Karna Kunti Samvada (Conversation): The Story of a Fatal Promise

Karna and Kunti are two of the most important characters of the Mahabharata.

Karna is the firstborn son of Kunti. By rights he should be a Pandava, but Kunti abandons him at birth, and he becomes Duryodhana’s friend. Kunti is the first wife of Pandu, and she bears Karna out of wedlock.

In this post, we will examine the conversation (samvada) that happens between Karna and Kunti just before the war. The promise that Kunti extracts from Karna here will turn out to have deep consequences for the Kauravas.

(For a comprehensive resource on Karna, see Karna: 40+ Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)


First, a quick recap of the context surrounding this meeting between Kunti and Karna:

The Kauravas and Pandavas have already decided upon war. The Pandavas successfully completed their thirteen-year-exile but Duryodhana has refused to give his cousins their kingdom back. The only recourse for ‘justice’ is war.

Just the day (or a few days) earlier, Krishna had journeyed to Hastinapur in the hope of brokering a peaceful settlement. He failed.

During that visit, Krishna had also sought a private meeting with Karna, during which he tells the king of Anga the secret of his true identity. (Presumably, Krishna learned it from Kunti when he meets her at Vidura’s place during the trip.)

In essence, therefore, when Kunti approaches Karna during this scene, Karna knows that she is his mother. He also has an inkling as to what her motivations are behind this visit.

This is an echo of Indra’s visit earlier: Karna knew that Indra was about to visit (Surya told him), he knew what Indra’s intention was (to take his kavacha-kundalas from him), and he knew that Indra would be disguised as a Brahmin.

Despite all this, he chooses to give Indra what he wants. In this case as well, despite knowing Kunti’s game, Karna decides to be kind and giving toward her.

Kunti’s Worry

After Krishna leaves Hastinapur, Vidura and Kunti sit together and worry a little about the upcoming war. During this conversation, Kunti decides that she should meet Karna and try to pull him away from Duryodhana’s side.

In a rare glimpse into a character’s thoughts, the Mahabharata lets us follow Kunti’s inner monologue here, as she is sitting in Vidura’s house mulling things over.

The Panchalas, the Chedis and the Yadavas have come together for this war, she thinks. And yet, the Kauravas are so powerful. Bhishma and Drona’s stature as warriors surpasses everything that the Pandavas have.

But Bhishma is the grandfather of my sons. Might he not be hesitant to strike at full force against them? And Drona – will the preceptor fight willingly against his pupils?

The biggest threat to my sons comes yet from Karna, who sinfully sides with Duryodhana despite the Kaurava prince’s wickedness.

If I could gratify him, and turn his heart toward the Pandavas, then I need not worry about the safety of my sons. Karna is a man whom I have carried in my womb. If I tell him the truth, why will he not accept it?

Kunti’s Strategy

From the way in which Kunti strategizes her approach to Karna, what becomes obvious is that she is unaware that Krishna had already told Karna about who he is, and that he had already tried to get Karna to switch sides.

Kunti therefore plans it so that she will tell Karna about the truth, and then implore him to abandon Duryodhana in favour of the Pandavas.

It is clear from her thoughts that she still thinks of Karna as wicked and sinful. Nothing in her conscience makes her aware that she also deserves blame for Karna’s choices in his adult life.

Her resolution to meet with Karna is motivated solely by the need to protect her sons, the Pandavas. She bears no goodwill for Karna, nor does she experience any feelings of remorse.

Kunti is only going to use the fact that she is Karna’s biological mother as a negotiating chip to win Karna’s favour in the war. And crucially, Karna knows this.

Kunti visits Karna

On the banks of the Ganga’s tributary Bhagirathi the next morning, Karna stands facing the east in ankle-deep water, his arms upraised, his lips chanting Vedic hymns.

Kunti stands in the shade afforded by Karna’s upper garments laid on the branch of a nearby tree. She waits until Karna finishes his prayers and exits the river.

With his shoulders reddened by the morning heat, they come face to face. Karna bows to her with modest restraint. ‘I am Vasusena,’ he says, ‘given that name by my mother Radha and my father Adiratha. How can I be of service to you, my lady?’

Appeal to Motherhood

Kunti begins by telling Karna that he is not the son of Radha and Adiratha. ‘You’re the son of Kunti, and you were not born in the Suta caste, my son. Believe what I say. And your father is none other than Surya, that lord of light and heat.

‘You were born with natural earrings and armour that made you invincible, my son. Without realizing that you are the brother of the Pandavas, you have sided with Duryodhana. You do not need to anymore. It is improper.’

Here, Kunti makes an appeal to Karna’s sense of duty.

‘The scriptures have said that a man’s highest calling is to gratify his mother, who is the supreme provider of life itself to her children. It is therefore proper that you gratify my heart by fighting alongside your real brothers.’

Appeal to Dharma

Kunti then points out that in this war, the forces of evil are undoubtedly arrayed with Duryodhana.

