Tag Archives: Kunti

Gandhari the lonely Queen

1.1. Yes; Gandhari, the wife of Dhritharastra and mother of the Kauravas, is one of the unsung heroes of the Mahabharata.  Gandhari was a remarkable woman; very brave and rooted in her own convictions.  She did try frantically, but in vain, to exert her influence and to change the course of events that eventually catapulted her family into the abyss of   calamity.  She, sadly, lacked the strength or the persuasive power to drive sense and reason into the hearts of her sons and her blind husband smoldering with envy and hate. Unlike Kunti, she could not command from her sons the obedience and respect that was due to a Mother.  She, eventually, could neither be an adviser nor a protector of her wayward sons.  She in lone desperation, in silent grief, watched helplessly her hundred and more sons and grandsons driven to death and destruction.

At the end, she no longer was the queen sharing a throne; she was just an old, lonely weeping mother; an embittered, blindfolded woman burdened with memories of her dead sons, mourning their loss along with a hundred or more young widows. And, the blind old couple spent the evening of their lives grieving the loss of their sons destroyed in the fire of their own malice and hate. 

1.2. Gandhari’s anguish, pain, sorrow in consoling scores of her widowed young daughters-in-laws is heartbreaking, beyond words. The final retreat into the forest along with her heartbroken , disillusioned husband ; the co-sufferer Kunti ; and,  the trusted caretakers (King’s companion Vidura and the minister  Sanjaya)  came as a much needed relief from the  bewildering mêlée of  sorrow, fear , hatred  and  helplessness .  The sense of   defeat and the incisive guilt that kept gnawing at her soul let her no peace.

 Married life

2.1. Gandhari, just as the other kula-vadhus of the Bharatha clan, had to endure more than her share of pain, sorrow, neglect and betrayal.  Her father Subala the ruler of Gandhara, was coerced by the fearsome warlord Bhishma into giving her away in marriage to a prince of a distant land.  She was, then, unaware that her husband-to-be was neither wise nor trustworthy; and , could never be a king in his own right. Little did she know he would ever be a puppet swayed by the winds of anger, deceit and lust. She was devastated when she learnt her newlywed husband was born blind; and never in his life had he known the delight of colors; and , never would he experience the radiance of light.

2.2. The manner in which she expressed her empathy with her blind husband was indeed extraordinary.  She willingly chose to be as sightless as her husband was. She, of her own accord, stepped into the dark and lonely world of the blind where the only realities are sound , smell  and touch. She blindfolded herself.  And, she, for all purposes, lived as a blind woman , for the rest of her long and tortured life, sharing the pain, prejudices and darkness of her husband. It was indeed a supreme sacrifice; an act of intense love for her husband.

2.3. Much has been written and said about Gandhari’s choice of turning herself into a blind woman. It truly was an intense emotional identification with her husband’s disability.  Her identification was not symbolic; it was indeed actual. She denied herself the sights and experiences that her husband was deprived by the cruelty of his fate. She made sure that she did not exceed him in any manner; and, that in all conditions she would follow her husband.  That was her way of expressing her solidarity with her husband:  by sharing his dark life.

[Some say, Gandhari’s voluntary blindfolding was an act of protest and a rebellion against the injustice meted out to her. She was forced to marry a blind man much against her will.  Her pride as a woman was hurt and violated. She chose to register her protest in a manner that no other woman had done in the past. She inflicted upon herself the very injustice she rebelled against. It was her way of saying: If they thought that a blind husband was fine for me, then a blindfolded wife is good enough for him. This reveals a side of her character that one does not often come across in the Epic.  This spotlights her indomitable will, her singular ability to stand alone, and, to take swift and agonizing decisions unmindful of the consequences. ]

3.1. In either case, it meant that she was now as disabled and as helpless as her husband. Each was unable to help, to guide or to support the other. And, both had to depend on external help. Therefore, there had to be always, by necessity, a third person in their married life. This surely was not the best way to be husband and wife, especially when other choices were open.

3.2. Gandhari, unlike most other women in the Epic, was a completely devoted and a faithful wife. But, her devious husband was not faithful to her; he routinely took palace maids to his bed.  There was an inherent strife in their conjugal life. Gandhari was disappointed in love as also in marriage. Some say, Gandhari was cold to her husband. But, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra had to be physically together by necessity; clustered together by the quirk of fate as also by her self-inflicted punishment.  Else, they remained emotionally apart. And, at the very end, it was only the unbearable agony and grief of losing all their sons and grandsons that brought them closer.

[ It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages

– Friedrich Nietzsche }


4.1. At the same time, Dhritarashtra was himself struggling with many complexes, disappointments and frustrations. He never could come to terms with the bitter fact that Kingship was taken away from him merely because he was blind. It was totally unjust, he felt.  He blamed the fate for the cruel trick it played on him. The denial of kingship kept gnawing at his heart. Dhritarashtra was ever a disgruntled grumpy person. The unexpected death of Pandu, his brother, opened his way to the throne.  

And, when Gandhari’s huge womb produced one hundred sons, a new ray of hope dawned in Dhritarashtra’s heart. He fondly came to believe that his eldest son Duryodhana would surely and rightfully succeed him as the King of Hastinapur. Since he was the king, he strongly believed, his sons should, naturally, be the heir to the throne. He doted on his eldest son; and, supported his every cunning scheme, covertly or otherwise. 

4.2. Gandhari the good woman was surrounded all her life by a weak and an ambitious husband; a treacherous and scheming brother Shakuni; and, hate filled misguided sons. And, none of them paid heed to her words; and , much less cared for her feelings. Gandhari the Queen, the mother of hundred sons was indeed a very lonely woman.

4.3. As Gandhari helplessly watched her family drift on the path to self destruction, she was torn apart in many directions:  by her maternal affections, her duty to her husband and by her sense of justice. But, her agony, loneliness and her predicaments were neither shared nor appreciated by her husband.

There was within her a simmering volcano of frustration and rage born out of a sense of   betrayal, pain, loneliness and neglect; and, above all, of the injustice meted out to her.

 Was it prudent?

5.1. Gandhari’s act of opting to be sightless raises questions about the essence of married life.  Should one attempt to be a replica of his or her spouse? Or, should the partners in a marriage mutually compliment; support each other’s abilities; and, also try to make up for the other’s shortcomings ; dovetail each other’s strengths and weaknesses  (just as Sukanya of yore helped her blind husband Chavyana) ?  Which is of greater value in a marriage: sameness or compatibility?

5.2. When Gandhari turned herself blind just to be like her husband, she became a female counterpart of the blind king.   There were , at that time , other options open to her.  She,   for instance, could have tried to be the eyes and the wisdom of her husband (since he lacked both). That surely   would have been more purposeful. Had Gandhari stepped into the foray of administering the kingdom on behalf of the blind king; and, taken charge of the affairs of the State as also that of the Royal family, the tale of Mahabharata would have been a far different one.  It surely would not have been a listless account of internecine fratricide. It would have been more forthright and challenging, since Gandhari was a courageous, ambitious woman good at heart.

But, she seemed to have surrendered her initiative rather too easily and too quickly without a thought. She drifted through the vagaries of life blindfolded, helpless and uncared.


The other question that comes up is about Gandhari’s motherhood.

6.1. As Gandhari stepped into the royal household at Hastinapur, it became evident that her blind prince would never be a King. But, soon thereafter, things did change, for better, with the sudden and untimely death of Pandu the King. There was some cheer in her life when Dhritarashtra was placed on the throne and she became the Queen.  However, to her chagrin, Gandhari soon realized that her blind husband was in fact merely an interim figurehead; and, it was the overbearing patriarch Bhishma who wielded all the power and authority. Further, Gandhari’s position was getting increasingly insecure with Kunti, her rival queen, delivering to a wondrous looking boy, while she remained childless.  And, her annoyance was exacerbated as it generally came to be assumed that Kunti’s eldest son would, eventually, inherit the throne of Hastinapur.

Gandhari Vyasa2

6.2. Gandhari was now desperate to become a mother. She desired to be a mother of one hundred powerful sons; and, in particular the mother of kings. Her frustration over the foetus growing in her for an unduly long period of two years was getting unbearable. She no longer could carry the long overdue womb that was getting heavier with each passing day.  Her patience was running out; and, she could wait no longer.  In the fury of frustration , she strikes hard at her womb; and, delivers to an immature ball of iron-hard flesh. Gandhari was devastated; and , was about to throwaway that horrifying ball of flesh. But, Vyasa, the biological father of her husband, intervened; and, arranged to cut the flesh into one hundred pieces.  And, since Gandhari desired for a daughter he cut one more piece.   Vyasa arranged to incubate each piece in a separate jar filled with ghee, for another two years. Those pieces of flesh, at last, developed into one hundred sons that Gandhari so desperately yearned for;   and , into a daughter that she desired. The Kuru clan was thus born out of envy and frustration.

7.1. And, as a mother Gandhari had to pay a terrible price for her self-inflicted sightlessness. She could neither experience the delight of looking at the faces of her children *, nor could she fulfil her duty as a mother in bringing up and guiding her children along the right path.  All her children, deprived of mother’s true love and care , were nursed by maid servants.   As her sons grew up to fine young lads, Gandhari could neither discipline, nor control and nor  could mold her children as only a mother can. The seeds of their undisciplined growth bore bitter fruit years later when loveless Duryodhana and his coterie   brushed aside her sane advice to see reason and to behave as virtuous men would do. By then, her sons had gone too far in their ways; and, scarcely had the will or the patience to walk beside their mother.  Their fate had been usurped by their scheming and devious uncle Shakuni who, for his own reasons, kept them chained to hate and envy. 

She was powerless to wean her thoughtless sons away from her dark hearted brother.  She was also unable to bring around Dhritarashtra blinded by his misplaced fondness   for his sons.  Gandhari’s self-induced blindness took a heavy toll on her motherhood.  Gandhari, all her life, had to be a helpless bystander.

[ * The only time Gandhari saw all her sons together was about seventeen years after they were all killed in the war. More of that, a little later.]

7.2. Here, Gandhari stands in sharp contrast to Kunti who devoted herself, entirely, to protecting and guiding her children through their good and bad days. Kunti’s children in turn looked up to their mother for advice; and, never did they disobey or disregarded her. They invariably consulted her on all important matters. The only occasion they failed to do so landed them in a disastrous situation. That was when they set forth for the ill-fated dice-game , without informing their mother.

7.3. It is not the motherhood that distinguishes Gandhari; but, it is her indomitable will, the ability to take decisions and to speak out clearly; and above all , her sense of justice and righteousness .


Sense of righteousness

8.1. Gandhari comes across as an articulate person endowed with an innate sense of justice and righteousness.  She is clear in her speech; not afraid to speak out her mind even if it was to be harsh. Gandhari was a woman of substance, of strong will and of passionate nature, which she generally kept under check. Her sense of righteousness simmers through her sharp speech.

8.2. Gandhari was not blind to the conspiracies, covert schemes and injustices that went on in the royal courts. Gandhari sensed with dismay the growing ill-will between her first born son Duryodhana and his cousins the Pandavas.  She was aware of the crooked designs and plots hatched by the ‘wicked-Quartet’ (dushta chatushtaya): Duryodhana, Dussasana, Karna, and Shakuni. She was particularly unhappy about Duryodhana’s association with Shakuni.  She also pleaded with Shakuni to stop interfering in her sons’ lives; and to stop leading them down the crooked ways.

