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Introduction

The tragic and heroic figure of Queen Kuntī emerges from an explosive era in the history of ancient India. As related in the Mahābhārata, India’s grand epic poem of 110,000 couplets, Kuntī was the wife of King Pāṇḍu and the mother of five illustrious sons known as the Pāṇḍavas. As such, she was one of the central figures in a complex political drama that culminated fifty centuries ago in the Kurukṣetra War, a devastating war of ascendancy that changed the course of world events. The Mahābhārata describes the prelude to the holocaust as follows:

Pāṇḍu became king because his elder brother Dhṛtarāṣṭra had been born blind, a condition that excluded him from direct succession. Some time after Pāṇḍu ascended to the throne, Dhṛtarāṣṭra married Gāndhārī 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, Pāṇḍu had taken two wives, Mādrī and Kuntī. Originally named Pṛthā, Kuntī was the daughter of Śūrasena, the chief of the glorious Yadu dynasty. The Mahābhārata relates that Kuntī “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 Śūrasena had given her in adoption to his childless cousin and close friend Kuntibhoja (hence the name “Kuntī”). In her stepfather’s house, Kuntī’s duty was to look after the welfare of guests. One day the powerful sage and mystic Durvāsā came there and was pleased by Kuntī’s selfless service. Foreseeing that she would have difficulty conceiving sons, Durvāsā gave her the benediction that she could invoke any demigod and by him obtain progeny.

After Kuntī married Pāṇḍu, 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 Kuntī’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 Durvāsā 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 Yudhiṣṭhira, 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, Pāṇḍu then asked Kuntī for a son of great physical strength. Thus Kuntī invoked Vāyu, the demigod of the wind, who begot the mighty Bhīma. Upon Bhīma’s birth the supernatural voice said, “This child will be the foremost of all strong men.”

Thereafter Pāṇḍu consulted with great sages in the forest and then asked Kuntī to observe vows of austerity for one full year. At the end of this period Pāṇḍu said to Kuntī, “O beautiful one, Indra, the King of heaven, is pleased with you, so invoke him and conceive a son.” Kuntī 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 Kuntī, this child will be as strong as Kārtavīrya and Śibi [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, Pāṇḍu’s junior wife Mādrī bore two sons, named Nakula and Sahadeva. These five sons of Pāṇḍu (Yudhiṣṭhira, Bhīma, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva) then came to be known as the Pāṇḍavas.

Now, since Pāṇḍu had retired from the throne and gone to the forest, Dhṛtarāṣṭra had temporarily assumed the throne until Pāṇḍu’s eldest son Yudhiṣṭhira came of age. However, long before that time Pāṇḍu died as a result of the curse, and Mādrī gave up her life as well by ascending his funeral pyre. That left the five Pāṇḍavas in the care of Queen Kuntī.

After Pāṇḍu’s death, the sages living in the forest brought the five young princes and Kuntī to the Kaurava court at Hastināpura (near present-day Delhi). In Hastināpura, the capital city of the kingdom, the five boys were raised in royal style under the guidance of Dhṛtarāṣṭra and the noble Vidura, Pāṇḍu’s half brother.

But a smooth transfer of power was not to be. Although Dhṛtarāṣṭra had at first recognized the primogeniture of Yudhiṣṭhira, he later allowed himself to be used by his eldest son, the power-hungry Duryodhana, who wished to ascend the throne in place of Yudhiṣṭhira. Driven by uncontrollable jealousy, Duryodhana plotted against the Pāṇḍavas, and with the hesitant approval of the weak Dhṛtarāṣṭra, he inflicted many sufferings upon them. He made several attempts on their lives in Hastināpura, 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 Pāṇḍavas were accompanied by their courageous mother Kuntī, who suffered Duryodhana’s atrocities in the company of her beloved sons.

Miraculously, however, Kuntī and the Pāṇḍavas repeatedly escaped death, for they were under the loving protection of Lord Kṛṣṇa, who had incarnated to perform His earthly pastimes. Ultimately Duryodhana, a clever politician, cheated the Pāṇḍavas out of their kingdom (and their freedom) in a gambling match. As a result of the match, the Pāṇḍavas’ wife Draupadī was abused by the Kauravas, and the Pāṇḍavas themselves were forced to spend thirteen years in exile in the forest – to the great sorrow of Kuntī.