‘Yudhishthir’s wealth was acquired by just and righteous means, O Karna,’ she says. ‘It was then robbed by Duryodhana who used trickery and chicanery to do so. Now, when the time has come to return it, he has refused.

‘Everyone who has observed the events of the last fifteen years agree that the Pandavas are right to wage this war. Even Krishna, the most powerful of men, has sided with the sons of Pandu.

‘Now it is your turn to judge with your own mind where Dharma resides. You have earned for yourself a reputation as a man of virtue. Now fight alongside virtue, not against it!’

Appeal to Prosperity

Finally, Kunti finishes by asking Karna to imagine how powerful the Pandavas will become if they were joined by their elder brother.

‘Let the Kurus witness today,’ she says, ‘the union of Karna and Arjuna. Let the names Karna and Arjuna be uttered in the same breath as Rama and Krishna. If you two are united, what cannot be accomplished in the world?

‘At the head of your brothers, you will blaze forth like Brahma himself. You will be the king of the world, served reverentially by my five younger sons.

‘You are the first of all my relations. You are my firstborn. Let the title of Sutaputra be forever erased from your history. You are a Partha, the first among Parthas! Come take your rightful place at the head of the Pandava army.’

At this point, an affectionate voice from the sky tells Karna: ‘Whatever Kunti says is true, my son. Follow her advice and much good will happen to you.’

Karna remains Steadfast

But Karna remains unmoved, and refuses to call Kunti his mother. ‘My lady,’ he says, ‘at the time I needed you the most, you abandoned me to the elements. I was not even old enough to know the world in which I lived.

‘Only the cruellest of human beings are capable of such an action. And then all these years, you did not wish to claim me as your own. You were content to let me bear all the insults that came my way.

‘Now you come to me not because of love but because of fear for the safety of your own children.

‘Adiratha and Radha are my parents. They will remain my parents throughout my life. I love them as a child ought to love those that gave him birth.

‘I can never feel that way about you, my lady, because you did not perform any of the acts that are associated with motherhood. And no, I cannot now go to the Pandavas and offer them my support.

‘What will the assembled Kshatriyas say then? What will Duryodhana think? He has rested all his hopes on me. I cannot fail him now. I will fight for him even if it means that I will die doing so.’

Karna’s Promise

But before sending her away, Karna does give her a promise.

‘Despite everything, my lady, I do not wish your solicitation today to be fruitless. So I shall grant you an oath.

‘My enmity is with Arjuna alone, and it is to kill him that I shall do everything in my power. I shall not kill any of the four other brothers, so even after the war, my lady, irrespective of who wins it, you will still have five sons.’

Hearing these words, Kunti trembles with grief and embraces her son, who remains unmoved.

‘Indeed,’ she says. ‘If what you say is true, then it is also true that the Kauravas will be exterminated. Destiny is all. You have granted your four brothers the pledge of safety. Always remember that when you are on the battlefield.’

And then, after blessing Karna with good health and a long life, Kunti leaves from the spot. Karna picks up his garments and walks away in the opposite direction.

Reflections on Karna Kunti Samvada

The visit that Kunti pays Karna has strong parallels with an earlier incident during which Indra comes to Karna and asks for his kavacha-kundalas.

On that occasion, as on this:

  • Karna knows that who is going to visit.
  • He knows what the intention of the visitor is.
  • He gets warned and advised by Surya to take one course of action.

Both times, though, Karna ignores his father’s advice and takes the path of what is right – as opposed to simply what is beneficial.

The promise that Karna gives Kunti turns out to have deep ramifications. In the ensuing war, Karna fights, defeats and spares every single one of the Pandavas save for Arjuna.

If he had not had given the promise, it is conceivable that Karna might have succeeded in winning the war for Duryodhana. At the very least he would have succeeded in killing Yudhishthir.

As for Kunti, her mission can be called successful. She set out with the aim of protecting her sons. Yes, she only secured protection for Yudhishthir, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva. She could not get any assurance regarding Arjuna.

But – she also knows that Arjuna, under the guidance of Krishna, is near invincible with his divine weapons. On her return journey, therefore, one can imagine Kunti being quite pleased with her effort.

Kunti as Karna’s Killer

After Karna is killed on the seventeenth day of the war, Arjuna asks Krishna how a warrior as great as Karna was defeated. Krishna gives four main players in the game of Karna’s death. They are, in order of importance:

  • Arjuna, for having performed the actual deed, for having shot the arrow that kills Karna,
  • Krishna, for having guided Arjuna in the matter, and for having protected him from Karna’s threat,
  • Kunti, for having asked for the promise that shielded the rest of the Pandavas from Karna,
  • Indra, for having taken the kavacha-kundalas from Karna and reduced his power.

With what she has done, therefore, Kunti earns for herself the notoriety of being the third important factor in her firstborn son’s death.

Further Reading

If you liked this post, you will probably also enjoy: Kunti: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.