After her husband Pandu’s death, Kunti came to live in the palace with her three children, and Madri’s two, and the five later came to be known as Pandavas. Gandhari’s husband, Dhritarashtra, was the king; so she enjoyed the privileges of the queen. In contrast, Kunti was just a member of the palace, the mother of fatherless children, and a widow. She was a non-entity. But she seemed to have been reconciled to her situation. As for Gandhari, it hardly mattered to her that her husband had become king because of Pandu’s benevolence and affection for his blind brother. Power and privileges had wiped out that fact from her memory.
Gandhari and Kunti used to go to the river Yamuna for bath every morning, Gandhari in the royal style, with her entourage, and Kunti all alone. After bath, they used to go to a Shiva temple to worship; they went separately, not by design though, and did not meet in the temple.
One morning they did, and Gandhari was furious. How dared Kunti worship the Linga in her temple! She shouted at her, but Kunti was not the kind of woman to take it from her sister-in-law, of all people. She shouted back. Gandhari told her that as a widow she was an unfortunate woman and had no right to perform any religious act. Soon tempers rose, they pushed each other, and started fighting in real earnest.
That was when Shiva manifested himself. He told the quarrelling women that they, gods, belonged to no one, and would be with anyone who pleased them with offerings. He told them that he would be with whoever would be the first to worship him the following morning with a hundred golden champak flowers.
The Kaurava women left and Kunti locked herself in a room. She was very unhappy. She knew that each of her sons would be able to give her one such flower, but that added up to just five. She also knew that Gandhari could similarly get one flower each from her children, and it added up to hundred! She knew thus that she was going to be the loser.
After a while Arjun came looking or her. He was hungry. Kunti came out, gave him food, and told him what was troubling her. Arjun told her not to worry; the following morning he was going to get for her a hundred golden champak flowers each with a hundred petals.
Kunti woke him up in the morning and reminded him of the flowers. He shot an arrow at Kuvera’s treasury and got all the gold he needed. With his arrows he created many, many beautiful champak flowers each having a hundred petals for his mother to worship Shiva with.
Gandhari had told her sons about her quarrel with Kunti and about what Bhagawan Shiva had told them both. She asked her sons to give her a golden champak each. She was already feeling like the winner thinking that if at all, Kunti would be able to get just five flowers of gold. In the morning as she went in style to the temple with a hundred gold champaks and her hundred sons, she saw that there were golden flowers strewn all over the place. Defeated and sad, she returned.
How could their children have been cordial to each other when they knew their mothers were sometimes even explicitly hostile to each other? Of course neither bore ill will for the other’s children, and neither encouraged her children to be unfriendly to their cousins. Gandhari was disturbed by Duryodhana’s hatred towards the Pandavas, and did not approve of his grossly unjust treatment of them. She was also apprehensive about her sons because she knew that the Pandavas were stronger. And soon she came to realize that she was incapable of influencing Duryodhana with regard to his dealings with the Pandavas.
The temple events can be seen as a turning point for Kunti and Gandhari as far as their power relations are concerned. They derived their power from their male associations, as women by and large almost always have had: Gandhari from her husband and children, and Kunti, from her children. In the golden champak incident Gandhari came to realize the superiority of Kunti’s children to her own in terms of intelligence, enterprise and might, and she began to understand that the balance of power had clearly titled in Kunti’s favour.
Draupadi’s humiliation proved to the turning point from a different perspective. From then on Kunti became increasingly bitter and unforgiving. She was the one who had taken an absolutely uncompromising stand in favour of the war. Later Yudhisthira said this to her in so many words. On the penultimate day of the war, when her sons and Krishna returned to their camps without having killed Duryodhana, she greeted Bhima and Krishna with the harshest of words for their failure to kill Duryodhana. In fact so foul was her language and so abusive her tone as she addressed Krishna that Bhima got wild with her and had to be pacified by Krishna. But in all this, Gandhari was not in her mind.
The loss of her ninety-nine sons in the war had hardened Gandhari and she was full of hatred towards the Pandavas. Kuniti was not in her mind when she planned her revenge and resorted to deceit in order to destroy Yudhisthira. But Krishna countered her deceit with equally vicious deceit, and made her destroy her only surviving son, Durdasa, who had changed sides and had fought on behalf of the Pandavas.
Kunti now became the queen mother and Gandhari was a dependent on the Pandavas. The tables had turned, and the balance of power had completely tilted against Gandhari. She was too powerless to feel even a sense of jealousy towards Kunti. Bhima never lost an opportunity to hurt and humiliate Gandhari’s husband, Dhritarashtra. Dhritarashtra suffered as much as did Gandhari. But Kunti was not party to their humiliation. Power and status seemed to be of no interest to her. And power is no power when there is lack of will to exercise it or enjoy it. Gone was Kunti’s hostility to her sister-in-law. She was subdued and dejected. The joy her son’s enthronement must have given her was more than offset by her sense of loss. She suffered for her son Karna who had perished in the battlefield. Memories of this son – her eldest – to whom she had not been a mother in more ways than one, a matter that need not detain us here, and whom she had not brought up oppressed her. It was as though she was trying to make up for her failure, and give her dead son his due that she had deprived him of when he was alive. She wept for him every single day, and she also mourned for her grandchildren, Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha, and for her relatives. Karna killed Ghatotkacha, and had participated in the killing of Abhimanyu, but she didn’t utter a word of condemnation against him. But she condemned Arjuna, who had killed Karna. She might not have empathized with her sister-in-law: she was too full of her own loss to think of anyone else’s.
She joined Gandhari, blind by choice, and her brother-in-law Dhritarashtra, blind from birth, when they retired to the forest for their vanaprastha. She would look after them in the forest. Gandhari was surprised. Why was she going with them? She had stayed with her sons and suffered with them during their difficult days. Why was she now leaving them in their days of prosperity? Kunti told her how she felt no joy in the palace and how miserable she indeed was.
In the end a bond had grown between the two women.