Kunti: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered

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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 all the questions you’ve ever had about Kunti.

Kunti is the biological daughter of King Shurasena, father of Prince Vasudeva. Vasudeva and Devaki are the parents of Krishna. Therefore, Kunti is Krishna’s father’s younger sister – his paternal aunt. Her maiden name is Pritha, and she is given for adoption at the court of Kuntibhoja, king of the kingdom of Kunti.

It is customary for a princess – after her marriage – to take on the name of the kingdom from which she hails. Pritha, the adopted daughter of King Kuntibhoja, is therefore called by the name of Kunti after her marriage to Pandu.

We see a similar thing happening with Gandhari (‘daughter of Gandhara’) and Madri (‘daughter of Madra’) as well. In these two cases, we do not even know what the women’s true names were.

Because of Krishna’s unconventional upbringing in the cowherd settlement of Vrindavan, he hardly meets Kunti during his early years. Even after he overthrows Kamsa, he stays busy attending to the constant threat posed by Jarasandha, and later with the founding and building of the kingdom of Anarta.

Meanwhile, Kunti’s life is kept busy as well after her marriage to Pandu. She leads a hermetical existence with her husband and co-wife, and after their deaths, she brings back the Pandavas to the court of Hastinapur.

Despite the choice of returning home to Kunti being open, she chooses to remain at Hastinapur in order that her sons will grow up to one day challenge the Kauravas for the throne.

All of this means that Kunti and Krishna – despite knowing of each other – never meet until after the Pandavas have won Draupadi’s hand at the court of Drupada.

Krishna and Balarama spot the Pandavas at the ceremony, follow them back to their hut, and introduce themselves to their aunt and cousins for the first time.

After this delayed meeting, though, the Pandavas and Krishna become close friends and allies thanks to the connection that Kunti has to the kingdom of Shurasena and to the Yadavas in general.

Detailed Answer: How was Kunti related to Krishna?

How did Kunti die?

Kunti dies around two years after the end of the Kurukshetra war. She accompanies Dhritarashtra and Gandhari into the forest when the old couple decide to relinquish their material possessions. She then follows Gandhari and allows herself to me immolated in a forest fire that consumes Dhritarashtra.

After Yudhishthir and his brothers become the overlords of Hastinapur, in about a year Dhritarashtra decides that the time has come for him to repair into the forest, and to embrace an ascetic mode of life.

Gandhari decides to go with her husband, as is her wont. But what strikes the Pandavas by surprise is that Kunti also decides to go with them. Yudhishthir is puzzled with this decision; he says that they had won the kingdom so that they could look after their mother with comfort. Why, then, was she leaving?

Kunti replies that winning back the kingdom was Yudhishthir’s duty. He had to win back that he had lost because it is the right thing for any man to do, not because he had to look after his mother. For her part, Kunti’s duty is now to serve Dhritarashtra and Gandhari in the forest.

Sanjaya and Vidura also leave with the king and the two women. The five of them live for a while together at a hermitage. In about two years, Dhritarashtra senses a forest fire approaching, and decides to walk into it – reasoning that his time has come.

Gandhari follows her husband. Kunti follows her brother-in-law and sister. Sanjaya witnesses this and goes back to Vyasa to report what he had seen.

Detailed Answer: How did Kunti die?

How did Kunti give birth to Karna?

Kunti gives birth to Karna after uniting with Surya, the sun god. There is some debate on the nature of this union: some contend that it is physical whereas others claim that it is purely spiritual. Regardless, Kunti gives birth to a baby boy as an unmarried woman, and therefore takes the difficult decision to abandon him.

Kunti’s later pregnancies – with Yama, Vayu and Indra – appear to be full-term affairs that you would expect if the fathers of the babies were human. From this, we can surmise that her pregnancy with Karna also extended over ten months.

Kunti receives a boon from Sage Durvasa – a reward for her unblemished devotion during the rishi’s visit to Kuntibhoja’s palace – that she can summon any of the gods of the pantheon and compel them to give her a son.

