The tragic and heroic figure of Queen Kunti emerges from an explosive era in the history of ancient India. As related in the Mahabharata, India's grand epic poem of 110,000 couplets, Kunti was the wife of King Pandu and the mother of five illustrious sons known as the Pandavas. As such, she was one of the central figures in a complex political drama that culminated fifty centuries ago in the Kuruksetra War, a devastating war of ascendancy that changed the course of world events. The Mahabharata describes the prelude to the holocaust as follows:
Pandu became king because his elder brother Dhrtarastra had been born blind, a condition that excluded him from direct succession. Some time after Pandu ascended to the throne, Dhrtarastra married Gandhari 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, Pandu had taken two wives, Madri and Kunti. Originally named Prtha, Kunti was the daughter of Surasena, the chief of the glorious Yadu dynasty. The Mahabharata relates that Kunti "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 Surasena had given her in adoption to his childless cousin and close friend Kuntibhoja (hence the name "Kunti"). In her stepfather's house, Kunti's duty was to look after the welfare of guests. One day the powerful sage and mystic Durvasa came there and was pleased by Kunti's selfless service. Foreseeing that she would have difficulty conceiving sons, Durvasa gave her the benediction that she could invoke any demigod and by him obtain progeny.
After Kunti married Pandu, 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 Kunti'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 Durvasa 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 Yudhisthira, 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, Pandu then asked Kunti for a son of great physical strength. Thus Kunti invoked Vayu, the demigod of the wind, who begot the mighty Bhima. Upon Bhima's birth the supernatural voice said, "This child will be the foremost of all strong men."
Thereafter Pandu consulted with great sages in the forest and then asked Kunti to observe vows of austerity for one full year. At the end of this period Pandu said to Kunti, "O beautiful one, Indra, the King of heaven, is pleased with you, so invoke him and conceive a son." Kunti 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 Kunti, this child will be as strong as Kartavirya and Sibi [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, Pandu's junior wife Madri bore two sons named Nakula and Sahadeva. These five sons of Pandu (Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva) then came to be known as the Pandavas.