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 34: The Vishwaroopa. 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:
- Two Kinds of Sons
- A Proposal for Karna
- Thoughts on Krishna’s Promises
- A Moment of Reckoning
- ‘I am a Sutaputra’
- When did Krishna know?
- The War as Sacrifice – 1
- The War as Sacrifice – 2
- Krishna Declares War
- How does Karna know?
- A Promise to Kunti
- Further Reading
Two Kinds of Sons
Krishna meets Karna in his chariot and takes him to the outskirts of the city. Once they are out of earshot of anyone important, Krishna says, ‘You have studied the scriptures as deeply as I have, O Vasusena. You will know, therefore, that there are two kinds of sons that a maiden might have.
‘One is called the Sahoda, who are the sons born to her fathered by her husband. The other kind is called the Kanina, children born to her of other men from before her marriage. On both occasions, the sons are considered morally to be the children of the maiden’s wedded husband.’
‘Why do you tell me all this, Krishna?’ asks Karna.
‘I do so because you are one of the kanina sons of Kunti, O Karna, and by the declaration of the scriptures, you are also the moral heir to Pandu. On the side of your father, you have the five Pandavas as your younger brothers.
‘On the side of your mother, you have the Vrishnis for kinsmen. Balarama and I will be happy to serve you as regents. If you come with me, I shall let the Pandavas know that you were born of Kunti before Yudhishthir. They, along with Draupadi and Subhadra, will embrace your feet.’
A Proposal for Karna
Krishna continues: ‘All the kings and princes who have assembled to fight for the Pandavas will pay you the utmost respect, O Karna. During her sixth period, Draupadi will come to unite with you as wife, and will bear your son in due course.
‘Your wish of being her husband will also thus be fulfilled. You will be the ruler of Indraprastha when it is won back from Duryodhana, and you will be the overlord of the earth, ahead of Yudhishthir.
‘His chariot will forever drive behind yours, and Draupadi will forever stand by your side, not his.
‘The mighty Bhimasena will hold an umbrella over your head. Arjuna will be your charioteer. Nakula and Sahadeva your willing slaves. I myself, along with the Andhakas and the Vrishnis, will walk behind your chariot, calling out your name repeatedly in reverence.
‘The Panchalas will raise you to the very heavens; Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandin, the sons of Drupada, will wait upon you every second. Poets and balladeers will sing your praises, and they will say, victory to Vasusena!
‘Let there be a reunion between the brothers. Your mother will be beside herself with joy if this happens, O Karna, and at long last, you will be given all the respect that you deserve.
‘The entire world will know of you as the eldest Pandava, and it is you who will lead them into the glorious future. You are all sons of the gods, Karna. You belong together.’
Thoughts on Krishna’s Promises
This is clearly an attempt on Krishna’s part to weaken Duryodhana at the eleventh hour before the war begins – and also to protect Arjuna’s life.
(That Krishna tries to poach Karna is in itself instructive: it means that Krishna is not as confident about the Pandavas’ victory as he sounds in public.)
But the promises he makes sound outrageous at first glance. Will Yudhishthir and the other brothers accept Karna into the family after all the altercations of the past? Will Draupadi agree to be wedded to him?
Krishna does not take consent from any of the parties before he makes this proposal; this indicates that either he believes he doesn’t need it – i.e.: the Pandavas and Draupadi will obey him – or he believes the promise to be a hollow one.
He may be thinking: let us win the war first, then we will see.
The deeper implication behind Krishna’s words – that the world will accept Karna as the eldest Pandava – also is questionable. The world has come to know the five Pandavas from their lives and actions, as it has come to know Karna from his. Will the simple act of defecting from one side to another erase all of Karna’s past in the world’s eyes?
In other words: can a man’s destiny be rewritten completely by one deliberate choice?
A Moment of Reckoning
This is Karna’s moment of reckoning. All his life, he has been searching desperately for his identity. He has longed for acceptance. Derided as a sutaputraat every turn (by Arjuna and Draupadi, among others), he has lived his whole life craving the status and wealth of a high-born Kshatriya.
At least part of his antagonism toward the Pandavas stems from – one could argue – knowledge that he could never be one of them. And here, he is being offered all that he has sought and more.
Let us pause for a moment to consider the enormity of this proposal by Krishna. If Karna agrees, he will be anointed the eldest of the Pandavas. All that belongs to Yudhishthir now will be given over to him.
