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Mahābhārata – Episode 5 – Enter Karṇa

This article is part 5 of 20 in the series Mahābhārata


At the fag-end of the tournament, when they heard the tumultuous sound at the gates, filled with wonder the spectators asked, “Have the mountains crumbled?” “Has the earth been torn apart?” as they looked in that direction. With naturally endowed armour (kavaca) and earrings (kuṇḍala), Karṇa walked to the center of the arena like a walking mountain. Karṇa was the son of Kuntī, born to her while she was still a maiden from an essence of the Sun deity; courageous as a lion; effulgent as the sun; he cast his eyes all around the arena once and then bowed half-heartedly to Droṇa and Kṛpa, without much respect, merely for the sake of formality. The spectators, unmoving, looked at the youth with unwavering eyes full of curiosity and wonder as they asked each other, “Who is this?”

Karṇa addressed Arjuna with the words, “O Pārtha! All the feats that you have accomplished, I can surpass them. In front of all these people, I shall perform all of your stunts! Don’t be impressed by your own achievements!” Even before Karṇa could complete his sentence, the crowd was on its feet as if impelled by a machine; a feeling of affection towards him arose in Duryodhana; Arjuna was ashamed on the one side and enraged on the other. Having obtained Droṇa’s permission, Karṇa performed all the feats previously performed by Arjuna. Seeing this, a greatly delighted Duryodhana embraced him and said, “O mighty-armed warrior, welcome! It is our good fortune that you came here at the right moment and saved our honour; I and my entire kingdom are at your command!”

Karṇa replied, “Duryodhana! I need only two things; nothing else – friendship with you and a one-on-one combat with this Pārtha!”

“Most certainly! From now one, enjoy all the pleasures that I enjoy! Thump your foot on the heads of my enemies and crush them,” said Duryodhana.

When he heard their words, Arjuna felt slighted. He said, “Karṇa, come, I shall kill you and dispatch you to the world reserved for those who come uninvited, speak unasked.”

Karṇa said, “This is a public arena; what special merit do you have? Kings gain excellence through their courage; dharma follows power.[1] What is the use of disparaging words? It brings solace to the helpless, that’s about it. What you speak, Arjuna, demonstrate with your arrows. In the presence of your guru, I will sever your head from your body with my arrows!”

