As a child, when I was told the story of Mahabharata, it seemed like every other fairy-tale – good vs evil. The good side sticks to their morals or dharma, while the evil side violates dharma in every way. Finally, in a gigantic and epic battle, the evil side is finally defeated as peace and balance is restored to the world. As I grew to become fascinated by this Hindu epic, I realized that besides just a good moral story the Mahabharata is full of intricate plot lines, stories, and a variety of different characters. Some of the seemingly minor characters play a very important role in the development of the overarching story, and their stories, themselves, are thought provoking.
While discussing the Mahabharata with some friends, I was reminded of the stories of two women and their experience with pre-marital children: Satyavati and Kunti. Satyavati was the daughter of a fisherman and used to ferry people across the Yamuna river. One of her passengers, Sage Parashara, fell in love with Satyavati and wished to be more intimate with her. Being unmarried, Satyavati refused Parashara’s offer, but the sage persuaded Satyavati, granting her some wishes, including confirming her role as an important part of History. This child turned out to be Vyasa – one of the greatest sages of the Hindu tradition, credited to have penned the Mahabharata and the Vedas.
Kunti, unlike Satyavati, was born a princess and raised to be a powerful queen. During her childhood, Kunti was tasked with taking care of a special guest Sage Durvasa, who was known for his temper and unusual requests. Having fulfilled all of the sage’s requests, Sage Durvasa was pleased with Kunti and granted her a mantra that would enable Kunti to call any Devata to her. While pondering this mantra, Kunti became skeptical of its power and decided to try it with the Surya Devata. As the mantra worked, a shocked Kunti saw Surya Devata come to her in human form. Bounded by the power of the mantra, Surya Devata could not return empty-handed and therefore granted Kunti a child who later became Karna, one of the greatest warriors in the Mahabharata.
The written Mahabharata and a drawing of the epic battle.
This is where the similarities between Kunti and Satyavati end. They both, partly through their actions and partly through fate, find themselves with a newly born, pre-marital child. Satyavati, having her wishes granted, accepts the child and is proud to call the great sage Vyasa as her child. Kunti, on the other hand, does not know how to deal with this situation. In a streak of emotion, panic, and shame, she decides to abandon the child floating on the river, confident that the child will survive under the shield given by Surya Devata.
Satyavati becomes the queen of King Shantanu. She makes King Shantanu promise that his eldest sonDevavrata from his first wife will not become king – causing Devavrata to take an oath of celibacy and abstinence from the throne. With this selfish demand, Satyvati denies the throne to the rightful and deserving heir and thereby clears the path for her own sons to be kings. When both her sons die childless, in order to preserve the lineage and kingdom, Satyavati orders her eldest son Vyasa to consummate with her other son’s widows. It is important to note that, when pushed to a corner, Satyavati has no hesitation in reaching out to her son, calling him as a mother to do a favor for her and her kingdom. Vyasa gives birth to three sons, Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidur. With Dhritarashtra born blind, the younger son Pandu, with frail health, becomes the king. However, losing the throne angers Dhritarashtra. This anger and jealousy is later passed onto his son Duryodhana and becomes the cornerstone of the epic war. Thus, while Satyavati saves the kingdom from the embarrassment of being leaderless, her selfish actions sow the seed for the disconnect between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
Kunti abandons her first-born, Karna, in the river.
Eventually, Kunti, who has already abandoned her eldest son Karna, marries Pandu and bears three more sons with Pandu via her special mantra – Yudhishtira, Bhima and Arjun – the eldest of the famous five Pandavas. In ironic twist of fate, Karna joins forces with and pledges allegiance to the Kauravas. During her rule as queen, she sees the Pandavas and Kauravas with Karna become increasingly quarrelsome, yet she wallows in her shame and guilt, but does not admit to Karna being her eldest son. Even when the quarrels between the Pandavas and Kauravas escalates towards a war, Kunti refuses to acknowledge Karna as her eldest son, an which would effectively end the debate over the rightful heir, and thereby end the possibility of war. Her actions stem from her shame over her careless use of the mantra and a desire to keep her perfect image intact. Eventually, as war is inevitable, Kunti, who has never accepted Karna as one of her sons, shamefully and regretfully goes to himto ask him to spare her children’s lives in battle. Kunti’s actions play a strategic and pivotal role in helping the Pandavas win.
Through the two stories of Satyavati and Kunti, we see that while both of them are presented with a similar situation, they both, with their extremely different personalities, deal with the situation in very different ways. Both women use their positive aspects to avert disaster: Satyavati ensures the kingdom has an heir, while Kunti ensures one of the greatest warriors will not kill her favorite sons, and therefore makes sure dharma eventually wins. However, both the negative aspects of both women cause far reaching ramifications in the story and their seemingly minor actions contribute heavily to the eventual, disastrous war.