The tribal Bheels have a Mahabharata version of their own, episodes of which are narrated or sung during their festivals, usually accompanied by music and sometimes with dance – a captivating version that never fails to thrill. This article tries to understand an episode from it, on its own and in relation to Vyasa’s epic.
The seven-sages are engaged in tapas. As the tapas progresses, Shiva and Shakti come to know about it and think what to do. They take the form of eagles. Shakti circles the windy sky and flies down on to the trident stuck on the ground at the dhooni. Pierced by the trident, the eagle dies on it. After completing twelve years of tapas, the seven-rishis wake up in the thirteenth year and they bewail their karma, for what has happened is inauspicious. They throw magical substances on the dead eagle. From the skeleton of the eagle is born Gandhari and from its flesh and blood, Kunti. The two children begin growing up fast at the dhooni.
One morning, finding that their stock of water is over, Kunti takes a pot and goes to fetch water. There she bathes in the lake, removing her outer clothes and wearing just her undergarments and after her bath bows to the sun covering herself in a thin shawl. The sun is enamored by her beauty and she is struck by his arrows of rays. The rays enter her belly and Kunti conceives. The pregnancy grows instantly and soon the child comes out breaking open her skull. Kunti takes the baby and kissing him, tells him that she had no right to give birth to him since she is a virgin and now she can’t take him to the dhooni for that will taint the holy place.
She takes the baby to Gakalgarh and digging a pit in a rubbish heap, places the child in it and gives him her blessings and asks him to come to her aid if the enemy wakes up. It is a perfectly beautiful baby, and he smiles at his mother. Her eyes are full of tears. Standing on one foot, she prays to the sun, endorses the baby to him saying it is his and he must watch over it. She picks up a large stone and covers the pit with it, asking mother earth to look after the baby. She tells mother earth: “I’m free now and you are bound.” Kunti now walks back to the dhooni, on the way taking a purificatory bath and filling water in the pot.
Kunti is one of the most prodigious women in the epic of Mahabharata filled with unforgettable women. She has an impressive lineage there. She is the daughter of the Yadava Shoorasena and can thus trace her ancestry to such mighty emperors as Puroorava, Yayati and Nahusha, rulers of perhaps India’s largest ever empires, made at a time India was an empire-builder. Puroorava’s story has inspired countless generations of poets to compose immortal classics. So great was Nahusha’s fame as a ruler and so mighty was he as a monarch that when a temporary substitute was needed in Indra’s place in heaven, it was Nahusha who was requested to take over and he remained the ruler of the gods until Indra was able to return. In more historical terms, it has been claimed that Nahusha’s empire spread right up to Egypt in the west. The legendary Yayati was no less great as an emperor. It is the blood of such mighty emperors that runs through Kunti’s veins. And as Shoorasena’s daughter, she is Vasudeva’s sister and Krishna’s maternal aunt.
If such is her family background in the Mahabharata, the Bheel Bharata takes it to still greater heights. In the epic of the Bheels, we do not have to quote the names of her ancestors to establish the nobility of her birth – for here she is Shakti herself. Shakti takes the form of an eagle and it is from the blood and flesh of this eagle that Kunti is born.
And for those who are familiar with Kunti’s nature in Vyasa’s epic, this should come as no surprise. For there, if she is not Shakti herself born as a woman, she lives her life as an embodiment of Shakti.
As one reads the Bheel Bharata, one is amazed by the directness with which the tribal mind perceives the truth. It is as though a door has been left open exclusively for them to walk into the innermost secrets of the Mahabharata, secrets that the more sophisticated minds often fail to perceive and if they perceive, it takes them long journeys to reach there.
Kunti in the Mahabharata is a woman who battled all alone against the might of what was perhaps the mightiest empire of her time. Fought and won, for eventually it is her blood that inherits the throne of Hastinapura – her Yadava blood. Pareekshit who inherits the throne from Yudhishthira is Abhimanyu’s son – and Abhimanyu is the son of Arjuna and Subhadra, both of them of Yadava blood, since one is Kunti’s son and the other her niece. The Bharata empire, at the end of the Mahabharata, through Kunti, goes to the Yadava blood. Yadu, the ancestor of the Yadavas, disinherited by his father Yayati though he was his eldest son, claims the empire back through Kunti.
