Mahabharata Episode 24: Karna Conquers the World

Karna Conquers the world - Featured Image - Plough representing the golden plough ritual that Karna conducts after conquering everyone

In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 23: Duryodhana is Rescued. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Here’s what we will cover in this episode:

Karna’s Moment

Soon after Duryodhana returns to Hastinapur after being saved by the Pandavas, Karna sets out on an expedition of conquest at the head of a large army.

Over the course of a few months, he defeats many of the significant kings of Aryavarta and forces them to pay tribute to the house of Kuru. Now, a skeptic might argue that this is more an effect of the army rather than its leader, but one has to admit that even allowing for that, this feat is impressive.

It is in fact the first piece of recorded evidence that the Mahabharata gives of Karna’s much vaunted capabilities.

Here is a short list of his deeds during this tour:

  • He engages Drupada, the king of Panchala, in battle, defeats him, and extracts a large amount of silver, gold and precious gems as tribute.
  • Going further north, he defeats Bhagadatta on the way to the Himavat mountain. He conquers all the settlements there, and on the way down, he marches eastward and captures the kingdoms of Vanga and Kalinga.
  • In the south, he gets into a protracted duel with Rukmi, in order to bring Dakshinatya under Kuru rule. Rukmi loses and gives Karna all the wealth that he seeks.
  • In the west, he negotiates a peace treaty with Avanti, before meeting with the Vrishnis as well. (It is not mentioned how Dwaraka was subdued by Karna. We might assume that he entered the city as emissary of Dhritarashtra and exchanged gifts to strengthen the Yadava-Kuru alliance. Or he secured the friendship of all Vrishnis with the exception of Dwaraka.)

In short, Karna heads forth to all four directions and establishes Duryodhana’s rule, just as the Pandavas did with Yudhishthir twelve years ago, though not to the same extent. However, he does enough to impress Duryodhana beyond words.

A Second Rajasuya

‘You have done more for me than Bhishma, Drona and Kripacharya have, my friend,’ Duryodhana tells Karna while welcoming him back. ‘Go and take the blessings of King Dhritarashtra, for it is at his feet you must place all this wealth. And seek the approval of Queen Mother Gandhari too.’

This achievement by Karna helps further reinstate Duryodhana’s belief that the Pandavas can be beaten. He now entertains thoughts of performing the Rajasuya and declaring himself an emperor, much like Yudhishthir had done.

The priests who are consulted about this have a couple of objections:‘Until the reigning emperor, Yudhishthir, is alive, O Prince,’ they say, ‘you cannot be crowned as one. Also, your father is alive, and it is said in the scriptures that a performer of the Rajasuya must be one whose father has passed away. How can you be called an emperor when your father still rules the land?’

They do have an alternative, though. ‘But we know of a ceremony which is equal in status to the Rajasuya. From all the gold that you have amassed as tribute from your allies, command that a plough be made, and use it to plough the sacrificial compound.

‘While you do this, make sure that all your allies are present to witness the act, and that learned sages are chanting verses from the Vedas.’

The Golden Plough

Delighted at the suggestion, Duryodhana takes permission from Dhritarashtra and orders for a plough to be made as per the Brahmins’ specifications. After that task is complete, he sends messengers to all the kingdoms of the world to invite them to the ceremony.

One of these arrives at Dwaitavana, and presents to Yudhishthir the news. The exiled king smiles. ‘It is indeed very fortunate that Suyodhana is honouring his ancestors thus, by celebrating this best of sacrifices.

‘But we cannot attend the ceremony because we are still in exile. Our vow does not run its course until the end of the thirteenth year, while we are yet to approach the end of the twelfth.’

Bhimasena is less tactful. ‘Tell your king,’ he roars at the messenger, ‘that at the end of the thirteenth year, Yudhishthir will come. And he will cast Duryodhana into a colossal fire kindled by weapons.

‘This particular ceremony will be performed on a battlefield. The accompaniments will not be chants of pious sages but the dying cries of great warriors. The offering will not be clarified butter but the blood of thousands of men, innocent and cruel alike.’

Emperor Duryodhana

The ceremony of the plough, therefore, happens in the Pandavas’ absence. The people of Hastinapur, who gather at the compound, speak among themselves, and while some are appreciative of Duryodhana, others are not.

