For two days I’ve been speculating about interpretations of Queen Kuntī’s famous prayer asking for more calamities. I don’t think it has been in waste but there’s another approach taken by Śrīla Prabhupāda as quoted in Teachings of the Queen Kuntī that should show us a different way to understand that verse.
To recap: traditionally, and it is also presented in TKQ, calamities made Queen Kuntī remember Kṛṣṇa so she welcomed them, and if we follow in her footsteps so should we. Then there’s a reminder that Queen Kuntī didn’t simply remember Kṛṣṇa but actually had the experience of “seeing” Him so she wasn’t asking for pain and troubles, she was asking for more spiritual connections with the Lord. We can’t imitate this, and if can’t properly follow then we shouldn’t ask for calamities in our own prayers.
The third way is to interpret this verse through the eyes of śāstra. I don’t know of any similar sentiments but the śāstra has quite a lot to say about dealing with calamities. The way TQK was compiled this approach immediately follows Śrīla Prabhupāda’s purport to this verse in Bhāgavatam but this follow up is actually the beginning of a lecture on this verse delivered in Los-Angeles in 1973, and in this lecture asking for troubles didn’t come up at all.
The source of Queen Kuntī’s devotion to Kṛṣṇa is actually a mystery to me. She appears in the first Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam as an accomplished devotee already and already in the late stage of her life. A couple of chapters later Śrīla Prabhupāda gives an outline of her life (SB 1.13.3-4) but doesn’t explain how she became a devotee either. I haven’t read the relevant chapters in Mahābhārata but heard retelling of the same biography elsewhere, still no mention of the development of her devotion.
She was a sister of Kṛṣṇa’s father, Vasudeva, but then she was given to a childless uncle, Mahārāja Kuntibhoja, hence the name Kuntī. Her original name, and it appears in several places in Bhāgavatam, was Pṛthā. She grew up as a nice girl and always served guests of her adoptive father. Durvāsā Muni was very impressed by her service and gave her a mantra to summon any demigod she desired. She had no idea what it was for, being young and innocent, and so she was very surprised when she gave it a try – Sun god himself showed up in her room to have sex with her. She objected that she wasn’t married but Sun god assured her that he’d repair her virginity and no one would know. Thus Karṇa was born but she had to give him up because she still wasn’t married and couldn’t raise a son and claim virginity at the same time (insert a Christian joke here).
She later married Mahārāja Pāṇḍu but Pāṇḍu got cursed to die if he ever had sex. While hunting he killed a copulating deer in the forest who happened to be a powerful ṛṣi too shy to have sex in his original body. This could lead to an interesting discussion on sex life in the human form of life but let’s leave it out for today. He got cursed by the dying sage for not expressing remorse and insisting it was his right to hunt as a kṣatriya, which could lead to a discussion on stubbornness.
So, Kuntī got married but couldn’t have children with her husband. That’s when she remembered the mantra once again and Mahārāja Pāṇḍu agreed that it could be a solution. That’s how Kuntī got Yudhiṣṭhira, Arjuna, and Bhīma who were born by summoning respective demigods. This could lead to a discussion on sex in the higher species of life and freedom of will of the demigods but let’s leave that discussion for another day, too.
Pāṇḍū had another wife, Mādrī, and once he got too agitated by lust and approached her for sex, curse or no curse, and he died. This could lead back to the discussion on sex desire in humans but let’s talk about Queen Kuntī. After Pāṇḍu’s death one of his wives should have stepped into funeral pyre and, with the help of sages so it was all legit, it was decided that Mādrī would accept the satī ritual and Kuntī would raise the children – three of her own and two of Mādrī’s (who Kuntī sometimes shared benefits of her mantra with).
To translate it into the modern terms – she was a single mother with five children and no job, having already abandoned her first born, and we are only approaching the beginning of her troubles. Describing all that followed would be impossible here but we can be rest assured she had more that her fair share – surviving assassination attempts, exile, life in the forest, all the while raising five boys all by herself.
Still, I have no idea how she came to know that Kṛṣṇa was the Supreme Personality of Godhead and developed full faith and devotion.
Now, her request for more troubles shouldn’t be taken out of the context, and not only the context of her life but spiritual context, too. She clearly followed Kṛṣṇa’s instructions in Bhagavad Gīta even before they were delivered to Arjuna (BG 2.14):
mātrā-sparśās tu kaunteya
tāṁs titikṣasva bhārata
I decided to quote Sanskrit here because Kṛṣṇa specifically addressed Arjuna as a son of Kuntī – she showed the way how it should be done.
“O son of Kuntī, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.”
She was an expert on patiently tolerating distress, she proved that by her entire life. This is another reason why we shouldn’t rush to imitate her prayers – let us leave through the life of similar pain first. Another verse that Prabhupāda quoted in this regard, and he actually started with it (SB 10.14.8):
tat te ’nukampāṁ su-samīkṣamāṇo
bhuñjāna evātma-kṛtaṁ vipākam
hṛd-vāg-vapurbhir vidadhan namas te
jīveta yo mukti-pade sa dāya-bhāk
“My dear Lord, one who earnestly waits for You to bestow Your causeless mercy upon him, all the while patiently suffering the reactions of his past misdeeds and offering You respectful obeisances with his heart, words and body, is surely eligible for liberation, for it has become his rightful claim.”
This verse has everything we ever need to know about pain – patiently suffer, earnestly wait for mercy, and keep going with your service. What do we get in return? Eligibility for liberation, but not the liberation itself.
I don’t think I need to say anything more, just contemplate the meaning and let it sink in – patiently suffer, earnestly wait, and keep going with your service.
Oh, and everybody else, including fellow devotees, would think you are a total failure, not just in life but in your devotion, too – because you’d have nothing to show for it but troubles.
Is there any other way to develop total dependence on the Lord? I don’t think so. Even guru would seem to have become useless, materially speaking, because he will not be able to help when it’s the Lord Himself who arranges for your suffering.
If we manage to survive through all that then we can think about revisiting Queen Kuntī’s prayer once again but until then imitating her would be foolish.