Kunti proves herself to be Shakti, power-embodied, early in life. Her father asks her to serve the impossible-to-please Durvasa, the greatest tantrik sage of his times, and perhaps of all times, and she does it faultlessly. The tortures she had to undergo for this are indescribable – but not once do we see her wavering, which pleases Durvasa immensely.
Kunti’s determination and singleness of purpose are astounding. The decisions she makes are deliberate throughout her life – except perhaps just twice in her life: once, when she was given away by her father to his friend King Kuntibhoja when she was too young to protest, something she was sad about all her life, and the other, when she was tricked into going to the house of lac.
She chooses her husband on her own. She is one of the few women in the Mahabharata to do so, and the only queen in many generations. Satyavati did not choose Shantanu as a husband, nor did her daughters-in-law, Ambika and Ambalika. Gandhari was forced into marrying Dhritarashtra. Madri again did not become Pandu’s wife on her own choice. Draupadi was won through a contest of skill and might – she did not personally pick out and chose Arjuna in her svayamvara. Uttara was offered to Arjuna as a wife, but he accepted her as his daughter-in-law, more on moral grounds than any other, a choice which could very well have been against Uttara’s desire, though the epic contains no echoes of her feelings against the choice. That is five generations of daughters-in-law coming to the Bharata family as queens. [True there are others like Subhadra, Hidimba and so on, but they never enjoyed the position that these women had.] And in all these five generations Kunti is the one who had made that choice completely on her own.
We do not know if Kunti ever regretted that choice – for if she was ambitious when she wed Pandu, those ambitions were soon to be smashed to smithereens. For, soon after her marriage, she discovered that her young husband, the handsome scion of the Bharatas, was impotent in bed. As she would admit later when he lay dead before her, he could never make love to her – she never ‘saw his face lost in the ecstasies of a sexual climax’. A frustrated Bheeshma, who perhaps was not aware of the exact nature of things, gets Pandu another pretty wife, Madri. The Mahabharata tells us he spent exactly thirty nights with his two wives and then left on a ‘conquest of directions’ – perhaps to compensate for his failure in the royal bedchambers. Perhaps it is Pandu’s sexual frustration that is indicated in the statement that the kings who opposed him turned into ashes in the fire that was Pandu – he does not just conquer them, but turns them into ashes. [It is perhaps this sexual frustration that is revealed by the story of Pandu later killing the two deer engaged in coitus – an action that is condemned for all.] When he comes back, he distributes the endless wealth he had brought with him. What happens next is stranger than Pandu’s leaving on the world conquest exactly after the thirty nights he spends with his two wives: Kunti and Madri persuade him to go to the jungle to live there.
Pandu is frustrated because he will not be able go to heaven unless he has a progeny, but all through his frustration this woman of iron will keeps it a secret from the man she loved madly that she already has a son – not even when she reveals that she has received the mantra from Durvasa which empowers her to command any god to come and give her a child. Later Yudhishthira would be so furious with his mother’s iron will that kept her secrets buried deep within herself, that he would curse all women that none of them would be able to keep a secret.
It is interesting that Pandu specifically mentions the kaneena son in the context of the discussion of different kinds of sons possible. A kaneena son is the one born to one’s wife when she was a kanya, that is, before her marriage. This is exactly what had happened to Kunti – Karna was her kaneena son. But Kunti does not tell Pandu that he need not worry about himself not being admitted into heaven and his ancestors falling from their world because he has a kaneena son – she keeps this secret completely to herself even then.
If to wed Pandu and to go with him to the jungle were her decisions, so were her decisions about who would father her children. When a frustrated Pandu asks her to beget children following the custom of niyoga, she refuses initially. Eventually when she agrees to, it is on condition that if he permits she would invite a god rather than a brahmana as he had suggested. We thus see who the man she would unite with to produce offspring too was her decision. We also see here that Pandu treats Kunti as an equal – he does not order her to beget children by another man, but requests her. In fact, he joins his palms in supplication and requests her, the Mahabharata tells us.