Draupadi – she who had insulted him during her swayamvara, and whom he in turn insulted during the game of dice – will wait upon him as wife.
Arjuna and Bhima – with whom he has clashed repeatedly in the past – will honour him as elder brother and king. Friendship with Krishna and the Vrishnis – a privilege enjoyed by the Pandavas alone so far – will be his.
The king and princes of Panchala will honour him as their lord.
If he could utter one word, all his past would be rewritten. His legacy would become immortal as the reinstated monarch of Indraprastha, the eldest son of Kunti, the foremost of the Pandavas.
But at the crucial moment, with the entire world at his feet, Karna finds an inner truth. He says to Krishna, ‘I am a Sutaputra.’
‘I am a Sutaputra’
‘It is true that I am the moral son of Pandu, O Kesava,’ he says. ‘It is also true that I was born in Kunti’s womb to Surya. But my mother abandoned me at birth. It is Adiratha who found me and raised me as his own.
‘His wife, Radha, suckled me at her breast, and washed my urine and other excreta. She fed me, reared me, loved me.
‘Neither of those two is as well-versed in the study of scriptures as you and I are, Krishna. My mother Radha is uneducated. How can I today forsake her for a mother who, after bearing me, fulfilled none of the duties of motherhood?
‘What shall I tell my father, who had me schooled under various rishis and brought me up to be an upstanding member of the Suta tribe? That I have found a more moral father? Who can be more moral than Adiratha, who found it in his heart to give everything to a boy who was not of his seed?’
Krishna does not reply; he merely watches.
Karna now speaks of his later life. ‘And what of Duryodhana? It is due to him that I have enjoyed the pleasures of kingship while staying within the boundaries of my clan. He relies upon me to slay Arjuna in the upcoming battle, as he relies upon himself to defeat Bhimasena.
‘How can I desert him at this hour, just as the battle conch is about to go off?’
He implores Krishna that the details of his birth should be kept a secret. ‘We must ensure that the Pandavas do not realize this truth, O Krishna. If Yudhishthir comes to know of my identity, he will not fight. He will not accept the kingdom.
‘On the other hand, if I defeat Arjuna in battle and win the war for Duryodhana, Yudhishthir will remain a king because he has you by his side, and Arjuna and Bhimasena and the lustrous Draupadi. As for me – I have lived my whole life a Sutaputra. I shall die a Sutaputra.’
When did Krishna know?
One logical question that may occur to a reader at this point is how and when Krishna came to know of the truth about Karna’s birth. Thus far in the story, only Kunti knows who Karna is.
An argument can be made that Karna also has made some inferences about Kunti – especially after the Pandavas have left for their exile – but even he does not know for sure.
The Mahabharata does not explicitly tell us how Krishna comes to know, but since he goes to meet Karna right after his meeting with Kunti in Vidura’s house, we can infer that she may have told him.
Her motivations in revealing this information are merely strategic: she wishes to flip Karna over to the Pandava side. And in return for it, she suggests that Krishna makes some tall (but credible) promises.
On the other hand, it is possible that after Kunti tells Krishna about the truth, the rest of it is all Krishna’s idea. Regardless of how you roll with it, we can safely surmise that Krishna himself did not know about this until the night before he leaves from Hastinapur, after his attempts at peacemaking have failed.
The War as Sacrifice – 1
A cynic may say that Karna – by rejecting Krishna’s proposal – is hedging his bets because he thinks Duryodhana is going to win the war. But what he says now should dispel those doubts.
‘There is a great yagnya about to occur, O Krishna,’ he says, ‘and you are invited to be the Upadrashtri and the Adhyaryu. Arjuna will be the Hotri, and the Gandiva will be the sacrificial ladle with which libations will be poured onto the fire.
‘The Aindra, the Pashupatastra, the Brahmastra, and the Sthunakarnastra – the weapons used by Arjuna – will be the mantras of this yagnya. Subhadra’s son Abhimanyu will be the chief Vedic hymn that will prove to be the most important moment of the ceremony.
‘Bhimasena, that destroyer of elephants, that mountain of a man, will serve as the Udgatri and Prastotri. King Yudhishthir will be the Brahma.
‘The swords will become the Kapalas, the heads of slain warriors will be used as Purodasas, and the blood of men will serve as clarified butter. Lances and bright maces will be pokers and corner stakes.
