’s mansion. She found none to confide her fears , hopes and anxieties. That feeling of being left adrift , unguided and unwanted rankled deep within her for long years.
Kunthibhoja placed the nubile girl Pritha at the disposal of the eccentric sage Durvasa and exhorted her not to neglect any service out of pride in her good-looks or in her status . He cautioned her against displeasing the quick-tempered sage , lest she bring dishonor to her clan and to herself . That fear of bringing disgrace to her clan haunted her until late in her life. That fear was to become a premise for the tragedy of her life and of the Epic.
The irascible Durvasa , for once ,was pleased . He gifted Pritha with a mantra that would summon , at her will , any god . The girl , a short time thereafter , out of sheer child-like curiosity tested whether the mantra would really work .To her amazement it did work. Lo and behold ! the resplendent Sun presented himself ; but he refused to go away unsatisfied .He cajoled the virgin princess Pritha to consent for sex. It was then that she took her first real decision . Pritha asked the Sun to assure that her virginity remained unimpaired even after childbirth and that her son would resemble his father in glory.
It was her clan’s honor that came in the way of Kunti owning her firstborn. Kunti was a princess and a queen to be. In contrast , Satyavathi a fisherwoman was not inhibited by qualms of clan honor etc. ; and she was not scared or ashamed of being known as an unwed -mother.
Kunti then took that most accursed decision of her life – to set adrift her son , her firstborn down the river Ashva , so that King Kunthibhoja , her adopted father and his clan would not have to hang their head in shame. But she regretted abandoning her child , in silent grief and guilt .When she spoke of that years later , it was rather too late and the die of death had been cast; her words sounded hollow bereft of authenticity of mother’s love.
Kunti, for a short while broke the sequence of Bharata – brides forced into unwilling marriages ; but sadly ,she could not break the sequence of Bharata Kulavadhus forced to beget sons out of wedlock.
Her joy in marriage was short-lived. She was sad and hurt for a number of reasons. Soon after her marriage , the more attractive Madri was brought in as the second wife of Pandu , her husband. Pandu thereafter not merely distanced himself from kunti but also because of his disability forced kunti to beget sons out of the wedlock by soliciting a worthy stranger. The tragedy of Pandu was that he was consumed by lust but incapable of quenching that raging fire .”Addiction to lust killed my mother’s husband, though the virtuous Shantanu gave him birth. And though truth-speaking Vyasa is my father, lust consumes me too .”
The only solace for Kunti in that unsatisfying triangular relation was Madri, a woman who came into her life as a rival ; but , soon became her younger sister and a loving friend. Kunti , later in in her life, recounted the three blessings in her life : her friend Madri ; her sons of matchless valor ; and, the most endearing of all , her nephew Krishna.
When Pandu forced her to beget children for him by soliciting a worthy person, she recoiled in horror and flatly refused saying “Not even in touch will I be embraced by another “.She was scared of her past and wanted desperately to move away from that shame. Pandu however cajoled and reasoned with her that she would merely be following a sanctioned custom of the Northern Kurus and he even cited the examples of his mother and her sister.He went on to explain :
“Now will I make known to thee the true essence of dharma , listen unto me the ancient dharma perceived by the lofty-minded knowers of it. In former times, as is well known, women were left unhindered (anavrita); O thou of the lovely face, going the way of their desires, in freedom they followed their own inclinations. (Kamachara bhavanti), O sweet-smiling one, neither man nor woman knew jealousy (Irshya nasti narl-nara- naam); and,were free from fear, love and anger. When they, from the years of maidenhood on, did trick their husbands; that was not seen as wrong. But, that was the right thing in former times. This was the moral order laid down by the rule of conduct; it was honored by the great Rishis through observance, and to-day is still honored among the Uttarakurus. For, this is the eternal law that shows favor to women.
But, sadly, the barrier of to-day was set up in our world short while ago . Learn this now, O brightly-smiling one, from me “. He then narrates the bizarre story of Svethakethu son of the Rishi Uddalaka; and, the circumstance that prompted Svethakethu to bring into effect the new moral order of conduct for woman and man, replacing the ancient law under which the women were unhindered (anavrita).