When Queen Sudeshna offered her body to Sage Deerghatamas so that he can beget children in her, she had no say in that matter. She was obeying her husband Emperor Bali’s orders. When Kalmashapada’s queen Madayanti offered her body to Sage Vasishtha for niyoga, she was again obeying the orders of her husband with no say in the matter. And when Ambika and Ambalika offered their bodies to Sage Vyasa, again they had no choice either not to do so or in the matter of who would perform the niyoga. But when Kunti agrees to subject herself to niyoga, she decides who the man would be, and Pandu has to agree to it. And after she had given three children to Pandu through niyoga, when he asks her to offer herself again for niyoga, she rejects it forthright – the scriptures allow niyoga up to a maximum of three times, she says, and the woman who gives her body a forth time is a swairini, a wanton woman, and one who does so a fifth time is a kulata – a whore.
She shows the courage to say no to Pandu again – when he asks her to invoke a god once more to beget children a second time in Madri. Kunti flatly refuses, and Pandu does not even attempt to change her mind.
After Pandu’s death she decides to claim back the kingdom that her generous husband had given his greedy elder brother. When she starts her journey back from the Himalayas to Hastinapura, she knows she has a fierce battle ahead of her and she is prepared for it. We do not see her wavering even once during the decades of that battle.
Such is her will that though she faints seeing Karna in the arena during the display of mastery over weapons where he is humiliated by his own younger brother Bheema and others, she does not give any inkling to anyone that that hero who looked like the lord of the sky himself is her son.
When Madri decides to follow her husband to the other world, she dies without any hesitation about the future of her sons – she knows she is leaving them in hands stronger and safer than her own.
Yudhishthira gives many arguments in favor of Draupadi’s marriage to all five of the Pandava brothers – but his strongest argument is that his mother, albeit unwittingly, has decreed it.
At the end of the war, Kunti would once again prove she is Shakti by refusing to partake of the victory won through bloodshed. Yes, she wanted her son to inherit the throne, but she herself had no need for the pleasures it offers. The pleasures of the power of a queen she has already known as Pandu’s wife – Yudhishthira has nothing greater to offer. When Dhritarashtra and Gandhari decide to leave for the jungle, to spend the rest of their life there, she completely ignores the pleas of her sons and joins them.
It is this nature of Kunti that we find intuitively grasped by the Bheels and expressed with an astonishing directness in their version of the Bharata when they say that Kunti is Shakti herself.
The Mahabharata itself, in what definitely a much later interpolation, says in a chapter in the Adi Parva that says everyone in the Mahabharata is an incarnation of someone else, that Kunti is an incarnation of the goddess Siddhi. This however need not be taken much seriously.
After this woman of power, Shakti, conceives and then gives birth while still a maiden, she decides not to keep her child.
Vyasa’s Mahabharata gives us an unforgettably touching picture of how the young woman takes her newborn child to the Ashwa river and floats him in it. As soon as he is born, Kunti talks to her dhatri and gets a box. She spreads soft clothes inside it, and then covers all the joints with wax so that no water enters it. After this is done, she places the sleeping child in it and taking it to the river Ashwa near midnight, floats him in it. Wailing aloud in uncontrollable sorrow, she prays to all beings in water, on land, and in the air for his welfare. Shivaste santu panthanah – may your paths be filled with auspiciousness – she blesses him her heart overflowing with anguish. May he have no enemies, she blesses him again, and if enemies come to him, may all evil feelings disappear from their hearts! In heart-rending words she invokes on him the protection of Varuna, the lord of the waters, of Vayu, the all-pervading one, and of Sun, the lord of the day, who had given her womb that child. Then she invokes the protection of the Adityas, the Vasus, the Rudras, the Sadhyas, the Vishvadevas, the Maruts along with Indra, the directions along with their lords, and all other gods on him. As the child floats away, the lamenting mother tells him she would recognize him wherever he is through his armor and earrings – even if he is in a foreign land far away from home.
And then Kunti wails again, bemoaning her lot, saying that his father the sun god is blessed indeed since he can watch with his divine eyes his son as he is carried forward by the river, and that blessed is the woman who would bring him up as her son, suckling him when he cries for milk. In her torment, she wonders what auspicious dream she must have seen – the fortunate woman who would make this divine child lustrous like the sun, endowed with a divine armor and earrings, eyes wide like the petals of a lotus, and complexion that of the red lotus, her son. She envies the woman who would watch him crawl on his belly and hear his babblings and the people who will watch him in his youth when he will be like a Himalayan lion.
