Sura was a scion of the Yadava clan and was grandfather of Krishna. His daughter was Pritha. Sura’s cousin Kuntibhoja did not have any children so he gave his daughter Pritha in adoption to Kuntibhoja. Pritha was known as Kunti after her adoptive father.
When Kunti was a young girl, Rishi Durvasa came to live with them as guest for a year. Rishi Durvasa was well known for his quick temper. Kunti was given the immense responsibility to taking care of Rishi Durvasa. She took served him with a lot of care, patience and respect. Rishi Durvasa was very pleased with her service. “I am going to teach you a mantra. By invoking it upon any God, he will manifest himself and give you a son equal to him in glory.” He foresaw the misfortune of Kunti’s husband and gave her this boon.
As time passed Kunti grew impatient day by day. She wanted to test the boon. One day, she decided to invoke the mantra on bright shining Sun in the sky. As soon as she invoked the mantra, dark clouds came over and under the screen of the clouds Sun god came in all his glory. Kunti stood transfixed watching the divine visitor.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I am the sun god and I am drawn by the divine son-giving spell that you uttered.” Replied Sun.
Kunti was aghast. “I am a young unwed girl. I cannot have a son. Please go back and forgive the folly of my youth.”
“Once you utter the powerful mantra, I cannot go back without fulfilling the request.” The sun god was held by the power of the spell and Kunti was mortified at the prospect of having a child. “Do not be afraid. Cast away the child in a secure basket. I will bless the child so he will not be harmed. To compensate for the misfortune the child has to bear, I will give him divine armor and earrings that will make him invincible. You will not be blamed, Kunti.” And Sun god gave Kunti a son. He was bright and beautiful like the Sun and had the divine earrings and armor on him. Kunti put the baby in a secure box and set it afloat in the river.
The box was found by a childless charioteer. He opened the box and was delighted to find the beautiful baby inside. Since he was born with the earrings and the armor, he was called Karna. Thus, Karna, born of the Sun god and Kunti, was raised by the Charioteer and his wife who showered the entire mother’s love. He grew up to be one of the greatest warriors.
Kuntibhoja arranged for a swaymvara for Kunti. Many suitors flocked for the swayamvara for Kunti was known for her beauty and virtue. One of the suitors was Pandu. Kunti chose Pandu over all the other suitors. On the advice of Bheeshma, Pandu also wed Madri, the sister of King of Madra. This was according to the customs of the old days to have more than one wife.
One day King Pandu was out hunting. A sage and his wife were also sporting in the forest in the guise of deer. Pandu shot the male with an arrow, in ignorance of the fact that it was a sage in disguise. Stricken to death the rishi thus cursed Pandu: "Sinner, you will meet with death the moment you taste the pleasures of the bed."
Pandu was heartbroken at this curse and retreated to the forest with his wives after entrusting his kingdom to Bhishma and Vidura and lived there a life of perfect abstinence.
Seeing that Pandu was desirous of offspring, which the rishi’s curse had denied him, Kunti confided to him the story of the mantra she had received from Durvasa. He urged Kunti and Madri to use the mantra and thus it was that the five Pandavas were born of the gods to Kunti and Madri. Kunti invoked lord Yama Dharmaraj and had Yudhishthir, who was well known for his righteousness and his inability to tell a lie. Then she invoked Vayu (air) and had Bheema. Bheem had the most physical strength and was strong as Hanuman. Since Hanuman was also fathered by Vayu, Bheem was Hanuman’s younger brother. Kunti then invoked Indra the king of devas (demi gods) and had Arjun. Arjun was a peerless archer and was invincible. Kunti then asked Madri to invoke the mantra. She invoked the Ashwini gods and had twins Nakul and Sahadev. Both Nakula and Sahadeva had a way with horses and the cows. Both were peerless swordsmen. Sahadev was the youngest of all the Pandavas. He was the wisest of them all too and was often referred as wiser than Brihaspathi (the teacher of Devas).
The Pandavas were born and brought up in the forest among ascetics. King Pandu lived for many years in the forest with his wives and children. It was springtime. And one day Pandu and Madri forgot their sorrows in the rapture of sympathy with the throbbing life around them, the happy flowers, creepers, birds and other creatures of the forest.
In spite of Madri’s earnest and repeated protests Pandu’s resolution broke down under the exhilarating influence of the season, and at once the curse of the sage took effect and Pandu fell, dead.
Madri could not contain her sorrow. Since she felt that she was responsible for the death of the king. She burnt herself on the pyre of her husband entreating Kunti to remain and be a mother to her doubly orphaned children.
The sages of the forest took the bereaved and grief-stricken Kunti and the Pandavas to Hastinapura and entrusted them to Bhishma.
Yudhishthira was but sixteen years old at that time. When the sages came to Hastinapura and reported the death of Pandu in the forest, the whole kingdom was plunged in sorrow. Vidura, Bhishma, Vyasa, Dhritarashtra and others performed the funeral rites.
All the people in the kingdom lamented as at a personal loss. Vyasa said to Satyavati, the grandmother: "The past has gone by pleasantly, but the future has many sorrows in store. The world has passed its youth like a happy dream and it is now entering on disillusionment, sin, sorrow and suffering. Time is inexorable. You need not wait to see the miseries and misfortunes that will befall this race. It will be good for you to leave the city and spend the rest of your days in a hermitage in the forest." Satyavati agreed and went to the forest with Ambika and Ambalika. These three aged queens passed through holy asceticism to the higher regions of bliss and spared themselves the sorrows of their children.
Gandhari was the daughter of Saubala the King of Gandhar a province in Afghanistan (may be modern days Kandahar?) She was married to Dhritarashtra. When she came to know that Dhritarashtra was blind, she too decided to deny herself the pleasures of sight. She tied a piece of cloth over her eyes for the rest of her life. Rishi Vyasa gave his blessings at her wedding as “Be a mother of one hundred sons”. She was a very pious lady and an ardent worshiper of Lord Shiva.
When Kunti gave birth to Yudhishthir, Gandhari became pregnant too. However, she had an unusually long pregnancy. Frustrated that Kunit’s son was the first born, she beat her womb and a hardened gray mass of flesh was delivered. She challenged Vyasa to fulfill his blessing of one hundred sons. Vyasa took the piece of flesh and divided into 100 parts. He then put them into 100 pots and tied their mouths and buried them in the earth for a year. Duryodhana was the first to emerge out of the pot. His name literally means “hard to conquer”. He was said to be an incarnation of “Kali” (demon Kali, not to be confused with goddess Kaali). When he was born at a very inauspicious hour, Vidhura and Bheeshma advised Dhritarashtra and Gandhari to abandon the child. He was to bring upon the certain death and destruction of the complete clan. But Dhritarashtra and Gandhari’s love was truly blind and they refused to part with Duryodhana. Gandhari thus had 100 sons; Duryodhana and Dushasana were amongst them and one daughter Dushala who was married to Jayadrath.