While there is no explicit mention of the nature of Kunti’s union with the gods, there are enough hints in the text that suggest that it happens much the same way as it does between a human man and woman.

However, some readers claim that these unions are not physical in nature but are merely spiritual, aided by magic. Though this sounds inconsistent to me, I also concede that one cannot know for certain.

There is also another theory that is propounded by readers who enjoy stripping the Mahabharata of all its supernatural elements, and to unearth the story ‘as it may have happened’.

According to this, it is the union between Durvasa and Kunti that yields the boy to whom she gives birth after the sage’s departure. There is no magic boon, and there is no Surya’s secret visit to Kunti’s bedchamber.

This, of course, also means that Kunti’s other children also had mundane births, fathered by sages that lived on the Gandhamadana and later adopted by Pandu as his own.

Regardless of how Kunti obtained Karna, the key detail is that she has him while she is still an unwed maiden. And fearing social censure, she decides to abandon him. This incident has a profound effect on how the Mahabharata story eventually unfolds.

Detailed Answer: How did Kunti give birth to Karna?

How did Kunti recognize Karna?

Kunti recognizes Karna when he reveals himself for the first time at the Kuru princes’ graduation ceremony. If Karna has the kavacha-kundalas on, Kunti recognizes him through them. If Karna had already had given up his gifts, he would still have borne scars. Kunti may have recognized him through them. She may have also recognized him through pure maternal intuition.

There is some uncertainty about when exactly Karna peels his divine armour and earrings, his kavacha-kundalas.

Common wisdom places the visit of Indra to Karna’s place immediately before the Kurukshetra war. But strong arguments can be made that Karna had already given up his kavacha-kundalas by the time he appears at the graduation ceremony.

If Karna is wearing his armour and earrings, then the question of how Kunti recognized him is an easy one. She remembers that her son – the boy she abandoned – was born with Surya’s ornaments. She now recognizes him through them.

If Karna has already given away his kavacha-kundalas and is now shorn of them, it is possible that he is bearing scars from the act of peeling them off for Indra. In fact, Duryodhana refers to these scars while arguing Karna’s case in front of the Kuru elders.

Kunti, therefore, may have seen the scars and would have made the connection between them and the armour that had been removed to cause them.

Finally, it is possible that Kunti just relied on maternal instinct and intuition to recognize her long-lost son. Something about Karna – the way he held himself, the way he spoke, the way he matched Arjuna’s efforts – would have signalled to Kunti that this is the boy she had left on the Yamuna all those years ago.

After having recognized Karna as her son, Kunti immediately faints, unable to bear the shock of seeing her firstborn clash with her other sons.

Detailed Answer: How did Kunti recognize Karna?

Why did Kunti leave Karna?

The decision to abandon Karna is often depicted as Kunti’s alone, but it would have happened with Kuntibhoja’s knowledge – perhaps even his encouragement. The main reason is that Kunti is an unwed maiden at the time she gives birth to Karna, and to avoid unpleasant social justice meted out by observers, she decides to let him go and make a fresh start.

Judging by the nature of Kunti’s other pregnancies – with Yudhishthir, Bhima and Arjuna – we can surmise that she carries Karna through a full term before she gives birth.

This means that the nature of Karna’s birth is quite unlike what Satyavati experiences with Vyasa. In that incident, Satyavati is able to unite with Parashara, get pregnant with Vyasa, give birth to him, and watch him grow into a youth – all in the matter of one evening.

But with Kunti, it appears that her pregnancies and births happen much the same way as those of regular humans. This means that at least a small number of confidants at Kuntibhoja’s palace must have known that the princess is with child.

Kuntibhoja himself must have known. It is inconceivable that such significant news concerning his daughter could possibly be kept hidden from him.

The decision, therefore, of what to do with the child eventually would have been taken over a period of months, after multiple consultations between the king and his trusted ministers.