The Bheel consciousness does not perceive this nobility reflected in Kunti’s helpless act of floating her child. They make her bury her child, not float her, and bury him not in a sacred or beautiful place, but in a rubbish heap.
We know that Kunti, noble in so many ways, was consistently mean to Karna throughout his life. True, she is not devoid of the maternal instinct – as she looks at her baby, her heart is filled with tenderness and she weeps. But she decides to do what has to be done. Or at least, what she thinks she has to do.
Did Kunti have an alternative? Was it absolutely necessary for her to give up her child? To what extend was unwed motherhood condemnable in the Mahabharata society? True, the other unwed mother of the Bharata family, Vyasa’s mother Satyavati, too, hides her motherhood – she reveals it only after the death of Vichitraveerya and when she has no alternative left after Bheeshma refuses to perform the niyoga. But was unwed motherhood such a terrible thing in the Mahabharata society?
Perhaps not. In the Mahabharata society, there was a term for such children who were born to a woman before her marriage – kaneena. The existence of the term proves it was not such a rare incident. And the dharmashastras of the day said that such children belonged to the woman’s husband when she married later. We do not see any very severe condemnation of such children – such children are not socially boycotted. In fact, we find that, while such children may not have commanded the same respect as children born of marriage did, that they were not shorn of all dignity is indicated by the belief that even such a son has the power to release a man, his non-biological father, from hell and to open the doors of heaven for him.
Vyasa, who is universally respected, is never accused by anyone of being born to his mother before her marriage.
And the unwed mother? We do not find any social rejection of Satyavati after she reveals that she had given birth to a child before her marriage. Of course, she is then the empress and her case need not be typical. But if the child was not rejected entirely, then it is likely that the mother was not rejected totally either.
Besides, what is applicable to the common woman need not have been applicable to a princess – particularly when you consider that Kunti’s pregnancy was not the result of a ‘fall’, a moral lapse, on her side. In fact, had she revealed the circumstances under which she conceived, had she revealed who the father of the child was, chances are that her son would have been socially acceptable, may be even deferred to and held in awe. Consider that he was born with divine signs on his body – his armor and earrings.
Alternatively, Kunti could have given the child to someone else to look after – this should not have been too difficult since she had a helpful, competent dhatri, who managed to keep the pregnancy [which in the second version in the Mahabharata, does not mature instantly, but takes the full time to grow] and the childbirth secrets even from Kunti’s own family. But it is as though, in spite of all her love for Karna, she wanted to get him out of her life. She has already decided that the floating is final -she has no plans to reclaim him even when he would be in his youth, which she makes clear when she says during her wailing that those who will watch him in his golden youth when he will be like a Himalayan lion are lucky; she does not plan to watch him then either, though through her spies she finds out exactly what has happened to the child she floated away.
With Karna, Kunti decides to take the easier path. Kunti would throughout Karna’s life take the easier path with him. To her Karna’s interests came only after her other interests. She would abandon him not once, but repeatedly.
In the arena, a word from her would have changed the entire situation. Perhaps the whole Mahabharata war could have been avoided by that single word of Kunti, that Karna was her son. But she refuses to utter that word. She refuses to recognize Karna, acknowledge him publicly. She could have been proud of Karna – the entry of no character in the Mahabharata is as grand as Karna’s is, no character is described with more unreserved admiration by Vyasa than he is, in spite of her desertion this son of the sun god had grown into the most handsome of youths in his day, and he had already proved he is equal, and superior, to the best of warriors of his day: Kunti could have acknowledged him without shame, proudly. Bheema calls Karna in front of her a charioteer in the most insulting terms, and asks him to pick up his whip and drive chariots. But she decides to desert him once again, in this moment of his greatest need. It is left to Duryodhana to give him some dignity.