8.3. Gandhari often   criticized Dhritarashtra, enslaved by excessive fondness for his sons, for losing control over them.  She went against her husband, asking him, firmly, not to support Duryodhana who was being led astray by Shakuni.  She pointed out that Dhritarashtra made a huge mistake by putting the affairs of the Kingdom entirely into the hands of Duryodhana and his coterie. She warned the blind King that his escapist and irresponsible acts would reap him a bitter harvest. Gandhari snidely remarks ‘even your enemies are laughing at your family feuds’. She urged him to be firm and judicious in dealing with his sons.

8.4. Gandhari counselled Dhritharastra not to lose perspective of things; and not to confuse the illusion for reality. She tells him not to harbour false hopes that Duryodhana would win against Pandavas because veteran warriors like Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and others are with him. “They might fight for Duryodhana because of a sense of loyalty to him for having been in his service (rajapinda bhayat); and, they might even give up their lives for him. But, it would be foolish of Duryodhana to depend on these men to secure him   a victory in the final war. He should be beware of these old fighters who well know in their hearts what is right (dharma), and who will therefore bring no serious harm to the Pandavas”.

Gandhari Drtarastra

9.1. Her unusual ability to speak the bitter truth to her husband surfaces quite often in Sabha Parva and in Udyoga Parva.  In the Sabha Parva, She advised her husband to stop the (first) game of dice. Then again, after the second dice game, Gandhari chides Dhritarastra for allowing Duryodhana to humiliate Draupadi in the open court.  This reprehensible act, she said, would surely ‘rekindle a dead fire, topple a bridge re-built ‘and destroy his whole dynasty. Dhritarastra blinded by his fondness for his sons did not have enough sense to heed to her words of wisdom and caution.

9.2. In the Udyoga Parva, after Krishna’s failed attempts to bring about peace between the warring groups of cousins, the King Dhritarastra asks Gandhari to be brought into the court. He was hoping that his mother’s words of love and wisdom might help Duryodhana to see reason and give up the belligerent path.  She did try honestly to counsel her angry son; pleaded with him to eschew the needless war. But, of course, she too fails to convince him. Duryodhana, raging with anger, storms out of the court.

Gandhari Duryodhana2

When Dhritarastra laments over his son’s bad behavior, Gandhari rebukes him saying that it was all the result of grafting his own greed to grow upon Duryodhana and kindling in him the hunger for the sole possession of the kingdom.  She blames Dhritarastra for undue fondness for his sons and for not disciplining them despite being aware of their unrighteous desires and thoughtless methods. ‘It is too late now for force,’ she says.

Krishna too appreciates her efforts: “I am aware; you have, in the open court, repeatedly and rightly spoken words of wisdom and justice for the welfare of both the sides thirsting for war”(Mbh. IX.62.57)

jānāmi ca yathā rājñi sabhāyāṃ mama saṃnidhau / dharmārtha-sahitaṃ vākyam ubhayoḥ pakṣayor hitam / uktavaty asi kalyāṇi na ca te tanayaiḥ śrutam

Before going into the battle on the final day , Duryodhana seeks the blessings of his mother . She does bless him heartily. But , she also remarks ” Listen  to my words , O fool , where there is righteousness there is victory”. In the later times, Her remarkable  utterance gained  universal acceptance; and , was much quoted. 

(Srunu mudha vacho myaham yato dharmas tato jayah – Salya Parva – 09.62.58c).

Krishna again lauds Gandhari ” O the gracious Lady , there is none comparable to you in the whole world”

(tat samam nasti loke asmin adya simantini shubhe – Salya Parva 62.56c)

10.1. Gandhari may have disapproved Duryodhana’s ambitions, associations and his methods, but she does not give up on her dearest son. She loves him much and wants him to succeed. And, when war became imminent, she decides to support his efforts fully. She desired her son Duryodhana to become stronger, virtually unbreakable particularly since she was aware that, physically, he was not as strong as his enemy Bhīma, tough more skilful. Gandhari determined to ensure her son’s success asked him “Before you go into battle, son, come before me without any clothes. When I look upon your body, each part that I see will become hard as a diamond, unyielding to weapons.” 

10.2. Duryodhana felt shy and uncomfortable to appear tally naked before his mother. He, therefore, covered his groin and hips with a leaf tied at the waist. As Gandhari removed her blindfold, she for the first time in her life, saw to her great delight   her wonderful looking son standing before her. But, her joy was soon cut short as she noticed the leaf around his waist.  Gandhari shrieked in horror:  “Oh my son, what have you done? Now, that covered part of your body will be vulnerable to weapons. Your enemies will not fail to strike you there.” An ominous fear came over her that Duryodhana was destined to fall, which meant the end of Kuru clan.  She wept bitterly and lamented at cruelty of fate which spares none. Gandhari’s fears did come true, very sadly for her.

The horrors of war and heartbreaking plight of the women


11.1. The eighteen days of war grew more intense and gruesome with each passing day until the night of the seventeen day. On the eighteenth and the final day, as the horrors of the war ebbed out, Duryodhana, in despair, fled from the field and hid himself in a lake. Thereafter, that night, his three surviving warriors, in a vengeful night raid, slaughtered Drustaduymna, brother of Draupadi and her five young sons while they were asleep in their beds. They even killed the unborn in the womb of Uttara, boy Abhimanyu’s widow.   On that fateful night, Duryodhana was struck down fatally by Bhīma; and, he breathed his last thereafter.  Relentless slaughter and mayhem littered the earth with the blood and guts of millions of men, horses, elephants, while countless dogs, wolves, eagles and vultures feasted on the carcasses.

11.2. As the news of Duryodhana’s fall and death reached the royal court, Gandhari, her husband and her daughters-in-law were devastated by the calamity that befell them all.  The sorrow of the wailing women is described in Stree Parva.

12.1.  Stree Parva of Mahabharata is an overwhelming, horrific and moving depiction of the devastation that war brings upon women who lost their men folk. It focuses upon the dichotomy of the male and female elements of war. It vividly portrays    the dreadful consequences of war on the society, particularly on its women. In a way of speaking; it highlights the cruel irony of life where the self-serving   men pursue their hate at the expense of the women whom they love and vowed to protect. But, at the same time there is a wicked parody.   The sights of women wailing over death and devastation of war are in sharp contrast to scenes, just a few weeks prior, where women, with pride, bid farewell to their men marching smartly into the battle as heroes. 

12.2. Virtually all of the accounts of the heartbreaking scenes depicted in the Stree Parva are narrated by Gandhari who was then endowed with ‘divine eye’ (divya chakshu). She can see things at a distance as if they were very near. Gandhari then noticed her fallen son Duryodhana and fainted.  When revived , this heroic mother , ambivalent in many ways ; brooded upon her sons spoilt life;  rued on the evil  influence of her brother Shakuni’s ; grieved for the fate of her blind husband;  cried for  wife of Duryodhana  (Bhanumathi ) and his son  Lakshmana  . She then wept over her other sons. Gandhari then moved on to lament on her distraught daughters-in-law and the horrors beset upon them.  

12.3. As Gandhari described ( in Book 11 Chapter 9) :   

Several groups of hysterical women in their throes of grief ran about as if they were in the girls’ yard; holding on to each others’ arms. They wept uncontrollably for their lost beloveds, sons, brothers and fathers. It was as if they were enacting the destruction of the world at the end of the Age. Babbling and crying, running hither and thither (vilapantyo rudantyaś ca dhāvamānās tatas tataḥ – 11.09.14), they were out of their mind with grief and lost all sense of propriety

śokenā-bhyāhata-jñānāḥ kartavyaṃ na prajajñire – 11.09.14

Young women who used to be modest even before their friends now appeared shamelessly before their mothers-in-law in simple shifts (tā ekavastrā nirlajjāḥ śvaśrūṇāṃ purato ‘bhavan –11.09.15), their hair disheveled, with their arms up in the air wailing, shrieking incoherently. Women who earlier comforted each other in the most trifling sorrows now ignored other women staggering about in grief :

parasparaṃ susūkṣmeṣu śokeṣv āśvāsayan sma yāḥ..tāḥ śokavihvalā rājann upaikṣanta parasparam. ..11.09.16

They were like beings set on fire at the end of the Age (yugāntakāle saṃprāpte bhūtānāṃ dahyatām iva).  These bewildered women were in shock; helpless, having lost the wits – vast was the wretchedness of the women of Kurus. The clamour of all those afflicted women bewailing the destruction of their family became thunderous and shook the worlds  :

abhāvaḥ syād ayaṃ prāpta iti bhūtāni menire,bhṛśam udvignamanasas te paurāḥ kurusaṃkṣaye,prākrośanta mahārāja svanuraktās tadā bhṛśam) –  [Mbh. Stree Parva – 11,009.20c to 11,009.021 c]

12.4. Gandhari addresses Krishna emptying her heart: 

The earth is so muddy with flesh and blood, one can scarcely move upon it. The earth seems to be crammed with fallen heads, hands, every sort of limbs mixed with every other piled in heaps. On seeing the horror of heaps of body less limbs and limbless bodies, those women beyond reproach, unaccustomed to such miseries, now sink into the bloody mire littered with slaughtered pieces of their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers. Many shriek and wail upon seeing the bodies; and others beat their heads with their delicate palms. These women, after grasping, wailing and weeping uncontrollably for a long while, shivering in their pain are quitting their life.

12.5. O Janardhana, look at the woeful throngs of Dhritarashtra’s daughters-in-law, like herds of fillies with beautiful manes.  The best of the women tormented in grief and pain mourn their dear ones wretchedly. What could be more painful to me than this, Keshava that all these women present themselves in such extreme distressful forms?  This is all the results of the evils I did in my past births; I see now my slain sons, grandsons and my brother

yā paśyāmi hatān putrān pautrān bhrātṝṃś ca keśava, evam ārtā vilapatī dadarśa nihataṃ sutam  [Mbh. Stree Parva; 11.16.59]

Gandhari’s sorrow extends to Uttara the widowed young and beautiful girl carrying the child of the boy hero Abhimanyu. She is particularly devastated by the terrible wrong done to her valiant young husband by the very persons who were supposed to love him and protect him.

Gandhari’s vision and curses

13.1. Gandhari is regarded a very virtuous woman; a completely devoted and a faithful wife. Her fidelity as a sadhwi undergoing austerities; her voluntarily endured suffering (tapas); and her internal purity bring in her a sort of accumulated power. That is one of the sub-themes of Mahabharata.  Her power to turn Duryodhana’s body strong and unbreakable, like a diamond; her occasional ability to see despite the bandage wrapped on her eyes; and, power to curse are all illustrations of her internal strength.

13.2. When after the war, the Pandavas meet their grieving uncle and aunt, they are at first resentful and apprehensive.  Gandhari explains that grief alone is the cause of her anger.  “I do not hate them. I do not want them to perish. But, with the pain I feel for the loss of my sons, my mind almost reels out of control”. And says, she harbours no grudge against Pandavas, except for being enraged at Bheema’s unfair blow on Duryodhana’s thigh, below the navel.  

