In Sarala Mahabharata, Kunti and Gandhari never had an easy relationship. It was bound to be so. Kunti wanted her eldest son, Yudhisthira, to inherit the throne of Hastinapura whereas her elder sister-in-law, Gandhari, wanted her eldest son, Duryodhana, to be the king. But neither encouraged her children to be hostile to their cousins; in fact, on occasions, Gandhari harshly scolded Duryodhana for his hostility towards the Pandavas, as Kunti did Bhima, equally harshly. After the wax palace fire happened, in which the Pandavas and Kunti were believed to have perished, Duryodhana was enthroned as the king of Hastinapura. Kunti seemed to have more or less resigned to that situation. But after her daughter-in-law Draupadi’s humiliation in the Kaurava court and her sons’ (Madri’s sons were her sons too. She never differentiated between her sons, Yudhisthira, Bhima and Arjuna and Madri’s sons, Nakula and Sahadeva) exile in the forest for twelve years and their one year and thirteen days’ humiliating stay, incognito, in the kingdom of Matsya in the service of king Virata, Kunti bayed for revenge. She wanted complete extermination of the Kaurava brothers. Before Krishna went to Duryodhana as Yudhisthira’s emissary of peace, he met her and she asked him to give her his solemn word that he would work for war, instead of peace, and she told him to ensure that war took place between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. When the Great War was going on, she often reproached her sons for not being able to kill the Kauravas, even after so many days of the fight. Once she went to the extent of abusing even Krishna on this account! Her language was so venomous and insulting that Bhima got infuriated and was almost going to hit her but Krishna saved the situation for both. When the war was over, like the Pandavas, Draupadi and Subhadra, she too claimed that the victory was solely due to her.

She was there when the issue was resolved. The severed head of Belalasena told them what he had witnessed with regard to the killings during the Great War.

After the Belalasena episode, she virtually disappeared from the narrative. She returned to it when Dhritarashtra and Gandhari were going to leave the palace for their vanaprastha. In between terrible things had happened:  Gandhari had tried to destroy the unsuspecting Yudhisthira with her yogic power and Dhritarashtra had tried to kill the unsuspecting Bhima with his physical power. Both had failed because of Krishna’s intervention. Instead of reducing Yudhisthira to ashes, she had reduced her only surviving son Durdaksha to ashes. In profound grief and frustration, Gandhari had cursed Krishna for the killing of her sons. She had held him responsible for the war. He could have stopped it had he so wished, she had told him. She had cursed him that his entire family would be destroyed thirty-six years from then. The Avatara had accepted the curse of the bereaved and helpless mother. The narrative does not say anything about Kunti’s reactions to any of these.

Neither does it say anything about her response to the killing of Abhimanyu’s son in his mother Uttara’s womb, the subsequent restoration to life of the unborn dead by the Avatara and Uttara’s death. Incidentally, this killing, which deeply pained the Pandava family, was not directly related to the doings of Kauravas’ family.

Despite the uneasy relationship that she had with Gandhari, when Dhritarashtra and Gandhari left for their vanaprastha, Kunti surprised everyone by saying that she too would go on vanaprastha with them. Her reasons in Sarala’s retelling are different from the same in Vyasa’s Mahabharata. In Sarala Mahabharata, when Yudhisthira asked her why she was deserting them, she said that she would not be happy in the palace when Gandhari would live in hardship and sorrow in the forest. Yudhisthira asked her whether Gandhari was living in sorrow when she was living in misery in the forest. Kunti told her son that it would not be right to think in such terms about her, the unfortunate mother, who had given birth to a hundred sons and had lost them all. Yudhisthira told her that throughout her life she had undergone great suffering in order to bring the five of them up all alone and now by leaving for the forest, she was depriving them of the opportunity to serve her and was thereby leaving them with a huge burden of debt towards her. Kunti took him aside and told him that she had to go to the forest; it was absolutely imperative on her part. Both blind, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari would, in the forest, face all kinds of difficulties and each time they would, they would curse him. She told Yudhisthira that she would serve them well and by doing so, would protect him.

