Mahabharata Episode 4: Kunti, Madri and Gandhari

Kunti, Madri and Gandhari - Featured Image - Picture of Eyes representing the eyes of Dhritarashtra as a boy

In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 3: Amba, Ambika and Ambalika. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Here’s what we will cover in this episode:

Birth of Vyasa’s Children

The process by which Vyasa fathers the next generation of Kuru princes does not turn out to be as straightforward as expected.

As it turns out, the elder queen, Ambika, closes her eyes while making love to the sage, and Ambalika turns pale and frigid at the sight of him. For these reasons, when Satyavati asks Vyasa whether the queens will bring forth accomplished sons, the sage replies:

‘The sons born to the princesses of Kosala will be mighty and great. But because of their mothers’ demeanours during the act of conception, Ambika will give birth to a blind child (named Dhritarashtra), and the son of Ambalika will be pale. This latter one shall be called Pandu.’

Determined to bring forth at least one unblemished child, Satyavati sends Ambika once again – after the birth of Dhritarashtra – to Vyasa. But Ambika sends in her place her maid, who welcomes the sage with all the correct rituals, and meets him as a woman to a man, with neither fear nor disgust.

To this Sudra woman is born Vidura, the third of the Kuru brothers of the same father, highly virtuous and learned but on account of his birth never to be considered for ascension to the throne.

Bhishma Favours Pandu

As Dhritarashtra and Pandu grow up to marriageable age, Bhishma begins to look for brides for them. Very early on the decision is taken by Bhishma – in consultation with Vidura – that it is Pandu who should become king of Hastinapur. Not Dhritarashtra.

The ostensible reason for this is that Dhritarashtra is a blind man, therefore he does not inspire confidence of his people.

But one may argue that a king is rarely required to display keenness of eye or strength of muscle. He has spies, courtiers and regents for that. The point of contention should have been whether or not Dhritarashtra has the character to be king.

In Bhishma’s defense, we must remember that at this time, he has already endured the untimely death of two kings in Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya – the latter to a health condition. So Bhishma can be excused for being eager to install a physically fit man on the throne in favour of a blind one.

Of course, hindsight proves him wrong. Not only is Pandu the first of the brothers to die, Dhritarashtra proves himself to be an able enough ruler with Vidura by his side.

Hindsight also shows up Bhishma as unwise – because this decision of making Pandu king before Dhritarashtra muddies the water for the next generation. Should the throne now be given to the eldest son of Dhritarashtra (because he is the rightful king)? Or should it go to the eldest son of Pandu (because he is the actual king)?

This is the point on which the Mahabharata war is fought.

Kunti

Bhishma chooses Pritha, the adopted daughter of Kuntibhoja (ruler of a kingdom named Kunti), as bride for Pandu. Pritha is the biological daughter of King Shurasena (ruler of a kingdom also named Shurasena).

Pritha is also the younger sister of Vasudeva, who later marries Devaki of Mathura, gets imprisoned by Kamsa, and gives birth to Krishna. Thus Pritha is the maternal aunt of Krishna. Her sons, the Pandavas, become Krishna’s first cousins.

As is normal in those times, Pritha is commonly known by the name of her kingdom: Kunti.

Unbeknownst to everyone, Kunti has a son before her marriage, fathered by the sun god Surya, and helped by the blessings of Sage Durvasa. Scared of the social ramifications of a premarital pregnancy, Kunti decides to abandon her son when he is no more than an infant.

This boy is found and reared by a poor charioteer called Adiratha and his wife named Radha. They give him the name Vasusena (‘he who is born with wealth). As he grows into youth, he comes to be known as Radheya or Radhatmaja (‘the son of Radha’). He is also often insultingly called a Sutaputra (‘son of a Suta’).

Later, after he peels off his armour and gives it away to Indra, he attains the name of Karna (‘he who has peeled himself’).

In any case, all of this history at the point of marriage to Pandu is known only to Pritha. With this union, an alliance forms between Kuru on the bank of the Ganga and Shurasena and Kunti on the bank of the Yamuna.

Madri

Pandu also gets married at Bhishma’s behest to another maiden, the princess of a kingdom named Madra. We’re not told much about this girl; not even her birth name is known.

The reason for which Bhishma insists that Pandu marry her is also not made clear. We do know that Madra is situated upstream of the river, to the north of Kuru. Having captured one alliance to the South, Bhishma probably felt that Kuru’s interests will be better served if they have an ally in the other direction as well.

Madra is also to the immediate east of Bahlika, a kingdom ruled by Bahlika, older brother to King Shantanu. By bringing Madra into the family fold, therefore, Bhishma is surrounding Kuru with friendly elements.