She asks a pointed question at Bheema and demands to know “how can brave men, for the sake of their lives, abandon in battle the dharma prescribed by wise men? How can they?”

katham nu dharmam dharmajnais samuddishtam mahaatmabhih   I  tyajeyur aahave shooraah pranahetoh katham chana? (Stree parva 11,013.019)  

[Amazingly,  this question comes up again and again in the epic.]

Then, Bheema with remarkable restraint, skill and wisdom convinces Gandhari that it was necessary to put an end to Duryodhana.  He speaks with reason in a courteous and polite tone; and yet is resolute in his stand. Bhīma promptly admits to fighting unfairly with Duryodhana; and, he pleads he had to do that out of necessity and out of fear in order to save himself.  He begs for Gandhari’s mercy and pardon.    His intentions are clear: he wants to appease mother Gandhari not wanting to hurt her anymore; and yet to impress on her that he was left with no other choice. He says , he had a duty to to safeguard Dharma.

kṣatradharmāc cyuto rājñi bhaveyaṃ śāsvatīḥ samāḥ I pratijñāṃ tām anistīrya tatas tat kṛtavān aham/ na mām arhasi gāndhāri doṣeṇa pariśaṅkitum ( Stree parva 11,014.018 )

 If I hadn’t fulfilled that vow, oh queen, I would have for all eternity fallen from the dharma of the kshatriyas; and that is why i did that.

Gandhari apparently accepts his argument and falls silent.

But, he lies to Gandhari about his grotesque drinking Dushyasana’s blood after killing him; and, lamely says that ‘his blood did not go beyond my lips’. Gandhari, the mother with a great heart, pardons Bhīma.  Bhīma then, quietly, blames Gandhari for failing to restrain her sons’ wickedness.

As soon as Bheema finished his explanation, Yudhistira (in sharp contrast to Bheema) needlessly blames himself, his brothers , Krishna and even Abhimanyu. He calls himself and all those men who fought on his side as sinners and begs Gandhari to punish him for following them.

putra-hantaa nrshamso’ham tava devi yudhishthirah I  shaapaarhah prthiveenaashe hetubhootas shapasva maam -11.15.03 

“I am that despicable brute, Yudhistira who killed your sons. I am the cause of the destruction of the earth. i deserve to be cursed, oh Devi. Curse me now.”  

[The commentators explain; this , perhaps, was his way of showing that he was more righteous than anyone else around.]

Yudhistira is about to collapse at Gandhari’s feet in terror. And, Gandhari with tearful eyes sighs deeply again and again; not a word escapes her lips. From within her blindfold, her sight falls on Yudhistira’s toenails; and the fire in her sight scorches his toenail, burning them black and ugly.

Gandhari, the Mother with a great heart, pardons the man who killed her one hundred sons and even appeals for his mercy. She however, scorches into black the toenails of the man who did not kill even one of her sons. Did she see through Yudhistira?

13.3.  By then, the pent up anger was swelling up within Gandhari. She could scarcely contain herself.   Breathing in quick gasps, she was about to hurl a curse on Yudhistira.  But, Vyasa prevailed upon her to desist from doing so. However, some rays of her sight that pierced through the cloth covering her eyes burnt and blackened the toes of Yudhistira as he bent low to touch her feet, in fear and reverence. When Arjuna saw that, he, in fright, took cover behind Krishna. Gandhari’s anger, by then, was gone; and, like a mother she consoled the Pandavas who were’ fidgeting and shifting this way and that’. Gandhari , the brave mother (Vira-mata) looked upon Pandavas as her own

–  tayā te  samanujñātā mātaraṃ vīra mātaram.  [Mbh. 11.15.7-9a]

13.4. Gandhari and Draupadi had both suffered grievously; each more than the other. The older woman tried to console   Draupadi; counselled her against grieving, saying ‘it was all inevitable, the turn of time’. Gandhari blamed herself for all the suffering that befell both the families. But , her mood changed suddenly : ’ It is the same as it is for you. But, who will comfort me, as they have been doing to you? ‘

14.1. Gandhari tells Krishna that the fate had favoured him and his friends.  The Pandavas were lucky to escape death from the hands of her son ‘the bull strong enough to kill the gods’. Then Gandhari collapsed in grief. ‘Her body shivering in the grip of anger, overwhelmed with grief for her dead sons, her senses reeling ‘she took Krishna to task. She in her rage blamed Krishna for conspiring to destroy her family. Had he been sincere he could have prevented the war; and saved everyone.

She blames Krishna for his devious ways that brought death and destruction upon the Kuru clan.

“Oh Madhusudana, You purposely destroyed the Kurus; made pretense of carrying out peace-talks (icchatopekṣito nāśaḥ kurūṇāṃ madhusūdana- 11.25.38).

You let the two warring kinsmen devastate each other.  Now, take the result of that. I curse you. If I have been a devoted and faithful wife, may my curse come true.  Krishna, mark my words, you will slay your own kinsmen. Just as Pandavas and Kurus were killing each other, your kinsmen too will kill each other.  As your cousins, their sons and grandsons slay each other; you will wander about in the woods in desolation and die a lonely and ignominious death at the hands of a stranger.  And your wives, having lost their sons, grandsons, brothers and dear ones shall run around the woods in desperation and grief, just as the Bharatha women are now doing

tavāpy evaṃ hatasutā nihata -jñāti-bāndhavāḥ, striyaḥ paripatiṣyanti yathaitā bharatastriyaḥ [Mbh. 11.25. 38-42]

14.2. Vyasa calls Gandhari’s curse as a ‘horrible speech’ (vacanaṃ ghoraṃ). But, Krishna heard it calmly  (vāsudevo mahāmanāḥ) and remarked with a smile ‘your curse is preordained by fate. As none can destroy the Vrisni Yadavas, they slay and kill each other; and, they will all come to destruction at each other’s hands.” [Mbh. 11.25. 43-44]

tac chrutvā vacanaṃ ghoraṃ vāsudevo mahāmanāḥ/uvāca devīṃ gāndhārīm īṣad abhyutsmayann iva

devīṃ gāndhārīm īṣad abhyutsmayann iva saṃhartā vṛṣṇicakrasya nānyo mad vidyate śubhe  jāne ‘ham etad apy evaṃ cīrṇaṃ carasi kṣatriye

Gandhari Vyasa

Years after the war

15.1. After the war, Draupadi looked after Gandhari and Dhritarastra with affection and respect, even though their sons had wronged her in many ways. It is said;  the other Pandava wives such as Nakula’s wife Karenumati of Chedi ; Sahadeva’s wife Vijaya of Magadha ; Bhima’s wife Balandhara of Kashi ;  Yudhistira’s wife Devika of Shibi ; and , Arjuna’s  three wives , all  diligently served  the old couple. Gandhari and Dhritarastra did lead a comfortable life. But, Bhīma alone, it is said, would occasionally make nasty remarks within the earshot of Dhritarastra sarcastically wondering how the fat old guy could sit there the whole day lording over others and eating nonstop without an iota of shame.

15.2.  After they lived thus for about fifteen years, Vyasa suggests to Gandhari and Dhritarastra to leave the palace and retire into the forest.  Kunti, Vidura and Sanjaya also desire to join the couple. Finally, after much debate, fifteen years after the war, Gandhari leaning upon Kunti, leading her blind-old husband and in the company of ever faithful Vidura and Sanjaya retires into forest to await death. 


 15.3. A year hence, Vyasa visits Gandhari, Dhritharastra and Kunti in the forest. He is moved by Gandhari’s sorrow grieving over   her dead sons; lamenting and cursing her fate that never let her set sight on the faces of her sons. Vyasa as a favour to Gandhari offers to let her see, meet and talk to all her dead sons and grandsons, just for a night.  He then extends that favour of seeing, meeting and greeting their dead loved ones  to all the surviving relatives of the dead. All are, of course, greatly overjoyed at this wondrous prospect and the rarest privilege of seeing their dead relatives slain in the Great War. As the news reaches Hastinapur, Pandavas and all the widowed daughters-in-law of Gandhari along with others reach the hermitage of Gandhari in the forest, to partake in the spectacle.

 Meeting her dead sons


16.1. The Putra-darshana Parva embedded in the Asramavasa Parva (Book 15) of Mahabharata presents a most astounding spectacle where all the warriors slain in the war come back to life ; and , after spending a whole night with their beloved ones the dead return to their world.

16.2. The great ascetic Vyasa then leads them all to the banks of the Bhagirathi (Ganga) –

sarve bhavanto gacchantu nadīṃ bhāgīrathīṃ prati tatra drakṣyatha tān sarvān ye hatāsmin raṇājir (15.039.018).

And, there the  radiant Vyasa( vyāso mahātejāḥ) summoned all the warriors slain in the great battle – ‘those that had fought on the side of the Pandavas, those that had fought for the Kauravas, including highly blessed kings belonging to diverse realms ‘. At that time, Vyasa granted Dhritarashtra divine vision (prapaśyāmo nṛpate divyacakṣuṣā).

