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 5: Pandavas and Kauravas. 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:
- Pandu is Struck
- Madri’s Decision
- Kunti’s Envy
- The Return of the Pandavas
- Beginning of Conflict
- Satyavati Leaves
- Was Pandu Impotent?
- One Holy Mess
- Failure in Parenting
- Further Reading
Pandu is Struck
A few years after the birth of the Pandavas, one day in the season of spring, Pandu approaches Madri consumed by desire, and though she tries to ward him off, he bends her to her will, and just as they are about to be united, the curse of Kindama comes true.
Pandu falls to his death, his body chilled by an invisible thunderbolt.
Kunti comes running with the children. Her first reaction is to turn on Madri, because she assumes that the younger queen had seduced the king for want of more sons. ‘You who should have protected the king has taken his life, Madri,’ she says. ‘Why did you allow him to approach you with desire?’
‘I tried to resist him, Sister, I truly did,’ says Madri tearfully. ‘But he could not control himself.’
Then arises the point of who among them should give up her life to follow Pandu into the world of the dead. ‘I am the older wife,’ says Kunti. ‘I am to be his companion through all journeys, and this one is no exception. So Madri, do not stop me from giving up my life on our king’s funeral pyre.’
But Madri is adamant to be the wife who accompanies Pandu to heaven. She says, ‘Sister, think of the children. If you were to leave them all in my care, I shall not be able to love your sons as mine.
‘But if I were to leave them in yours, I have no doubt that you will care for my sons as deeply as you care for your own. You possess a nobility of heart, Sister, that I do not.
‘Under me, these sons of Pandu of different fathers will divide, quarrel and fight; but with you, I am certain that they shall remain united until their deaths.
‘Then, too, consider that our king approached me with a wish to satiate his desires, and has left for the other world unfulfilled. It is my duty as wife, therefore, to follow him where he goes so that I might have an opportunity to satisfy him. I am not as conversant as you in scripture and due practice, Sister, but these two reasons suggest to me that it is I who should ascend Pandu’s funeral pyre. Not you.’
(Interestingly, the option of neither of them ascending Pandu’s pyre does not strike them. Nor is this suggested to them by any of the attending wise men.)
It needles Kunti that it was Madri and not her that Pandu approached to have sex with, and now she feigns envy that it is Madri who is getting to go to the other world with their husband.
However, we must also remember that we have no way of divining her actual thoughts. Perhaps a part of her is glad to have the option of being alive – albeit as a single mother to five princes that are brothers only in name.
This theme of keeping the Pandavas united recurs throughout the story. After all, Yudhishthir, Bhimasena and Arjuna are only half-brothers (because they share a mother, Kunti), and Nakula and Sahadeva are half-brothers to each other (because they have the same mother in Madri).
Strictly speaking, there is no blood relationship at all between the first three Pandavas and the last two. They’re not born of the same father or the same mother.
The five men are known by the moniker of ‘Pandavas’ only due to social conventions followed by practitioners of niyoga.
Such men have no reason to be united. Indeed, in moments of strife, one would expect these five men to fall out and quarrel. They need some unifying factor to bind them – be it a mother, a common wife, or a common enemy.
Kunti performs the role of the first, Draupadi is the second, and Duryodhana the third.
In predicting this dynamic among the Pandavas, Madri shows remarkable foresight. She also is unassuming enough to appreciate that Kunti is more dutiful a mother than she ever can be. In the future, Kunti proves herself worthy of such a title. She keeps the Pandavas united for long enough until Draupadi steps into the fold.
The Return of the Pandavas
At the death of Pandu, one wonders if Kunti spends any time considering the option of staying at the Gandhamadana indefinitely, and leaving it up to the princes to decide – after they have grown into adults – whether or not they want to stake a claim for the throne in Hastinapur.
In other words, if Pandu had not died, would he had have brought the Pandavas and his wives back to the palace at some point? Or would he have been content with life as an ascetic?
We do know for certain that his intention to have sons is to have them one day become kings. So we can safely surmise that Pandu’s wish for Yudhishthir was for the boy to claim his royal right.
Of course, whether he would have reared the Pandavas to adulthood in the forest and then sent them to Hastinapur, or he would have taken them back as children – one can only guess.
In any case, by returning with the Pandavas back to Hastinapur after the death of Pandu and Madri, Kunti is only fulfilling her dead husband’s wish. This is an important point because Kunti is often painted as an ambitious woman who wants her sons to be kings – but this may just be a case of a dutiful widow putting into action her husband’s dreams.
Beginning of Conflict
All said and done, this event of Kunti’s return marks the beginning of enmity between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The challengers have officially entered the fray with the incumbent.
All these years Dhritarashtra and Gandhari have been ruling on behalf of Pandu, and they can be forgiven if they thought that they have seen the last of the younger brother. News of the Pandavas’ birth must have unsettled them, but since Pandu seemed perfectly content to live in the forest even after that, Dhritarashtra must have thought that the kingdom is his.
This sense must have unconsciously rubbed off on young Duryodhana as well. Though at this point he must have been no older than six, up to that point, he must have received plenty of implicit messages that he was the heir to the throne.