When the thirteen-year exile had ended, the Pāṇḍavas returned to Hastināpura to reclaim their kingdom. But Duryodhana bluntly refused to relinquish it. Then, after some unsuccessful attempts to quell the hostilities, Yudhiṣṭhira sent Kṛṣṇa Himself to secure the return of the Pāṇḍava kingdom by peaceful means. But even this effort failed – because of Duryodhana’s obstinacy – and both sides prepared for battle. To place Yudhiṣṭhira 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 Kurukṣetra (near Hastināpura), and in the end all but a handful of the many millions of warriors were dead. Only Lord Kṛṣṇa, the Pāṇḍavas, and a few others survived the massacre. The Kauravas (Duryodhana and his brothers) were devastated. In a desperate gesture of revenge, Aśvatthāmā, one of the surviving Kauravas, mercilessly murdered the five sons of Draupadī while they were sleeping. Queen Kuntī thus suffered a final blow – the loss of her grandchildren.

Arrested and dragged to the Pāṇḍavas’ camp like a bound animal, Aśvatthāmā was let free only by the astounding compassion of Draupadī, the slaughtered boys’ mother and Kuntī’s daughter-in-law, who pleaded for his life. But the shameless Aśvatthāmā made one more attempt to kill the last heir of the Pāṇḍavas, their unborn grandson in the womb of Uttarā, by hurling the supreme brahmāstra weapon. When she saw the missile flying straight at her, Uttarā immediately ran to the shelter of Lord Kṛṣṇa, who was just about to depart for Dvārakā, His majestic capital city. Kṛṣṇa protected the Pāṇḍavas and their mother Kuntī from imminent death by stopping the weapon’s uncontrollable heat and radiation with His own Sudarśana disc.

Having delivered the Pāṇḍavas from this last calamity, and seeing that all His plans were fulfilled, Lord Kṛṣṇa was again preparing to leave. For years Duryodhana had tormented Queen Kuntī’s family, but Kṛṣṇa had protected them at every turn – and now He was going away. Kuntī was overwhelmed, and she prayed to Kṛṣṇa from the core of her heart.

Kuntī was Lord Kṛṣṇa’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, Kṛṣṇa had revealed all this to her son Arjuna in words immortalized in the Bhagavad-gītā (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.

Kṛṣṇa had accomplished His purpose of “annihilating the miscreants” by orchestrating the destruction of the unholy Kauravas. Then He installed Yudhiṣṭhira on the throne to establish the Pāṇḍava reign, and He consoled the slain warriors’ relatives. The scene of the Lord’s imminent departure provides the setting for Queen Kuntī’s exalted prayers.

As Kuntī approached the Lord’s chariot and began to address Him, her immediate purpose was to persuade Him to remain in Hastināpura and protect the Pāṇḍava 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? (Bhāgavatam 1.8.37)

From this supplication we should not mistakenly conclude that Kuntī’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 Kṛṣṇa, 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. (Bhāgavatam 1.8.24–25)

Kuntī’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. (Bhāgavatam 1.8.42)

Kuntī’s spontaneous glorification of Lord Kṛṣṇa and her description of the spiritual path are immortalized in the Mahābhārata and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam), 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 Bhāgavatam, Queen Kuntī’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 Kuntī) includes those inspired verses and an illuminating commentary by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, founder-ācārya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and renowned Vedic scholar and spiritual leader. In addition to this commentary (originally written in 1962), Teachings of Queen Kuntī contains further explanations that Śrīla Prabhupāda gave in a series of lectures delivered in the spring of 1973 at ISKCON’s centers in New York and Los Angeles. At that time he analyzed the verses in significantly greater detail and shed even more light upon them. This book offers the reader a deeper look into what it means to live immersed in a spiritual life and opens a window into the thoughts and experiences of both Queen Kuntī and Śrīla Prabhupāda, two elevated practitioners of the yoga of devotional mysticism.

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