Kṛṣṇa paid his salutations to Kuntī and informed her of everything that transpired in the Kuru court. “I’ll take leave of you, dear aunt. I need to get back to the Pāṇḍavas as soon as possible. What shall I tell them?” he asked her.
Kuntī communicated her advice to her children through Kṛṣṇa – “Tell Dharmarāja that he should never give up the kṣatriya-dharma. The path you are treading upon currently is not something that your forefathers took to and it is not of their liking either. Fight the war as per the rāja-dharma, the duty of the kings. Don’t push your ancestors to an inferior path and don’t lose your puṇya by performing lowly deeds. Remember that your mother is stretching her empty arms before others for a morsel of rice and your wife was humiliated publicly in the Kuru court. Tell them the story of Sañjaya who was sleeping as he was scared of the enemy and was woken up by his mother Vidulā. Tell them that I am fine here. Protect the children. May your journey be safe and comfortable.”
Kṛṣṇa bowed down to Kuntī once again and left the place majestically, like a lion. He bid farewell to Bhīṣma and other older Kauravas who had assembled there to see him off. He bade Karṇa to sit in his chariot and left the place. Once they were beyond the frontiers of the city, he spoke to Karṇa.
“Karṇa! You have served the brāhmaṇas who are well-versed in the Vedas and you have learnt its essence from them. You know the intricacies of dharma-śāstras too. Thus, you know that a child born to a lady before her marriage is as good as the son of the person she marries. This is sanctioned by the dharma-śāstras. Pre-marital children, i.e., kānīnas and sahoḍhas are legally the children of the person who their mother marries. You were born as a kānīna and with Kuntī’s marriage to Pāṇḍu, you are his son and a brother of the Pāṇḍavas now. You are older to the Pāṇḍavas and thus, you are the rightful heir. The Pāṇḍavas are your brothers from your father’s side and the Vṛṣṇis are your brothers from your mother’s side. Come with me now! The Pāṇḍavas will respect you as their elder brother. The sons of Draupadī and Subadhrā and all the allies of Pāṇḍavas will work for you. In due time, Draupadī will consider you as her sixth husband. I will coronate you as the king. Yudhiṣṭira will be the crown-prince. The Pāṇḍavas, Vṛṣṇis, and Pāñcālas will be your followers. You will shine like the moon amidst the stars in the night sky. This will delight your mother and those who favour the Kuru rule!”
Sūrya had met Karṇa in the past and had revealed to him that he was Karṇa’s father and Kuntī was his mother. He had also warned Karṇa that Indra, out of his love for his son Arjuna would seek the kavaca (armour) and kuṇḍala (earrings) which had naturally come to Karṇa since birth. He knew who his biological parents were and he told Kṛṣṇa, “Yes! I know my identity! Kuntī left me just after I was born. She subjected me to great danger by doing so. As soon as Adiratha, a charioteer, picked me up, milk burst out of his wife’s breasts, out of her motherly affection for me. She has taken care of me since my childhood. I have been hearing about the dharma-śāstras since long and I know what dharma is. Isn’t it only right on my part to perform her last rites with affection and devotion? Adiratha treated me like his own son. I always believed him to be my father. His affection towards me was so intense that he got jātakarma and other rites performed through brāhmaṇas. He got me married during my youth. I have begotten children through my wife and I have grandchildren too. I have great love and concern for them. Even if the entire world is offered to me, I will never lie, Govinda! I have taken refuge in Duryodhana and he has taken good care of me. I have experienced royal luxuries all these years and have known the pleasures of ruling a kingdom. We have developed marital relationship with the sūtas. Duryodhana has decided to wage a war, keeping me in his mind as the biggest support. I will need to face Arjuna in a one-on-one combat. If not, it will bring ill-fame to both Arjuna and me. I'm sure you are speaking for my well-being and the Pāṇḍavas will listen to your advice too. If Dharmarāja gets to know that I am Kuntī’s older son, he won’t part with the kingdom. I will give away the kingdom to Duryodhana, if I get any of it. Therefore, let Yudhiṣṭhira be a stable and morally upright king for the Kurus. He can work under your guidance. Arjuna and Bhīma will fight along his side. You know that there is going to be a yajña of the śastras (weapons) in the near future. It will end with Bhīma killing Duryodhana. The tears that flow out of the eyes of Gāndhārī and other women will be the avabhṛta-snāna after the yajña. May the aged and wise kṣatriyas not meet with an ordinary death. Let them fight the war and reach the glorious heavens. You may direct the war as you wish. Make sure Arjuna fights with me in the war. Please keep this conversation confidential!”
