Mahābhārata – Episode 100 – Indomitable Karma

This article is part 100 of 112 in the series Mahābhārata

Although Bhīṣma spoke many such words of peace and solace, Dharmarāja’s heart would not find peace; he would not be consoled. He lamented with the words – “Having done the most heinous of crimes with my own hands how will I now get peace just by wishing for it? When I look at your body, pierced with arrows, and blood oozing out from myriad wounds, my mind doesn’t have a moment of peace. It is because of me that you are consigned to this fate; it is because of me that several kings and their children and relatives – all died on the battlefield; when I ponder upon this, just the thought is sufficient to evoke torrents of sorrow from my heart. Owing to our anger on Duryodhana and our desire for kingdom, we did this henious crime; what sort of horrible afterlife awaits us! Fortunate is Duryodhana, who didn’t see you in this state! We are the wretched ones!”

Bhīṣma spoke these words of solace –

What is your effort in all this Yudhiṣṭhira? The reason for all this is karma; it is not seen by the eyes; it is subtle; in this context I shall narrate a story. Listen. Long ago there like a lady named Gautami. She was aged and had a peaceful temperament. One day, her son was bitten by a snake and he died. A hunter caught that snake, tied it with ropes, and brought it to the lady. He said, “O Mother! This wretched snake is the one that bit your son. Tell me what I should do with this. Shall I put it in a fire? Shall I chop it into pieces? Tell me at once; I hate to keep alive this snake for long – this snake which killed your son!”

Gautami said, “Sir, don’t mindlessly kill that snake; let it go. Without accepting and experiencing what comes one’s way, brooding over it and in the process ending up doing an unworthy act – who would want to bear that burden all one’s life? By adhering to dharma, one floats like a boat; the acts of the wicked are heavy and will sink like weapons. If I kill this snake, will my son attain immortality and regain his life? In this expansive, wide world, who knows how death comes to a certain being?”

The hunter replied, “I know this; if a person who knows good and bad, do-s and don’t-s undertakes an activity upon the words of another, that doesn’t amount to pāpa. Your advice is indeed worthy of taking one to higher realms; let that be – now, I shall kill this snake! Those who desire peace and reconciliation let go of thoughts like What will happen in the future? and find a way to rid their day to day sorrows. For one who is constantly crying, where is peace and where is comfort? Therefore, kill the snake and cleanse your sorrow!

Gautami said, “People like us don’t have such mental distress; noble people are always possessed of an intellect that adheres to dharma! I have been through a great deal of pain and difficulty; I’m not a young girl who doesn’t understand; I cannot get attached to this adharma. Brāhmaṇas are ideally free of anger. Such behaviour will only lead to trouble and so, with a good heart, leave that snake alone!”

“It is always a good thing to kill your enemies! Further, the reward that we get now is far greater than the reward we will get sometime in the distant future. And for such a small thing, the sort of goodness that will come at the end is hardly of consequence!” said the hunter.

“After the enemy has been captured and taken under control, what’s the point in killing him? If we let him go, what do we lose? Therefore, why shouldn’t I forgive this snake?”

“You must kill this one snake and save many other lives and not release this one snake and put many other lives in danger. The wrong-doers are abandoned by those with intellects adhering to dharma; similarly, let this wicked creature die and stop worrying about it.”

“O hunter! By killing this snake, my son will not regain his life. I see no other benefit from it. Therefore, let that animal go.”

In this manner, Gautami didn’t desire to kill the snake. In the meantime, the snake caught its breath and said, “O hunter! What is my fault in all this? Am I entirely independent? Death instigated me; I bit him; I didn’t bite him because of desire or due to anger. Therefore, if any pāpa comes out of it, that must be attributed to Death, not to me!”

The hunter said, “If you are working under someone and undertake an activity, you too become responsible for the activity; therefore, you too are have a share in the pāpa.”

At that point, Death came there and said, “O snake! I was instigated by Time and therefore I instigated you. The entire universe is subservient to Time; whatever we do, whatever we give up – all this is because of Time. Sun and moon, wind and water, earth and sky, rivers and oceans – all these are born and they die, being subservient to Time. This being the case, how can you accuse me of making a mistake? If I am a wrongdoer, so are you!”

The snake said, “O Death! I am not accusing you of making a mistake or even judging you; all I’m saying is that you instigated me. Whether or not Time has made a mistake, how does it matter to me? It’s enough if I get free from this wrongdoing; it’s even more convenient if you too have not erred of your own accord.

Time made an appearance there and addressed Death, the snake, and the hunter. It said, “The reason for this boy’s death is neither me nor you. The karma that he did was responsible for his death. We are all subservient to karma. It is indeed karma that instigates us all. And we in turn instigate one another. Just like light and shadow are stuck together, karma and the doer of karma are attached. Therefore, none of us are the cause for this; it is the dead boy alone who is responsible!”

Listening to this, Gautami said, “My son died because of my karma and his karma. O hunter! Let that snake go. Time, Death – you please carry on!” All of them went on their way. Therefore, don’t whine and brood; bring some peace and reconciliation in your heart. All these kings who died in the battlefield – they died neither due to your karma nor due to Duryodhana’s karma. They perished in adherence to their own karmas.

Yudhiṣṭhira asked, “Of vidyā, tapas, and dāna, which is the greatest?”

Bhīṣma replied (alluding to the conversation between Vyāsa and Maitreya), “Freedom from treachery, dāna, satya – these three are said to be the means to attain the highest realms. There is no doubt that dāna is the greatest among these. Indeed, those endowed with erudition, great efforts, and philanthropy are all worthy to be worshipped. Indeed they all find a comfortable existence both here and hereafter. However, those noble ones who offer food in charity (anna-dāna) and perform other such philanthropic activities gain respect and renown in the world. Indeed, the gift of food is equal to the gift of life. Indeed dāna is no less in greatness when compared to study and recitation of the Vedas, victory over the senses, and complete detachment.

[The Anuśāsana-parva contains details about several types of dāna and their appropriate and inappropriate times, the worthy and unworthy recepients, etc. It also contains a great deal of information about varṇāśrama-dharmas, the methoding of conducting śrāddhā, and many other aspects of dharma-śāstra. It also has the famous Viṣṇu-sahasra-nāma, Śiva-sahasra-nāma, and other verses of praise. All these details have been omitted in this rendition.]

To be continued…

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.

The original Kannada version of Vacanabhārata is available for free online reading here. To read other works of Prof. Krishna Shastri, click here.



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.



Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh


Hari is a writer, translator, editor, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, education pedagogy design, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited 25+ books, mostly related to Indian culture and philosophy. He serves on the advisory board of a few educational institutions.

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