The Story that Leads up to the Bhagavad Gita:
From the sons of Dhritarashtra & Pandu to Kurukshetra
The birth of Dhritarashtra and Pandu filled the kingdom with festive celebrations of such joy and happiness that virtue and prosperity began to reign across the land as if the Satyayuga had come to the realm of the descendants of Bharata.
There was also a third son born of the sage Vyasa whose name was Vidura, but his mother was a palace maid sent by one of the royal princesses to escape the dreaded intimacy with Vyasa as the lady was aware of his less than kingly appearance due to his recent ascetic practices. The humble maid however was respectful and pleasing to Vyasa, and their son became a learned man of great wisdom and integrity. The boy was a partial incarnation of the deity Dharma, the god of justice, who had been cursed into human form by yet another angry Rishi. Vidura’s role in the Mahabharata is more of an outsider who sagely observes events.
While Dhritarashtra and Pandu were young boys, Bhishma ruled in the capital city Hastinapur which was filled with 100s of palaces and mansions, and some said rivaled Indra’s celestial city. Bhishma lovingly raised the three boys as if they were his own sons and because of his blameless integrity and righteous character ‘the wheel of virtue’ was set in motion.
The education of the boys included not only military skills, such as archery, club and sword fighting, and building muscle strength, but also the wisdom and knowledge of the Vedas.
Even though Dhritarashtra was the eldest, because he was born blind no one believed he should be chosen as king. How could a blind man rule a vast kingdom? Thus Pandu was chosen heir to the throne and eventually crowned king. This was a bitter blow to Dhritarashtra and ate away at him, sinking him further into his blindness and an indecisiveness that in the end destroyed his entire family.
Dhritarashtra & Gandhari
In the interest of perpetuating the dynasty, Satyavati charged Bhishma with the task of finding suitable wives for the young men. Bhishma learned that a woman named Gandhari, ‘of the lovely hips’, had received a boon from a deity that gave her the ability to have 100 sons!
The marriage was arranged and upon hearing that her husband-to-be was blind, Gandhari covered her own eyes with a thick cloth and vowed to remain in darkness for the rest of her life. It may be argued that Gandhari could have been more useful as Dhritarashtra’s eyes, but the girl was of a determined character and in her wish to show complete respect for her husband, she chose to not surpass him in any way.
Gandhari developed a powerful inner sight and became the moral compass in her contentious family, holding fast to her vow and insisting on the need for goodness and integrity. Later on in the epic during the war she goes against her own headstrong son and when he daily seeks her blessing, tells him repeatedly that only righteousness will win the war.
Kunti’s fecund Mantra
The marriage of Pandu, the pale one, to the ‘matchless beauty’ Kunti (Khoon-ti) gets into the heart of the Mahabharata. Not only is Kunti the aunt of Lord Krishna, whose father is her brother, but this valiant lady has very special powers of her own. The Indian scholar Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair says that Kunti exemplifies the Kshatriya spirit with its ‘pride and confidence as well as its sense of obligation’ even more than her sons. India has a long and wonderful tradition of strong, courageous, and self-sacrificing women.
As a young girl Kunti was assigned the duty of serving the guests who came to her father’s house. One day a rather grumpy Brahmana named Durvasa came to visit. Famous for his bad temper, he was feared for being quick to throw curses at any and all who offended him.
Kunti served this volatile and touchy ascetic with such care and solicitude that Durvasa in turn was very pleased with her and gave her an amazing boon. The text says that he, being learned in all mysteries, anticipated her future difficulty in having sons and therefore taught her a mantra by which she might invoke any of the celestials and have children with them.
Who among us would not be curious to test such a boon - and so one fine day the innocent young maiden Kunti, still a virgin, whispered the mantra and invoked the Sun god. The girl was stunned, ashamed and afraid to see ‘the burning god’ (J.A.B. van Buitenen) appear before her. Reassuring her, the Sun god said, ‘Allow me your embrace!’ (M.N. Dutt). Thereupon was born Karna, the great warrior hero who by right of birth was the eldest of Kunti’s sons.
Karna came into this world wearing golden earrings and armor and possessing ‘all auspicious marks.’ As the effulgent Sun god left Kunti, he returned her virginity to the illustrious girl; but Kunti was filled with sorrow. What could she do with a baby? She was so young and very unmarried. As tears streamed down her lovely face, she placed the newborn boy wearing his golden ornaments in a small wood box and set him to drift down the river.
Karna was rescued and adopted by a chariot driver, a good man and his wife who brought him up lovingly. The mystery of Karna’s birth and the heartache of his unrecognized greatness would haunt him all of his life. Only a few days before his death at Kurukshetra would Lord Krishna and then Kunti tell Karna the truth of his royal and divine identity. Many agree that Karna is the most tragic and compelling of all the characters in the Mahabharata.
Kunti’s Marriage to Pandu
Kunti chose Pandu at her Svyamvara. He was a handsome man. As was the custom of that time, Bhishma found Pandu a second wife and her name was Madri. The text says that Pandu gave ‘himself up to enjoyments with his two wives, Kunti and Madri, at will and at pleasure’ (M.N. Dutt). After that enjoyment, he was inspired to leave his capital Hastinapur to conquer the world.
Pandu was very successful and with the splendor of his weaponry, fire and arrows, he killed many kings and took their treasure. ‘All the kings of the world bowed to him’ and gave him fabulous wealth, enormous precious gems, pearls, and gold. The dynasty of Bharata, the Kurus, prevailed over the other kings who were forced to pay tribute to Hastinapur.
