Indian Mythology

The Tragedy of Kunti

Important caveat – I am a big fan of Karna.

I recently finished Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjaya – his magnificent book about Karna. A central character in Sawant’s book is Karna’s biological mother, Kunti. While I was aware of her story, I had never read about her in such detail. By the end of the book, I was thinking a lot about her and her place in the annals of Indian mythology.

After thinking about it a lot, I strongly feel that Kunti is largely forgotten and doesn’t get her due.

You can make the argument that save for Sita and Draupadi, no female character in either of the two great epics influenced the story as much as Kunti.

And yet, nobody has ever written a book about her. There are no metaphors or similes about her in Hindi poetry. We never refer to her in any context. Good or bad. There are no debates or discourses about Kunti when we discuss the Mahabharata. There are more references of Yashoda and Radha.

Even her place in the 5 great Panchkanyas of the Indian epics is disputed. Some sources have her and some have Sita.

Her story is actually quite tragic.

She was born as princess Pritha to King Shurasena of Mathura . But her father gave her away to his childless relative, King Kuntibhoja. At a tender age she is dropped off at her adopted father’s place. The poor princess doesn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to her mother properly. But she dutifully respects her fathers wishes and carries on.

A few. years later, her adopted father asks Kunti to personally attend to and serve Sage Durvasa who is their guest. Dutifully she complies and does such a good job, that the sage grants her a divine mantra. Unfortunately, unaware of its power, she ends up becoming pregnant with Karna. She has to give away her newborn son as the social implications of being an unwed mother were too harsh. She was willing to give up on her royal life and raise her son on her own. but she is persuaded to do otherwise. This decision haunts her all her life. Karna can never forgive her for abandoning him. This causes her endless anguish.

Then she gets married to King Pandu but he is cursed by Sage Kindama and is forced to head to the forests to live a life of celibacy ( he was cursed that he would die if he slept with a woman) with his two wives. Luckily for him, Kunti and his second wife Madri bear him five kids using Sage Durvasa’s divine mantra. She was a great queen and is a very dutiful wife who graciously accepted his husband’s second wife and suffered equally with him in his troubled times.

But one fine day, he is unable to resist his carnal urge and passes away. Madri beats Kunti to the funeral pyre and becomes a sati with Pandu. Poor Kunti is left to raise five children all by herself. Once again, she does a wonderful job. Raises them with love and caring and makes good men out of them.

She finally comes back to Hastinapur and becomes the Rajmata or Queen Mother. But her troubles never seem to end. She endures the ordeals of the Lakshagriha and Vanvaas. with her sons. But it all pales in significance to what she has to bear when she finally comes face to face with the first born child that she had abandoned. She recognises him but she can do nothing about it. She pines for him but cannot tell him. She longs to embrace him but is fearful of all the dangerous consequences this disclosure will entail. She watches him get humiliated repeatedly for being of a lower caste and not a Kshatriya ( even though he was one in reality ). The worst part being that her 5 sons are the ones giving Karna maximum grief. And then they become sworn enemies.

Her ( and Krishna’s) best attempts to woo Karna into the Pandava fold during the Great War are futile. She gets a mouthful from Karna when they finally met. She is resigned to losing one son in the Karna – Arjun battle. Eventually Kunti loses Karna without ever having one loving mother-son moment with him.

Kunti’s life story is an endless saga of misfortune and hurt. She loses most of her loved ones. Her parents. Her husband. And then the son who technically never became her own. And yet she carries on gamely dealing with all the hardships that life throws at her. She is a dutiful daughter, wife and mother. She is patient, brave, responsible, kind and loving. She is gracious even with the likes of Gandhari and Dhrithrashtra who aren’t happy to see her back in Hastinapur and are most unwelcoming of her. Her role in the story is pivotal. Without her boon, there are no Pandavas and no Karna. She bore the main warriors on both sides of the conflict.

Being a Karna fan, I used to loath Kunti earlier. But the more I learnt about her and understood what she would have gone through, I couldn’t help respecting her and feeling for her. It’s tragedy that she’s isn’t celebrated enough.

If you think of it, Kunti has some some striking similarities with Nargis’ character in Mother India. The character in the movie is the epitome of the great Indian woman, who is strong and tough but is also gentle and loving. The one who holds everything together while everything is falling apart around her. Kunti is an embodiment of the same great Indian woman. Sadly, we don’t think of her and remember her like that.

Recommended Reading

Shivaji Saavant’s Mrityunjaya

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