One of the most nuanced and inspiring characters in the Mahabharata would certainly be that of Kunti. Her story arc has several layers that all add up in the end. Her complex childhood, her yearning to be loved, her selflessness as a wife and a mother all have a purpose – to destroy evil and restore all that is good in the world.
Kunti was born to Surasena of the Yadu clan, but was given up for adoption to childless king Kuntibhoja. The king, in turn, asked her to devote herself to sage Durvasa, a short-tempered sage, who ill-treated her, but gave her a great gift in return – a mantra to summon any God and bear his child. This is where the first tragedy of Kunti’s life occurs. Kunti did not believe the mantra worked and tested it out. The God Surya appeared before her and a result of this union was a child named Karna. Kunti, being so young, and in fear of bringing shame upon her family, abandoned the child and kept it a secret just before the epic Kurukshetra battle.
She went on to marry King Pandu of Hastinapur. Her desire to be loved remained unfulfilled even in marriage as Pandu took on a second wife named Madri. Pandu, cursed with impotency and unable to bear children, left for the forest with both his wives. It is here that a selfless Kunti revealed the magic mantra to her husband, who then forced her to use it. This marked the beginning of the Pandavas, as Kunti birthed three children – Yudhishtir, Bhima and Arjun. She even shared the mantra with Madri, who bore two more children, Nakul and Sahadev. After Pandu and Madri’s death, it was left to Kunti to take care of all five children, and she did it fearlessly, without much help.
Some versions of the Mahabharata have described Kunti as calculating. She was, indeed, but always for the greater good. She foresaw the battle between her sons, the Pandavas, and their cousins, the Kauravas, for the throne of Hastinapur. She forged alliances that she knew would prove to be useful in times of trouble – for example, she forced Bhima to marry Hidimbi, the sister of the powerful demon Hidimba, and have a child with her. Their son, Ghatotkach, became a powerful warrior and saved the life of Kunti’s son Arjun in the Kurukshetra battle.
Kunti also strategically revealed to Karna, the son she abandoned, the truth about his birth just before the war. This is because she knew Karna had the strength to defeat her sons, and used this knowledge to stop him from killing his brothers. After her sons won the war, Kunti renounced the world and went into exile where she perished in a fire.
The character of Kunti has a lot to teach us about life. She was devoted to her sons and guided them to follow the path of righteousness, no matter the cost. Her ability to detach from the world once her mission to restore moral goodness had been accomplished is inspiring. Kunti epitomises heroism, which shines through in the epic poem of Mahabharata.