Droṇa gave the permission to fight. The Pāṇḍavas embraced their brother Arjuna before sending him to the fight. The Kauravas embraced Karṇa before sending him to the fight. By then the sky was covered with dark clouds with the shade of the clouds falling on Arjuna and the sunlight shining brightly on Karṇa. The arena was divided into two factions, one supporting Arjuna and the other supporting Karṇa. All the Kauravas were on Karṇa’s side; Bhīṣma, Droṇa, and Kṛpa were on Arjuna’s side. When Kuntī heard about the Karṇa-Arjuna combat, she fainted; Vidura sprinkled cold water mixed with sandalwood on her and helped her regain consciousness. Kṛpa, who was well-versed in the tradition of duelling, said, “This is Arjuna, the son of Pṛthā and Pāṇḍu; who are you? Which is your royal clan? Who are your parents? After learning all this, Arjuna will decide whether to fight you or not.” When he heard these words, Karṇa lowered his head in shame. Duryodhana said, “Ācārya! If Arjuna is not willing to fight with someone who is not a king, then here, now, I crown Karṇa as the king of Aṅga!”[2] So saying, Duryodhana immediately arranged for the paraphernalia needed for the coronation – fried rice grains, golden water-pots, a golden seat, and so forth – and installed Karṇa as the king of the kingdom of Aṅga in a traditional ceremony with the recitation of mantras. The umbrella and chowrie fans were brought. People hailed victory to Karṇa. Delighted, Karṇa told Duryodhana, “Mahārāja! What can I do in return for what you have given me?” In response, Duryodhana said, “I wish for nothing else; just your undying friendship!” They joyfully embraced each other. At that moment, the sūta (charioteer) Adhiratha, who was in the crowd, entered the arena calling out Karṇa’s name. The old man’s uttariya (upper garment) was slipping down; body was drenched in sweat; trembling, he stood in the center of the arena supported by a staff![3] Upon seeing him, Karṇa discarded his bow and rushed towards the old man; he bowed his head down out of respect for a father; his head, freshly wet from the coronation dampened the feet of the old man. Adhiratha quickly covered his feet with his uttariya and uttered in a tone of joy and fulfilment, “My son!” Embracing his son out of parental love, Adhiratha held on to his upper garment, words not escaping his mouth, and smelled Karṇa’s forehead; he washed with his tears the hairs on the head of Karṇa that had been recently anointed by the coronation ceremony. Upon seeing all this, Bhīmasena concluded that Karṇa was the son of a sūta; amidst derisive laughter, he said, “You are a sūta-putra! You are not fit to be killed by Arjuna in combat! Suited to your birth as a charioteer, go hold a whip! You’re not fit even to rule over Aṅga! Does a dog next to the agni have the right to eat the havis?” Upon hearing these words, Karṇa’s lips quivered a bit; he heaved a sigh and raising his neck, looked at the sun shining in the sky. Duryodhana got up in fury and roared, “Vṛkodara, it does not befit you to speak such words; for kṣatriyas, strength is supreme; and he has to fight only with one who has that trait of kṣātra; who indeed can find the origin of great warriors or rivers? Fire arises from water; it encompasses all existence, of the animate and inanimate; the Vajra weapon that destroyed the demons was manufactured from Dadhīci’s bones; it is said that the reason for Kumāra’s birth was Agni, Kṛttikas, Rudra, and Gaṅga. Droṇa was born in a pot; Kṛpācārya was born amidst reeds; and how all of you were born, we are well aware! When such is the case, one who is born with naturally endowed kavacakuṇḍala, with all the noble features, shining radiantly like the sun himself, is this Karṇa not fit to be the ruler of Aṅga? Will a tiger be born in the womb of a deer? If there’s anyone who disagrees with my action, then let him fight with this great hero, either climbing on a chariot or standing on the ground!” At once, a tumultuous clamour rose in the arena. A few people shouted, “Yes! Yes!” In the meantime, the sun went down and darkness engulfed the scene. Duryodhana held Karṇa’s hand and walked out of the arena, several lit torches lighting their way. Droṇa, Bhīṣma and others as well as the Pāṇḍavas returned to their homes. As the people returned home, some spoke about Arjuna, some about Karṇa, and some others about Duryodhana. Kuntī recognized as her long-lost son the youth endowed with divine features, now the king of Aṅga, and a deep affection for him arose within her. With Karṇa by his side, Duryodhana’s fear of Arjuna was assuaged.[4]

Once the Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas had attained proficiency in archery, Droṇa assembled them all together and told them that they must invade Pāñcāla, defeat Drupada, capture him in chains, and offer him to Droṇa; that indeed is the guru-dakṣiṇā he sought from them. They all agreed; taking up arms, accompanied by Droṇa, they attacked the Pāñcāla kingdom. Drupada fought back but they overpowered him; having captured him and his ministers, they went to Droṇa. To the man who had lost everything he had, his ego wounded, and thus helpless, Droṇa spoke these words of taunt: “O king! In no time, I have assumed control of your kingdom and your treasures; you have been captured alive and brought before your enemy; do you, at least now, accept our friendship?” Then with a smile, he said, “Fear not for your life; we brāhmaṇas are ever-forgiving; I ask of you that same friendship we had while we grew up together in the hermitage; I offer to you as a boon half your kingdom. Hadn’t you asked, ‘How can a king be a friend to one who is not a king?’? Therefore, I had to grant you a part of your kingdom. You be the king of the region to the south of the Bhāgīrathī and I shall be the king of the region to the north of the river Bhāgīrathī; if you agree to my terms, then consider me your friend!” At this, Drupada said, “O best of the brāhmaṇas! It is not surprising to see such behaviour in one who is courageous and noble-hearted. I am your friend; I retain my affection for you. And from you too, I expect eternal affection.” He was set free. Having attained half his former kingdom, until the river Carmaṇvatī, overcome by misery Drupada lived in the Mākandi region, on the banks of the Gaṅgā, with ten-thousand of his people, in a town called Kāmpilya. His enmity with Droṇa remained unchanged. Since Droṇa, a brāhmaṇa, had gotten the upper hand, Drupada was dejected and did not know how to defeat him; so he withheld his sorrow, anticipating the birth of a son who would vanquish Droṇa in battle.[5]