Kṛṣṇa heard the Karṇa’s words and said with a smile, “Don’t you have the desire of possessing the kingdom, Karṇa? Don’t you wish to rule the land I am going to let you have? Never mind then. There is no doubt that the Pāṇḍavas will be victorious. You will face Arjuna soon. Go back to Droṇa, Bhīṣma, and Kṛpa and tell them – 'This month is pleasant. We can procure firewood and twigs easily. The trees are full of ripe fruits and fragrant flowers. There is fresh water available all around. Flies and other parasites are less in this season. The waters are not polluted and the weather is neither too hot nor too cloud. New moon day is seven days away from now. We can start the war on the new moon day!' Tell them this. Duryodhana and his associates will die with weapons piercing them and I hope they will have a pleasant journey in the afterlife!”
Karṇa said, “I know what is going to happen, Kṛṣṇa. Of late, Duryodhana is tormented by several bad dreams and omens. This great war might eliminate us all. We are not sure if we will see each other again. We will, perhaps, meet in the heavens!” He embraced Kṛṣṇa, got off his chariot, and climbed up his own. He headed back towards the city with a heavy heart.
Kṛṣṇa and Sātyaki headed back at great speed. He kept motivating the charioteer to drive faster.
After Kṛṣṇa left without any success in his attempts of fostering a peaceful relation between the warring factions, Kuntī sat down worried. She told herself, “Oh, this painful war! Relatives are going to kill each other. What is the use of a victory that comes by killing one’s own kinsmen? I'm very scared of Bhīṣma, Droṇa, and Karṇa. Bhīṣma has a lot of love for the Pāṇḍavas and they are the affectionate students of Droṇa. Their hearts won’t let them harm the Pāṇḍavas. Karṇa alone is going to pierce my heart. Let me try meeting him and convince him to join the Pāṇḍavas!” She went to the shores of Ganga with this in mind. There, Karṇa was standing with his arms raised, and chanting mantras under his breath. Kuntī, who had gone there for achieving a specific goal had covered her face to keep away the sun. She looked like a garland of lotus that was fading away. She waited behind Karṇa for him to finish his recitation. Karṇa finished his ritual by noon and looked back. He folded his arms before Kuntī and said, “Here, the son of Rādhā and Adhiratha bows down to you. Why have you come, O mother? What do you want from me?”
Kuntī – Karṇa! You are a kaunteya and not a rādheya. Adhiratha is not your father. You were born in my womb before my marriage. You are a kānīna. Sūryadeva is your father. You don’t know who your real brothers are. You are innocently serving the Kauravas. You will get to enjoy the kingdom that is now under the control of the Kauravas, which was actually won over by Arjuna. Let the Kauravas see Karṇa and Arjuna being friends with each other. There is nothing impossible in the world if you join hands with each other. It is the duty of the children to keep their parents happy!
Karṇa – O Mother! You are a kṣatriya lady and I believe your words. Acting as per your wish might be dharma in one sense too. You left me away when I was a child and made me get bad reputation. Though I was born as a kṣatriya, I did not get any of the samskāras that a kṣatriya is supposed to get. What can be more injustice than this? Which other enemy can do me more harm than this. You did not have any compassion for me when you were supposed to have. You hardly behaved like a mother in my case. Now, you came out of your selfish desire and are begging me! If I now join hands with the Pāṇḍavas, everyone is going to think that I did so out of fear of losing to them. A person who has never spoken about brotherhood or filial relationship will look foolish, if he starts speaking of it when war is knocking at our doors. People will consider me a coward, who is scared of defeat. The Kauravas have taken good care of me, given me immense wealth and affection. Should I put all their effort in vain? They are confident that I might even give up my life but will bring them victory; should I disappoint them? It is now time for Duryodhana’s aides to give up their life without looking back. That will prove their loyalty to their leader. A person who leaves their master who has fed them all along, especially when the times are crucial and demanding, will meet with ill fate here and hereafter. Thus, I will fight for Duryodhana and I will put in the best of my efforts to defeat your children in the war. However, I will make sure that your coming to me does not go in vain. I shall not kill Yudhiṣṭira, Bhīma, Nakula, and Sahadeva. I will certainly need to face Arjuna one on one. If I kill him when such an occasion arises, my efforts will be fruitful. If he kills me, I will get the glory of having valiantly fought him. In either case, you will still be left with five children!”
Kuntī was trembling with sorrow as Karṇa spoke with a tone of finality. She embraced her son who was standing still, without any reactions and said, “Karṇa! So be it! The Kauravas are going to get destroyed! What can be done about this? Fate is very strong! Please don’t forget that you have promised to keep four of your brothers safe. Please don’t forget it once you enter the battlefield! Best wishes to you!” Karṇa paid his salutations to her. Both left on their paths.
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.