How did Kunti give birth to Karna?

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Kunti is the mother of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata. She is the biological daughter of King Shurasena but is fostered in the court of Kuntibhoja. Her maiden name is Pritha.

As a young girl, Kunti gets a boon from Sage Durvasa that she can summon any god of her choice and have son with him. She can repeat the chant any number of times, and she can even share it with other people.

After the death of Pandu and Madri, Kunti becomes the primary binding force between the five brothers. She later passes on that mantle to Draupadi.

In this post, we will answer the question: How did Kunti give birth to Karna?

Kunti gives birth to Karna as a maiden, when she tests a magical incantation that Durvasa gives her. With a child’s impetuosity, she calls upon the sun god, Surya. When she sees the chant has worked, she desperately asks Surya to return, but the god claims to be powerless to do so. Karna is born out of this reluctant union.

Read on to discover more about how Kunti gave birth to Karna.

(For answers to all Kunti-related questions, see: Kunti: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.)

Kunti is Adopted

Kunti is the biological daughter of King Shurasena who rules a kingdom by the same name. Shurasena is one of the Great Kingdoms of the world in its time – one of the Mahajanapadas.

At birth, her name is Pritha. She is sister to Vasudeva, who later fathers Balarama and Krishna. Another sister of Pritha is Srutashrava, who becomes wife to King Damaghosha of Chedi. Damaghosha and Srutashrava’s son is Shishupala – who becomes a lifelong enemy of Krishna.

Kunti is a kingdom east of Shurasena, ruled by a man named Kuntibhoja. (The word ‘Kuntibhoja’ literally means ‘king of Kunti’. There is no record of his real name.) He is childless, and is apparently on friendly terms with Shurasena.

So Shurasena gives up his daughter, Pritha, to Kuntibhoja. As Pritha grows up in her adoptive home, she acquires the name of Kunti. This tradition of naming princesses of royal families after the kingdom that they rule is a common one.

Despite being the adopted daughter of Kuntibhoja, throughout her life, Kunti displays more connection toward her biological family. Kuntibhoja plays little to no further part in her life after her marriage.

Kunti looks after Durvasa

When Kunti is thirteen or fourteen years old (let’s say the latter), Durvasa visits Kuntibhoja and stays at the royal palace for a period of a year. As is customary, Kuntibhoja receives Durvasa warmly and assigns to his daughter Kunti the task of looking after the sage well.

Now, Durvasa is known far and wide for his quick temper. He is feared by kings because stories of his anger resulting in curses have been circulating around the world for years.

So it is with trepidation that Kuntibhoja watches over Kunti during the year she attends to Durvasa.

His fear is misplaced, though. Kunti proves herself to be a wise overseer. She manages the servants at her disposal with quiet competence. She herself goes well beyond the call of duty to meet every need of Durvasa.

Whether or not Durvasa’s ‘needs’ included the sexual is difficult to ascertain. On the one hand we have the notion that he is a sage who has probably renounced erotic pleasures. On the other, we do know that sages do take occasional breaks from their vows of chastity to marry women and father children.

This may not seem like an important point, but we will return to it later in the article. For now, we will assume that Durvasa practiced his vow of chastity during his stay at Kuntibhoja’s palace.

Durvasa Rewards Kunti

While Durvasa is famously quick to anger, he is also easily pleased by people who he sees as conscientious. At the end of the year, he is so happy with Kunti’s management of the household that he gives her a boon.

He teaches her an incantation which, when recited, allows a woman to instantly summon any god of her choosing to her side. And the god will be compelled by Durvasa’s magic to give the woman a son.

This mantra appears to be teachable; i.e.: if Kunti were to decide to give another woman the same ability, she can. In fact, Kunti does this after she had has her three sons. She teaches Madri, her co-wife, the technique of reciting the words.

After Durvasa’s departure, Kunti is both excited and curious about her newly earned power. Has the sage lied to me, she thinks, or will a god really come to my side if I just said these words?

Once the thought takes root in her mind, it grows into an obsession. One morning, while sitting at a window and gazing upon the just-risen sun, Kunti thinks that it would be wonderful to be able to call Surya into her arms.

