The Mahabaratha, the greatest Indian epic, inhabited by powerful characters some inspiring and some others archetypal, has been invoked and revisited innumerable times. Karna, the most human of all the characters, is someone men can relate to even today and empathise with completely. But, this post is not about Karna, but is instead about his mother Kunti Devi, a rather endearing character.
Kunti Devi's life is a study in suffering. At a young age she is separated from her natural parents and is adopted by the king Kuntibhoja from whom she gets her name. She gets an unbelievable boon after serving the sage Durvasa well, which enables her to call upon any god and demand a child through him. She is a mere child when she gets this boon and with a childlike curiosity, she invokes the Sun god and begets a son. The social norms that put a premium on virginity and chastity, force her to abandon this child. She marries the King of Hastinapur, Pandu, but does not have a fulfilling relationship with him as he soon marries a younger princess Madri. Kunti does not enjoy a very cordial relationship with Madri either. Pandu is rendered impotent by a curse and gives up his kingship and retires to the forest with his queens. Here, Kunti shares the secret of her special boons with him and Madri. She uses three of these to beget her sons and sacrifices two others to Madri. But Pandu meets an early death and Madri decides to die with him, (citing her culpability in his death) and Kunti, is left alone to bring up her five sons. She returns to live in her husband's kingdom amongst hostile relatives. In fact she and her sons are under constant threat from the Kaurava princes all their life. The guilt of abandonment of her first born too plagues her throughout, and after a long life of suffering and austerity, a forest fire brings to an end her tumultuous life.What I like most about her character is her stoicism and the equanimity she exhibits in the face of constant adversity.
I see the Kunti myth as a tangled web of several issues-an empowerment (by way of the boons) that is seemingly not; a child's curiosity; the guilt of banishment of her son which she endures alone although it is not entirely her fault; the polyandrous relationships with the gods brought on by her husband's curse; the guilt of polyandry that she unwittingly bestows upon her daughter-in-law Draupadi.
But Kunti Devi, despite being a well delineated character, displays certain stereotypical traits :-
a) The Sacrificing heroine : Kunti is even more of a martyr than the Ramayana's Sita. Kunti epitomizes the sacrificing mother. She is projected only as the mother of 6 sons and her role is the constant care and worry about these children and nothing else.
This sacrifice of Kunti is cited as a supreme virtue by traditionalists and she displays the traits often seen in women - that of emotional dependency upon others around them, and in the incapability to uphold their own interests and well being over and above the interests and well being of their children and partners.
b) The devaluation of female curiosity- Women have always been stereotyped as having a higher degree of inquisitiveness with rather negative consequences. The Kunti myth shares certain elements with Greek, Roman and Judeo- Christian myth. Kunti is similar to Pandora from Greek myth, where Pandora, despite warnings to the contrary, opens a certain box, out of curiosity and unleashes untold evils upon this world. Eve's curiosity is the sole cause of the loss of Paradise, in the Judeo-Christian myth and her act is the cause of suffering of all mankind.
c) Child abandonment at birth: too is a recurrent theme in myth. Karna is not the only child so abandoned, Sita, the heroine of Ramayana is an abandoned child too and so is Shakuntala, the mother of Bharatha, the eponymous king of India. Moses of the Judeo-Christian myth is an abandoned child too.
The Mahabaratha lanscape might look like a highly repressive society with the onus on virginity and chastity and the repeated restorations of virginity - in Satyavathi after her encounter with Parashara, with Kunti when she bore Karna and with Draupadi at the end of each year with each of her husbands. But the startling take away from this ancient epic for me, is the freedom of sexual choice and the freedom of motherhood exercised by the women here, that is now denied to the women of today with our repressive notions of morality. For me therefore, the Mahabharata society comes across as a highly progressive one.
Each rereading of this epic throws up amazing and relevant insights into human nature and I find it remarkable that an epic written almost 1600 years ago, can still be of great interest and provide enough scope for a heated discussion even today.