‘The disciples of Drona and Kripa – the Pandavas and the Dhartarashtras – will be the Sadasyas. The arrows shot by the wielders of great bows will play the part of ladles to distribute the soma. Satyaki will be the chief assistant of the Adhyaryu.
‘In this yagnya, Duryodhana will be installed as chief performer, and the vast army he has assembled will sit on his right as his wife.’
The War as Sacrifice – 2
Karna continues: ‘When the nocturnal rites of this ceremony begin, O Krishna, Ghatotkacha will play the part of the slayer of sacrificial animals.
‘Dhrishtadyumna will become the dakshina, and from the side of the Kauravas, I shall offer myself to the sacrificial fire as repentance for all those harsh sins I committed against the Pandavas.
‘This sacrifice will end with the drinking of Duhsasana’s blood by Bhimasena, O Madhava. The two princes of Panchala will bring about the ends of Dronacharya and Bhishma. Duryodhana will meet his death at the hands of Bhima.
‘At the beginning of this phase of the yagnya, called the Punachiti, you will behold me being slain by Arjuna. The final bath of this sacrifice will occur when – surrounded by vultures and other beasts of prey – the women of the royal court of Hastinapur will come to the battlefield and mourn the loss of their men.
‘That will bring to a close this chapter of Aryavarta’s history, where its filth is cleansed with the blood of the sinful.’
Despite this knowledge, Karna says, he wishes to fight on the side of Duryodhana because that is where he is destined to be. He advises Krishna not to try and prevent the war.
Krishna Declares War
Krishna smiles at Karna and tells him that the time for peace has long passed. ‘The onset of Kali Yuga is upon us, Karna. At the end of this war, we will see the signs all around us that the sun has set on the Dwapara Yuga.
‘Yudhishthir and his brothers will usher in a new age of Kali, in which virtue will limp along on one leg for thousands of years.
‘Return to the court of Hastinapur now, Karna, and tell Drona and Bhishma and Kripa that this present month is a delightful one in which food, drink and fuel are abundant.
‘All plants and herbivores are teeming with life, and there is no sign of death. The roads are free of mire, and the water of every lake is sweet. The weather is neither hot nor cold.
‘But seven days after the end of this month will be the day of the new moon. Let the battle commence then, for it is said that Indra himself watches over the earth on this day.
‘Also tell the kings that are fighting on the side of Duryodhana that they will all reach exalted states of being in the afterlife, that no man who meets his death in Kurukshetra will have to enter the gates of hell. Tell them that they will be forever immortalized on the dusty plains of Samantapanchaka.’
How does Karna know?
While reading this episode, we may wonder how Karna knows the future in such fine detail. Once again the Mahabharata does not explain, but we know that Karna habitually receives dreams from his father, the sun god.
In one such dream, he tells Krishna now, Karna sees a vision of Yudhishthir being seated on a throne, drinking sweetened milk out of a golden cup. He sees Bhishma, Drona, Duryodhana and himself wearing blood-red crowns, being taken away to the hermitage of Agastya.
He sees Kripa, Ashwatthama and Kritavarma in white – from which he infers that of all the Kauravas, these three are going to survive.
From these words, we can surmise that Karna has been sent dreams and visions of the future over the course of his life, and that he has used them to stitch together a coherent image of what is to come.
And like all people who are given the gift of foresight, Karna also does not believe that the future can be changed by the present. That may be another reason why he rejects Krishna’s proposal.
A Promise to Kunti
After Krishna’s failure to turn Karna, Kunti tries again on her own. One morning, she goes to the bank of the river Ganga where Karna is known to perform his daily prayers to the sun.
In a touching but poetic moment, she stands in the shade of the upper garments of Karna which have been laid on the branch of a nearby tree. While she waits for his prayers to finish, the heat of the sun, we are told, cause her to shrink like a faded garland of lotuses.
The conversation proceeds as we might expect. She tells him the truth. She promises him all that Krishna had promised him a few days before. A voice from the sky confirms that Kunti is indeed speaking the truth.
But none of it fazes Karna. He finds it within himself to be kind to his biological mother. But his response is firm.
‘Adiratha and Radha,’ he says, ‘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.
But before sending her away, Karna does give her a promise. ‘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.’
The war begins, therefore, with Karna fighting by Duryodhana’s side.
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered