In the Mahabharata, one of the most exemplary female characters who stood for sacrifice, nobility and fortitude was Kunti Devi or Mother Kunti. The keynote of Kunti’s life was her steadfastness in Dharma. The four eternal ideals on which human society is based upon namely Dharma or righteousness, Seva or service, Tyaga or renunciation and Kshama or forgiveness were manifested in Kunti’s life. She was eulogised by Krishna, Vidura and Bhishma in the Mahabharata as a ‘Prajnavati or Mahaprajna’ meaning, a woman of great wisdom and a ‘Manasvini’, meaning one with a reflective mind. Her qualities of perseverance, service and patience were elaborated upon by Vyasa in the Mahabharata. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna classifies people who worship God into four broad groups namely the distressed, the inquisitive, the needy and the one searching for enlightenment. According to Lord Krishna, the one who develops intense love and devotion steadfastly through all sufferings, is the one dearest to him. Kunti Devi was one such devotee of the Lord.
Birth and Early Life
King Shurasena of Mathura was an ancient Yadava ruler. His son was Vasudeva, the father of Lord Krishna. He then got a daughter whom he named Pritha. One day King Kunti Bhoja of Bhojpur who was King Shurasena’s cousin came to visit him. He was childless and noting his affection and love towards Pritha, Shurasena gave her up to King Kunti Bhoja for adoption. She was then referred to as Kunti. As a young girl, she was entrusted with the task of looking after the sages, who came to the palace of King Kunti Bhoja, and she would sincerely and wholeheartedly immerse herself in the task. Once, Sage Durvasa who was known for his erratic temperament came to perform a Maha Yajna in Bhojpur. Kunti was entrusted with the responsibility of performing service to the sage. She dutifully served him, and her patience and humility pleased him. He then taught her a Divine mantra which when chanted would bestow on her progeny having divine qualities and effulgence as the God she propitiated. Kunti was thrilled, and after the sage had left, one day in her immaturity she decided to try out the efficacy of the mantra. The all-knowing sage could divine that her husband Pandu would not be able to father children due to a curse and hence in his omniscience is said to have granted her the boon.
After pondering on which of the Gods she could invoke, looking at the luminosity and brightness of the Sun, Kunti decided that the Sun God would be the best choice. Thinking thus she chanted the mantra invoking the Sun God. Suddenly the bright and luminous form of Surya, the Sun God appeared before her. Kunti dazzled by his radiance bowed to him and requested him to return informing him that she was an unmarried girl and was only testing the power and efficacy of the mantra. However, the Sun God Surya pleaded helplessness as the power of the mantra held him, and he was unable to return without granting the boon. Kunti was aghast, even though, the Sun God reassured her that she would still retain her ‘Kanya’ status (virginity). Thus by divine birth, the child whom she named Karna was born bright and beautiful like the Sun with divine armour (Kavach) and gold earrings (Kundala). Kunti, not knowing what to do and fearing public disgrace, decided to place the child in a sealed box and set it afloat in a river. This box was found by a charioteer of King Dhritarashtra of Hastinapur named Adhirath who was childless. He was overjoyed to find a beautiful and divine looking child in the box and decided to bring him up. His wife Radha showered her love and affection on the child. Hence, Karna was also referred to as Radheya.
Soon Kunti reached marriageable age, and Kuntibhoja held a Swayamvara for her. He invited all the neighbouring princes who came from far and wide as they had heard about her virtue and great beauty. Kunti then selected King Pandu of the Bharata race whose personality and bearing eclipsed all the other princes assembled there. The marriage duly took place and Kunti accompanied her husband to Hastinapur. In course of time, once while Pandu was expanding his empire he approached a kingdom named Madra whose King Shalya challenged him to war. During the battle, he was surprised to know that the expert charioteer of King Shalya was none other than his sister Madri. Shalya proposed that the two kingdoms avoid further war and requested Pandu to marry Madri. Bhishma and other loyal ministers too agreed to the suggestion and thus Pandu married Madri. Kunti and Madri developed a close sisterly relationship. Unfortunately, Pandu could not father children due to a curse and deeply affected by it, he decided to go to the forest and lead a life of renunciation. Kunti and Madri accompanied him and they lived an austere life for several years.
The Boon for children
However, Pandu continued to be worried about the continuance of his lineage. Kunti, unable to bear his anxiety, then related to him her past story and her ability to use Sage Durvasa’s mantra to beget children. Pandu was insistent she make use of the mantra and thus relieved of his anxiety. By this method, she had three children, Yudhistira from Lord Dharma or Yama, Arjuna from Lord Indra and Bhima from Lord Vayu. She also helped Madri to have twins Nakula and Sahadeva from the Ashwini Kumaras.
Soon after, unheeding the curse Pandu unfortunately died and Madri followed him into the funeral pyre. When Kunti was about to follow the same course, the sages of the forest restrained her from doing so as she was needed to bring up the five children.
