Who is Kunti? 


 (... and why is she eating the children?)


Several of the names found in the caskets at Vedisa – Ālābagira (recall Āḷavaka the yakkha), Hāritīputa, Kotīputa, and perhaps Gotiputa –  are the names of cannabalistic monsters. This theme, bizarre though it may seem, is an important subtext reappearing constantly through our sources.

Let us return to our kinnarī Kuntī. We are not told anything about her, except that she was a wood-nymph who had two children with a man from Pāṭaliputta, who had two children who ordained and dies young. We are not told why she would give up her children to be ordained. Here she, as the seducer of mortals and mother of mortal heroes, plays the part of a whimsical seductress.

But there is another Kuntī of an altogether more malevolent sort: a fierce, child-devouring yakṣiṇī (ogress). This Kuntī is unknown in the Mahāvihāravāsin sources, but well-known in the northern sources. Her story is told in detail in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya,[1] and has been translated by Strong.[2] The yakṣiṇī Kuntī is encountered by the Buddha on his legendary journey to the north-west of India, so is a long way from Pātaliputta; but perhaps, given that the Buddha himself made the journey in a single night, we might accept that such powerful deities are also capable of travelling long distances. Indeed, Strong emphasizes the similarities between Kuntī and another yakṣiṇī who lived much closer to Pātaliputta: Hārītī, who seemed to have started her career as a goddess of smallpox, devouring the children of Rājagaha. But while some sources believe Hārītī lived in Rājagaha, the missions account places Hārītī and her husband Pañcaka in Kaśmīr, where they were cowed by the power of Majjhantika.[3] On the other hand, the reliquaries suggest she had children living in Vedisa. But we also find her in Mathura, and her image adorns Buddhist temples from Ajanta to Japan.

Both the yakśiṇīs are of course converted to Buddhism, and provision is made for their continued worship within a Buddhist setting. Hārītī went on to have a fabulous career: her worship is attested throughout the Buddhist lands, she is closely associated with the syncretic Greco-Indic art of Gandhara, and she retains her popularity today, even in far-off Japan.[4] Not bad for a cannabalistic ogress.

Kuntī asks for a monastery to be built on her behalf, where she, like Hārītī, would have received the offerings of the villagers to ensure the safety of their children. In these cases we see examples of the methods that the Buddhists used to adopt local cults within a Buddhist context, making the deities dependent on the offerings of the Buddhist faithful.

There would seem to be little in common between these malicious child-eating ogresses and our sweet nymph of the woods; except that the only thing we know of Kuntī is that she had two sons, who became monks and died. I repeat: almost the only thing we know of the kinnarī Kuntī is that she is associated with the death of children. I would therefore suggest that she is yet another version of the Kuntī/Hārītī cycle. Her ‘sons’ are probably monks ordained in a temple devoted to her; this reminds us of the common Indic motif of the abandoned child brought up by a sage in the temple. It is even possible, though very faint, that we discern a hint here of the substitution of ordination of children for child sacrifice. I will not, however, venture to speculate whether this was still ongoing in the Buddha’s time, or was a memory of distant, more brutal ways in the dim past.

Spreading our wings further afield, the Kuntani Jātaka (343 at J.iii.311f) concerns a certain bird of the curlew, heron, or stork variety, who acted as a messenger for the king of Benares:

Once, when she was away, the boys of the palace killed her two young ones. In revenge she persuaded a tiger to eat the boys, and told the king what she had done. She then flew away to the Himālaya because, she said, there could be no friendship between the wrong-doer and the wronged one.[5]

Here again, we find the motif of the killing of children. These stories remind us of the Mahābharata’s tale of Śakuntalā, mother of Bharata: said to be the love-child of a celestial nymph and a powerful rishi, she was abandoned at birth and raised in the wild by vultures, and hence was named ‘Bird’. Here again we see the same connections between human and divine, mediated by the bird, and the paradoxical associations of filial devotion and abandonment: these must have been nurtured by the common sight of birds at one moment tenderly caring for their young, in the next disappearing completely. 

The Mahābharata further develops these themes in the story of Mandapāla, who though a great sage was unable to find freedom. He was told that sons were the path to heaven, and reflecting that birds were the most fruitful of beasts, took the form of a bird. He found a mate called Jarita, and they had four children, all learned in the Vedas. Though he dearly loved his children, he was away on an amorous adventure when Agni the Fire God approached in full splendour. The children begged their mother to save herself, and they all thought they had been abandoned by their father. Little did they know that Mandapāla had meanwhile made a deal with Agni to spare his children. Once more the story revolves around the motifs of paradoxical devotion and abandonment, together with the metamorphosis between human and divine forms, especially the ambiguity between the bird and the sage: it is one of the eternally evocative images of the liberated being that their path is trackless, like that of birds in the sky (Dhp 92).

