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 4: Kunti, Madri and Gandhari. 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:
- The Curse of Kindama
- At the Gandhamadana
- The First Three Pandavas
- Kunti Says ‘Enough’
- Nakula and Sahadeva
- Gandhari’s Labour
- A Hundred Pots
- Further Reading
The Curse of Kindama
It may be recalled that after his successful expedition across Aryavarta, Pandu retires to the woods and occupies himself with hunting and enjoying the pleasure of his wives’ company.
Now we pick up the tale on one such leisurely afternoon in the forest, with Pandu chancing upon a deer and a doe about to engage in sexual intercourse.
The king’s arrow whizzes out of his bow into the deer’s side, and the animal falls to the ground. Much to Pandu’s surprise, it then speaks in the voice of a human.
‘How dare you hurl you weapon at a harmless animal, O King,’ it says. ‘What has made your heart so cruel that you should take my life like this?’
Puzzled, Pandu replies, ‘I have been hunting animals all my life, O deer. Never have I been told that it is a cruel practice. Why do you reproach me so now?’
‘It is true that hunting is not by nature sinful. But you must never draw your weapon on an animal that is unprepared.’
‘But sir,’ says Pandu, ‘men hunt deer by all manner of effective methods without thought to whether the animal is prepared or not. Indeed, if a hunter were to wait for an animal to be prepared, I dare say he would never catch it.’
The deer then says, ‘Your crime is not that you have been hunting, Your Majesty, nor is it that you have killed me, but it is the time you have chosen to do so. Just as you were shooting your arrow, I was about to unite with my beloved with the intention of sating our carnal desires.
‘It is during this time that animals are at their most vulnerable. It behooves a man of virtue to refrain from attacking another being when it is in the midst of seeking sexual pleasure.’
With Pandu lost for words, the deer speaks again: ‘I am actually a sage called Kindama. Since you killed me without knowing who I am, the sin of killing a Brahmin shall not be yours. But you have committed the crime of slaying an animal while it is making love.
‘For this you shall have your punishment. The very next time you approach your wife or any woman lustfully, you shall be struck down by the god of death. You have brought me grief while I sought pleasure; you shall be struck by grief too when you seek it.’
Thus Kindama renders Pandu effectively incapable of having sex.
At the Gandhamadana
This curse by Kindama disheartens Pandu terribly, and he resolves to renounce all the pleasures of kingly life from that point. He sends back his retinue to Hastinapur, and donning the garments of ascetics, journeys with his two wives up to the Northern mountain of Gandhamadana.
Here the three of them live at a hermitage surrounded by sages.
For a while Pandu is able to conquer his desire by performing austerities, but the sages tell him that the time has come to seek other ways by which he can have children. More specifically, they encourage the king to consider the practice of niyoga – whereby his wives can bring forth children fathered by sages specifically chosen for the purpose.
When Pandu introduces the topic to Kunti, though, he finds her unresponsive. He tells her of various occasions in the past where kings have given birth to heirs through niyoga. Slowly, she begins to see the wisdom of the idea.
But then she adds her own twist to it. ‘My king,’ she says, ‘I happen to possess a boon that will help us in this respect.’
The First Three Pandavas
Kunti confesses to Pandu about the boon she once received from Sage Durvasa. ‘If I use the mantra correctly,’ she says, ‘I can summon any of the gods to my side and gain a son from him.’
We must pause and note here that Kunti does not tell Pandu of the son she had borne the sun god. She only reveals the part of the secret where Durvasa blesses her with magical power.
Pandu is of course beside himself with joy now, and he makes plans to have as many as a hundred sons through various gods. Kunti complies with his wishes.
For reasons that are not made clear, Pandu wishes that Kunti summon three gods in the following order:
- Yama, the god of justice
- Vayu, the god of wind
- Indra, the king of the gods
Kunti therefore has Yudhishthir, Bhimasena and Arjuna respectively through the three gods.
A quick note about the nature of union between Kunti and the gods: is it physical or spiritual? And is the pregnancy instantaneous like it was in Satyavati’s case, or does it take ten months like a normal pregnancy?
We’re told that the three Pandavas are born a year apart from one another, so the evidence suggests that Kunti carries her children for a full term like any human woman. As for whether the union is physical or spiritual, the following section clears that up.
Kunti Says ‘Enough’
After the first three Pandavas are born, Pandu wants Kunti to summon more gods and have more children. But she stills him with the following words:
‘A woman who sleeps with five men or more is known in this world as a harlot, my king. I have now lain with four men including you, so please do not force me take another man to my bed. You know the scriptures as well as I, so understand my plight.’
(So we have our answer: the union is physical.)
Pandu agrees with his wife’s words and resigns himself to having just three sons. It is to be noted here that while making this argument, Kunti does not count her secret lover from the past, Surya, by whom she has had another son.