17.1. Vaisampayana narrates (vaiśaṃpāyana uvāca – 15.39.19) :

Vaiśaṃpāyana uvāca
19 iti vyāsasya vacanaṃ śrutvā sarvo janas tadā
mahatā siṃhanādena gaṅgām abhimukho yayau
20 dhṛtarāṣṭraś ca sāmātyaḥ prayayau saha pāṇḍavaiḥ
sahito muniśārdūlair gandharvaiś ca samāgataiḥ
21 tato gaṅgāṃ samāsādya krameṇa sa janārṇavaḥ
nivāsam akarot sarvo yathāprīti yathāsukham
22 rājā ca pāṇḍavaiḥ sārdham iṣṭe deśe sahānugaḥ
nivāsam akarod dhīmān sastrīvṛddhapuraḥsaraḥ
23 jagāma tad ahaś cāpi teṣāṃ varṣaśataṃ yathā
niśāṃ pratīkṣamāṇānāṃ didṛkṣūṇāṃ mṛtān nṛpān
24 atha puṇyaṃ girivaram astam abhyagamad raviḥ
tataḥ kṛtābhiṣekās te naiśaṃ karma samācaran
Vaiśaṃpāyana uvāca
1 tato niśāyāṃ prāptāyāṃ kṛtasāyāhnikakriyāḥ
vyāsam abhyagaman sarve ye tatrāsan samāgatāḥ
2 dhṛtarāṣṭras tu dharmātmā pāṇḍavaiḥ sahitas tadā
śucir ekamanāḥ sārdham ṛṣibhis tair upāviśat
3 gāndhāryā saha nāryas tu sahitāḥ samupāviśan
paurajānapadaś cāpi janaḥ sarvo yathāvayaḥ
4 tato vyāso mahātejāḥ puṇyaṃ bhāgīrathījalam
avagāhyājuhāvātha sarvāṃl lokān mahāmuniḥ
5 pāṇḍavānāṃ ca ye yodhāḥ kauravāṇāṃ ca sarvaśaḥ
rājānaś ca mahābhāgā nānādeśanivāsinaḥ
6 tataḥ sutumulaḥ śabdo jalāntar janamejaya
prādurāsīd yathā pūrvaṃ kurupāṇḍavasenayoḥ
7 tatas te pārthivāḥ sarve bhīṣmadroṇapurogamāḥ
sasainyāḥ salilāt tasmāt samuttasthuḥ sahasraśaḥ
8 virāṭadrupadau cobhau saputrau sahasainikau
draupadeyāś ca saubhadro rākṣasaś ca ghaṭotkacaḥ
9 karṇaduryodhanau cobhau śakuniś ca mahārathaḥ
duḥśāsanādayaś caiva dhārtarāṣṭrā mahārathāḥ
10 jārāsaṃdhir bhagadatto jalasaṃdhaś ca pārthivaḥ
bhūriśravāḥ śalaḥ śalyo vṛṣasenaś ca sānujaḥ
11 lakṣmaṇo rājaputraś ca dhṛṣṭadyumnasya cātmajāḥ
śikhaṇḍiputrāḥ sarve ca dhṛṣṭaketuś ca sānujaḥ
12 acalo vṛṣakaś caiva rākṣasaś cāpy alāyudhaḥ
bāhlīkaḥ somadattaś ca cekitānaś ca pārthivaḥ
13 ete cānye ca bahavo bahutvād ye na kīrtitāḥ
sarve bhāsuradehās te samuttasthur jalāt tataḥ
14 yasya vīrasya yo veṣo yo dhvajo yac ca vāhanam
tena tena vyadṛśyanta samupetā narādhipāḥ
15 divyāmbaradharāḥ sarve sarve bhrājiṣṇukuṇḍalāḥ
nirvairā nirahaṃkārā vigatakrodhamanyavaḥ
16 gandharvair upagīyantaḥ stūyamānāś ca bandibhiḥ
divyamālyāmbaradharā vṛtāś cāpsarasāṃ gaṇaiḥ
17 dhṛtarāṣṭrasya ca tadā divyaṃ cakṣur narādhipa
muniḥ satyavatīputraḥ prītaḥ prādāt tapobalāt
18 divyajñānabalopetā gāndhārī ca yaśasvinī
dadarśa putrāṃs tān sarvān ye cānye ‘pi raṇe hatāḥ
19 tad adbhutam acintyaṃ ca sumahad romaharṣaṇam
vismitaḥ sa janaḥ sarvo dadarśānimiṣekṣaṇaḥ
20 tad utsavamadodagraṃ hṛṣṭanārīnarākulam
dadṛśe balam āyāntaṃ citraṃ paṭagataṃ yathā
21 dhṛtarāṣṭras tu tān sarvān paśyan divyena cakṣuṣā
mumude bharataśreṣṭha prasādāt tasya vai muneḥ

“then those kings, headed by Bhishma and Drona, with all their troops, arose by thousands from the life-giving waters of the holy Bhagirathi. All those dead warriors came alive from the depths of the Bhagirathi, with resplendent bodies. Those kings appeared, each clad in that dress and equipped with that standard and that vehicle which he had while fighting on the field. All of them were now robed in celestial vestments and all had brilliant ear-rings. They were free from animosity and pride, and divested of wrath and jealousy. Gandharvas sang their praises and bards waited on them, chanting their deeds. Robed in celestial vestments and wearing celestial garlands, each of them was waited upon by bands of Apsaras.

17.2. Gandhari of great fame saw all her children as also all that had been slain in battle. All persons assembled there beheld with steadfast gaze and hearts filled with wonder that amazing and unbelievable phenomenon which made the hair on their bodies stand on its end. It looked like a high carnival of gladdened men and women. That wondrous scene looked like a picture painted on the canvas. Dhritarastra, beholding all those heroes, with his celestial vision obtained through the grace of that sage, became full of joy, O chief of Bharata’s race.”

17.3. ‘Then those men divested of wrath and jealousy, and cleansed of every sin, met with one another. All of them were happy of hearts and looked like gods moving in Heaven. There was no grief, no fear, no suspicion, no discontent, and no reproach in that region. Son met with sire or mother, wives with husbands, brother with brother and sister, and friend with friend, O king. The Pandavas, full of joy, met with the mighty bowman Karna as also with the son of Subhadra, and the children of Draupadi. With happy hearts the sons of Pandu approached Karna, O monarch, and became reconciled with him.

All those warriors, O chief of Bharata’s race, meeting with one another through the grace of the great ascetic, became reconciled with one another. Casting off all unfriendliness, they became established on amity and peace. It was even thus that all those foremost of men, viz., the Kauravas and other kings became united with the Kurus rid other kinsmen of theirs as also with their children. The whole of that night they passed in great happiness.

17.4. “Meeting with their sires and brothers and husbands and sons, the ladies cast off all grief and felt great raptures of delight. Having sported with one another thus for one night, those heroes and those ladies, embracing one another and taking one another’s leave returned to the places they had come from.  Within the twinkling of an eye that large crowd disappeared in the very sight of all those (living) persons”.

Thereafter, many of the widows, given leave by Vyasa, jumped into the river and entered the world of their dead husbands.

[Mbh. 15 .35-42]

Death of Gandhari and others

18.1. About two years after Gandhari thus met her sons, Sage Narada informs Yudhistira that Dhritarastra along with Gandhari and Kunti was burnt to death in a forest fire. And, that Sanjaya wandered over to the Himalayas and died there. Yudhistira and Yuyutsu the only surviving son of Dhritarastra perform the funeral obsequies at Gangadwar.

During this visit, Yudhistira comes upon Vidura roaming in the forest naked smeared with ashes. Vidura infuses his spirit into Yudhistira; and thereafter gives up his life.

Thus, eighteen years after the war, the senior characters depart from the scene.

18.2. And eighteen years thereafter, that is thirty-six years after the Great War, the Vrisnis and Yadavas did destroy themselves just as Gandhari had cursed them to die. Krishna too dies soon after at the hands of a hunter as cursed by Gandhari.

18.3. Pandavas also depart to their heavenly abode rather disillusioned.  Their victory had turned out meaningless, devoid of joy. Curiously, about thirty-six years ago, before the war, Karna had narrated to Krishna a grotesque dream he witnessed in which “Powerful Yudhistira climbed a hill of human bones, smiled and ate sweet ghee-curd from a golden cup.” Vyasa too ends the Fifteenth Book of the Epic on a sad note: “Without his relatives and friends, king Yudhistira, afflicted with mental unease, ruled the kingdom, somehow.”

Kunti and Gandhari

19.1. Before ending this lengthy post it would be interesting to quickly place together the lives of the two rival Queens.   

[ please read : The Three Women In Mahabharata (2 Of 3) – Kunti ]

Up to a certain point, their lives ran dissimilar in a peculiar way. The good-days of the one were the not-so-good days of the other. When one was comfortable and secure, the other was miserable.  It was towards the very end of their life they came closer.  It was the empathy with each other’s sorrow and suffering that forged a bond between the two. After retiring into the forest, fifteen years after the war, the two shared common grief, became good friends and came to terms with the realities of life. And, the two died together in the forest fire.

19.2. At the beginning and for a long time thereafter, the relation between Kunti and Gandhari was rather lukewarm – neither too friendly nor explicitly hostile. A sort of silent feud ran between the two. Their fortunes too contrasted in a dramatic manner.

19.3. When Gandhari entered the royal household at Hastinapur, Kunti, also a recent entrant, was the Queen of the Kingdom. Gandhari was the wife of a blind prince who was denied the throne, and would never be a king. Gandhari’s position in the royal family was therefore low and insecure, comparatively. Her status worsened after Kunti give birth to great looking healthy sons who would inherit the Kingdom. While at the same time, Gandhari remained childless; troubled by envy and fear of losing out.

19.4. The death of Pandu and Madri totally destabilized Kunti. And, she now had to live under the mercy of Gandhari the Queen.   She had to look up to Gandhari for survival and protection of her sons. Gandhari, in the meantime, had become the mother of one hundred sons and a daughter. She was in complete control of the royal courts.

19.5. Later, after Kunti and her sons escaped from the arson at the lac-house, they had to live incognito, moving from town to town, dwelling among the humblest. For a short period, from marriage with Draupadi until the ill-fated dice-game, Kunti and her sons lived comfortably in their newly built palace at Indraparastha.

19.6. During the fourteen years of Pandava’s exile Kunti took shelter in the rather humble house of Vidura. Gandhari, of course, lived in Queen’s palace. During this period they do not seem to have called upon each other or helped each other in dealing with their problems.

19.7. After the disastrous war, Gandhari and blind husband having lost all their hundred sons were utterly defeated and heartbroken. Gandhari was no longer the Queen, while Kunti had become the Queen Mother. Gandhari in her old age had to live under the shade and mercy of Kunti’s sons. Her plight, to say the least, had become agonizing and humiliating.

20.1. It was after the war, the lives of Kunti and Gandhari seemed to converge. The victory of her sons did not bring much cheer to Kunti. She seemed subdued and distracted. She had grown softer towards Gandhari. She shared with her the pain and sorrow of losing sons and grandsons. Kunti never forgave herself for deserting her eldest son Karna who eventually was killed by his younger brother. She grieved his loss silently. She also mourned for her valiant grandsons Abhimanyu and Ghatodkacha who were slain by their own uncles and kinsmen. A bond had grown between the two women.

20.2. When Gandhari chose to retreat into the forest, Kunti willingly bid farewell to her sons and gave up their palace; and joined Gandhari.  She felt no joy in the palace; instead she found it miserable.   While in the forest, she served Gandhari and her husband lovingly. Both the women had experienced the pleasures and pains of the world, in full measure; and had matured in the oven of life. The sorrows of life, the agony of disappointments and the futility of deluded notions brought the two women closer. In the end, Kunti and Gandhari ended their life together in the forest fire.



The Mahabharata by Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Stri Parva – Book 11 (Stri-vilapa-parva)

Asramavasa Parva (Book 15)

Putradarsana Parva

Enigmas in Mahabharata by Shri Pradip Bhattacharya

The pictures are from Internet


Posted by on November 18, 2013 in Mahabharata


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The bizarre story of Madhavi of the ancient times

This is a story of ancient times that appears in Udyoga Parva (sections 119-122) of Mahabharata. It is a story that is uncoiled in four stages. Initially, Narada narrated it to Dhritarastra, which Vyasa recorded; Vaishampayana narrates that to Janamejaya; and finally Suti recites the entire epic.

Narada’s narration comes about as an extension to his own story of fall owing to his conceit and arrogance. It is incidental; and not integrated into the Epic. It is not supported by any other narration in the Epic.

The story raises many uncomfortable questions about the status and treatment of women in a society of a bygone era, which was guided by its own set of values. The fascinating but disturbing episode has been studied, in depth, by scholars, feminists and dramatists from sociological, psychological and various other angles.

Mahabharata (in contrast to Ramayana) is a complex composition spread over several layers , across varied periods; and, its elements are derived from diverse parts of the ancient Indian land. It also is not entirely the work of a single person. It has grown in stages across many traditions. Like the Indian jungle, it spreads out in an endless wilderness of trees entwined with creepers of bewildering sorts, inhabited by an astonishing variety of creatures, birds and beasts. It is a wonder piled upon wonders. There are several contradictions arrayed , one by the side of the other. Mahabharata is not one book; but, it is many books running into each other.