They would have evaluated other options: can the boy be given in secret to a nobleman at court so that he can be raised in Kunti’s view? Can the boy be acknowledged as Kunti’s publicly, and people’s opinions managed through cunning use of propaganda? Can the boy be raised as one of the many low-born children at court whose fathers’ identities are never known?

Though all these choices have merits, it must have seemed to Kuntibhoja that his daughter would be best served by severing herself completely from the scandal. Kunti can then move into her future, untethered to the past.

The fact that Kunti is Kuntibhoja’s adopted daughter would also have played a part: Shurasena would have accused Kuntibhoja of being careless with his daughter.

Why did Kunti not accept Karna?

Kunti does not accept Karna because of three reasons: (1) she does not have any matronly affection for him, (2) admitting to the truth would amount to lowering her character in front of the world, and (3) Duryodhana would then use Karna as a tool to defeat the Pandavas, knowing that they would not fight him.

By all appearances in the Mahabharata, Kunti does not actually consider Karna to be her son. She does not entertain any matronly feelings toward him. He is an unwanted child born out of an unwanted union, and as soon as she abandons him, she puts him out of her mind and moves on with her life.

When Karna bursts forth into her life at the Kuru graduation ceremony, she faints – but only out of shock, and perhaps out of worry that the new entrant will harm Arjuna.

Toward the end of the story, Kunti tries to lure Karna away from Duryodhana onto the Pandavas’ side only to ensure that all of the Pandavas remain safe. She takes a promise from Karna that he will try to kill only Arjuna among the brothers. In this scene as well, Kunti’s primary motivation is to protect her sons.

While we cannot tell for sure what her inner thoughts might have been, judging from her actions and choices, it is quite obvious that Kunti does not have any affection or love for Karna.

For her, he is an inconvenience that she had tried to eliminate from her life but is now persistently present in it. Admitting to the truth after the Pandavas have grown up would amount to tarnishing her own character in front of the world.

Also, by the time Kunti realizes who Karna is, he has already been rescued by Duryodhana and has already pledged loyalty to the Kauravas. Even if Kunti had admitted to the truth, would Karna have accepted her as his mother?

On the other hand, the Pandavas would have become increasingly reluctant to fight against Karna because he is their elder brother. Duryodhana would have then easily used Karna as a tool to emasculate the Pandavas.

All of these factors would have weighed on Kunti’s mind, and she would have thought it prudent to keep the secret to herself.

Detailed Answer: Why did Kunti not accept Karna?

Why did Kunti divide Draupadi?

Kunti is often considered the main reason why Draupadi was shared by the Pandavas. She mistakenly tells her sons to ‘divide whatever you brought equally between yourselves’. However, she also sees that if Draupadi is given to any one brother, the other four will be envious of him. So to keep the peace between the Pandavas, Kunti thinks it best that Draupadi be shared.

Until the arrival of Draupadi, Kunti is the agent that binds the Pandavas together. We must remember that the Pandavas are all born to five different fathers, and that the sons of Kunti and the sons of Madri do not share even one parent.

Yudhishthir, Arjuna and Bhima are half-brothers because they share a mother. Nakula and Sahadeva are also half-brothers to one another. But the first three and the last two are not related at all, except by the fact that Pandu adopted them.

Given this lack of biological ties, Kunti believes that it is important that the five brothers are unified in other ways. During the first half of their lives, Kunti serves as the unifier. After Draupadi comes into the picture, Kunti believes she should become the next rallying center of the Pandavas.

In addition, Kunti notices that all five of her sons are affected by desire for Draupadi. If she is given to any one of the brothers, the other four will be consumed by envy for him. Draupadi, then, may become an agent for rupture and destruction – not unity.

So Kunti decides – and so does Yudhishthir – that Draupadi should be made the common wife of all five brothers.

This is a highly unusual arrangement, even for those times. While it is not uncommon for men to take multiple wives, no woman ever had more than one husband. But Kunti and Yudhishthir decide that it is best for the family to adopt this course.