This suggests that Kunti does not really believe the reason she gave Pandu (for if she did, she would already be a harlot), and that she had other reasons for stopping at three uses of Durvasa’s incantation.
Also, we must remember that Kunti herself does not mind that Draupadi marries and sleeps with all five of the Pandavas. So the ‘harlot theory’ appears to be one born out of convenience rather than ethics.
Nakula and Sahadeva
At this stage, Madri approaches Pandu and requests him to ask Kunti if it would be okay for her to use the mantra. Kunti readily agrees. ‘Summon any one celestial that comes to your mind, Sister,’ she tells Madri, ‘and say these words as you do so. You shall then have a child by him.’
Madri, with admirable cunning or with childlike naivety (one never knows), calls to the Ashwin twins and brings forth two sons, Nakula and Sahadeva.
This understandably angers Kunti because she sees it as an affront. ‘Look, my king,’ she tells Pandu when he requests her again on behalf of the younger queen, ‘with just one use of the mantra she has received two sons.
‘Fool that I was, it did not strike me that I could call multiple gods at once. With one more use of the incantation, she is bound to use her devious mind to somehow give birth to more sons than I possess.
‘She will then attain a status equal to – or even higher than – mine by virtue of the number of children she has. So let us preserve the hierarchy that we now have, Your Majesty.
‘Your older queen has three of your older sons, and your younger queen has two of your youngest sons. This is in keeping with the natural order of things; it will do us good, I think, to not upset it.’
It is often implied in popular narratives that Nakula and Sahadeva are twins, but this is not so. Sahadeva is younger to Nakula by one year. So it must have been that though the Ashwin twins were bound by just one utterance of the mantra, they united with Madri one after the other.
Gandhari, meanwhile, serves Dwaipayana over a period of time on one of his visits to the court of Hastinapur. In return for her hospitality, Dwaipayana blesses her that she will give birth to a hundred sons that are equal to Dhritarashtra in valour.
She gets pregnant before Pritha does, which fills her with joy, because that means that she would give birth to the oldest son.
But for two full years she does not deliver, and her stomach grows heavier and harder with each passing day. In the meantime she also hears that Pritha – in the forest with Pandu and Madri – has given birth to a son.
‘Woe upon me,’ she cries out, ‘and woe upon the sage who gave me a false boon.’ Saying this, she beats herself on the stomach with such strength that the mass of flesh growing inside of her slips out and falls to the ground.
Before panic could set in, Dwaipayana arrives and consoles the queen. ‘My words never go in vain, my lady,’ he tells her. ‘Ask your servants to fetch a hundred pots filled with clarified butter.’
He then divides the ball of flesh – after first sprinkling holy water over it – into hundred equal parts, each the size of a thumb, and drops them into a pot each, immersed in butter and infused with his magic.
‘Wait for two full years before you open these pots,’ he instructs Gandhari. ‘And you shall have your hundred sons.’
A Hundred Pots
So in due course of time, the fetuses inside the pots of butter grow into human babies, and the first of them, Duryodhana, is born.
It is said that on the occasion of his birth, all the world’s bad omens make themselves heard to Dhritarashtra, and his priests warn him that this son would bring much dishonour to the family name.
‘If we were to cast away this child, Your Majesty,’ they advise him, ‘you will still be left with ninety nine sons who will bring you much honour.’
But Dhritarashtra cannot find it in his heart to kill his firstborn.
(Incidentally, on the same day, out in the forest, Pritha gives birth to Bhimasena, the second of the Pandavas. Duryodhana and Bhima, therefore, share a birthday.)
Dhritarashtra also has a son by an unnamed Vaishya woman. His name is Yuyutsu. He is usually considered one among the Kaurava brothers, and is mentioned among the maharathis. In age he is the second-oldest of them all, younger to only Duryodhana.
Yuyutsu also is the only one among Dhritarashtra’s sons who chooses to fight on Yudhishthir’s side in the Mahabharata war.
There is one other addition to the Kuru line that deserves mention. While he is dividing the mass of flesh into parts to be left immersed in butter, a small bit is left over after the hundred pieces have been confined to their respective pots.
This grows in time to become Dusshala, the sole sister of the Kauravas, the only daughter of Gandhari and Dhritarashtra. She is given in marriage later to Jayadratha, the king of Sindhu.
The Pandavas and Kauravas have all taken their births now. But so far there is no conflict between the two because Pandu is content out in the forest and Dhritarashtra is ruling Hastinapur as king.
Whether Pandu intends for his children to one day return to Hastinapur and stake their claim to the ancestral property, we don’t know. Because soon after the birth of Sahadeva, Pandu meets his death at the hands of Kindama’s curse.
We will see more of that in our next post.
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