With that , let’s, first, look at the story in its brief and summarized form; and then discuss some of the issues it throws up.

The story

1.1. It is said that Galava was a very devoted pupil of the sage – King- teacher Visvamitra. He stayed and served loyally even when his teacher was passing through difficult circumstances. At the end of the academic period, the teacher, pleased with the pupil, blessed him and let him go. But Galava requested the teacher to state the fee (guru- dakshina) that he would accept. The teacher was content; but the pupil pressed on earnestly. Finally, with a little displeasure, as it were, Visvamitra asked Galava ‘present me with eight hundred white steeds of good pedigree; white as the rays of the radiant moon, and every one of it having one ear black in hue. Go Galava, delay not ’.

Ektaha shamkarna hayana chandravarchasam, Ashto shatani me dehi gaccha Galav ma Chiram- (Udog, 106;27)


1.2. Galava promptly sets out in search of such rare type of horses ; but,he  was unable to find any. While he was brooding in desperation, his friend Suparna offered help; and, took him to many kings who might possibly possess horses of such rare description. After much wandering, the two reached the court of King Yayati of Prathistana. Suparna, on behalf of his friend, submitted the plea and requested the king to help Galava to be free from the burden of Guru-dakshina.

But, the King Yayati, whose wealth by then had depleted, had no horses that satisfied their specification. Nevertheless, he, as a king, would not disappoint a needy one who came seeking help. Therefore, he gifted, instead, his beautiful daughter Madhavi (also called Drishadvati); and, suggested that by setting her as price they could secure from any king/s who owned the horses of their required specifications. Yayati added;  Madhavi was capable of promoting every virtue (mādhavī nāma tārkṣyeyaṃ sarva-dharma-pravādini); and , her beauty was so striking that any king would gladly give up his kingdom, if it were needed, to be with her even for a short while.

asyāḥ śulkaṃ pradāsyanti nṛpā rājyam api dhruvam/kiṃ punaḥ śyāmakarṇānāṃ hayānāṃ dve catuḥśate – (Udyog, 113; 13)

Now, that there appeared a ray of hope, Suparna wished his friend well and took leave of him.

2.1. Galava first thought of the best of the kings, Haryasva of Ikshvaku race who ruled at Ayodhya. He was famed for his valour, wealth and large army. Galava offered Madhavi in marriage to the childless king Haryasva, in exchange for ‘eight hundred steeds’ born in good country, of lunar whiteness, and each with one ear black in hue’, saying ‘this auspicious and large eyed maiden will become mother of thy sons’. The king is struck with the beauty of Madhavi (rājā haryaśvaḥ kāmamohitaḥ).  He observes  that the six parts of this girl’s body which ought to be high are high, seven parts which ought to be slender are slender, three parts which ought to be deep are deep and five which ought to be red are red.  Upon her resides every auspicious  sign. 

unnateṣūnnatā ṣaṭsu; sūkṣmā sūkṣmeṣu saptasu; gambhīrā triṣu gambhīreṣv ; iyaṃ raktā ca pañcasu; śroṇyau lalāṭakakṣau ca ghrāṇaṃ ceti ṣaḍunnatam (Udyog, 05,114.002

Haryasva cried out “I most desire to have this beautiful maiden; but, sadly I have only two hundred steeds of the kind you wanted. He pleads with Galava – asyām etaṃ bhavān kāmaṃ saṃpādayatu me varam (Udyog; 114.9) – Let me fulfill my desire.  I beg you; allow me to beget one son upon this damsel and you make take away all those two hundred steeds”.

2.2. Madhavi intervened and suggested to Galava “I am blessed by a sage with a special faculty that each time after childbirth I will regain my virginity. Accept the offer made by King Haryasva; take his two hundred excellent steeds and let him beget one son upon me. Thereafter you may collect me and take me to the next king and to another, in similar manner, until you obtain all your eight hundred steeds. And, that should set you free from the debt you owe to your teacher”.

mama datto varaḥ kaś cit kena cid brahmavādinā / prasūtyante prasūtyante kanyaiva tvaṃ bhaviṣyasi/sa tvaṃ dadasva māṃ rājñe pratigṛhya hayottamān / nṛpebhyo hi caturbhyas te pūrṇāny aṣṭau śatāni vai / bhaviṣyanti tathā putrā mama catvāra eva ca/kriyatāṃ mama saṃhāro gurvarthaṃ dvija sattama (Udyog; 114.11-13)

That idea seemed to be a workable arrangement; and,  was acceptable both to Galava and the King. Galava became the owner of those two hundred steeds; but he let them continue in king’s care. In due time, Haryasva had a son by Madhavi. She thereafter, by the power of her wish, turned into a virgin again. The new born was as splendid as one of the Vasus; and was named Vasumanasa (also called Vasuprada – vasumanā nāma vasubhyo vasumattaraḥ; vasuprakhyo narapatiḥ sa babhūva vasupradaḥ). He later grew up to be one of the wealthiest and greatest of the benefactors among all the kings.

2.3. Galava next took Madhavi to Divodasa King of Kashi of great valor  having a large army (mahāvīryo mahīpālaḥ kāśīnām īśvaraḥ prabhuḥ;divodāsa iti khyāto bhaimasenir narādhipaḥ). Divodasa had already heard of Madhavi’s extraordinary beauty as also of her story (śrutam etan mayā pūrvaṃ). He rejoiced greatly upon the fortune to be with her. But, he too had only two hundred such steeds that Galava required. He agreed to beget only one a son from Madhavi in exchange for those two hundred steeds. Madhavi lived with Divodasa till a son was born to her. He was named Pratardana , who later became a celebrated hero (mādhavī janayām āsa putram ekaṃ pratardanam) . Madhavi having regained her virginity left her second son with his father and returned to Galava.

2.4. The next was, King Ushinara of Bhojanagari (jagāma bhojanagaraṃ draṣṭum auśīnaraṃ nṛpam) , who also had only two hundred of such horses. He handed then over to Galava and lived with Madhavi till a son named Sibi was born (he later gained renown as the upholder of truth and justice – śibir nāmna ābhivikhyāto yaḥ sa pārthivasattamaḥ). Madhavi turned a virgin once again.

2.5. Thereafter Galava collected Madhavi back from King Ushinara.  By then , Madhavi had three sons : pratardano vasumanāḥ śibir auśīnaro . But, Galava had so far gathered only six hundred horses, and still needed two hundred more to fulfil the commitment to his teacher. Then, his friend Suparna (Garuda) informs there were no more such horses; but makes a suggestion. As suggested by Suparna, Galava submits to his teacher the six hundred horses he had so far gathered, with a request to accept Madhavi in place of the remaining two hundred horses; and absolve him of the Guru-dakshina.

Visvamitra elated at the prospect of having Madhavi, accepts the offer gleefully  and discharges the pupil of his obligation –

viśvāmitras tu taṃ dṛṣṭvā gālavaṃ saha pakṣiṇā/kanyāṃ ca tāṃ varārohām idam ity abravīd vacaḥ/kim iyaṃ pūrvam eveha na dattā mama gālava (Udog, 117;14-15) pratigṛhṇāmi te kanyām ekaputraphalāya vai/aśvāś cāśramam āsādya tiṣṭhantu mama sarvaśaḥ

Madhavi bore to Visvamitra a son named Ashtaka –  ātmajaṃ janayām āsa mādhavīputram aṣṭakam (Ashtaka later gained fame as the king who performed grand Ashva-medha yajnas).

a_herd_of_white_horses_ga (1).jpg

3.1. With his debt discharged, Galava retires into the forest. As he departs, he thanks Madhavi for saving him, as also her father and the three childless kings: ” Oh Madhavi, the beautiful maiden, You have borne one son who will be a lordly giver, a second a hero, another fond of truth and right; and yet another a great performer of Yajnas. Farewell to you, virgin of slim waist”.

jāto dānapatiḥ putras tvayā śūras tathāparaḥ/satyadharmarataś cānyo yajvā cāpi tathāparaḥ/tad āgaccha varārohe tāritas te pitā sutaiḥ/catvāraś caiva rājānas tathāhaṃ ca sumadhyame (Udyog; 117.22)

After sometime, Visvamitra retreats into the forest. He hands over the six hundred horses to his son Ashtaka; and , sends Madhavi back to her father Yayati.

Yayati tries to arrange for Madhavi’s wedding, as many suitors (including the three kings who had sons from her) were eager to marry her. But, Madhavi is no longer interested in marriage or childbearing. She refuses all offers and retires into the forest as a hermit.

3.2. The recurring virgin Madhavi is not sovereign herself; but sovereignty passes through her to her four sons who grow up to become great kings whose deeds are celebrated in the Puranas.

In the end, everyone except Madhavi had something to gain: Yayati had the satisfaction of helping a needy person; the three childless kings beget worthy sons and heirs; Visvamitra gained six hundred of rarest horses as also the pleasure of living with the beautiful Madhavi; and, Galava extolled for his guru-bhakthi was relieved of the obligation to his teacher.

Madhavi’s salvation lies in her silence and her retreat into the woods. She prefers to select forest as her consort – Varam Vrivati Vanam (Udog, 120;5). Madhavi entered the forest, lived a peaceful life of a celibate –  ‘living in the woods after the manner of the deer ’ carantī hariṇaiḥ sārdhaṃ mṛgīva vanacāriṇī/ cacāra vipulaṃ dharmaṃ brahmacaryeṇa saṃvṛtā (Udyog, 118; 11)

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Question of antiquity

4.1. Though the story of the ‘salvation of the kings by a maiden’ is re-told in Mahabharata, its principle characters come from the distant Pre-Vedic or early Vedic times.

[ In the Tevijja-Sutta: The Threefold Knowledge (Digha-nikaya, I.No.13), the Buddha distinguishes between the later Brahmana-teachers and the earlier Vedic-sages. Among these sages, the Buddha regards just ten as the ancient; as the true authors and the Rishis of the Riks.

The ten Rishis mentioned by the Buddha are: Astaka; Vamaka; Vamadeva; Visvamitra; Jamadagni; Angirasa; Bharadvaja; Vashista; Kashyapa; and , Brighu.

Astaka, mentioned by the Buddha as one among the ancient Sages, is said to be one of the sons of Madhavi, the daughter of the King Yayathi. ]

Yayati, the son of the legendry King Nahusha, is a prominent figure in the early Indian mythological history. He is progenitor of a great dynasty Chandravamsa – that ruled for countless generations stretching up to the Pandavas and far beyond.

 Please click here for the family tree of  the Yadus and the Purus – the descendents of Yayati . 

4.2. Yayati marks a watershed in the ancient Indian history. He is credited with bringing together two rival factions of the Angirasas and the Brighus. Yayati, a follower of the Angirasa, married Devayani the daughter of Shukracharya of the Bhrigu clan; and also married Sharmishta the daughter of Vrisha Parvan, the King of Asuras, who also was a follower of the Bhrigus.

