Was Kunti Selfish?

Was Kunti selfish - Featured Image - Picture of a woman with a bull's eye in her eye, representing ambition

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: 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.

Read on to discover whether or not Kunti was selfish.

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

Before Marriage

Kunti displays two aspects of her character when she is growing up as a maiden in Kuntibhoja’s palace.

First, she does a great job attending to Sage Durvasa when the latter comes to visit Kuntibhoja. Durvasa stays with his host for a whole year, so the fact that Kunti earns accolades from him is no mean feat.

(Sage Durvasa is notoriously difficult to please.)

Second, when she gives birth to an unwanted son in Karna, she takes the tough (some would say immoral) decision to abandon him.

The reasons for which she does this are numerous: for example, the judgement that society will level against her for being an unwed maiden and a mother will dent her future prospects.

Not to mention that the name of Kuntibhoja will be tarnished.

Even before her marriage, then, Kunti shows us that she can be caring and attentive under pressure, and also that she can be ruthless when the situation warranted it.

A Dutiful Wife

After marriage to Pandu, Kunti is 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. At least not on record. Perhaps in her private thoughts she had misgivings about her husband’s lack of ambition. We will never know.

She follows her husband into a life of much material discomfort in the hermitages of Gandhamadana. Her first assumption is that this is a passing phase. Sooner or later Pandu is bound to come to his senses.

But Pandu does not. After the Pandavas are born as well, the former king shows no eagerness to return home.

His demeanour during Kunti’s summoning of the gods suggests that he expects his sons to one day become kings. But for as many as five years after the birth of Yudhishthir, the three of them are still at Gandhamadana.

During all of this, Kunti remains relatively calm and undemanding. Pandu finds her the ideal wife.

A Jealous Co-wife

It is not a stretch to suggest that the relationship with Kunti and Madri is a bit frosty. This is not to say that they are not civil with one another, or that they don’t love each other.

Let’s just say it can be complicated.

In some ways, this is not unlike a wife and co-wife relationship in any marriage. The first wife gets all the status and power, the second gets all of the king’s attention. Both women envy each other.

Kunti’s feelings for Madri come to the fore when Pandu asks her – on behalf of Madri – to ‘lend’ Durvasa’s chant to the younger queen as a matter of goodwill.

Kunti is suspicious about Madri’s intentions, so she says, ‘I will, my lord, but just one use of the mantra.’ And Madri, using some cleverness, summons the Ashwin twins to receive two sons with one summon.

This infuriates Kunti, because she interprets this act of Madri as the younger woman challenging her. She refuses to give Madri any more uses of the mantra, now that Kunti has three sons and Madri has two.

(The pecking order, therefore, has been established and is to Kunti’s liking.)

Kunti further feels envious of Madri because – in her opinion – Madri has sacrificed herself on Pandu’s pyre and has earned a place by his side in heaven.

Even in death, therefore, Madri scores a point over Kunti.

A Dutiful Mother

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.

It is also to Kunti’s credit that she does not allow her ill-feeling toward Madri to influence how she treats Nakula and Sahadeva. In fact, it is often mentioned that Sahadeva is very attached to Kunti.

A Heartless Mother

While we’re on the topic if motherhood, it would be amiss of us if we did not consider how Kunti treats Karna.

First, she abandons him (she would say she was forced to abandon him). Then, after recognizing him at the Kuru graduation ceremony, she refuses to acknowledge him as her son for close to thirty years.

At the end, just as the war is about to begin, Kunti meets with Karna and tells him the truth. But her motives are far from ethical.

She admits to Karna that she is his mother only to try and sway him from the Kaurava side to the Pandava side. She knows that Karna is a big threat to the lives of her ‘real’ sons, the Pandavas.

She even succeeds in extracting a promise from Karna that he must not take the life of any Pandava other than Arjuna.

This is a very significant move: without it, the war would have finished with Karna killing or grievously injuring at least three Pandavas. He certainly would have killed Bhimasena.

If you ask Karna, therefore, he would say that Kunti is a heartless, selfish woman.

Selfish or Driven?

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.

She goes to extreme lengths to protect her children, and to make sure that they stay united all their lives. She does not hesitate to arrange for Draupadi to become a common wife so as to prevent jealousy from ripping the Pandavas apart.

At the end, when Yudhishthir wins the war and becomes king, Kunti does not stay back at the kingdom to enjoy her sons’ bounty.

Instead, she chooses to follow Gandhari and Dhritarashtra into the forest so that she could serve them.

Incidentally, Kunti’s early life and later life are both characterized by acts of service. In the first instance she attends to Durvasa. In the second, she looks after Gandhari and Dhritarashtra.

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

Further Reading

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