Sage Vyasa also gives his blessing, and tells everyone that Draupadi had a boon from a previous life that she would marry five husbands in this one. While the enemies of the Pandavas criticise the move behind their backs, all of their allies – like Drupada and Krishna – support it.

Detailed Answer: Why did Kunti divide Draupadi?

Did Kunti sleep with gods?

The nature of Kunti’s union with the gods is a matter of debate. Some readers claim that Kunti united physically with each god in order to receive his seed in her womb. Others insist that the union is spiritual, and that the gods merely gifted Kunti their ‘essence’. However, the hints in the text point to the former being more likely.

The Mahabharata universe allows for magical pregnancies and births. For instance, in the case of Satyavati, she unites with Parashara on an island in the Yamuna. She gets pregnant, gives birth, and sees her son grow into a young man – all on the same day.

That raises questions about whether Kunti had to actually sleep with the four gods – Surya, Yama, Vayu and Indra – to bear them sons. Is it possible that these unions were spiritual and that Kunti retains her virginity throughout?

First, we must admit that the text is not explicit on this point. We are told that each god, as he descends in answer to Kunti’s call, is enamoured by her beauty and approaches her. This suggests that there is some sexual desire involved in Durvasa’s magic.

Also, when Pandu asks Kunti to use the mantra again after Arjuna’s birth, she desists, saying: ‘I have already used the mantra three times, O Lord, and I have taken four paramours as a result. Our scriptures say that a woman who takes five lovers is equal to a prostitute.’

(A quick note on this: Though Kunti argues that she has taken four lovers, she knows in her mind that she has taken five. And if she believes the scriptures, she must believe that she is a woman of low character. Later, Karna uses this ‘five lovers’ logic to demean Draupadi’s status as a woman.)

This also supports the thesis that Kunti actually went through the process of sexual union with all the gods she summoned. If the union had been just spiritual, Kunti would not have felt the need to say no after a third use of the mantra.

Detailed Answer: Did Kunti sleep with gods?

Did Kunti tell Pandu about Karna?

No. Kunti does not tell Pandu about Karna. The only two people she tells her secret to over the course of the story are Krishna and Vyasa. When Pandu asks her to use Durvasa’s mantra a fourth time, Kunti desists, saying that taking a fifth lover would make her unchaste. The truth is that counting Surya, she had already taken five lovers.

We must remember that Kunti comes to know about Karna only during the Kuru graduation ceremony, long after Pandu’s death. When Pandu is alive, Kunti probably thinks that the boy they had left on the Yamuna all those years ago is now probably dead.

That is what happens to boys that are abandoned on the river. They either starve to death or they’re found and eaten by animals.

What need is there to tell your husband about a dead child in your past? At best, she may get Pandu’s sympathy. At worst, she may be subject to his ire. Why risk ruining your current relationship by dredging up dead truths from the past?

Kunti would have thought along these lines whenever her conscience prodded her to tell Pandu about Karna. Indeed, even when she proposes that she will use Durvasa’s magic, she tells Pandu that she has not ever used the mantra, and that she will use it for the first time in Pandu’s presence.

After giving birth to Yama, Bhima and Arjuna, when Pandu asks Kunti to summon another god, she says no, and says that she has already taken four paramours – including Pandu. Taking a fifth would make her unchaste.

Notice that in making this argument, Kunti is only worried about what the world thinks of her, not what she is in reality. Because in reality, Indra is her fifth paramour. In her mind, she knows that she has already taken five lovers. But she is content that in the eyes of the world, she has stopped at four.

All of this makes it highly likely that Kunti did not reveal to Pandu her most closely guarded secret.

Did Kunti love Nakula and Sahadeva?

Kunti promises Madri just before the latter’s death that she will look after Nakula and Sahadeva as if they were her own children. Throughout the time the Pandavas are in her care, Kunti remains true to her word and treats the twins just as if they were her sons. She therefore practices love toward them, regardless of whether or not she felt it.