Madri is the sister of Shalya, who later serves as Yudhishthir’s spy in the Mahabharata war. One of the parvas of the story is named after him (‘Shalya Parva’), and he plays an important role in the killing of Karna by Arjuna.

Madri’s main claim to fame is as the mother of Nakula and Sahadeva, the fourth and fifth of the Pandavas. She kills herself on Pandu’s funeral pyre, and plays virtually no role in the main events of the Mahabharata.

Gandhari  

Meanwhile, Dhritarashtra also gets married to a princess from Gandhara. In this case too, we’re not told the woman’s birth name; just the name derived from her kingdom.

Gandhara is situated to the north of Madra, on the bank of the river Indus (also called Sindhu). This alliance by Bhishma appears to be yet another attempt to bolster Kuru’s security to its northern side. With Bahlika, Madra and Gandhara all becoming allies, Kuru can concentrate more assiduously on kingdoms that lie to the southeast.

Gandhari’s brother is Shakuni, and he accompanies his sister to her marital home. He sets up permanent residence at the court of Hastinapur, and plays an important role in fanning enmity between the Kauravas and the Pandavas.

Gandhari performs one act during her marriage to Dhritarashtra that attracts much comment: she blindfolds herself permanently.

The reason she gives for this is that she does not wish to partake of the gift of sight which her husband does not possess. But one may speculate that it is an act of protest: she is being married away to an effective cripple, and she would not have any status in the Kuru court. So she willfully blinds herself and refuses to take responsibility for Dhritarashtra’s care.

Some commentators have suggested that Bhishma tricks Subala (Gandhari’s father) into the marriage by concealing the fact that Dhritarashtra is not going to be king. While this makes for good drama, no evidence in the text supports this view.

We are told, though, that Bhishma gives a huge amount of wealth as bride price for Gandhari. This implies that Subala knew in advance of Dhritarashtra’s condition and position; because his daughter is being asked for the less desirable brother, Subala may have demanded a higher price.

Pandu Sets Out

After his wedding, Pandu sets out almost immediately on an expedition of conquest, to establish himself as the supreme leader of Aryavarta. We’re not told this explicitly, but the army of Hastinapur likely has forces contributed to it by Shurasena, Kunti, Madra and Gandhara.

Not many details are given about the extent and depth of Pandu’s journey. But at the end of it all, he returns to Hastinapur having conquered the world.

Bhishma does not travel with Pandu on this quest; indeed, it is common practice when a division of a kingdom’s army seeks expansion and tribute in far-off lands, an equally strong division remains at home to defend against opportunistic invaders.

Desire for Children  

Soon after Pandu’s return, Bhishma tells him that the time has come for the perpetuation of the Kuru race. ‘Now that you have secured wealth for your people, my son,’ he says, ‘you should secure their future as well by siring a number of sons.’

Pandu agrees, and in the company of Kunti and Madri – and a large retinue of servants and maids – he moves into a luxurious royal retreat in the forest. The purpose of this vacation is twofold: (a) relaxation and refreshment after a successful military campaign, (b) conception of children with his two wives.

Meanwhile, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari are already trying (unsuccessfully) to have children of their own back at the palace.

This sets the stage for the births of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. We will see more about that in our next post.

Final Thoughts

A number of seeds of conflict are sown due to the incidents that have been described above. All of these become sticking points of argument in the future story, so I am putting them down in a list:

  • Between Pandu and Dhritarashtra, who is the rightful king?
  • If Pandu is made king as an exception because of Dhritarashtra’s disability, then does it follow that Dhritarashtra’s firstborn – if he is not disabled – will have first right to the throne? In other words, is Pandu merely standing by for Dhritarashtra or is he taking his place permanently?
  • Between Gandhari and Kunti, there is competition on who will bear the first child. From this fact, it appears that there has been some hint from Bhishma that the firstborn of the next generation – irrespective of who the father is – will be the first heir.
  • Kunti and Madri are locked in a battle for Pandu’s attentions. Madri especially has high stakes riding on this because if she becomes the wife to bear Pandu his first wife, then she will rise in status above Kunti. For Kunti’s part, she must make sure that this does not happen.
  • Amid all this, there is discontent within both Pandu and Dhritarashtra. The former thinks of himself as undeserving of the throne, and the latter thinks that he is merely a recipient of his younger brother’s charity.

So the Pandavas and Kauravas take their births at a juncture where there are significant moral dilemmas brewing all over the place. One might even say that the seeds of the Mahabharata war have already been sown.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!