Bhishma, for his part, would have agreed with Dhritarashtra. And he would have done nothing to discourage Duryodhana from thinking thus. After all, a future king has to be prepared early and well.
With the arrival of Kunti, however, and with her expressed intention to stay at the palace, all of these assumptions and theories are shattered. Suddenly there is an older prince – and the first son of the previous king, no less – in attendance.
And by the looks of it, he has been reared – by Kunti, Madri and Pandu – to imagine himself as the future king as well.
At this point, Dwaipayana arrives and advises Satyavati to retire into the forest.
‘You have done much to keep this Kuru race alive, Mother,’ he says. ‘But clouds of darkness are gathering on the horizon. The world is beginning a long descent into hell. You must not be present to witness it, for it will bring you much heartache. Go and spend your life in peace and contemplation.’
Satyavati therefore leaves the scene along with Ambika and Ambalika, her two daughters-in-law.
One can say that this quiet departure of Satyavati brings to an end the ‘prologue’ of the Mahabharata. It draws the curtain on the life of a remarkable character. Consider:
Despite being born of a king and an apsara, she has had to make do with the life of a lower-order maiden. For most of her life’s early portion, she emanated the foul smell of a fish. Then, she makes use of the opportunity that fate throws in her way in the form of Parashara, and turns herself into an attractive woman. She also becomes the mother of one of the foremost sages of the world.
That itself would have been enough to secure for her a place in history, but she would go on to become queen to Shantanu, and Queen Mother twice over to Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya.
And then, when the Kuru line goes extinct with both her high-born sons dying childless, she summons her Brahmin child to sire the three princes that propagate the race.
It is the story of one woman’s ambition taking her from humble beginnings to the very pinnacle of success.
Was Pandu Impotent?
A rational reading of the Mahabharata – where no curses or divine events are allowed to take place – raises the question of whether Pandu was incapable of having children.
The curse of Kindama, in this line of thinking, is merely a story cooked up by Pandu’s public relations team to put a positive spin on his deficiencies. His final death, in reality, must have happened due to any number of natural afflictions that are commonly found among forest-dwellers.
(A similar theory can be spun about the death of Chitrangada, who may have died in a hunting accident or something – but it is much more heroic to have him die in a battle against a powerful Gandharva.)
Of course, what this also means is that the Pandavas are not sons of gods at all. Their biological fathers are unnamed sages with whom Pandu, Kunti and Madri happened to live at the Gandhamadana.
The stories of divine occurrences during the Pandavas’ births – voices, proclamations of glory, and so on – are merely fictions written by the wise men surrounding Pandu for the benefit of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari. After all, it’s much more impressive to say, ‘Kunti gave birth to Yama’s son’ rather than say, ‘The boy’s father is this young sage whose name you’ve never heard before.’
One Holy Mess
This question of parentage dogs the Pandavas throughout their life. People like Duryodhana and Sisupala are forever gleefully reminding everyone that no one really knows who fathered the Pandavas.
Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, though, do the right thing when Kunti returns with her sons. They welcome her home with love, and they give her living quarters within the palace. The Pandavas are raised with all the comfort and stature accorded to their cousins.
Here we must wonder at the wisdom of all the attending elders of court: Kunti, Gandhari, Bhishma, Dhritarashtra and Vidura.
The princes are mere children at this point. Yudhishthir is perhaps seven or eight. The others are younger.
Someone of Bhishma’s intelligence would have foreseen right here that there was trouble brewing. The current king is blind, and he is ruling on behalf of his younger brother who is now dead. The dead king was first given the throne that belonged rightfully to the blind one.
Both the dead king’s firstborn and the blind king’s firstborn now have strong arguments to be credible heirs. In short, it’s one holy mess.
Failure in Parenting
The right thing for Bhishma to do here would have been:
- Gather all the stakeholders in a room – Kunti, Gandhari, Dhritarashtra and Vidura at the very least – and preside over talks where each person has a say on what they think should happen.
- Kunti would of course speak for Yudhishthir. Gandhari and Dhritarashtra would recommend Duryodhana. Vidura would speak as a neutral well-wisher.
- Bhishma, then, makes a decision on who will be the future king of Hastinapur. And he crows the heir-apparent right away so that all doubts are removed.
- If the people of Hastinapur need to have a say in the matter, then Bhishma takes their opinion as well and considers it.
- Once the heir is identified and crowned, he gets the royal treatment and the rest of the cousins are groomed to become noblemen or advisers. Bhishma, of course, is always present to settle disputes as they crop up.
This sort of forward-planning would have been much more effective when the princes are children, when they are more likely to listen to words from figures of authority.
Instead, what Bhishma and the leadership group of Hastinapur’s court chose to do is to let the matter simmer without resolution until the princes become adults.
The result? Both the Pandavas and the Kauravas grow up believing that they are the rightful rulers.
Bhishma does make sure, though, that the princes are well-trained in matters of weapons and war. He enlists the services of a Brahmin named Drona for this purpose. We will see more of him in our next post.
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered