The Great War fought on the battlefields of Kurukshetra had ended. But the victory was only partial because there were hearts to be won, tears to be wiped, back in Hastinapura. Reconciliation with the distraught Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, the old parents who had lost all their sons, was uppermost in the mind of Yudhisthira. Well, they hadn’t lost all their sons really; one was still alive – Durdasa, who had abandoned the Kaurava army and joined the Pandavas, believing that dharma was on their side. But he was certainly not in Dhritarashtra’s mind at that time of his dark and oppressive loneliness. As for Gandhari, there is nothing in the narrative that tells us whether she knew that Durdasa was alive or if she did, whether she cared. May be, for his parents, he had died the day he joined the Pandavas. May be, the loss of their ninety nine sons had numbed them and they were unable to realize that one of their sons was still alive. The poet is silent in this regard and we can go on speculating, knowing that silence can be more ambiguous than words.
This was in some sense a rather strange war. Neither Duryodhana and his brothers nor the Pandavas wanted war. When the time to decide arrived, Yudhisthira, Arjuna and Nakula were not keen on war. Not even Bhima, who had taken oaths, which could be more acceptably redeemed in a battlefield alone. All they wanted were five villages in all; Nakula wanted two, one for himself and one for Sahadeva. The Pandavas were neither mentally nor physically exhausted, nor were they afraid of defeat. Being virtuous by nature, they must have been deeply concerned about the justification and the ethicality of a fratricidal war, whatever the circumstances. Now, what about Sahadeva? He didn’t trouble himself about issues concerning war or peace, because he knew what was going to happen. He was known as the one who was bhuta bhavishya jnata (the one who knew the past and the future).
Draupadi felt let down by her husbands’ attitude. She wanted war; she wanted revenge for her humiliation in the Kaurava court. Now Kunti, who didn’t have anything so directly personal as had Draupadi, to avenge, desired war even more fervently. The aggressiveness of her attitude and the vehemence of her tone in Sarala’s narrative as she urged Krishna in a language that was coarse and degrading, to make sure that war took place, might strike one as surprising. She condemned her sons’ attitude by saying that she had not given birth to lions but only jackals. Later, towards the end of the War, she once harshly abused Krishna in a foul language for the delay in the killing of Duryodhana, holding him almost personally responsible for that calamity!
Now as the Pandavas were preparing to meet Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, Kunti started recounting to Krishna in a complaining and accusing tone how the Kauravas had always thought ill of her sons and how they had tried to harm them time and again. Her words expressed anguish rather than bitterness. Sarala uses just one terse line of a couplet to tell us how the avatara silenced her: What did you not do to the Kauravas, mother? A note of irony, bordering on sarcasm, was discernible in what he said.
I have often wondered why Kunti said what she did at that time, which, she knew, was the time for reconciliation. Her words were incongruous, very inappropriate and almost cynical. Was she feeling uneasy and even a bit guilty about the fact that her elder brother-in-law and sister-in-law had lost all their children? Was she worried that they would accuse her sons of causing a fratricidal war, when they would meet them? Would the grieving couple curse her children? Was she expressing her anxieties and fears by suggesting that the war was not caused by her sons but by those who had repeatedly tried to harm her children? Was this then what she was trying to impress upon Krishna?
The avatara’s straightforward and merciless answer was almost a reprimand, an accusation. In Kunti’s projection of the Great War as an evil imposed on her noble and unwilling sons by the wicked others, there was a distinct note of self-righteousness and of virtuous victimhood. Krishna rejected that attitude and condemned it. The winners of that terrible, bloody war simply could not put the blame on the vanquished for the countless dead and dying bodies still lying on the battlefields of Kurukshetra and get away. They had no justification at all in presenting themselves as innocent victims of others’ doings. They were not. That was what Krishna said. And his words to Kunti were the poet Sarala’s words to his audience across centuries.