How can this sacrifice be compared to Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya, these naysayers mutter. If you ask me, it does not command even one-sixteenth the importance.

But Duryodhana carries on just the same. Karna, while accepting Duryodhana’s offering, promises his friend that a bigger sacrifice will be conducted in the near future.

‘Once the Pandavas are slain, my friend,’ he says, ‘I will see to it that your wish of performing the Rajasuya comes true. Then, no one in the world will dare question you.’

Duryodhana thus attains the status of an emperor in Aryavarta during the twelfth year of the Pandavas’ exile, fuelled by the shame caused by his defeat to the Gandharvas.

A Boon for Duryodhana

It so happens that during the twelfth year of the Pandavas’ exile, a short while after Duryodhana has been saved and dispatched, Durvasa visits the court of Hastinapur accompanied by ten thousand of his disciples.

The eldest Kaurava receives him with all due humility and puts up with all the sage’s eccentricities.

Durvasa is pleased with the prince and says, ‘I have not expected you to be so conscientious while attending on me, O Dhartarashtra. You have pleased me with your unwavering servitude. Let me grant you a boon. Ask for anything you wish.’

Duryodhana, Karna and Shakuni have already together decided what to ask for in the event of the sage granting them a boon. Therefore, without having to think, the prince says:

‘My dear brother, Yudhishthir, is the eldest of our race, Venerable One. And he is now living in the forest accompanied by his wife and four brothers. It is my wish that you, along with your thousands of disciples, bestow upon him the good fortune of a visit.

And make it so, O Sage, that you descend upon them them after sundown, so that they will have enough time on their hands to care for you.’

Duryodhana’s hope, of course, is that Durvasa and his disciples reach the Pandavas’ house after all the food is finished, and that their failure to please the sage would earn them a curse or two.

It is instructive of Duryodhana’s obsessive state of mind that even when he is granted a boon, instead of asking for something that would better his own life, he chooses to harm his cousins instead.

Of course, it does not quite work out as intended.

Durvasa Visits the Pandavas

As wished by Duryodhana, Durvasa makes a visit to the hermitage of the Pandavas at the most inopportune time, after sundown, after all the vessels have been washed and put away, just as Draupadi is sitting down for a moment’s rest after a long day. The sage comes with all his disciples in tow, and asks Yudhishthir for food.

In order to buy time, the king replies, ‘Please go to the nearby lake, O Sage, and perform all your oblations and observances. We will make certain that enough food is available on your return.’

Wondering how the Pandavas plan to do this, and presumably already working out which curse to place on them, Durvasa leads his people away to the lake. Draupadi, meanwhile, prays and hopes for a miracle.

Krishna, who is in Dwaraka, in bed with Rukmini, suddenly hears the prayer of Panchali and hurries over to Kamyaka.

One Grain of Rice

Krishna arrives before the sage’s return and asks everyone what the matter is. Then he says, ‘You have the Akshayapatra given to you by Surya, Panchali. Why do you not use it?’

‘Alas,’ Draupadi replies, ‘the Akshayapatra only gives food until I have not had my meal. But thinking that the last of the Brahmins have left for the day, I’d just finished eating before Sage Durvasa came. And I have cleaned the vessel.’

‘Well,’ says Krishna, ‘perhaps you have not cleaned it as thoroughly as you think. Can you bring it to me so that I can take a look?’

Draupadi does so, and indeed, they see one grain of cooked rice clinging to the rim of the Akshayapatra. Krishna points to it, picks it up, and swallows it. ‘Now that is what I call a sumptuous meal,’ he tells her with a smile.

Over at the lake, at this very moment, the bathing sages discover suddenly that their stomachs have become full. Even the thought of food fills them with revulsion. Some of the younger disciples ask Durvasa about this miraculous happening, and he replies:

‘The Pandavas are worthy men, both on the field of battle and in front of the fire. I have no doubt that the gods are looking after them. There is indeed no point in returning to their hermitage, because our hungers have been satiated. Let us go on our way.’

Duryodhana’s plan to inconvenience the Pandavas thus fails because of Krishna’s intervention.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!