Thus, seeing that Arjuna had surpassed everyone in archery and that Bhīmasena had become supremely powerful, the evil-hearted Duryodhana’s stomach churned with jealousy. Along with Karṇa and Śakuni, he devised various plans to kill the Pāṇḍavas. The Pāṇḍavas learnt about all this. They too thought deeply about this and acted upon Vidura’s advice in all matters. By this time, all the people knew about the good qualities of the Pāṇḍavas; therefore the citizens began to speak at the town squares and in the assemblies, “Since Dhṛtarāṣṭra was born blind, even earlier, he wasn’t crowned king; how can he be a king now? As for Bhīṣma, having been bound in the cords of truth, had abandoned kingship years ago; certainly he will not go near the throne now. Therefore, we must coronate the eldest of the Pāṇḍavas, Yudhiṣṭhira, as the next king; he is young in age but matured in conduct; he always adheres to dharma and so he will always respect Bhīṣma and Dhṛtarāṣṭra; he will ensure that all the Kauravas are peaceful.”

When Duryodhana heard these words, it felt like consuming a ball of fire; thus burning with jealousy, he went to Dhṛtarāṣṭra at a time when there was nobody else. Bowing down to his father, he said, “Have you heard, father, the inauspicious words being uttered by the people? They want to make Yudhiṣṭhira the king, keeping Bhīṣma and you aside. Bhīṣma also likes this idea; so he will say that he does not wish to rule the land; and as for the people, they can’t stand us. In the past, because of his great qualities, Pāṇḍu inherited his father’s kingdom; you failed to get it on the pretext that you were bereft of those qualities. Now if Yudhiṣṭhira gets crowned king and takes charge of the kingdom after his father, in the future, it will be his son who will rule, and then his son, and so on. All of us and our children will lose all contact with the royal line and will be ignored by the world. Mahārāja! We shall forever depend on the crumbs thrown by others and our life shall become a living hell unless you quickly make some arrangements. If you had taken the reins of the kingdom in the past and firmly placed yourself on the throne, it would have reached our hands without any complications. We needn’t have fallen victim to the words of the people!”

After listening to his son’s outburst, Dhṛtarāṣṭra thought for a while and said, “Child! Pāṇḍu always adhered to dharma and was dear to me; although he respected all our relatives, he was particularly fond of me. I cannot think of an instance when he partook of his meals without first informing me; his son too, just like the father, has grown up as a firm adherent of dharma; he has earned worldwide renown as someone with a noble character; the people have been impressed by him. When such is the case, how can we say that he has no claim over the kingdom of his father and grandfather, how can we send him into exile? Further, he has sufficient wealth and allies; also, when Pāṇḍu was alive, he nourished all his ministers and soldiers as well as their families and their children’s families. Having received support from Pāṇḍu, will they not, for the sake of Yudhiṣṭhira, in league with the citizens, kill us and all our relatives?”

Duryodhana said, “Father! All that is true; I too know it. Therefore, I have offered a lot of wealth to the citizen heads and honoured them with awards, thus bringing them under my control. They are all on our side. The officers of the treasury and the ministers are all those who have joined us. Therefore, by using some scheme, as soon as possible, send the Pāṇḍavas out of the city to Vāraṇāvata; after I take control over the kingdom, let Kuntī bring her children and return!”

“Duryodhana! This is a thought that was moving about in my head as well. But since it was an act of sin, I was unable to spell it out. Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Vidura, Kṛpa – none of them would permit the eviction of the Pāṇḍavas under any circumstances. They look upon us and the Pāṇḍavas as equals. Being adherents on the path of dharma, they will not tolerate any such aberration. Such being the case, O child, how can we oppose the elders of our dynasty as well as the people of the world?” said Dhṛtarāṣṭra.

Duryodhana persisted. “Bhīṣma will always remain neutral; Aśvatthāma is on my side; Droṇa will always be on the side of his son is. If the three of them come to one side, then Kṛpa is not one to oppose his brother-in-law and nephew. And since Vidura depends on us for livelihood, we can count him as one of us; even so, heart of heart, he is with the Pāṇḍavas. Let that be; doesn’t matter; he alone cannot take the side of the Pāṇḍavas and cause us trouble. Therefore, without any fear, at once, send the Pāṇḍavas and their mother off to Vāraṇāvata. This worry is renting my heart like a ghastly spike, causing me great anguish; due to this, I am unable to sleep!”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra gave consent to Duryodhana’s words and had a few skilful ministers describe the beauty of Vāraṇāvata. In a short time from then, the festival in honour of Paśupati[6] would take place; they heaped lavish praise on the festival by saying that such a grand celebration was to be found nowhere else. That reached the ears of the Pāṇḍavas. Having ascertained that their curiosity has been pricked, Dhṛtarāṣṭra sent for Dharmarāja and said, “All these people have been constantly describing in glowing words the beauty and grandeur of Vāraṇāvata; if you desire to witness the festival that happens there, go along with your family, stay there for a few days, make merry, and return!” Realizing that it was Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s desire and that they were otherwise helpless, Yudhiṣṭhira agreed to the proposal. He went to Bhīṣma, Vidura, Droṇa, Kṛpa, Aśvatthāma, Gāndhārī, and other elders and said, “According to our uncle’s wishes, we will go to the city of Vāraṇāvata and return; you must all bless us and fare us well; with the power of your blessings, no harm will befall us. Filled with joy, they all said, “O Pāṇḍavas! May auspiciousness come your way! Have a peaceful journey without any obstacles on the way!” Having thus received their blessings, they made their way to Vāraṇāvata.