Kunti would ignore him all his life, and come to him days before the war. Not to give him anything, but to take from him, to beg from him her other son’s lives – an act as shameless as her not acknowledging him in the arena, or perhaps even more. For at that time she was denying him a dignified life, now she was denying him a dignified death. Kunti forces him to die betraying the man with whom he had stood all his life, Duryodhana. By taking from him the promise not to kill any of the Pandavas other than Arjuna, Kunti was forcing this man, who had stood with Duryodhana in his brightest moments and in his worse, who had proved himself to be the very embodiment of gratitude, to be ungrateful to him and to betray him. For that is exactly Karna’s promise to Kunti meant. When Kunti meets Karna, she begins by asking him to desert Duryodhana, and when she leaves him and goes back, Karna has already betrayed him, if not deserted him.
Kunti was never kind to Karna. Kunti gave Karna nothing – even his birth was forced on her, and apart from that she gave him nothing. But she would make demands on him.
After that initial sight of Karna when he is floated in the river, when we next see him he is a youth entering the arena where the Bharata princes, after completing their studies under Drona, are displaying their prowess in weapons. And when he does so, he is a youth as brilliant as the sun, the majesty of his bearing and the magnificence of his being unsurpassed by anyone in the arena, including Arjuna.
How did such a splendid youth join the Kauravas and become by heart and soul one of them? There are many reasons for this, not the least being that Duryodhana is a leader, albeit negative, with immense charisma and he reveals some facets of that charisma in the arena. He is quick to decide and quick to act, his action speaks eloquently of his generosity even if that generosity is opportunistic, and he is a master of drama. But far more important than this charisma and Duryodhana’s eloquently generous gesture towards Karna is the fact that Karna was driven to Duryodhana. Karna’s greatest hunger was at that time, and would remain for ever, for acceptance, for recognition. This youth with every sign of aristocracy in him, and besides signs of a divine birth such as natural born armor and earrings no doubt knew that he was not the son of his adoptive parents, knew that his birth was superior and yet was treated as a man of low birth, a soota, charioteer, and Bheema had in the arena insulted and humiliated him by calling him so in unpardonably mean words.
He does indeed perform mean deeds in his life, the meanest of it all being his active goading of Dushshasana to humiliate Draupadi beyond measure in the Dice Hall of Hastinapura. Kunti’s rejection of Karna created too many wounds in his being. Chances are that Karna would have evolved into the full potentials of his being if Kunti had not rejected him. It was Kunti who threw this divine child of hers into the hands of the Kauravas, into the darkness and dirt. What Kunti did was to throw a priceless diamond into a rubbish heap. And that is exactly what the Bheel Bharata says: she buried him in a rubbish heap.
In Vyasa’s epic, Karna’s birth and the incidents leading to it are narrated twice. The first is in the Adi Parva, Chapter 110 [Gita Press Edition] where Vaishampayana tells about it to Janamejaya in the course of his narration of the epic story. Durvasa is mentioned here by name and we are told how he gives a boon to Kunti through which she could invoke any god she desired and beget children by him. Prompted by curiosity, Kunti, while still a young maiden, tries out the mantra on the god Sun and he appears before her. Kunti requests him to forgive her error of calling him, tells him she was just trying out the mantra and he should go back since women are always to be protected by noble men, besides she is just a little girl. But Soorya says he knows all about the boon, but his vision is amogha, cannot fail to give results, and therefore she should have sex with him. He also tells her if the invocation were wasted, not consummated, she would come to great harm.
Kunti is not to be persuaded, so Soorya tries repeatedly to convince her to agree to sex with him – it is likely he used all means at his disposal, including more threats. We do not know whether Kunti eventually agreed to union with him or not, the Mahabharata tells us only that after Kunti repeatedly refused to agree to his demand, Soorya finally tells her that no dosha [fault, sin] will come to her from union with him and then makes love to her. A child is born immediately, shining bright in the earrings and armor he is born with, and Soorya takes leave of Kunti after blessing her that her virginity will remain undamaged. Kunti floats the child in the river, out of fear from her people.
The second narration of Karna’s birth is in the Vanaparva, beginning in Chapter 302 and running into several chapters. Here the story is far more detailed than in the first version of it. Durvasa is not mentioned by name here, but as an effulgent brahmana, ‘as though burning’ in his brightness. We are given details of the tortures Kunti had to undergo in the service of this very demanding ascetic. Here when Kunti does not surrender her body readily to Soorya, he expressly threatens her that he would curse not just her, but also her father and the brahmana who gave her the boon.