An Iron Ball gives birth to Gandhari’s 100 Sons
Gandhari conceived with her blind husband Dhritarashtra, but inauspiciously she carried ‘the burden in her womb for two years’ (M.N. Dutt) and this misery drove her to anger and frustration. Hearing a rumor that Kunti had given birth to a glorious son, Gandhari lost her wits and violently struck her own womb. Thereupon ‘a hard mass of flesh like an iron ball’ came forth from her.
Now it happened that our poet-author Vyasa was staying in the palace and it is said that he also had a hand in the boon of Gandhari being able to birth 100 sons. Seeing the peculiar iron ball, Vyasa, the best of ascetics as he calls himself, divided it into 100 pieces and had these bits placed into jars filled with ghee (clarified butter) and concealed in a safe place. After two years, the 100 sons were born from the jars.
Duryodhana (Du-ry-ODH-ana) was the firstborn and foremost of them, but at his birth ‘there was a sudden outcry on all horizons of gruesome beasts that feed on carrion and of jackals of unholy howls’ (J.A.B. van Buitenen). These terrible and ominous signs made the high minded and righteous Vidura urge his brother Dhritarashtra to abandon the child as it was ‘evident that he will be the extermination of your race’ (M.N. Dutt). But Dhritarashtra was already nursing a serious case of envy against his brother Pandu and did not listen to this sage advice. Thus Duryodhana’s birth sets the stage for the internecine Armageddon to come.
Dhritarashtra’s weakness and emotional blindness will couple with his thwarted ambitions to be king and feed his son’s headstrong impulsive selfish nature. It was said that Duryodhana was a partial incarnation of the Asuric demonic realm.
Why the Sons of Pandu are not his sons ...
One day the handsome victorious Pandu was hunting in the forest when he came upon a great stag enjoying his mate. Not realizing that the two deer were a Rishi and his wife, Pandu shot them both with his ‘swift and sharp’ arrows. Before dying the Rishi cursed the Kuru king thus: If ever Pandu should feel sexual desire, he will certainly immediately die.
Pandu was distraught and informed his wives, Kunti and Madri. There was much weeping in the palace. Pandu vowed to practice austerities and become a Brahmacharya, but how would his dynasty be preserved? The moment had come for Kunti to reveal her secret boon and so she told her husband that a Brahmana had once given her a mantra to call up any celestial and have a child with him. Kunti’s confession neglected to include the fact that she had already tested the boon and given birth to the luckless Karna.
Desperate to continue his dynastic lineage through sons, the grief stricken Pandu urged his virtuous wife Kunti to use the mantra that very day. He considered the god Dharma to be the wisest choice, as the god of Law and justice would never commit a sinful act and thus his son would be accepted by the entire kingdom as lawful and virtuous. Kunti replied, ‘Be it so’ and circumambulated her husband seven times.
The Five Pandavas: Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula & Sahadeva
Gandhari had been pregnant for a year with her ominous iron ball when Kunti called on the eternal Dharma for a son. The text says that the deity was overpowered by her mantra and came to her on his car. Kunti united with Dharma in his spiritual form and thus was born Yudhisthira, who was proclaimed by an invisible voice to become the ‘best of men and the foremost of all the virtuous’ - which might be expected from the son of Dharma.
Pandu asked for another son and to please her husband, Kunti called forth Vayu, the god of the wind. Kunti asked for a son who would be strong and huge and capable of ‘humbling the pride’ of everyone - and so was born Bhima.
Again Pandu asked for another son who would be superior, the best of men, and requested that Kunti call Indra, the king of the celestial heavens. To assist in the invocation of the deity Indra, Pandu himself practiced severe asceticism and penances and in concentration stood on one leg for a long time. Indra promised a son who would be famous all over the three worlds, who would be a chastiser of the wicked, a supporter of the Brahmanas and honest men, a delight to his friends, and the foremost slayer of all foes (M.N. Dutt) - thus was born Arjuna.
Pandu did not want his second wife Madri to feel neglected and persuaded Kunti to share the mantra. Madri invoked the twin Asvins (celestial physicians) and thus were born the twins, Nakula and Sahadeva, who was said to be the most handsome of all men.
Rivalry & Eventual War
The five boys were educated with Dhritarashtra’s sons by the great sage and warrior Drona. From the beginning Duryodhana was deeply envious of the five Pandavas and sought to humiliate and destroy them. He tried to poison and drown Bhima when the two were only boys. The seeds of his jealousy grew and festered; and as the years passed, Duryodhana’s transgressions against the Pandavas continued. In an act of arson, he conspired to set fire to a house they were occupying - but they were informed and escaped. He challenged them to a dice game and by cheating, made the inexperienced Yudhisthira foolishly gamble away all his wealth, his brothers and wife, Draupadi.
Nothing could for long daunt the greatness of the Pandavas - or Duryodhana’s raging desire to crush them. And so through the pages of the Mahabharata, the two sides of a family, the descendants of Bharata, moved closer and closer to the battlefield of Kurukshetra and Arjuna’s great depression, the momentous reason for the most supernal guide to life, the discourse of Lord Krishna to his friend in the timeless Bhagavad Gita.
The Mahabharata, Volume 1
Sanskrit Text with English Translation
Edited by Dr. Ishvar Chandra Sharma & Dr. O.N. Bimali
Parimal Publications, revised edition 2004, Delhi
Available at exoticindiaart.com
The Mahabharata: The Book of the Beginning
Translated & edited by J.A.B van Buitenen, 1973
University of Chicago, 198
The Mahabharata, A Literary Study
Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair
Clarion Books, 1985, 1993, Delhi