Whether or not Kunti loved Nakula and Sahadeva as much as she loved her own sons is difficult to answer without access to her thoughts and emotions. However, we do know that Kunti does not have a great relationship with Madri.

The reason for the bad blood is as follows: after Kunti decides to retire Durvasa’s magic chant because she is done having children, Madri – through Pandu – requests her older co-wife for one use of the mantra.

Kunti grants it to her, reasoning that even after using the magic, Madri will still have only one son to Kunti’s three.

But Madri cleverly chooses to summon the Ashwin twins with her mantra, who then blesses her with twin sons. So with one use of the chant, she gains two sons.

This strikes Kunti as conniving. She erupts with anger on Pandu, and promises him that she will never again give another use of the mantra to either herself or to Madri. Pandu is only ever going to have five sons.

The other reason for Kunti’s anger toward Madri stems from the fact that it is Madri that Pandu seeks when he is unable to control his sexual impulses. He tries to force himself onto Madri, and as a result dies when an invisible thunderbolt racks his body.

Kunti has two reasons to resent Madri with respect to this incident: one, she is jealous that Pandu went to Madri, and two, she has reason to believe that Madri tried to seduce the king to have another son so that she can draw level with Kunti.

Despite all of this negativity, Kunti does not allow herself to be biased against Nakula and Sahadeva. She also teaches Yudhishthir to be absolutely impartial when it comes to treating his younger brothers.

Did Kunti like Draupadi?

Kunti first hears of Draupadi when Vyasa tells the Pandavas the story of Draupadi’s previous birth. Kunti approves of Arjuna going to Draupadi’s swayamvara with the intention of winning her. After she is brought home, Kunti agrees that she should become the common wife of the Pandavas. From all this, we can presume that she likes Draupadi.

By agreeing to let Draupadi become the Pandavas’ common wife, Kunti is handing over a big responsibility to her daughter-in-law. In essence, she is putting Draupadi’s shoulders the task of keeping the Pandavas united.

Until Draupadi is brought to the house, Kunti has performed the role herself. But when she meets Panchali and sees that all the five Pandavas desire her equally, she thinks Draupadi will best serve her role as a unifying agent of the five brothers.

Draupadi and Kunti do not spend all that much time together on-screen. During Arjuna’s twelve-year-exile, as Yudhishthir earns his stripes as king of Khandavaprastha, Draupadi must have spent a significant amount of time serving Kunti’s needs.

But none of these interactions are recorded. All that we can say for certain is that Kunti does not ever show any signs of having quarrelled with Draupadi. The converse is also true: Draupadi never complains to anyone about Kunti.

There is a good chance that Kunti sees a bit of herself in Draupadi. While Kunti secretly had to take five lovers to bring forth four sons (with the impotent Pandu being the only one to not successfully reproduce with her), Draupadi had to take five husbands in full view of the world in order to bring Shiva’s promise to fruition.

Kunti and Draupadi appear to be built of similar temperament: fiery, resolute and unflinching. Toward the end of the exile, both women use similar words to chide Yudhishthir, and to encourage him into fighting the war with all his might.

All in all, we can conclude with reasonable confidence that both Draupadi and Kunti liked each other.

Was Kunti adopted?

Pritha is the biological daughter of King Shurasena, whose kingdom is named after him. She is given up for adoption at the court of Kuntibhoja, king of the neighbouring kingdom, Kunti. After her marriage to Pandu, Pritha comes to be known by most people as Kunti – after the kingdom that she represents.

Kuntibhoja is a childless man, and he has a good relationship with Shurasena. So he adopts Pritha as his daughter. King Shurasena has at least two other children: a son named Vasudeva, who fathers Krishna and Balarama, and a daughter named Srutashrava, who is given in marriage to Damaghosha, king of Chedi.

Despite effectively being princess of Kunti, Pritha’s familial connections are all with Shurasena. No mention is ever made of any relatives she may have in Kuntibhoja’s extended family.

