Discourses from the Mahabharata:
The Dialogue of Karna and Kunti
- Rabindranath Tagore
[from Rabindranath Tagore's Bengali original, Karna-Kunti Sambad]
- Rabindranath Tagore
Translation ©Monish R Chatterjee (2019)
[The eldest of the Pandavas, the valiant warrior Karna (abandoned at birth up river by his mother, Kunti, Queen of the Pandava clan), has a clandestine meeting with Kunti by the shore of the Ganges on the eve of the epic battle in which he has joined ranks with the Kauravas, the avowed rivals of the Pandavas]
Ka. In the fading light at sunset by the shore of the sacred Jahnavi
Am I engaged in devotions. Karna, the Suta-Putra, verily
Mine identity, else known also as Radheya. Pray tell me,
Who might you be, venerable Mother?
Ku. Blessed son, on the very first dawn of your life
Have I presented you to the living world-
This day, abandoning all dishonor and disgrace
Have I arrived here to reveal to you my identity.
Ka. Devi- the kindly rays from your downcast eyes
Melt the very core of my heart, as do the snow-capped
Mountaintops when touched by the sun's rays. Your voice,
Mother, stirs the pain of longing in my ears, as though
Arrived from a preceding birth. Tell me, in what threads
Of mystery is my birth bound to you, O mysterious one!
Ku. Be patient
But for a moment, dear. Wait until the Deva Divakara
Sinks in the western sea. Let the darkness of dusk
Grow deeper. Meanwhile, know this, O valiant one-
I am Kunti.
Ka. You are Kunti- Mother of Arjuna!
Ku. Arjuna's Mother, indeed! Judging thus, bear no envy
Dear child. I remember yet, on that day of the Weapons
Skills Test, in the royal city of Hastinanagar
Quietly you arrived at the theater, radiating youthful
Valor- like the newly risen sun illuminating
The star-studded East. Of all the women out of sight,
There was one luckless and mute, awakening a thousand
Cobras of hunger in her heart, with her gaze smothered
You all over with blessed kisses. Arjuna's Mother, 'twas!
And when Kripa arrived and asked you to name your
Father, then spoke he with a smile- "He that is born not
Of royal heritage, is qualified not to take on Arjuna
In battle!" Your countenance reddened as your gaze was
Downcast- humiliated, you stood there speechless; that
Shame lit a conflagration inside one heart, the doomed
Heart of Arjuna's Mother 'twas. Duryodhana, bless his
Heart, anointed you then King of Anga Rajya. Tears of joy
Flowed from mine eyes, intended as sacred ablution
At your coronation. Just then, there arrived at the royal
Theater, Adhiratha the Suta, overcome by elation.
And, clad in royal vestments, before the assembled onlookers
Your head wet from the sacred water you planted in
Reverence at his feet, hailing him as Father. The Pandava
Allies, then, collectively broke into derisive laughter, and
Heaped scorn upon Father and son. On that day, her heart
Brimming with pride, the lone woman who hailed you as a
Valiant Warrior, and heaped blessings upon you, O Heroic
One- it was I, Mother of Arjuna!
Ka. Offer I pranams to you, noble Arye! Mother of Kings, why
Are you here, alone? Know you not, this is a battlefield
And I, commander of the Kuru army?
Ku. Son- I arrive hither with a plea-
Grant that I return not unfulfilled.
Ka. A plea- unto me, indeed? Beside my manhood or
The dictates of dharma, I shall lay at your feet
Anything you command.
Ku. My plea is to take you back with me.
Ka. Where do you wish to take me, Mother?
Ku. Unto my parched bosom, a Mother's lap.
Ka. You are Mother to five valiant sons, O Blessed One-
I am but a meager potentate devoid of pedigree
Where would you place me in your domain?
Ku. At the very pinnacle of my household, my son
Your place shall be above all my sons
You are, after all, the eldest, my first-born.
Ka. With what drunken right shall I enter that sacred precinct?
The brothers deprived of their rightful ascension
To the helm of Empire- how could I possibly claim
Even a portion of their right to the sweet nectar
Of their Mother's love, pray tell me? Love that sells not
In a chess game, no matter the wager; the mightiest arms
May not wrest the Mother's heart away from her children.
That love is the gift of Destiny.
Ku. Son, dearest- as Destiny's child you had arrived unto
My lap, endowed with the rights of a son. Come back
Dearest, to reclaim that right; come back, have no fear-
Take your rightful place among your brothers; return, dear
To your Mother's lap.
Ka. Your words, Devi, sound in these ears as though in a dream.
Behold- darkness has descended everywhere, nothing is
Visible nigh the soundless Bhagirathi. You have transported
Me back to a realm of Maya, a distant refuge at the dawn of
My consciousness. Your words, like the deepest truth from
My past, alight upon my admiring heart. I feel as though
My earliest, unrevealed childhood is arrived here, and
The darkness inside my Mother's womb surrounds me.
Mother of Kings- be it true, be it a dream, pray extend your
Right hand, place it upon mine temple and chin. Growing
Up, I was told my Mother abandoned me. Often at night
In my sleep I have beheld my Mother walking in silent steps
Arrived to see her son. Reeling from unbearable agony, I have
Cried out, "Mother, remove your veil so I might see you."
Instantly vanishes the dream every time, shattering the last
Vestige of thirst and eagerness. Is it that dream of mine
Arrived here today guised as the Mother of the Pandavas
In the darkness past dusk, at the battlefield by the Bhagirathi?