Earlier, when Gandhari had come to know that Kunti was joining them, she had asked her with concern and affection, why she was leaving her sons in the time of prosperity and opting for a life of deprivation. What she told her sister-in-law shocked Yudhisthira. She said that she had been living in great sorrow in the palace. She had sleepless nights thinking of her son Karna, who, she knew, had suffered humiliation on her account throughout his life. He was a celebrated warrior and a very virtuous person. She condemned Arjuna as a sinner – “papistha ”– for taking advantage of his unfortunate situation in the battlefield and killing him (Ashramika Parva: 2544). She told Gandhari that she had lost Ghatotkacha, Abhimanyu and many others who were her own and she had had no peace.  None in the family knew about her suffering; she hadn’t shared her grief with anyone – she had alienated herself from her own. Deeply upset, Yudhisthira told her how she had been responsible for the war: how she had desperately wanted war and how she had made Krishna promise her that the war took place. Kunti cut him short and told him that it was pointless to think of those things at that moment. She also told him that parents could not live with their children for ever.

What Kunti did can be viewed as an exemplary moral act. She voluntarily chose a life of privation and suffering over a life of comfort and that too at her old age.  And she chose to do so to serve her elder brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who did not ask for her help and did not expect her to help them. Kunti knew that she could be extremely useful to them. It is true that Dhritarashtra and Gandhari were not going to be alone in the forest and that Vidura and Sanjaya would be with them, who had served him well for years. One might surmise that she might have thought that despite that, she would be of service to them, in other ways than Vidura’s and Sanjaya’s. The text does not say anything explicitly in this regard but isn’t suggestiveness a basic feature of poetic expression?

There is no reason to suspect that she was not sincere about what she told Gandhari by way of explaining to her why she had opted for being with them. The devastating war had levelled both the victors and the vanquished – they had all become losers. The war had ended their life-long uneasy relationship.

As Kunti had told Yudhisthira, there were three of them in the Kuru family: Gandhari, Madri and she herself. With Madri gone in the service of her husband (se swami karjya kala se punyamani – literally, she did her husband’s work; she was a virtuous person. “Her husband’s work” can be understood as “she did what pleased her husband”) (Ashramika Parva: 2544), only they two were left, suggesting that she did not want to be separated from her from then on. Besides, with Dhritarashtra, Gandhari, Vidura and Sanjaya leaving Hastinapura, there would be no one from her generation in Hastinapura. For years, she had looked after her children (she had never treated Madri’s children differently from her on, as already mentioned) but had not shared her hurts and feelings with any of them. If she did with anyone, it was Krishna. And the Avatara had left the mortal world. In view of all these, it is not implausible to think that she wanted to spend her last days with those of her generation.

Viewed thus, it would appear that her decision to serve Dhritarashtra and Gandhari was not entirely altruistic, not entirely out of her sense of duty. What Kunti had told Yudhisthira in confidence reinforces this perspective, namely that the real reason for her to be with Dhritarashtra and Gandhari during their vanaprastha was to protect him from their curses. The quintessential mother, she had felt that she had still to take care of her children, who needed that care from her and she could do so by not staying with them. In sum, was her act of self-sacrifice truly virtuous, untainted by self-interest?

 Think again, if you have a doubt. Hers was a “self-centric selfless” – the oxymoron best expresses it-  act in the sense that she did not do it for glory or fame or anything to do with the satisfaction of her ego or of the hope for a blessed life in the abode of the immortals after her death or a happier life in her next birth. When the mother acts to protect her children, this natural act is virtuous by definition. Hers was a moral act and a truly impeccable one at that.

In this sad story of two mothers, one mother could not protect her children and was a helpless spectator to their destruction. But if she could not save her children, she had tried to avenge their killing. It was a motherly act, however heinous, disgusting and despicable – and that’s because she had resorted to mean treachery. The other mother chose to live a life of deprivation and suffering in the forest, trying to protect her children from possible curses from the mother who had lost her children because of her children. Just imagine the life she must have lived in the forest, in fear and anxiety, dreading the possible utterance of a curse from the mother she had gone to serve.

To end the story, the war had not ended in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. It took place, later, in the palace in Hastinapura, where Gandhari and Dhritarashtra had tried to kill Yudhisthira and Bhima. It was there in the forest as well in the form of fear and anxiety for her sons in Kunti’s mind. The closure came when the forest fire consumed them both.

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