The king of Kuru Pradesh had two sons. Dhristarashtra, the firstborn, was blind. His wife, Gandhari, gave him one hundred sons, the Kauravas. Pandu, the second-born, took two wives, Kunti and Madri. Pandu’s wives gave him five sons, the Pandavas.

When the Kuru king died, instead of Dhristarashtra, Pandu ascended the throne. But he committed a grave error and suffered a curse: death if he engaged in intimacy with his wives. Unable to produce an heir to ensure continuance of the dynastic line, Pandu abdicated the throne to Dhristarashtra, took his wives, Kunti and Madri, and retired to the forest.

While living in the forest, Kunti revealed she had a boon. She could summon any deity she wished and bear a child. Niyoga conception, where a man impregnates a woman on behalf of her husband, was an ancient custom buried in antiquity. Pandu agreed. Kunti invited three gods and beget three sons: Yudhishthira from Dharma Raja, the Divine Dispenser of Justice; Bheema from Vayu, the God of Wind; and Arjuna from Indra, King of the Heavens. Kunti also taught Madri the secret mantra. Pandu’s second wife beget twins, Nakula and Sahadeva, from the celestial Ashwini twins.

Pandu now had five sons and considered Yudhishthira as the natural successor to the Kuru throne. In a moment of human weakness, Pandu crossed the boundaries of his curse and engaged in physical relations with Madri. Before he could consummate the act, the curse took hold, and he died. Grief stricken, and blaming herself for her husband’s death, Madri commits suicide.

Kunti and her five young sons returned to Hastinapura, capital of the Kuru Kingdom. The Kuru elders welcomed Kunti and her sons. But the kingdom faced a major impediment to a smooth succession. In the Pandavas’ absence, the Kuru elders had led Duryodhana, firstborn of the Kauravas, to believe that he was the future king…

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