“Until then , women were not restricted to the house, they were not dependent on family members; they moved about freely, they enjoyed themselves freely. Until then they were free; they could sleep with any men they liked from the age of puberty; they could be unfaithful to their husbands, and yet were not viewed sinful… the greatest rishis have praised the ancient tradition-based custom;… the northern Kurus still practise it…the new custom is very recent.” Adi Parva (122.4-8)
He begged her “Sweet lady, I fold my palms joining the tips of my lotus-leaf fingers and I implore you listen to me.” She could not let him know that she already had a son ; she could also not refuse his request altogether. She tactfully and tacitly gave in “Best of Bharatas ! Great adharma it is for a husband to ask repeatedly a favor; shouldn’t a wife anticipate his wishes”.
After she bore three sons and when the greedy husband urged Kunti to have more sons, she refused to abuse that rare power for sake of self-indulgence . At his request she passed on one mantra to his favorite Madri. Again , when he asked for more mantras for use by Madri , Kunti angrily retorted “ Don’t come to me again, my lord, saying give her the mantra .”
Kunti yearned for a true love ; but was hurt and disappointed .She envied Madri as she ascended the funeral pyre with Pandu’s corpse; and cried out , ” Princess of Bahlika ! You are fortunate indeed , I never had the chance to see his face radiant in intercourse.” She begged Madri a favor “Could I bring up your children as mine” Madri the true friend she was cried out to Kunti “You are blessed. There is none like you; you are my light, my guide, most respect-worthy. Greater in status, purer in virtue.” How true this description was of Kunti !
The years that followed Pandu’s death were truly of great distress . Poverty , insecurity and shame haunted her and her sons . Unaided by the Vrishnis or the Bhojas , Kunti alone protected and guided her sons from the treacheries plotted by the sons of Gandhari .Her lone trustworthy contact in Hastinapura was Vidura the son of Ambika’s maid. He too offered help covertly, in fear of Kurus. It was with his help that Kunti managed to rescue her sons and herself from the arson at Varanavruta.
[A question that usually comes up is: why kunti could not get (seek) assistance from the Vrishnis or the Bhojas (both being Yadavas – Kunti’s maternal clan). This question has not been answered clearly. I do not know the exact reason that forced Kunti to fight it out alone. However, I surmise the following context of those times could provide some clues to why Kunti had to brave her troubles alone. I could be wrong. Yet;..
At that time the entire north India as also the Yadava country was in turmoil. They were under repeated attacks by Jarasandha of Magadha (Bihar) who formed a confederation consisting Dantavakra of Karusha and Sishupala of Chedi in central India, Bhishmaka of Vidarbha in the south-west, Kalayavana beyond the western borders, the ruler of Kashi (Benares), Paundraka Vasudeva of Pundra (Bengal) in the east, Naraka of Pragjyotishapura (Assam) in the north east. Jarasandha thus established a tyrannical supremacy over the other regions.
For fear of Jarasandha and his hordes, the king of the Salwayana tribe with their brethren and followers such as the southern Panchalas and the eastern Kosalas all fled to the country of the Kuntis. Similarly, the Matsyas (Rajasthan area) and the Sannyastapadas, overcome with fear, fled into the southern country. And so did the others, alarmed at the power of jarasandha, left their kingdoms and fled in all directions.
Jarasandha was particularly angry with the establishment at Mathura and the Yadavas in general, because his son-in-law Kamsa had been slain by Yadava-Krishna. Jarasandha, in rage and retaliation, attacked and imprisoned as many as eighty-six princes, it is said.
Krishna , in order to save the Yadavas from being enslaved , persuaded his clan leaders to abandon Mathura; and, to re-establish themselves in the fortified city of Dwaraka , on the western seashore. It is said; the eighteen tribes of Yadavas , including the Bhojas, with the Surasenas, the Bhadrakas, the Yodhas, the Salwas, the Patachchavas, the Susthalas, the Mukuttas, and the Kulindas, along with the Kuntis, all fled towards the west , for fear of jarasandha.
Meanwhile, Bhishma who then was the regent of the Kingdom of Hasthinapura found it wiser and safer to appease; and, to make truce with Jarasandha. Srimad Bhagavatha Purana even mentions that some troops of Hasthinapura assisted Jarasandha and accompanied the Magadha army’s onslaught on Mathura.
It , therefore , appears that during the time in question, Hasthinapura region was comparatively safe. Further, all the Yadavas clans had abandoned Mathura and fled to Dwaraka in the far west. Therefore none of Kunti’s maternal-clans was near her nor was in a position to help her. It is also likely that Kunti might have reasoned that the fate and future of her sons was tied to Hasthinapura, over which they had to assert their right. And, Kunti and her sons, therefore , had to be in Hasthinapura region. Being closer to the Yadava clans or their support, in any case, was not of great consequence.]
