Kunti is one of the prominent women figures in the epic of Mahabharata. Why I chose to call her a shrewd mother is because of her clever insights, foresightedness and politically correct decisions which eventually help her sons to gain more political and military allies.
In a milieu of royal women who remain silent throughout the epic, Kunti stands out among those very few women who influence the heroes and the action of the epic. Kunti, as a woman, has had no less of an eventful life. Kunti was born to Shurasena, a Yadava chief but was brought up by Shurasena’s cousin brother Kuntibhoja as his own daughter who was childless. Her birth name was Pritha but since she was the foster daughter of Kuntibhoja, she was popularly known as Kunti.
Once Sage Durvasa, famous for his anger, visited Kuntibhoja’s kingdom. In ancient times when sages visited any kingdom, it was the duty of the women of the household to look after them. While everyone else was afraid, Kunti remained clam and looked after the sage with utmost devotion. As a result he granted her a boon in the form of a mantra. With this mantra, Kunti could invoke any God to bear a child. Out of curiosity Kunti used the mantra to invoke the sun god and gave birth to a boy. Afraid of being prosecuted by the society for being an unwed mother, Kunti put the newborn boy into a small basket and set it afloat on a river. The boy was later found by a charioteer and was brought up with the name of Karna.
Kunti, later married Pandu, the King of Hastinapur. Pandu also married, Madri, a princess of the KIngdom of Madra. Madri treated Kunti with discrimination because she believed Kunti to be inferior than her in status. When Pandu stepped down from the throne and went into exile he took along both his queens. During his exile, Pandu once expressed his discontent to Kunti about being childless due to a curse by Sage Kindama. Kunti tells him about Durvasa’s boon and invoking Yama, Vayu and Indra gives birth to Yudhisthira, Bhima and Arjuna. After pleading from Madri and coercing from Pandu, Kunti shared the mantra with Madri who gave birth to the twins Nakula and Sahdeva.
In a tragic episode, Pandu gets attracted by Madri who was bathing and they make love. As a result of the curse by Kindama, Pandu dies. Madri repentant of her mistake immolates herself on Pandu’s pyre entrusting her children to Kunti. Kunti, newly widowed and bereaved takes Madri’s children under her wings and returns to Hastinapur.
Kunti, being the foresighted woman that she is, knows fully well that her children’s right to the throne is threatened by Duryodhana. She makes it a point to bring her children up to be kind, virtuous and liked by everyone. Pandava’s soon became favorite of the citizens. Very soon, Dhritrashtra amidst pressure, announces Yudhishthira as his heir. Duryodhana then hatches a plan to kill Pandavas and Kunti.
After Kunti escapes the tragedy of Lakshagriha with her sons, they stay incognito waiting for the right time to reveal that they are alive. During this time, Kunti takes some real clever decisions which secure immensely strong allies for her sons. For example, she orders her son Bhima to marry rakshasi Hidimba, identifying her and her progenies as strong allies. Hidimba bores Bhima a strong son Ghatotkacha. She also orders all her five sons to marry Draupadi, foreseeing that Draupadi might become a problem if only one of her sons is married to her. When Arjuna brings Draupadi to their hut, she asks all her sons to share whatever Arjuna has found. Later on learning that it is not a thing but a woman Arjuna has brought, she refuses to retract her order. She can see that Draupadi being extremely beautiful is sought by all the men including all her sons. She deems it safe for all of them to get married to her. She also guesses that Draupadi being the wife of all five of them would be capable of keeping her five sons together even after her death.
It is only after the allegiance of Panchala is secured in the form of Draupadi that she finally decides to return to Hastinapur, where Dhritrashtra, though unwillingly, welcomes them again. When Pandavas are assigned the area of Khandavprastha as their share of the kingdom, Kunti remained in Hastinapur, thus ensuring that Pandavas retained their favor with not just the court of Hastinapur but also with it’s people.
Kunti also remained closely associated with Krishna, who was her nephew and secured allies among the Yadava chiefs. During the war she could foresee that Karna would prove to be a huge advantage for the Kauravas and tried to bring him on board with her sons by revealing to him the secret of his birth. Though Karna refused to switch sides, he did promise to spare all the other Pandavas except Arjuna. Karna on his part extracted a promise from Kunti that she would not reveal his true lineage until the war is over.
After the war was over, Kunti remained in the Kingdom with her sons and daughter-in-law but chose to leave with Gandhari and Dhritarashtra when they decided to leave for the forest.
Among the women in Mahabharata, Kunti stands out for her virtuous nature, perseverence, her indomitable strength even in times of misery and difficulty. She is vocal about the injustices met out to her sons and does everything in her power to secure what is best for her sons. Though treated miserably by Madri she never strays from her path as the mother to Nakula and Sahdeva and provides an excellent example of a selfless mother. In the Bhili Bharat, the Bhil’s version of Mahabharata, Kunti is Kutma.