The tragic and heroic figure of Queen Kunti emerges from an explosive era in the history of ancient India. As related in the Mahabharata, India’s grand epic poem of 110,000 couplets, Kunti was the wife of King Pandu and the mother of five illustrious sons known as the Pandavas. As such, she was one of the central figures in a complex political drama that culminated fifty centuries ago in the Kuruksetra War, a devastating war of ascendancy that changed the course of world events. The Mahabharata describes the prelude to the holocaust as follows:
Pandu became king because his elder brother Dhrtarastra had been born blind, a condition that excluded him from direct succession. Some time after Pandu ascended to the throne, Dhrtarastra married Gandhari and fathered one hundred sons. This was the ruling family of the Kaurava dynasty, of whom the eldest was the ambitious and cruel Duryodhana.
Meanwhile, Pandu had taken two wives, Madri and Kunti. Originally named Prtha, Kunti was the daughter of Surasena, the chief of the glorious Yadu dynasty. The Mahabharata relates that Kunti “was gifted with beauty and character; she rejoiced in the law [dharma] and was great in her vows.” She also possessed an unusual benediction. When she was a child, her father Surasena had given her in adoption to his childless cousin and close friend Kuntibhoja (hence the name “Kunti”). In her stepfather’s house, Kunti’s duty was to look after the welfare of guests. One day the powerful sage and mystic Durvasa came there and was pleased by Kunti’s selfless service. Foreseeing that she would have difficulty conceiving sons, Durvasa gave her the benediction that she could invoke any demigod and by him obtain progeny.
After Kunti married Pandu, he was placed under a curse that prevented him from begetting children. So he renounced the throne and retired with his wives to the forest. There Kunti’s special benediction enabled her to conceive (at her husband’s request) three glorious sons. First she invoked Dharma, the demigod of religion. After worshiping him and repeating an invocation Durvasa had taught her, she united with Dharma and, in time, gave birth to a boy. As soon as the child was born, a voice with no visible source said, “This child will be called Yudhisthira, and he will be very virtuous. He will be splendid, determined, renounced, and famous throughout the three worlds.”
Having been blessed with this virtuous son, Pandu then asked Kunti for a son of great physical strength. Thus Kunti invoked Vayu, the demigod of the wind, who begot the mighty Bhima. Upon Bhima’s birth the supernatural voice said, “This child will be the foremost of all strong men.”
Thereafter Pandu consulted with great sages in the forest and then asked Kunti to observe vows of austerity for one full year. At the end of this period Pandu said to Kunti, “O beautiful one, Indra, the King of heaven, is pleased with you, so invoke him and conceive a son.” Kunti then invoked Indra, who came to her and begot Arjuna. As soon as the prince was born, the same celestial voice boomed through the sky: “O Kunti, this child will be as strong as Kartavirya and Sibi [two powerful kings of Vedic times] and as invincible in battle as Indra himself. He will spread your fame everywhere and acquire many divine weapons.” Subsequently, Pandu’s junior wife Madri bore two sons named Nakula and Sahadeva. These five sons of Pandu (Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva) then came to be known as the Pandavas.
Now, since Pandu had retired from the throne and gone to the forest, Dhrtarastra had temporarily assumed the throne until Pandu’s eldest son Yudhisthira came of age. However, long before that time Pandu died as a result of the curse, and Madri gave up her life as well by ascending his funeral pyre. That left the five Pandavas in the care of Queen Kunti.
After Pandu’s death, the sages living in the forest brought the five young princes and Kunti to the Kaurava court at Hastinapura (near present-day Delhi). In Hastinapura, the capital city of the kingdom, the five boys were raised in royal style under the guidance of Dhrtarastra and the noble Vidura, Pandu’s half brother.
But a smooth transfer of power was not to be. Although Dhrtarastra had at first recognized the primogeniture of Yudhisthira, he later allowed himself to be used by his eldest son, the power-hungry Duryodhana, who wished to ascend the throne in place of Yudhisthira. Driven by uncontrollable jealousy, Duryodhana plotted against the Pandavas, and with the hesitant approval of the weak Dhrtarastra, he inflicted many sufferings upon them. He made several attempts on their lives in Hastinapura, and then he brought them to a provincial palace and tried to assassinate them by having it set on fire. All the while, the five youthful Pandavas were accompanied by their courageous mother Kunti, who suffered Duryodhana’s atrocities in the company of her beloved sons.
Miraculously, however, Kunti and the Pandavas repeatedly escaped death, for they were under the loving protection of Lord Krsna, who had incarnated to perform His earthly pastimes. Ultimately Duryodhana, a clever politician, cheated the Pandavas out of their kingdom (and their freedom) in a gambling match. As a result of the match, the Pandavas, wife Draupadi was abused by the Kauravas, and the Pandavas themselves were forced to spend thirteen years in exile in the forest—to the great sorrow of Kunti.
When the thirteen-year exile had ended, the Pandavas returned to Hastinapura to reclaim their kingdom. But Duryodhana bluntly refused to relinquish it. Then, after some unsuccessful attempts to quell the hostilities, Yudhisthira sent Krsna Himself to secure the return of the Pandava kingdom by peaceful means. But even this effort failed—because of Duryodhana’s obstinacy—and both sides prepared for battle. To place Yudhisthira on the throne—or to oppose him—great warriors from all corners of the earth assembled, setting the scene for what would prove to be a devastating world war.