And the Mahābharata completes this cycle of ambiguity in the story of Kuntī, the mother of the 5 Pandava princes, the heroes of the main thread of the Mahābharata’s narrative. While they are on the run, fugitives in their own land, they are sheltered by a brahman family in the town of Ekacakra. Kuntī overhears the family lamenting. Their town, it seems, was haunted by ogres and trolls, and there was one rakṣasa in particular, name of Baka (‘Heron’), who demanded human flesh. The time had come for the brahman family to offer one of their own and, such was their nobility, each family member insisted on being the victim. None could stand to live without each other, and in the end they decide to all give themselves up. Kuntī knew, of course, that her sons, the greatest divine heroes of the age, could easily deal with a few trolls. She consoles the brahman family, and asks her strongest son, Bhīma, to destroy the rakṣasa. The cautious elder son, Yudhiśthira, is concerned that she is sending her own son into danger. But Kuntī prevails, and Bhīma takes on the troll. Its mouth stretched from ear to ear; with red eyes, red hair, and red beard, the earth trembled at his step.[6] With awesome strength the two mighty fighters battle, wrecking the countryside, until finally Bhīma snapped the hill-huge monster in half, and smote his ruin on the earth.

In this story the mythic cycles turn in on themselves repeatedly. ‘The Heron’ (kuntī and baka) is the protective mother, the sacrificer, and the child-eater. Kuntī saves the brahman children from the sacrifice, but sends her own son instead. The brahmans’ baby boy, taking a grass-leaf in his hand as a sword, and lispingly avowing to kill the monster, is also Bhīma, Kuntī’s son who in fact kills the monster.

The stork, the crane and the pelican are all large birds, who swoop down to carry off quite large prey. Their actions are reminiscent of Death itself, striking without warning. And we can well believe that people would quite literally fear that a pelican or similar could catch up a little baby in its beak, carrying it off to the unknown. Thus the bird Kuntī or Śakuṇi may be the name of a ferocious ogre who is specifically the cause of children’s diseases.[7] If the stork is an abductor of children, then it is also the bringer of children, a messenger who is quite capable of bridging the gap between the earth and the heavens, carrying with it a tiny human. In the same way, the same ogress who is the murderer of children, if tamed in the Buddhist way and propitiated with offerings, would become the protector of children, just as the heron in the Kuntani Jātaka is both the killer and protector of children. Like bird’s beak: it is a stabbing spear (kunta), both violent and sexual (kunta is also a word for passion, or the god of love); but also the bringer of food, a source of bounty from the beyond.

The stork was also sometimes the messenger of Athena; according to Ovid, in her weaving contest with Arachne, Athena showed two scenes of women – the Pygmy queen and Antigone – who were turned into cranes by Hera. Similarly, the crane is associated with Hermes the messenger, no doubt a suitable occupation for such a high-flying bird.  (Warner, 1970, 211, 221, 226) Pietas, the goddess of filial respect and protectress of children, had the stork for her totem, and it was said by Aristophanes in his ‘The Birds’:

But we have also an ancient law written in the code of the storks, which runs thus, ‘When the stork father has reared his young and has taught them to fly, the young must in their turn support the father.’

Echoed by Celsus in ‘The True Doctrine’:

That the stork is more pious than any human being, is shown by those accounts which are narrated regarding that creature’s display of filial affection in bringing food to its parents for their support.

Similarly, the medieval ‘Life of Merlin’ by Gregory of Monmouth says that:

The stork’s croaking voice is a messenger of spring. This bird is said to look after its young with such extreme devotion that it strips its breast bare by pulling out the feathers. When winter comes, these birds are said to avoid the storms by flying off to the shores of Asia, with a crow as guide. Its chick feeds it when it grows weak in age, because it fed the chick at the period when it needed that care.

But sometimes this devotion turns into a bloody battle between parent and child:

The pelican is a bird which usually kills its brood and laments for three days in a confusion of grief. Finally it pecks at its own body with its beak, cutting into the veins and letting out streams of blood with which it sprinkles the young birds and brings them to life.

This story of Kuntī is unknown to the more sober commentarial accounts, being an elaboration found in the Mahāvaṁsa. We may then consider it as an attempt to provide a background, which the text itself hints is legendary with the word kira (‘it seems… ’). The ‘history’ behind the myth has to do with the adoption of local folk cults into a Buddhist monastic environment. The monastery may be named after the deity, and it is not unlikely that monks from that monastery would be called its ‘sons’, especially if they had been dedicated to the monastery as young children. Hence the two ‘Kontiputtas’ of the third council story. Kontiputtatissa may be identical with the Kotiputa of the inscriptions, or perhaps they both hail from the same monastery.

One of the other names mentioned there is Hāritīputa or Hāritiputa.[8] His relics are found in the stupas at both Sānchī and Andher. Since both Hārītī and Kuntī are child-eating yakkhinīs, associated with identical mythic contexts, the presence of these two names together on the inscriptions is indeed striking.