4.3. Turvasha and Yadu were sons of Yayati by Devayani of the Bhrigus; while Anu, Druhyu and Puru were his sons by Sharmishta of the Asuras. Yayati’s story indicates that the five great lines of Vedic rulers were born of an alliance of Deva and Asura kings, which also meant the coming together of the followers of the Angirasa and the Bhrigu seers. Yayti’s marriage with the Bhrigu women was perhaps an attempt to reconcile two warring clans.

Yayati divided his kingdom among his five sons: to Tuvasha he gave the south-east; to Druhyu the west; to Yadu the south and west in the Narmada – Godavari region; to Anu the north; and to Puru the centre . Purus ruled as the Supreme Kings of earth.

The ‘Battle of Ten Kings’ (Dasarajna) described in the seventh Mandala of the Rig Veda was fought between the Puru clan and the Turvasha/Druhyu/Anu clans. The Kings involved in the Battle: Puru, Turvasha, Druhyu and Anu were all sons of Yayati.

4.4. The episode of ‘the eight hundred horses’ which we are now discussing mentions the hitherto un-named daughter of Yayati – Madhavi (but, her mother’s name is not mentioned).

Further, the Sukta No. 179  having three verses in  the Tenth Mandala of Rig Veda invoking Indra, is jointly ascribed to the three sons of Madhavi:

the first is Sibi the son of Ushinara (prathamo ushinarah Sibihi –  शिबिरौशीनरः );

the second Pratardana King of Kashi (dwithiyo kasirajah Pratardanaha- प्रतर्दनः काशिराजः); and,

the third Vasumanasa son of Rauhidasva (thrithiyasha Rauhidashwo Vasumana rishihi – वसुमना रौहिदश्वः) .

In this Sukta, Haryasva   is named as Rauhidasva.

Mantra Rig 10.179.001 ;  Mantra Rig 10.179.002  ;  Mantra Rig 10.179.003 ]

Madhavi’s story surfaces in Mahabharata. But she belongs to the very far-away pre-Vedic period. That is the reason I regard her story as of very ancient times.

5.1. As regards Visvamitra, there were many kings and sages who went by that name. Visvamitra who appears in the Madhavi-story may not be the same as the one who figures in the third Mandala of Rig Veda who envisioned the celebrated Gayatri Mantra; or the Visvamitra of Aitareya Brahmana, the adopted father of Sunashepa; or the father of Shakuntala; or even the quick-tempered sage in the Harischandra story.

5.2. This Visvamitra of Kanyakubja in the Madhavi-story may not also be the Visvamitra of Ramayana epic. Because, in the linage of kings (according to Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Puranas ; Vol 1 to Vol 5 by Swami Parameshwarananada ; page 187) Rama , son of Dasaratha comes almost fifty generations after Haryasva the King of Ayodhya , the father of  Vasumanasa . Some names of the kings have either gone missing or are unclear.

[ Haryasva – Vasumanasa – Sudhanva – Tridhanva (Tirvashana ) – Satyavrata (Trisanku) – Harischandra – Rohitasva – Harita – Chanchu – Sudeva – Bharuka – Bahuka – Sagara – Asamanjasa – Amsuman – Bhagiratha – Srutanabha – Vedhasa – Para – Nabhaga – Ambarisha – Sindhudweepa – Ayutayus – Rtuparna – Sarvakama – Sudasa – Mitrasakha (Kalmasapada ) – Asmaka – Mulaka – Khatvariga – Dilipa (Dlrghabariu) – Raghu – Aja – Dasaratha – Rama ].

Please also see the chart at the bottom of this blog.

You may click here for its complete and enlarged version for tracing the line of kings from Manu to Ikshvaku to   Mahabharata

Question of feminism

6.1. The Madhavi episode is roundly criticized in the recent times as being insensitive to a woman’s feelings, depriving her of any inner space or desire, and wiping out her very individuality as a person. She is robbed of any control over her life. Horses, it appeared, were valued more than women. And women were given away to get hold of good horses, which is shocking.    Madhavi is led just as a cow from one male to the other, traded for horses, impregnated and each time leaving behind her newborn. At the end, she is neither a wife nor a mother – despite having lived with four men and delivering to four boys.

That is a valid view, up to a point.

7.1. There is also an alternate view which is based in a field of study called Hermeneutics. It speaks of understanding a text by placing it in the context of its times and the society in which it was located; appreciating the cultural and social forces that might have influenced its outlook. Which is to say: before we impose our own set of perceptions or apply our the present-day standards of the rights and privileges accorded to women in our society, in order to judge Madhavi, lets pause and place her story in the context of her times and the norms that were evolved and accepted by that society in the environment of its own life patterns.

7.2. There is nothing lewd about the episode, by the manner it is depicted in the Epic. Everyone here is earnest, attempting to live honestly with a pious intent: Galava to fulfil his obligation to his teacher; Yayati to discharge his duty as the King providing for the needy who comes to him seeking help; and, Madhavi considers her   filial duty to save her father from disgrace; and in the process   to assist a dedicated student to fulfil his promise to his teacher, and to rescue of royal lines from dynastic extinction. And, she herself, in all her earnestness, suggests the arrangement of her exchange for horses.

7.3. The kings who figure in her life did not consider their relation with Madhavi as scandalous. The society in which she lived treated her with great respect. Her sons who were aware of their birth antecedents proudly called themselves the sons of Madhavi. The fact that they were the sons of the common wife of four kings did not prevent them from succeeding to thrones of their fathers. In fact, Sibi and Ashtaka were made kings by preference over the sons of their fathers’ individual wives

7.4. When her sons met her again after they had grown into fine young men, they greeted their mother with great reverence: “those monarchs saluted her and bowed down to her ‘O the abode of asceticism (tapodhane) , instruct us all thy sons, what command of yours shall we obey’ ”.

mādhavīṃ prekṣya rājānas te ‘abhivādyedam abruvan/kim āgamanakṛtyaṃ te kiṃ kurvaḥ śāsanaṃ tava/ājñāpyā hi vayaṃ sarve tava putrās tapodhane /  (Udyog, 119; 2)

Madhavi introduces herself to her father, at the hour of his need, as his daughter (duhitā ), a forest – dweller (mṛgacāriṇī) – ahaṃ te duhitā rājan Mādhavī mṛgacāriṇī .  Andat her command, her four sons help their grandfather Yayati  to ascend to heaven, again.

“It was thus that those daughter’s sons born in four royal lines, those multipliers of their races, by means of their virtues, sacrifices, and gifts, caused their maternal grandfather to ascend again to heaven. And those monarchs jointly said, ‘Endued with the attributes of royalty and possessed of every virtue, we are, O king, thy daughter’s sons! By virtue of our good deeds, ascend thou to heaven. ” (Mbh:  Udyoga Parva; section 122)

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7.5. Madhavi’s character, as I see it, is invested with a certain air of dignity. She had been true to her independent nature, fulfilling her womanhood in a manner she found appropriate in the given circumstances. Her unsullied and detached attitude to her unique encounters with four men perhaps defines her ‘virgin’ status. At the end of the episode she exercises her choice without disgust, rancor or regret; and retires into the woods.

8.1. The social ethos, the concept of marriage, the status and the treatment of women reflected in the Madhavi-story belong to those very ancient pre-Vedic times (perhaps older than 2,500 BC).They pre-date the Mahabharata – event period by several centuries. The society did not remain static during those centuries. It went through a prolonged process of evolution. The Rig Veda period that followed Madhavi’s time marked a watershed; and its society was in transformation.

Further, the Mahabharata-society was far different from the Vedic society. The values, norms and idioms of social conduct changed not merely during those centuries but also during the course of the Mahabharata story. You find in the Epic, each stage evolving into its next phase.

That is the reason the social values as reflected in early parts of the Epic are far different from those at its end-parts. Which in turn, were indeed much different from the customs that came into vogue at later times.

Those differences should not be seen as contradictions or aberrations, but be understood as marking changes in the evolution or the flow of the Indian society.

It is interesting, how the perceptions and values change in a society over long periods. They are usually born out of interactions between responses and challenges or demands of the times

On certain issues, the Pre-Vedic and Vedic women enjoyed a kind of liberty and social approval which was not available to the subsequent generations of women. And, some of the liberties of the Madhavi-period are not available to the present-day Indian women.

8.2. Generally, Mahabharata depicts a steady degradation or degeneration of what was once a cohesive society that cherished liberal values. The society in the early period of Mahabharata was more open than our present day society. But, as the Epic stepped into its later generations, the views and values got rigid. That downward trend, sadly, continued for long centuries (we shall come back to this theme later).

Question of recurring virginity

9.1. Madhavi mentions that she is gifted with a boon by virtue of which she will regain her virginity each time after she gives birth to a child (kanyaiva tvam bhavishyasi : Mbh.5.114.11).

Such wondrous instances of  women retaining or regaining  their maidenhood are found elsewhere in Mahabharata.

Satyavathi cajoled Sage Parashara into promising “when you have done me this favour you shall become a maiden again (garbham utsrijya mamakam . . . kanyaiva tvam bhavishyasi; Mbh: 1.105.13)”. She again (punar) became a virgin after giving birth to Vyasa.

 Kunti also became a maid each time after delivering to a son (punar eva tu kanyabhavam; Mbh: 15. 30.16).

Both Satyavathi and Kunti gained that unique faculty through boons conferred on them by the sages.

9.2. Draupadi too, despite having five husbands and bearing five sons, is regarded as a knaya – a maid or a virgin- emerging chaste like polestar after each encounter :  the lovely one with glorious waist , the very mighty one , at the end of each day shall become a maid again’(Mbh: 1.197.14) .

Kunti describes Draupadi to Krishna as sarva-dharmopa-carinam (the one who promotes or cultivates all virtues), in the very term used by Yayati to describe Madhavi while gifting her to Galava.

10.1. Obviously, virginity was regarded very precious in the Epics .Only a few virtuous women were blessed with the faculty of retaining or regaining maidenhood. Similar notions of valuing virgin –status exist in other religions too.

For instance; virginity is a recurring theme in the Bible which looks upon the mother of Jesus as a virgin. In Judaism there is much discussion about the virgins in the temples.

And, Islam too believes that a man who enters paradise will be received by 72 virgins.

The Shakta-Tantra cult worships virgin as a complete person who has the ‘whole potential of the total-human being’ (combination of Shiva and Shakthi); and, as the untapped source of life-energy, the ‘holding back of the potential procreative power’.

10.2. The treatment of virginity in the older texts is again a much contested issue. Many have argued that such notions of continued or restored maidenhood were evidently moral or legal fictions invented, at a later period, merely to disguise the murky cases of promiscuity, free license or strange relations that were neither rape nor adultery. Or, at best, it might have been a self-deceiving, make-believe reflexes or opinions, reluctant to accept the stark fact.

10.3. The classic view of the scholars, however, converged on the understanding that virginity in those contexts does not refer to the state of their bodies but to the state of their being. It was said; virginity here does not refer to the physical condition but to the unsullied mind and attitude of those remarkable women. It is a state distinguished by purity, detachment and independence.

It is explained; when these women in Mahabharata, who knew more than one man and bore children, were respected by the ancients as kanyas, that was meant to suggest  they were psychologically pure and untainted. Those women learnt to sublimate their ego. And yet, they were independent women enjoying an identity of their own.