Fierce fighting raged for eighteen days on the historic plain of Kuruksetra (near Hastinapura), and in the end all but a handful of the many millions of warriors were dead. Only Lord Krsna, the Pandavas, and a few others survived the massacre. The Kauravas (Duryodhana and his brothers) were devastated. In a desperate gesture of revenge, Asvatthama, one of the surviving Kauravas, mercilessly murdered the five sons of Draupadi while they were sleeping. Queen Kunti thus suffered a final blow—the loss of her grandchildren.
Arrested and dragged to the Pandavas’ camp like a bound animal, Asvatthama was let free only by the astounding compassion of Draupadi, the slaughtered boys’ mother and Kunti’s daughter-in-law, who pleaded for his life. But the shameless Asvatthama made one more attempt to kill the last heir of the Pandavas, their unborn grandson in the womb of Uttara, by hurling the supreme brahmastra weapon. When she saw the missile flying straight at her, Uttara immediately ran to the shelter of Lord Krsna, who was just about to depart for Dvaraka, His majestic capital city. Krsna protected the Pandavas and their mother Kunti from imminent death by stopping the weapon’s uncontrollable heat and radiation with His own Sudarsana disc.
Having delivered the Pandavas from this last calamity, and seeing that all His plans were fulfilled, Lord Krsna was again preparing to leave. For years Duryodhana had tormented Queen Kunti’s family, but Krsna had protected them at every turn—and now He was going away. Kunti was overwhelmed, and she prayed to Krsna from the core of her heart.
Kunti was Lord Krsna’s aunt (He had incarnated as the son of her brother Vasudeva), yet despite this conventional tie with the Lord, she fully understood His exalted and divine identity. She knew full well that He had descended from His abode in the spiritual world to rid the earth of demoniac military powers and reestablish righteousness. Just before the great war, Krsna had revealed all this to her son Arjuna in words immortalized in the Bhagavad-gita (4.7–8):
Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion—at that time I incarnate Myself. In order to deliver the pious and annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I advent Myself millennium after millennium.
Krsna had accomplished His purpose of “annihilating the miscreants” by orchestrating the destruction of the unholy Kauravas. Then He installed Yudhisthira on the throne to establish the Pandava reign, and He consoled the slain warriors’ relatives. The scene of the Lord’s imminent departure provides the setting for Queen Kunti’s exalted prayers.
As Kunti approached the Lord’s chariot and began to address Him, her immediate purpose was to persuade Him to remain in Hastinapura and protect the Pandava government from reprisals:
O my Lord... are You leaving us today, though we are completely dependent on Your mercy and have no one else to protect us, now when all kings are at enmity with us? (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.37)
From this supplication we should not mistakenly conclude that Kunti’s prayers were self-serving. Although her sufferings were far greater than those any ordinary person could endure, she does not beg relief. On the contrary, she prays to suffer even more, for she reasons that her suffering will increase her devotion to the Lord and bring her ultimate liberation:
My dear Krsna, Your Lordship has protected us from the poisoned cake, from a great fire, from cannibals, from the vicious assembly, from sufferings during our exile in the forest, and from the battle where great generals fought.... I wish that all those calamities would happen again and again so that we could see You again and again, for seeing You means that we will no longer see repeated births and deaths. (Bhag. 1.8.24–25)
Kunti’s words—the simple and illuminating outpourings of the soul of a great and saintly woman devotee—reveal both the deepest transcendental emotions of the heart and the most profound philosophical and theological penetrations of the intellect. Her words are words of glorification impelled by a divine love steeped in wisdom:
O Lord of Madhu, as the Ganges forever flows to the sea without hindrance, let my attraction be constantly drawn unto You without being diverted to anyone else. (Bhag. 1.8.42)
Kunti’s spontaneous glorification of Lord Krsna and her description of the spiritual path are immortalized in the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata Purana (Srimad-Bhagavatam), and they have been recited, chanted, and sung by sages and philosophers for thousands of years.
As they appear in the First Canto of the Bhagavatam, Queen Kunti’s celebrated prayers consist of only twenty-six couplets (verses 18 through 43 of the Eighth Chapter), yet they are considered a philosophical, theological, and literary masterpiece. The present book (Teachings of Queen Kunti) includes those inspired verses and illuminating commentary by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder-Acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the most renowned Vedic scholar and spiritual leader of our time. In addition to this commentary (originally written in 1962), Teachings of Queen Kunti contains further explanations that Srila Prabhupada gave more recently in an absorbing series of lectures. In those memorable talks, delivered in the spring of 1973 at ISKCON’s Western world headquarters in Los Angeles, he analyzed the verses in significantly greater detail and shed even more light upon them.
This new Bhaktivedanta Book Trust publication, complete with eleven color prints of exquisite original oil paintings, will be a prized addition to the libraries of all those who seek a deeper understanding of life’s mysteries. Written by a man of profound devotion and erudition, it will provide every reader with firm guidance along the universal path to genuine wisdom and spiritual enlightenment.
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