The idea that ‘children’ of Hārītī are offered to the monastery is the theme of the following passage from the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. This passage follows on from the details of Hārītī’s birth, life, murderous activities and conversion, with the inevitable past life stories.[9]

In the same location as above, until Hārītī had received the three refuges and the five precepts of the Tathāgatha, she was tormented by the other yakṣas. Then she brought all her children and gave them to the Buddhist community. One day, seeing the monks going in search of their food, they changed into small children and followed behind. When the women of Rājagaha saw them, many of them were overcome by emotion and came to take them in their arms. They then disappeared.

The women asked of the monks: ‘Whose children are these?’ They replied: ‘They are the children of Hārītī.’ The women said: ‘Are these then the children of that yakṣinī so hateful and wicked?’ The monks answered: ‘She has completely rejected all wickedness, and because of this, all the yakṣa torment her. This is why from this time forward she has given us these children.’

The women thought ‘The yakṣinī has rejected her evil intentions and has given her children. Why would we then not give them ours also?’ And they gave their children to the community. The community refused to take them. The women said then: ‘The saints have taken the children of that wicked yakṣinī. Why then will they not take ours?’ The monks took this opportunity in order to speak to the Buddha. The Buddha said: ‘Receive them.’

The monks obeyed these instructions. But although they received the children, they were not supervised and they went everywhere to amuse themselves at their whim. The monks told this to the Buddha. The Buddha said: ‘Once a boy has been given to the community, a monk will receive him and will tie to his head a piece of old kāsāya [robe cloth] and will watch over him. If many boys have been given, the monks of all ranks, superior, average, and lower, will receive them and will share them according to their desire and will watch over them just as said before so that they will not be the target of suspicion.’

Then the parents came back bearing gifts in order to compensate (the expenses incurred by the children) and to withdraw them. The monks did not accept. The Buddha said: ‘Accept.’

Subsequently, these children conceived affectionate feelings, and they returned bearing clothing which they offered to the monks in recognition of their good deeds. The monks, knowing their feelings, would not accept. The Buddha said: ‘Receive them.’

As the Buddha was saying that they must receive the presents offered in exchange for the children, six monks went to ask the parents for the entire compensation. The Buddha said: ‘Don't ask the price; learn to content yourselves to receive that which they give according to their wishes.’

In the same location as above, the yakṣinī Hārītī gave all her sons to the community. During the night while they were sleeping, they were tormented with hunger and let out groans of complaint. Once morning came, the monks took this opportunity to tell the Buddha of this matter. The Buddha said: ‘Once morning has come, take them something to eat while saying their name and rendering homage to them.’… It happened also that during times of abstinence they wished to eat. The Buddha said: ‘You must give food to them.’… It happened also that they wished to eat at forbidden times. The Buddha said: ‘You must give to them.’… It happened also that they wished to eat that which was left at the bottom of the monks' bowls. The Buddha said: ‘You must give it to them.’… It happened also that they wished to eat of impure things. The Buddha said: ‘You must give these to them.’

Unless the Mūlasarvāstivādins have gone to great deal of trouble to invent a fairy tale, it seems we must accept that in ancient India children were offered to the monastery for the monks to look after. Such activity is connected with the worship of converted child-eating yakkhinīs within an institutional Buddhist context. The children of the local families may be substituted for those of the yakkhinī. This mirrors the story of Hārītī’s conversion: she had been killing all the people’s children, so the Buddha ‘kidnapped’ one of her children. She came seeking her child in distress, and the Buddha pointed out that the families of all the children she had murdered had suffered even greater distress. In that story, Hārītī’s children substitute for the human children who are ‘killed’ (although of course Hārītī’s child is restored to her); in the follow-up, the people’s children substitute for Hārītī’s children who mysteriously disappear. The children apparently lived for a period of time in the monastery, during which period the monks saw fit to relax many of the more stringent requirements of monastic living. The practice must have been fairly widespread for it to have developed a complex background story and a whole series of rule-modifications based on precedent: clearly this was not an uncommon or localized phenomenon. After their period in the monastery, it seems substantial compensation was offered to the monks, no doubt providing incentive for monastic participation.



[1] CBETA, T24, no. 1448, p. 41, a28-b24; Gilgit Mss. 3, pt. 1:xviii-1. See (Strong, 1994, 34-37)

[2] (Strong, The Legend and Cult of Upagupta 34-35)

[3] The Sudassanavinayavibhāsā only knows of Hārītī and her children: 《善見律毘婆沙》卷2:「呵梨帝耶夜叉尼有五百子」(CBETA, T24, no. 1462, p. 685, b4-5)

[4] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hariti

[5] Dictionary of Pali Proper Names, Malalasekera: http://www.palikanon.com/english/pali_names/ku/kuntani_jat_343.htm

[6] I cannot resist the comparison with Frazer’s remark on the ‘malignant savages of Australia, Africa, and Scotland’. Were there Scottish barbarians in India?

[7] (Monier-Williams 1046)

[8] (Willis 224, 226)

[9] Translation by Jennifer Rowan, based on Noel Peri’s version in Hariti la mere-de-demons 3-14. Available online with many more resources regarding Hārītī at: http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~jrowan/hariti/samyuk.html. Unfortunately i have not been able to trace the exact location of this passage, or to verify the translation.