Return to Hastinapur
To live under the care of Bheeshma and Dhritarashtra, Kunti returned to Hastinapur with the five children. The sons of Pandu (Pandavas) grew up joyously in the Kingdom under the watchful eyes of Bheeshma, but slowly Dhritarashtra’s sons (Kauravas) began to grow jealous of them. They narrowly escaped a number of plots including burning them alive in the house of lac and finally when all their attempts proved unsuccessful, Duryodhana and Shakuni lured Yudhistira to a game of dice and defeated him by deceit and cunning. The Pandavas were forced to live in exile for twelve years and live the thirteenth year incognito. The disrobing of Draupadi and the other humiliations that the Pandavas were forced to undergo finally led to the battle of Kurukshetra.
Although Kunti faced her troubles bravely, the disrobing of her beloved daughter in law Draupadi, filled her heart with pain and anguish. But she never lost heart and even during the exile, she was humble and always pacified her sons with suitable advice and encouragement. While accepting the generosity of her host, a Brahmin family in Ekachakrapura, she shared their troubles and solved them by instructing Bhima to fight against the evil demon Bakasura. She was always confident of the extraordinary prowess and strength of her children and always guided them on the path of good. She was always mindful of her rights and though unhappy at the injustice meted out to her sons would encourage them to channelize their power towards the greater good of humanity. She had great devotion towards Lord Krishna who was also her nephew, and He would patiently calm her and praise her pure and unsullied attributes. He would advise her to abide by time and patience at the end of which he promised her success and victory to her sons. Kunti had full faith in Krishna and would cling to him wholeheartedly praying for patience and perseverance.
Although the hatred of the Kauravas for the Pandavas grew ultimately leading to war, Kunti’s heart was filled with sorrow when she heard that the peace emissary act of Krishna had been in vain. She could not bear to think about the fighting among cousins leading to defeat and further annihilation of the race just for the sake of wealth and kingdom. But she realised that she had to fulfil the Dharma of a Kshatriya to avoid humiliation and poverty. When she realised war was imminent, she decided to approach Karna.
Kunti and Karna
Kunti had realised that Karna, who was the closest friend and ally of Duryodhana was none other than her first born son whom she had been forced to abandon. The cruel consequences of the war heralding death and mayhem pained her and she decided to approach Karna in the hope that the war could be averted. She felt that if she revealed to him the truth of his parentage he would be dissuaded to side with Duryodhana who would then not insist on war. However, Karna was angry with her for having abandoned him and accused her for entreating him for selfish gains. Her helplessness and pleas moved him, and since he never refused anyone who approached him for supplication, he granted her the wish that he would only aim to kill Arjuna and none of the other Pandavas.
Although the Kurukshetra battle led to victory of Dharma inspite of their victory, the Pandavas too suffered great losses including the death of their sons. But Kunti was helpless and sorrowful at the great tragedy and decided to retire to the forest at the end with Dhritarashtra and Gandhari. Her sons were opposed to her desire for they felt that it was she who had encouraged them to fight the war to oppose evil and she had a right to enjoy the benefits gained. But Kunti stated that she did not do it for riches or wealth but under the advice of Krishna to uphold Dharma and encourage them to perform their duties as Kshatriyas. She then blessed them to lead a life of righteousness and remain steadfast in their noble efforts with faith and devotion in the Lord.
Teachings of Queen Kunti
The Bhagavata Purana and the Mahabharata have immortalised the heart rending prayers of Kunti and her description of the spiritual path and these have been chanted, recited and sung by saints and sages for thousands of years. These celebrated prayers consist of twenty six couplets and are considered a literary and philosophical masterpiece. Her prayers show that under extreme situations, our sense of dependence on divine mercy is evoked deeply, and it is only prayer that unites us to God. Thus, as a saintly matriarch torn apart by fratricidal war of a great dynasty, she could endure assassination attempts, multiple plots to harm her children, and finally a great big war only by the power of her prayers. She chants these couplets at the end of the Kurukshetra war when she approaches Krishna as He is departing from the scene of the battle.
Kunti, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra decided to leave the kingdom after Yudhistira was crowned King and despite the pleas of the Pandavas to remain they refused and proceeded to the forest where they engaged themselves in penance and meditation. Their bodies were finally consumed in a forest fire. Sage Narada conveyed the news of their death to King Yudhistira, and everyone was steeped in sorrow. Narada then consoled them that they had attained the fruit of their penances and urged Yudhistira to perform the last rites of the departed souls. The Pandavas then proceeded to the River Ganga where they performed obsequies for the departed souls.
Kunti’s faith in the Supreme Godhead Krishna and her devotion to Him in the midst of all her sufferings and difficulties is an example to mankind on the way in which adversities should be faced and overcome. Kunti is said to have prayed to Lord Krishna that she should always be subjected to calamities in order to enable her to be in continuous prayer and transcend the cycles of birth and death. Great devotees such as Kunti understand that the Lord is their loving father and mother who is always there to protect them thus all difficulties become great blessings conferred on them by the Lord. This enables them to accept all situations in life humbly and gracefully. The deeper and esoteric meaning is that Kunti (personifies earth) Devi (the mother or feminine essence) represents the power of dispassion in Pandu and gave birth to sons who were born through the conjoining of the Earth and the divine or the body and spirit. The devotion of Mother Kunti is an inspiration to mankind.