Therefore, the status of Kanya also referred to the way they fiercely asserted their independence. Each one of those does whatever had to be done out of a sense of duty; and she is true to herself and to her nature. Each one’s life was authentic.

10.4. A common feature among the kanyas of Mahabharata is that they all had to endure countless difficulties. And, yet these ‘women of substance’ were not broken down by personal tragedies. Each went on to live with a certain pride around her. But, there was a sense of loneliness that surrounded them despite being placed amidst their men and offspring.

11.1. And, that is echoed by M. Esther Harding who writes in Woman’s Mysteries [Rider, 1971, p. 125- 126]

“the woman who is psychologically virgin is not dependent; she is what she is because that is what she is … (she is) one-in-herself (and) does what she does not because of any desire to please, not to be liked or to be approved even by herself but because what she does is true. Her actions may, indeed, be unconventional “.

M. Esther Harding again makes a telling observation:

“He does not know the difference before love and after love, before motherhood and after motherhood…Only a woman can know that and speak of that. …She must always be as her nature is. She must always be maiden and always be mother. Before every love she is a maiden, after every love she is a mother.”

She elsewhere while talking of purity of love says “Every Mother is a virgin. She is pure in love to her child. Every child comes out of pure love”.

11.2. How well this illustrates Madhavi’s life and her experiences with men. The disinterested series of marriages and childbearing came about as a necessity. She looked upon it as her filial duty to save her father from disgrace; as assistance to an earnest student to fulfil his promise to his teacher; and as rescue of royal lines from dynastic extinction.


Question of Motherhood

12.1. In the Epic, Draupadi had to live with five men, while Kunti had to endure momentary involvements; and the case of Madhavi lies somewhere in between the two. Madhavi had to live with four men; but, in succession, each for about nine months. The significant difference among the three was their motherhood.

12.2. Kunti treated with much respect in the Epic is projected as heroic mother who protected and guided her children on the right path.

In the case of Draupadi the mother of five sons, sadly, there is not much discussion in the Epic about her motherhood. Her five sons are mere names of the boys who appear on the scene very late in the Epic, only to be slaughtered while asleep. They perhaps lived their childhood and brief adolescence in Panchala under the care of their maternal uncle and grandfather while Draupadi was in exile serving her five husbands. It is particularly sad that her husbands  could neither protect her well nor offer her the honour and respect that a woman should have as a wife and a mother. All that they succeeded was in making her a Queen.


12.3. Madhavi could not be a wife and a mother, in true sense. She had to be a mother ‘technically’. Each tine after a childbirth, she is separated from the infant’s father; and she has also no opportunity to nurse the infant, to care for him and bring him up to manhood. The emphasis of her life seems to be elsewhere. Her detachment is not by choice; but forced upon her by circumstances.

13.1. There are instances in the Epic of women giving up their newborn, of their own freewill, as in the case of Ganga (Bhishma), Satyavati (Vyasa), Kunti (Karna) and the Apsaras: Urvashi (Ayu) and Menaka (Shakuntala).There are also instances of women who were denied motherhood because their offspring were snatched away from them.

The most well-known of such tragic cases is Devaki who was forced to surrender all her newborn. It is not Devaki but Yashodha the foster mother of Krishna that is celebrated in songs and legends as the very icon of loving motherhood.

 In that sense, Madhavi is closer to Devaki than to the other women of Mahabharata.

14.1. Motherhood and mothering are seen as naturally related. Bringing forth a new life, its protection and nurturing are functions that only womankind can perform. The motherhood is essential for human survival and development. Motherhood is also of profound importance in family structure; that is to say in holding a family together, in building relations within and outside of the family, and in providing stability to life . And these functions are also central to female existence; it involves her body, mind and heart. She, often, regards motherhood as the fulfilment of her life. There is, naturally, enormous reverence, devotion and gratitude to Mother and motherhood.

14.2. Paradoxically, her maternal functions, her life-giving and life-sustaining responsibilities are taken for granted and often undervalued. And, these responsibilities have tied down the woman, excluded her from authority and role in public life. Added to these are the countless taboos on women during menstruation and pregnancy.

14.3. In the case of Madhavi, Devaki and others like them, being ‘mother’ is distinct from motherhood. Some regard that as tragic, because they were deprived of an essential and a most endearing aspect of woman’s life. There are also those who see no reason to be unhappy about such situation; because they view it as the sort of liberation that the women have been searching for.

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Question of Many husbands

15.1. As said earlier, Kunti need not have to live with the gods who provided her with sons. But, Draupadi had to live with five husbands all her life. Madhavi had to live with four men; but, in succession, each for about nine months.  Draupadi’s husbands were brothers; and that helped to maintain and strengthen fraternal unity among the Pandavas. While in the case of Madhavi, her men were unconnected and unrelated, excepting that all the four were kings.

15.2. The polyandrous relations that Madhavi and Draupadi had to endure have been much discussed. These two women lived in different eras and were separated by several centuries. In the Pre- Vedic times during which Madhavi lived, polyandry might not have been unusual. But, Draupadi’s polyandry wedding/s was definitely a strange and a startling feature of the then Mahabharata society.

In the long list of the Pandava- ancestors there was no instance of polyandry. Draupadi’s marriage with five brothers did not, therefore, take place in accordance with the then prevailing custom or its old tradition. But, it came about as an extraordinary and an exceptional event.  Later in the Epic, her adversaries miss no opportunity to taunt, ridicule and humiliate her for being the wife of many men.

15.3. Yudhishtira’s proposal asking for Draupadi as the wife of all the five brothers came as rude shock to Drupada, Draupadi’s father; and it almost felled him.  He cried out it in anguish:  it is such an unheard of adharma   and is totally against the normal the codes of behaviour (lokadharma viruddham).

Yet, Yudhishtira attempts to clear Drupada’s bewilderment by lamely citing Vedic instances of Marisha-Varkshi (vārkī hy eā varā kanyā: a girl raised by the trees) mother of Daksha married to the ten Prachetas brothers; and of Jatila (nee Gautami) the spouse of seven sages. Drupada is now more confused because those instances were ancient and not many had heard of those.

Then, sage Vyasa the   biological father of Pandu (who was the de jure father of the Pandavas) steps in and convinces Drupada. Vyasa   succeeds in his attempt, not by reason or logic, but by narrating events from Draupadi’s previous birth/s. Drupada nonplussed, gives in.

[In the same episode, Sage Vyasa, in an attempt to convince the beleaguered Drupada, narrates the story of the most beautiful and virtuous Bhaumāśvī, the daughter of King Sibi of great fame and immense valor. Bhaumāśvī, the best and most auspicious among women, gifted with a sweet voice, melodious as the notes of the Veena. At her Svayamvara, the five valorous sons of the great King Nitantu (Salveya, Srutasena, Surasena, Tindusara and Atisara), bulls among kings, endowed with all good qualities and famous wielders of the bow, all fell desperately in love with the most enchanting Bhaumāśvi.

Ultimately, the five brothers married her, And, Bhaumāśvi as their common wife bore five most heroic sons. And, their descendants gained fame as: Salveyaas, Surasenas, Srutasenas, Tindusaras and Atisaras

In this manner, listen Oh Great King, Bhaumasvi, celebrated on earth as the most virtuous woman   became the common wife for five of Kings.

In the same manner,  your daughter of divine form, the blameless Parshati, Krishnaa is destined to be the wife of five Pandavas. 

etān naitantavān pañca śaibyā cātra svayaṃvare / avāpa sā patīn vīrān bhaumāśvī manujādhipān / vīṇeva madhurārāvā gāndhāra-svaramūrcchitā / uttamā sarva-nārīṇāṃ bhaumāśvī hy abhavat tadā /   yasyā naitantavāḥ pañca patayaḥ kṣatriyar-ṣabhāḥ /   babhūvuḥ pṛthivīpālāḥ sarvaiḥ samuditā guṇaiḥ – 01,189.049d@101_0008 -0013

As per Unabridged Southern Editions Of Mahabharata...Kumbakonam Edition]

16.1. It appears that polyandry was a relic of the Pre-Vedic era that was linked to ancient Sumer (c.2900 BCE). Rig Veda period, which represents an age of transition, was an open society which fully appreciated the virtues of marriage. The marriage was sanctified with due rituals and ceremony. There is no passage in Rig Veda clearly referring to the custom of polyandry. The practice was known; but mentioned mostly with reference to certain gods. Johann Jacob Meyer in his Sexual Life in Ancient India (Barnes & Noble, inc 1953) remarks (page 108)

“As is well known the polygamy of the man in Aryan India is as old as the hills and does not form the slighted offence in the Brahmanic system, although since Vedic times, indeed, one wife is seen to be the usual, often the obvious thing. On the other hand, polyandry is utterly repugnant to Indian feelings, and in the Epic only one or two cases of it are found, and these are exclusively cases of a community of wives among brothers”.

16.2. The earliest known evidence of polyandry refers to the twins Aswins (Nasatya) who represent the pre-Vedic horsemen known for swiftness and ability to heal. Rig Veda also refers to Rodasi of disheveled hair as Sadharani the common wife of the Maruts: ‘The Maruts cling to their young and radiant wife who belongs to them all’ (RV.1.167.4); ‘ride upon their chariot with winged steeds; the youths have set the maiden wedded to glory’ (RV.1.167.6). The Aswins and the Maruts are gods or mythical figures; and not men of the living society. Such references are inoffensive not scandalous.

According to Dr. Subimal Chandra Sarkar (Some aspects of the earliest social history of India – pre Buddihistic ages; 1924) it is best understood as the relic of a gradually disused custom transformed into allegories. Dr Sarkar also observes “The practice of polyandry is generally supposed to be un-Vedic; and clear evidences are not found in the Vedic texts”. Yet, he feels such imagery of Aswins and the Maruts were evidently inspired by polyandric – traits that must have existed in the past.

Madhavi’s story has therefore to be placed in the context of pre-Vedic times.

17.1. The instances that Yudhishtira mentions, those of Jatila and Varksi are indeed very ancient; and not much is known about these women. They are very rare incidents. In Aitareya Brahmana , a post Vedic text, attached to Rig Veda , there is a distinct prohibition against a wife having more than one husband at a time (AB: 2.23) .

By the time of Mahabharata, the polyandry as a cultural trait had fallen into disuse and was largely discredited. It was also not in vogue at the time of the Buddha (600 BCE).

The Dharma-shastras too do not speak of polyandry. Thus, even in the earliest times of which we have evidence, polyandry had become rare and discredited. It was not considered ‘respectable’ in the Madyadesha, the heartland of Vedic and Buddhist religions.

17.2. According to Dr. Sarkar, the practice of polyandry lingered among the Tribal communities in the Western Sub-Himalaya belts and among as also among the Tibet-Burma tribes. 

As regards Tibet, according to Melvyn C. Goldstein, professor of anthropology at Case Western University, in Natural History (vol. 96, no. 3, March 1987, pp. 39-48) , the practice is tied with limited tillable land, inadequate labor force and the skewed ratio of male -female. The custom  of polyandry occurs in many different economic classes, but is especially common in peasant landowning families.

But, it has been on steady decline; though it is occasionally still practiced.