Behold, Devi, the lamps are lit in the Pandava encampment
Across the river. On this shore, near the Kaurava garrison
We hear the clip-clop of battle-ready horses' hooves.
At dawn on the morrow the great battle shall commence.
Why tonight, then, did I hear my Mother's voice in the words
Of Arjuna's Mother? Why did my name ring like the sweetest
Music- and my heart rush to the Pandavas five to embrace
Them as brothers?
Ku: Then come away with me, my child. Come with me.
Ka: I shall come, Mother, I shall not ask anything-
Shall suffer no apprehension, nor any doubt.
Devi, you are my Mother! Your call has awakened my soul-
I hear not the bugles of war, nor the triumphal blowing
Of the conch. Futile, it seems, the violent warlike
Exertions, the illusions of valor, victories and losses.
Take me, Mother, wherever you will.
Ku: Come with me there, where the lamp is lit upon
The silence of the impenetrable darkness, there by the sandy
Shore of the Pandava encampment.
Ka: There forever, the motherless shall find his Mother-
There your generous and beautiful eyes shall behold
All night long Dhruva, the Pole Star, hold vigil
In the skies. Pray tell me again, Mother, I am your son!
Ku: My dear son!
Ka: Why then did you cast me away so ignominiously-
Bereft of identity, lineage, honor, the mother's kindly
Eyes, utterly sightless in this foreboding world? Why
Did you abandon me, and leave me adrift in the currents
Of neglect my entire life? Why banish me from the company
Of my brothers? Why oh why did you keep Arjuna and me
Separated- and thence from childhood an unseen bond
Of hatred and envy has tugged upon the twain like a fatal
Attraction. Why Mother, why silent now? Your shame
I know pierces the darkness and quietly wraps around me
Until I close my eyes. Fine, Mother, you need not tell me
Why it was you had abandoned me. The most primal gift
Of fate upon the newborn, the gift of a Mother's love, why
It is that you stole that divine gift from this child- bother
Not to answer. But do tell me, then, why on this day
Have you arrived here to claim me for the Mother's lap?
Ku: My son- may your rebuke, like a hundred thunderbolts
Shatter this heart of mine into a hundred pieces. One day
I had indeed abandoned you- the curse from that misdeed
Despite the blessing of five royal sons, has made me
Feel bereft of a son! Yet these arms of mine remain
Out-stretched, looking for you everywhere in this world.
In penance for my deprived son, this heart of mine lights
A flaming lamp to burn itself in that fiery offering
To the divine. Destiny has blessed me today, hence I have
Had the fortune to behold you. Then, when the very first
Word had not escaped from your lips, had I committed
A grievous offense; my child, with those very lips, deliver
I pray, words of forgiveness for your aberrant Mother. May
Those words of forgiveness light in my heart a fire burning
Hotter than words of rebuke, and burning my soul, thereby
Ka: Mother- anoint me with the dust off your feet, the dust
Off your feet- accept the offering of my tears.
Ku: That I shall receive you unto my eager arms, son, I had not
Any pleasurable delusion of the kind. I have arrived
Instead, to take you back to your rightful place. Suta-Putra
You are not, you were born of royal lineage. Cast aside
O Blessed one, every vestige of derision, and come with me
To the company of your five brothers.
Ka: The throne, Mother? To him who spurns the bond of
A Mother's sheltering embrace, to him would you promise
The assurance of Kingdom? The greatest wealth you once
Denied this hapless son of yours, Mother, restoring to him
That inheritance is beyond your ability. Mother, brothers
Even my royal lineage, Mother, you obliterated all in an
Instant at the dawn of my birth. If I should deceive today
My Suta Mother and recognize instead my Mother
The Queen; breaking my pledge to the Kuru general if I
Should rush to ascend a throne- shame, shame on me!
Ku: Blessed and heroic are you, my son! Alas, Dharma, such
Is your brutal retribution. Who would have known then
The helpless infant I abandoned once, should acquire
Unmatched valor and skill and return one day through
The darkness, and with his heartless sword strike with
Utmost determination his own Mother's sons. Such is
The curse of fate!
Ka: Mother, fear not!
Mark my word- the Pandavas shall win. Upon the vast
Canvas of the firmament in starlight I beheld writ tonight
The outcome of this war. In the absolute quiet
Of the moment descends from the endless sky the music
Of striving futile, of enterprise without hope- I foresee
Laid out before me the silence of vanquished fate. Ask me
Not to abandon my brethren in battle who are destined
To lose. May the Pandavas win, may they enthrone their
Sovereign. My place shall be with the futile and hopeless.
On the night I was born you abandoned me upon this earth
Nameless, homeless- I beg you, Mother, abandon me
Likewise this day, abandon me to ignoble, unremarkable
Vanquishment. Leave me, Mother, with only this blessing
May I never, for the lure of fortune or fame, ever be deflected
From the righteous path of the valiant.
Jahnavi, Bhagirathi- other names for the Ganges.
Suta-Putra- son of a charioteer, lesser in station than a Brahmin or a Kshatriya.
Adhiratha- charioteer by profession; adoptive father of Karna.
Radheya- of Radha, Karna's adoptive mother.
Deva Divakara- the Sun-god; literally, the day-maker.
Hastinanagar- the capital city of the Pandava clan.
Kripa- short for Kripacharya, one of the Kuru warriors.
Duryodhana- the eldest of the Kaurava brothers.