Continuing, he tells her that unless she submitted herself to him, he would burn her stupid father and the brahmana who gave her the mantra without knowing her character and conduct. Soorya here makes it a prestige issue for him – telling her that Indra and other gods are standing in the skies and watching them with smiles on their faces, enjoying his predicament. At this Kunti looks at the sky with the divine sight given by Soorya and seeing the gods there becomes all the more embarrassed for obvious reasons. She is terrified too, and begs Soorya repeatedly to forgive her and leave her alone, but Soorya again repeats how it is a matter of honor for him now and orders her to submit her body to him. Eventually, finding that there is no escape, Kunti submits herself to him after taking a few promises from him and Soorya impregnates her. The Mahabharata here mentions clearly that Soorya did not have sex with her, but impregnated her through his yogic power so that her maidenhood remained undamaged. The pregnancy taking its full course, Kunti’s floating Karna in the river Ashwa, the prayers she makes, her deep sense of misfortune that she will not be watching him growing up but another woman will, all are mentioned in detail here.
Thus in the first narration of the story Karna is the result of actual sex between Kunti and Soorya, in the second Kunti and Soorya do not have sex and the consummation of the invocation is through a yogic process, leaving Kunti’s virginity intact, making Karna’s birth an ‘immaculate’ one and Kunti a virgin mother in the most inclusive meaning of the term.
The Bheel Bharata is closer to this second version of the Mahabharata, though it frees Kunti of all responsibilities for her pregnancy. In the Mahabharata versions, even in the second one, if Kunti is untainted by sex before marriage, she is at least guilty of invoking the sun god in spite of knowing the purpose of that invocation – for Durvasa makes it clear that the purpose of such invocation will be conceiving children by the gods invoked. In the Bheel version, as we have seen, Kunti does not invoke or invite Soorya in any way. She goes for a bath, bathes in the river in her underclothes, and at the end of the bath offers prayers wearing a thin shawl. That is all she does – the rest is caused by her irresistible beauty. Soorya is tempted, but does not come down to the earth in human form. Instead, he stays in the sky and shoots out his rays. It is the rays that enter Kunti’s womb and make her pregnant.
Also, while in the Mahabharata she commands the sun, for which she needed the help of the tantrik Durvasa’s mantra, in Bheel Bharata, her beauty is enough to tempt him instantly and make him give her a son.
In fact, this element of temptation is present in the Mahabharata too. For, while Soorya might have been compelled by the power of the mantra used by Kunti, his refusal to leave without having sex with her and his long, repeated efforts to persuade her, his threats to curse her, her father and even Durvasa himself, all speak quite eloquently of how deeply he was enamored by the irresistible young beauty before him.
In the epics and the Puranas we find that the gods have lost the dignity that they generally had in the Vedas. The gods are very much like Greek gods – they have powers human beings cannot dream of, but otherwise they are very much like ordinary people, full of jealousy, anger and hatred, vengeful, filled with inadequacies, the male gods easily tempted by sex, with no control over themselves once they are tempted. The Bheel gods are no different.
The Bheel story of Karna’s birth is silent about the armor and earrings that he is born with in the Mahabharata.
Karna, the Bheel Bharata tells us, is born through Kunti’s kapala – her skull.
Why do the Bheels perceive that Karna was born through the head of Kunti? It is difficult to imagine that this was to establish Kunti remained a virgin even after giving birth to him. By tradition, the acts of sex and giving birth need not destroy a maiden’s virginity, at least not permanently. Christianity claims eternal virginity to Mary, mother of Jesus, though she gave birth to Jesus the normal way. The Mahabharata itself says due to a boon from the sage Parashara, Satyavati remained a virgin, even though she had given birth to the sage Vyasa the normal way. Madhavi, daughter of Yayati, too had received, according to the Mahabharata, a boon that she would recover her virginity after the birth of each of her children. Though this cannot be said about Draupadi, it is said that due to a special blessing Draupadi’s virginity was restored after she spent the first night with each of her husbands so that when she married the next younger brother on the subsequent day, she was again a virgin.