Question of Women

18.1. In the stories through which the Mahabharata speaks of life, women occupy a central position. 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 (Satyavathi, Kunti and Draupadi) in particular wielded power, in more ways than one. Mahabharata is interwoven with their remarkable sagacity in exercise of power and leadership. They knew when and how to wield power; and more importantly, when not to slam it. These women demonstrated that the truly powerful do not have to cling to the seat of power, but can still influence the course of events.

[When you come to think of it ; the tragedy of the Kauravas was that their helpless mother Gandhari was unable to exert her influence upon her wayward children.]

18.2. One of the other ways of looking at Mahabharata is to view it as a reflection of the flow of woman’s life. The narrations in the early part of the Epic indicate that the women enjoyed a greater degree of freedom, were invested with authority to take decisions on crucial matters, and were accorded much respect. We have seen how Madhavi could preserve her independence; and exercise a measure of freedom of thought and action in a manner that was unique to her times.

Later, coming down to the core Epic, you find Ganga and Satyavati married on conditions they imposed and insisted upon. Satyavati the fisher-maid could upset the dynamics of the royalty. She prevailed upon her husband to ensure that only her progenies succeeded to the throne. Kunti and Madri could take their decisions independently on crucial matters. Kunti, in particular, exercised control and actively directed the lives of her sons. She could command a sort of respect and obedience that Gandhari the queen could not secure from sons.

18.3.   As the Epic steps into its middle and later stages when Kunti recedes to background and Draupadi   enters the lives of the Pandavas there is a noticeable erosion in the power and influence of women. The women in the Epic are no longer respected as they once were. The esteem of women plummeted to its nadir with the most brazen act of wagering Draupadi at a gambling game of dice, which led to   insult and humiliation of her womanhood in a public place. Thereafter, the women cease to play any significant role; they are treated rather coarsely and almost reduced to objects of pity.

Draupadi as a woman and mother is dealt a most grievous and mortal blow when her sons are slaughtered while asleep alongside her.   At the end, Draupadi the prime heroine of the Epic is left to die unattended as she stumbles and falls on mountain slopes while none of her five husbands cares to stay with her or to help her.

19.1. Thus, Mahabharata depicts a steady degradation of woman’s status, erosion of her authority, and degeneration of her esteem. That worsening downward trend, sadly, continued for long centuries. Let’s talk of this in bit more detail.

19.2. When Pandu attempted to force his wife Kunti to beget children for him by soliciting a worthy stranger, she recoiled in horror and flatly refused, screaming “not even in touch will I be embraced by another”. Pandu eventually succeeded in gaining her acceptance by cajoling and reasoning with her after narrating to her the sanctioned customs of the Uttara-kuru, Northern Kurus:

“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 (atha tv imaṃ pravakṣyāmi dharmaṃ tv etaṃ nibodha me – Adi Parva – 01,113.003). In former times, as is well known, women were left unhindered (anavrita)- anāvṛtāḥ kila purā striya āsan varānane; O thou of the lovely face, going the way of their desires, in freedom they followed their own inclinations.  (kāma cāra vihāriṇyaḥ svatantrāś cārulocane),

O sweet-smiling one, neither man nor woman knew jealousy (Irshya nasti nari- nara- naam); and, were free from fear, excessive attachment 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 honoured by the great Rishis through observance, and to-day is still honored among the Uttara-kurus –

purāṇadṛṣṭo dharmo ‘yaṃ pūjyate ca maharṣibhiḥ uttareṣu ca rambhoru kuruṣv adyāpi vartate / strīṇām anugraha-karaḥ sa hi dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ – Adi parva – 01,113.006.

For, this is the eternal law that shows favour 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 practice it…the new custom is very recent.” (Mbh: Adi Parva; 113.4-8)

19.3. During the Vedic ages, the women were generally not discriminated against merely on the grounds of gender. They did have their say in matters of education; marriage; re-marriage; managing the household and the property. Many women engaged in intellectual pursuits, participation in public debate; and many were teachers. There were also few instances of women on the battlefield fighting along with their men folk.

I am not suggesting that the Vedic society was a perfect one. I wonder if there ever was a perfect society. Even Plato’s idealized Utopia was not perfect. Rig Vedic society too suffered from poverty, destitution, slavery and exploitation of the weak. But, the sorrows and suffering that the women of those times had to endure in their day- to-day living were not for the mere reason they were women. The depravity, social evil and injustice do exist in all societies – modern or otherwise- just as the strong, affluent, educated, enlightened, independent and liberated women do exist in all societies. The Vedic society was as good or bad as any other society of its time; but it appeared to be a tolerant and moderately unbiased society.

20.1. What happened after the Buddhist period, particularly after 300 BCE, was a totally different story. Woman lost the high status and some of her independence she once enjoyed in society. She became a piece of property, an object to be protected.

The period after 300 B.C witnessed a succession of invasions and influx of foreigners such as the Greeks, the Scythians, the Parthian, the Kushans and others. The political misfortunes, the war atrocities followed by long spells of anarchy and lawlessness had a disastrous effect on the Indian society. Fear and insecurity haunted common people and the householders. Sons were valued higher than the daughters because of the need for more fighting males in order to survive waves of onslaughts. It was also imperative to protect women from abductors. It therefore became necessary to curtail women’s freedom and movements’; and confining them within limited spaces. Early marriage was employed as a part of those defensive measures. The education of the girl child was no longer a priority, as was her safety.

20.2. The   Dharmashastras came into prominence at the time when the orthodox society was under dire threat and when it was fighting for survival. The society had entered into an inward looking self preservation – mode. The severity of the Dharmashastras was perhaps a defensive mechanism, in response to the threats and challenges thrown at its pet social order. The Shastras compromised social values by accepting early marriage as a substitute for Upanayanam and education of girls. The neglect of education, imposing seclusion and paranoid sense of insecurity that gripped their lives had disastrous consequences upon the esteem and status of women. The society in turn sank into depravity.

The social conditions deteriorated rapidly during the medieval period.

21.1. The long centuries stretching to almost 2000 years – from 300 B.C. to 1800 A.D. – are truly the dark ages of India. The development of woman steadily stuttered though she was affectionately nurtured by the parents, loved by the husband and cared by her children.

21.2. Now, it is the time of reawakening. Women of India are beginning to get opportunities to establish their identity and be recognized for their potential, talent and capabilities. This is a good re-beginning; though there is still a long way to go. The process must improve both in terms of its spread and quality. The ancient principles of equal opportunities for learning and development; equitable position in work-place; and the right to seek out her destiny with honor, must soon find place in all segments of the society. It might sound like asking for the moon. But, that is the only option India is left with, if it has to survive as a nation…and, if only the opportunities and freedom are utilized sensibly.


[You may click here for its complete and enlarged version for tracing the line of kings from Manu to Ikshvaku to   Mahabharata ]


References and Sources

1.Some aspects of the earliest social history of India –pre Buddihistic ages (1924)   by Dr. Subimal Chandra Sarkar.

2. Sexual Life in Ancient India (Barnes & Noble, inc 1953) by Johann Jacob Meyer.

3. Polyandry in Ancient India (1988) by Dr. Sarva Daman Singh

4. A Social History of India (2009) by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya

5.The story of Yayati’s daughter Madhavi in the Udyoga Parvam

The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Volume 3 Books 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12

6. Apropos Epic Women: East & West 




Posted by on October 10, 2012 in Madhavi, Mahabharata


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The Three Women In Mahabharata (2 Of 3) – Kunti

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 at his palace, Kunthibhoja was blessed with children. He considered Kunti his lucky charm; and, doted on her . In the meantime, Shurasena had a son; and, he named him Vasudeva, who years later married Devaki of Mathura ; and , had a son by her, named Krishna Vasudeva.

Pritha was a happy child; and , yet yearned for a mother in Knthibhoja’s sprawling 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 either 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.

kunti by Giampaolo Tomassetti

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 fisher-woman 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, was 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 (Uttara-kuru) – uttareṣu ca rambhoru kuruṣv adyāpi vartate. 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 beautiful eyed one (cārulocane), the ancient dharma perceived by the lofty-minded knowers of it. In former times, as is well known, women were left unhindered (anāvṛtāḥ kila purā striya āsan varānane); O thou of the lovely face, going the way of their desires, in freedom they followed their own inclinations. (kāmacāra vihāriṇyaḥ svatantrāś ); O sweet-smiling one, neither man nor woman knew jealousy (Irshya nasti narl-nara-naam); and, were free from fear, love  and anger (kāma-dveṣa-vivarjitāḥ). 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

taṃ caiva dharmaṃ paurāṇaṃ .

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

purāṇam ṛṣibhir dṛṣṭaṃ dharmavidbhir mahātmabhiḥ.

But, sadly, the barrier of to-day was set up in our world short while ago .  Learn this now, O lotus eyed (kamala-patrākṣi),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 practice it…the new custom is very recent.” Adi Parva (113.3-20)

3 atha tv imaṃ pravakṣyāmi dharmaṃ tv etaṃ nibodha me
      purāṇam ṛṣibhir dṛṣṭaṃ dharmavidbhir mahātmabhiḥ
  4 anāvṛtāḥ kila purā striya āsan varānane
      kāmacāra vihāriṇyaḥ svatantrāś cārulocane
  5 tāsāṃ vyuccaramāṇānāṃ kaumārāt subhage patīn
      nādharmo ‘bhūd varārohe sa hi dharmaḥ purābhavat
  6 taṃ caiva dharmaṃ paurāṇaṃ tiryag-yonigatāḥ prajāḥ
      adyāpy anuvidhīyante kāma-dveṣa-vivarjitāḥ
      purāṇadṛṣṭo dharmo ‘yaṃ pūjyate ca maharṣibhiḥ
  7 uttareṣu ca rambhoru kuruṣv adyāpi vartate
      strīṇām anugraha karaḥ sa hi dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ
  8 asmiṃs tu loke nacirān maryādeyaṃ śucismite
      sthāpitā yena yasmāc ca tan me vistarataḥ śṛṇu
  9 babhūvoddālako nāma maharṣir iti naḥ śrutam
      śvetaketur iti khyātaḥ putras tasyābhavan muniḥ
  10 maryādeyaṃ kṛtā tena mānuṣeṣv iti naḥ śrutam
     kopāt kamalapatrākṣi yadarthaṃ tan nibodha me
 11 śvetaketoḥ kila purā samakṣaṃ mātaraṃ pituḥ
     jagrāha brāhmaṇaḥ pāṇau gacchāva iti cābravīt

He begged her “Sweet lady, I fold my palms joining the tips of my lotus-leaf rosy fingers and I implore you listen to me , the auspicious one (śhubhe).”

tathā raktāṅguli talaḥ padmapatra nibhaḥ śubhe /  prasādārthaṃ mayā te ‘yaṃ śirasy abhyudyato añjaliḥ (MBh.1.113.29)

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.

Kunti Draupadi by Giampaolo Tomassetti

[Giampaolo Tomassetti, the famous Italian artist, studied  the Mahabharata  Epic for over a period of five years. The gifted artist took about 12  years to  illustrate 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.

[ Please read : Gandhari the lonely Queen ]

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 !!

Game of Dice by Giampaolo Tomassetti

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.


 ..Next …Draupadi


Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Mahabharata


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