Kunti Tests the Boon

Without thinking, overcome by the romance of the moment, she recites the mantra. For a few seconds, nothing happens. But then the room fills with light, and Surya stands before her.

Kunti recognizes the look of desire in Surya’s eyes. With shock, she comes to acknowledge that Durvasa’s chant has indeed worked. And now she begins to think through the implications if she is to become a mother without being wed.

The good name of Kuntibhoja will be ground to dust. The reputation of Shurasena also is at stake. She shakes her head. No, she thinks. I cannot have a son now!

She joins her palms and asks Surya to leave. But Surya replies that he himself is powerless, and is bound by Durvasa’s magic. Now that he has arrived, he has to fulfil the purpose of the chant. He has to give Kunti a son.

Thus, despite both of them being reluctant to participate in the act, Surya impregnates Kunti and leaves.

The nature of Surya and Kunti’s union has been subject of some debate. Is it the kind of sexual union that two regular human beings would experience? Or did Surya have a magical process by which he implants his seed into Kunti’s womb?

We do not know for certain. All we do know is that Surya displays desire for Kunti. He unites with her – either physically or spiritually. And he leaves after making sure that the princess is pregnant.

A Reluctant Mother

Kunti’s pregnancy is by all accounts a ‘normal’ one in terms of length. In other words, it is not like the pregnancy of Satyavati who conceives, carries and gives birth to Vyasa over the course of a single day.

Very little is known about the ten months or so that elapse between Surya’s visit to Kunti’s bedroom and Kunti’s eventual delivery. For instance, how many people in the royal palace know about Kunti’s pregnancy? Did Kuntibhoja know?

It is unreasonable to assume that Kunti managed to keep her pregnancy secret from everyone. At the very least, a few attending servants or companions would have known, and it is very unlikely that Kuntibhoja did not know.

Though the usual image is to project Kunti as the sole player in this drama, we must acknowledge that it is very improbable that something of this magnitude could happen within a royal palace without at least the important people knowing all about it.

A more realistic scenario is that Kuntibhoja knew immediately that Kunti became pregnant, and he then took care to keep the secret from spilling beyond a group of trusted palace-dwellers.

This ‘group’ – whoever that included – would have then ensured that Kunti delivered safely. Kuntibhoja – upon consultation with other members of the group – would have then decided what to do with the baby.

Kunti Abandons Karna

The decision to abandon Karna is usually depicted as Kunti’s own. But in reality, it is entirely possible that her opinion was not even considered on the matter. After all, if Kuntibhoja knew about the pregnancy, then he would have the biggest say in what should be done.

Other options would have been considered. For instance, they could have fostered the boy secretly with a trusted family in Kunti, with an understanding that he would be adopted into the royal family later.

Or they could have found a nobleman or courtier who is willing to rear the child as his own and keep the secret for as long as the king wishes.

But this would have opened up the possibility that Kunti will always feel tethered to the past. After all, one never knows how things might unfold after taking a decision like this.

Kuntibhoja might have felt that the best way is to achieve a clean break from the past, and to give Kunti (the princess) the best chance at having a normal life hereafter.

Thus, the baby boy gets abandoned. He gets left on the Yamuna, and in a short while he is found by a charioteer named Adiratha. He and his wife Radha name the boy Vasusena (‘he who is born of wealth’). He gains the name of Karna as an adult.

Alternative Theory

Among Mahabharata theorists, there are a few who like imagining the story without magical interventions. Under this assumption, Durvasa is considered to be the reason for Kunti’s pregnancy.

Proponents of this theory explain that when a sage visits a king’s palace and stays there for an extended period of time, he generally renounces his vow of chastity, and is not above indulging himself with women that the king presents to him.

In this case, Kunti becomes pregnant through one of these encounters, and the entire story of his leaving Kunti with a magical boon is a story cooked up by the trusted advisers of Kuntibhoja.

By the same token, the Pandavas are also not sons of Kunti and Madri. Their fathers are sages of the Gandhamadana whose names and identities we do not know.

Depending on which theory you favour, therefore, Kunti gives birth to Karna through either a magical union with the sun god Surya, or through a more prosaic union with Durvasa the sage.

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