The Pandavas build relationships with the likes of Vasudeva, Krishna and Balarama through Kunti. They find no such kinsmen at Kuntibhoja’s court. One may guess from this that Pritha does not have any enduring relationships in her adopted home.

Was Kunti selfish?

Kunti comes across as a driven character who wants the best for her sons, the Pandavas. She does not display any selfishness, though: during the Pandavas’ exile, she lives uncomplainingly at Vidura’s house. After the war is won, she follows Gandhari and Dhritarashtra into the forest. She is motivated by her children’s welfare, not her own.

After marriage to Pandu, Kunti comes across as a dutiful and content wife, eager to build a happy life with Pandu and her co-wife, Madri. Even when Pandu relinquishes the throne and retires into the forest, Kunti does not complain about it.

She follows her husband into a life of much material discomfort in the hermitages of Gandhamadana. Pandu does not seem overly interested in making plans to go back to Hastinapur. And Kunti does not prod him on the matter.

Even after the Pandavas are born, Pandu does not show any eagerness to return home. His demeanour during the summoning of the gods suggests that he expects his sons to one day become kings. But for five years after the birth of Yudhishthir, Pandu is content to remain in the foothills among the sages.

Only after Pandu’s death does the question arise as to what to do with the Pandavas. Kunti basically has three options: (1) Remain where they are, and let the adult Pandavas decide what to do with their lives; (2) Take the Pandavas and go to Shurasena or Kunti, where she will be welcomed; and (3) Take the Pandavas and go to Hastinapur.

Of the three, the third is the most fraught with risk and conflict because the Pandavas will be pitted against the sons of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari.

Kunti knows this, and still takes the decision because she wants the best prospects for her children. Also, she probably thinks that it is what Pandu would have wanted. (Maybe Pandu told her in private; we do not know.)

Throughout their childhoods, the Pandavas are mentored by Kunti in the matter of Hastinapur’s throne, and the boys grow up expecting a share of the kingdom.

Despite all this, Kunti is not selfish in the regular sense of the word. She is often quite at ease in a forest, a village hut or decked in royal finery. In fact, she sacrifices much of her personal joys to give the Pandavas a good chance in life.

Therefore, Kunti cannot be called selfish. The best word to describe her would be ‘driven’.

Detailed Answer: Was Kunti selfish?

Was Kunti a good mother?

Kunti was a good mother to the Pandavas. She not only sacrifices many of her personal comforts to improve her sons’ prospects in life, she also puts herself in danger to protect them. But equally, she is not a good mother to Karna, whom she abandons at birth and does not reconcile with until the very end.

Whether or Kunti is a good mother depends on whom you ask. If you ask the Pandavas, they will say that she has been a great mother. After the deaths of Pandu and Madri, it is Kunti who takes on the burden of raising the Pandavas into adulthood.

Not only is she tasked with protecting them from harm, but she is also responsible for them achieving their respective destinies: Yudhishthir as king, Arjuna as the most powerful archer in the world, and so on.

However, if you ask Karna, he is likely to answer that Kunti failed the most basic test of motherhood in his case: as soon as giving birth to him, she cast him away without even giving him milk. In his eyes, Kunti is not his mother. He considers Radha – the wife of Adiratha – to be his real mother.

We can of course understand Kunti’s position at the time of Karna’s birth: she is just a girl who knows very little about the world. She knows that she is simply not ready to be a mother.

In the case of the Pandavas, Kunti chose to have them, and their births occur within the socially approved structure of a marriage. So Kunti finds it easier to embrace the responsibility of being a mother to them.

It is not blasphemy to suggest that Kunti never considers herself a mother to Karna. Even after she discovers who Karna is, she does not take any steps to build a relationship with him – until the very end when it becomes necessary to protect her ‘real’ sons, the Pandavas.

All in all, we might conclude that Kunti is a good mother to those she considers her children.

Detailed Answer: Was Kunti a good mother?

Further Reading

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