This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his thorough review and astute feedback.

Additional segments from the epic and notes by the translators have been added in the footnotes. Apart from reading through the Critical Text of the Mahābhārata, the Kannada translations of Ka Sri Nagaraj, Devashikhamani Alasingacharya, and of Bharata Darshana Publications as well as the English translations of Kisari Mohan Ganguli and Bibek Debroy have been consulted in the preparation of this series.

Footnotes

[1] Translators’ Note: The words of Karṇa, “Balaṃ dharmo’nuvartate” (Dharma follows power) – i.e. ‘Might is right,’ verily form his life-philosophy. Karṇa fails to realize that bala (strength, power, might) should be used in the service of dharma (sustainability, righteousness); instead, he ends up spending all his dharma in augmenting Duryodhana’s bala.

[2] Translators’ Note: At this point, Duryodhana also mentions, “A person born in a good family, a brave fighter, and a warrior who leads an army ‒ all three are equally eligible to be a king.”

[3] Translators’ Note: The original translates to ‘the old man held the staff as if his life depended on it.’ In a matter of just four verses, Vyāsa paints such an intricate and emotionally-rich picture of the old charioteer who celebrates the success of his son.

[4] Karṇa, who had obtained special training in archery, pleased Duryodhana with endearing words. At that point, Yudhiṣṭhira formed the opinion that there was no archer on earth who could match Karṇa.
Translators’ Note: Yudhiṣṭhira was a good judge of the strength of the enemy and he might have assessed Karṇa’s prowess on the day of the tournament. Karṇa, being a fresh graduate from Paraśurāma’s gurukula must have also been a gifted archer, but over time, with overindulgence in sensual pleasures and living within the comforts of the palace, he might have lost his high skill while on the other hand, Arjuna and his brothers were constantly honing their skills, never being in the comforts of a palace for too long. Later in the epic, we see that Karṇa is never victorious in a one-on-one combat with Arjuna.

Also, perhaps Vyāsa wanted to employ Dramatic Irony when he shows that Yudhiṣṭhira had regard for Karṇa’s abilities without knowing that he is his elder brother. Much later in the epic, when Yudhiṣṭhira finds it out from Kuntī, he begins to make connections and realizes that he intuitively had a fondness for Karṇa.

[5] Vaiśampāyana tells Janamejaya, “In this manner, Arjuna played a decisive role in the victory and offered to Droṇa the city of Ahicchatra, which was full of people.”

[6] Translators’ Note: In the original, Vāraṇāvata is mentioned as the town of Paśupati (i.e. a town that has a temple of Śiva). There is only a reference to ‘festival’ (utsava) but Prof. Krishna Shastri translates it as the ‘festival in honour of Śiva,’ which is definitely a possibility. It might have also been a secular public festival. Many places have been identified as ‘town of Paśupati,’ including Varanasi; however, it is likely that Vāraṇāvata was a town on the banks of the Gaṅgā before it meets Yamunā at Prayag. It must have been a town near Hastināpura and Kāmpilya.

Series Navigation << Mahābhārata – Episode 4 – Test of Skill of the Kuru PrincesMahābhārata – Episode 6 – Pāṇḍavas in Vāraṇāvata >>
A R Krishna Sastri Karna Mahābhārata – Episode 5 – Enter Karṇa ark

A R Krishna Sastri

Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His 'Vacana-bhārata' and 'Kathāmṛta' are classics of Kannada literature while his 'Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka' and 'Bankimacandra' are of unrivalled scholarship.
A R Krishna Sastri Karna Mahābhārata – Episode 5 – Enter Karṇa ark