If by epic, pauranic, mythic and folklore standards it is possible to retain virginity after having sex and after giving birth, then why does the collective Bheel mind perceive that Karna was born through Kunti’s skull?
There are other stories in which children have non-vaginal births. Quite often this is when the ‘mothers’ are male. There is a story in the Vedas that tells us that Indra had a son called Kutsa, born from his head. The Greek goddess of wisdom and hunting, Athena, was born from the head of Zeus, her father. According to Egyptian mythology, the god of wisdom, Thoth, too was born from the head of Seth. Agni, says one story, was born from the mouth of Prajapati. In the cult of Ayyappa in south India, this god is born from Vishnu’s thigh – he had been conceived when Vishnu was in the Mohini form and since he changed back into male after the conception, Ayyappan had to be born from his thigh. Dionysus was born from the thigh of his father Zeus. But these births were so at least in part because vaginal births were not possible. But there was no such difficulty in the case of Karna and Kunti.
While an exact answer to the question why the Bheel Bharata says Karna was born through the skull of Kunti is difficult, a possible answer would be that this is just to assert the divinity of Karna all the more. The Bheel Karna grows up into a noble character – nobler than he is in the Mahabharata. His feats are greater here than in Vyasa’s epic. I wonder if the Bheel Bharata also wants to tell us that Karna is not an heir to the frailties that all human beings born of flesh are. This Karna, for instance, is not tempted by Draupadi and does not long for her all his life, with the longing turning to bitterness over time.
Kunti and Gandhari are twin souls in the Mahabharata. Wedded to two brothers, they both suffer equally all their life, though for different reasons. They remain friends throughout their lives, respecting each other, and there is no hatred between the two even though their children begin their fraternal strife right at the beginning and eventually wage the biggest battle this land has known against each other. Kunti’s sons win the war and every one of Gandhari’s children is killed, at times brutally and against all the noble principles of respected warfare, but the relation between the two does not change in the least. And when Gandhari leaves for the jungle towards the end, to live a life of asceticism and await her death there, along with her husband, Kunti joins her and in their death the two remain together – they share a common death.
Bheel Bharata accepts this ‘twin soul-ness’ of Kunti and Gandhari. In the Mahabharata of the Bheels, they are twin souls, one born of the blood and flesh of an eagle that Shakti had become and the other from its bones.
In stories all over the world, bones are symbols of death, and blood and flesh are symbols of life. In the Mahabharata too, Kunti is life-assertive; and Gandhari, the opposite of it. She has blindfolded herself from life – she does not see life, perceive it, participate in it, unlike Kunti, who lives every moment of her life intensely. Kunti gives birth to real children, Gandhari gives birth only to a ‘mass of flesh’, which is later transformed into the one hundred Kauravas. Gandhari has relations with only one man, whereas Kunti has with five. But Gandhari’s relation is with blindness, with darkness, with greed and other negative qualities, whereas Kunti’s is all with beings of light – Soorya and three other gods, and even her husband Pandu comes out as a very generous individual in contrast with Dhritarashtra, the power-obsessed, whose very name means obsessed with power, one who holds on to rashtra, to royal power. Kunti’s children are all begotten by devas, literally beings of light – Gandhari’s by a being of darkness. Kunti’s children grow up to be the embodiments of righteousness and Gandhari’s, of unrighteousness. Gandhari blinds herself and denies life to herself because she finds she is forced to consort with darkness, evil. Eventually, when she gives a curse, it is to Krishna, divine life itself. Thus, while they are twins, both women of immense power, they are opposites of each other too. Kunti is born of the blood and flesh of Shakti, and Gandhari, of her bones.
Note: This study is based on Bheel Bharatha, by Dr Bhagavandas Patel, who spent four years among the Doongri Bheels studying the epic that is an oral tradition among them and thus making an invaluable contribution to literature in general, and folk literature and Mahabharata study in particular. The book has been translated into Hindi by Dr Mridula Parik and published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. Though I have called the epic Bheel Bharata throughout, the Bheel name is Bharath [th pronounced as in rath, meaning chariot], which is a neuter word in Doongri Bheel, and means war, obviously derived from (Maha)bharata.