When Bhima was about to drive away the infatuated Hidamba , Kunti had the presence of mind and foresight to spot an opportunity that came her way for forging a new alliance; and , she grasped it by advising Bhima to marry the love thirsty girl – ” 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.”
She realized that her friendless , shelter-less and impoverished sons badly needed supporters and allies if they had to survive , fight back their tormentors ; and regain the lost kingdom and honor.
Thanks to Kunti’s foresight , that union of Bhima and Hidamba not merely gained for the Pandavas the support of the Rakshasas during their exile ; but also saved the life of Arjuna later in the Kurukshetra war. It was again Kunti who instructed her first grandchild to fight for Pandavas “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 .” Ghatotkacha, son of Hidamba, saved Arjuna from Karna’s infallible weapon in the war, at the cost of his own life.
Earlier , Bhima, at the instance of Kunti, befriended Naga Aryaka , her father’s maternal grand father. Later during the years of exile, Arjuna as advised by his mother forged alliance with Nagas , Manipuris and Yadavas of Dwaraka (through Subhadra). Kunti had the foresight to build alliances that would someday come in handy .
She had the wisdom to educate her sons in proper use of power. At Ekachakranagara, when Yudhisthira opposed sending Bhima to fight Bakasura the monstrous eater , Kunti retorted rather sternly “ I am not foolish; don’t think me ignorant; I am 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 will repay a Brahmin and two, we will gain moral merit. It is a king’s duty to protect. It is his dharma.” That was the only other occasion that Yudhisthira opposed his mother .
After the Baka episode , Kunti and her sons shifted from the Brahmin’s house to a potter’s house in the country of Panchala ; that was farther down in social hierarchy. That perhaps was a part of her way of bringing up her sons; to expose them to experiences at all levels of living. Kunti’s maturity, the ability to observe life , to learn from experience and arrive at a swift decision, sets her apart from other characters in the Epic , save Krishna.
The move to Panchala at the instance of Vyasa was to win Drupada’s daughter and to form an alliance with the Panchalas. That , again , was a part of her long-term strategy to win back the lost kingdom. She had the foresight and sagacity to calculate that a fight with the Kauravas would at sometime be inevitable , while no others foresaw the battle even as a possibility. She tried to build alliances around that possibility .
Much has been written about Kunti asking her sons to share whatever they brought home and which led to the five brothers marrying one woman , Draupadi. Was Kunti really not aware her son won a bride ?Was she merely talking of alms her sons brought home? I am not sure Kunti was so gullible.
Adi Parva (190.29) mentions that Yudhisthira along with the twins slipped out of the Swayamvara as melee set-in when Arjuna , in disguise , won Draupadi. They were already back home by the time the other two brothers along with the newly-won bride Draupadi presented themselves at the door steps. Yudhisthira , by then, would surely have reported to Kunti what transpired at the Swayamvara. While he and the twins were reporting to her , she would have noticed the sparkle and desire in their eyes too. Was that the reason of her charade , asking the brothers to share whatever they had bought home? Though Yudhisthira lamely explains to Drupada that they were honoring the wish of their mother and they were following the custom of their ancestors ; Vyasa comments “each had her in his heart”(Adi Parva 193,12) – drupadasyā atmajā rājaṃs te bhindyantāṃ tataḥ paraiḥ
Kunti showed no signs of regret of her “slip-of-tongue”. She urged Drupada “I fear my words will become as pointless as lies. And if that happens, will I not be tainted with untruth?”. What that decision of Kunti did to the Brothers and how that bonded the six together becomes explicit later in the Epic.
The respect and implicit obedience her sons displayed was a tribute to Kunti and her motherhood. It was something that Gandhari could not achieve. Truly, Kunti is a remarkable picture of maternal heroism created by Vyasa.
Indeed, the only occasion when her sons did not consult her was before playing the second dice game. They did not even meet their mother before leaving Indraprastha, let alone seek her advice. And , what a disaster that turned out to be !!
The Draupadi Swayamvara marks a watershed in the Epic . With that , Kunti gracefully recedes to background and Draupadi takes over the care of Kunti’s sons. It also marks the entry of Krishna in to the Epic and into the lives of the Pandavas . Krishna was another of those who wielded enormous influence ; but never occupied a seat of power. It is only the presence of Krishna that elevates Mahabharata into an Epic of great significance; else it would merely have petered out into a listless tale of internecine fratricide.
Finally , Kunti in order to ensure safety of her sons , humiliated herself and revealed the “misdeed” of her youth. She begged Karna to join his brothers. Though Karna rejected her , he fell into an abyss of indecision.
Some commentators have sought to justify Kunti’s prolonged silence by saying that Kunti had long realized the futility of letting know Karna his birth-secret; and she rightly deduced that doing so would cause more humiliation , suffering and harm to Pandavas. Because, Kunti by then knew very well of Karna’s intense loyalty and submission to Duryodhana; and, she calculated if Yudishthira promptly hands over the throne to his new-found elder brother Karna the latter would undoubtedly surrender it to his master Duryodhana. That would not in any manner help Pandavas in regaining their heritage; instead it would worsen their position. Kunti, therefore, made the heroic choice of keeping the secret as long as it was possible although it caused her much anguish and agony.
Shri Pradip Bhattacharya adds:’ Karna’s grossly limited dharma is one of blind adherence to his benefactor regardless of the ethics of Duryodhana’s actions….She (Kunti), in contrast, deliberately chose the greater good, that of establishing a new kingdom founded on dharma under her nephew Krishna’s leadership by the Pandavas. Her acknowledging Karna as her son in haste would only have strengthened the forces of adharma. To describe Kunti’s choice as ‘blotting her record as a mother’ is surely unjustified’.
Kunti all her life acted alone , unaided and unguided; except perhaps with tacit support of Vidura .Whatever decisions she took , they were on her own. She guided and protected her sons in every way she could and guarded them amid all the venal politics of the Kuru court .
When her sons went into exile Kunti stayed back in Hastinapura perhaps to remind the blind king of his guilt. She had not given up the fight. When Krishna came to Hastinapura on a peace mission she was terribly upset and angry . She chided Krishna and asked him to urge Yudhisthira to fight for his rights as a Kshatriya must. She asked Yudhisthira through Krishna “ Can anything be more humiliating than that your mother, friendless and alone, should have to eat others food ? Strong-armed one, recover the ancestral paternal kingdom by use of gentleness, dissension, gifts, force or negotiation. Follow the dharma of the kings, redeem your family honor. Do not, with your brothers, watch your merits waste away.”
She chided and motivated her sons. She delivered the final punch kick “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”
Flare up, even if briefly, like tinduka-wood. Do not smolder away in billowing fire -less smoke. (Udyoga Parva, 05,131.013 – alātaṃ tindukasyeva muhūrtam api vijvala)
After the war she decided to retreat into the forest along with the blind king Dritharastra , his blindfolded queen Gandhari and Vidura. When Bhima , in anguish cried out , why she urged them to fight and wade through the rivers of blood and guts of their relatives, if she had to go away leaving them behind after everything was done. Kunti consoles Bhima the strongest of her sons by saying that she inspired them to fight not because she desired for a kingdom or for a palace but because she desired an honorable life for her sons and that they should not live forever in shame as slaves.
In many ways, Kunti’s life is remarkable . Gifted away by her father even before she was born, callously placed by her foster father at the mercy of an eccentric sage she fell a victim of a god’s lust,. An impotent husband forced her to beget children from others thrice over. She yearned for love but received none . In her days of utter misery neither her father nor her foster-father cared to help her. She guided and protected her sons virtually alone . The only friends she had were Madri who died too young and Vidura the helpless bystander. Her true confidant was her nephew Krishna.
Kunti comes across as a brave and a wise woman grievously hurt and disappointed in love. She was not a woman cast in the conventional mold . She was rather lonely , fighting to protect her sons amidst the encircling treachery and hatred. She had the wisdom to educate her sons in proper use of power. She guided them along the path of Dharma . She not merely anticipated a war but willed it to happen in order to regain honor and the lost kingdom for her sons . Towards that end she built and sustained political alliances with foresight and sagacity . She had the wisdom to recede from active scene when it was prudent to do so .When her mission was accomplished she had the detachment and strength of mind to renounce the fruits of her efforts and to walk away into forest and into fire… Truly, Kunti is a remarkable picture of maternal heroism created by Vyasa.