Pain, fortitude and Sacrifice in Tagore’s ‘Karna-Kunti Samvad’
Abstract- Indian Epic, the Mahabharata is a collection of fascinating stories and episodes. It has been inspiring creative writings in many languages for centuries and Tagore’s pen also did not remain untouched.
Karna’s life in the epic had fascinated many. Kunti’s attempt of wooing Karna to change his side from the Kaurvavas to the Pandavas just on the threshold of the war is one of the dramatic episodes in the epic. This episode is recreated by Tagore in his poem ‘Karna-Kunti Samvad’ (A dialogue between Karna and Kunti). The poem is translated from Bengali to English by Ketaki Kushari Dyson.
This paper will highlight the pain, fortitude and sacrifice of Karna as depicted in the poem. Kunti offered him a respectable royal position as the eldest Pandavas in addition to her affection as mother. But Karna rejected all and struck to his notion of Dharma.
Karna was aware that it is the Pandavas who will win the war, but he opted to fight along with the looser. He struggled throughout his life for the glory and status. When everything was offered to him, it came in conflict with his notion of Dharma. Instead of changing sides and living a comfortable life, he opted to meet his doomed destiny with fortitude and courage. But probably his sacrifice had earned him far greater fame in addition to the satisfaction of living life on his own terms.
Key words- Episode, Dramatic, Sacrifice, Dharma, Temptations.
The poem opens with a monologue of Karna, which appears like a self-introduction. He says,
“On the sacred Janhavi’s shore I say my prayers to the evening sun. Karna is my name, son of Adhirath, the charioteer, and Radha is my mother”
Through this introductory sentence, the poet seems to be highlighting the different aspects of Karna’s personality. The first sentence itself emphasizes on Karna’s Nobel, spiritual, divine aspects. He says I am praying on the sacred Janhavi’s shore. River Ganga, close to its source, when it descends from the Himalayas is called Janhavi. As the youth is impetuous and fast, the river Janhavi is also fast, slim and turbulent when it descends from the Himalayas. Immediately after this monologue Kunti comes. Tagore seems to be drawing a parallel between the youthful, impetuous and turbulent Janahavi on the one hand and impetuous young Kunti on the other hand, as she was when she gave birth to Karna and abandoned him.
After this in the next sentences Karna says that he is a son of Adhiratha, the charioteer and Radha. Immediately after this he addresses Kunti. This is a deliberate poetic technique to bring out a contrast, between his belief that he is the son of a common charioteer and reality of his noble birth.
When he sees a lady, he asks who she is. Kunti says that it was she who had introduced him to this wide world and today she came to him casting away all embracement.
Karna feels strangely pulled towards the lady and says that the light of her lowered eyes melts his heart as the sun rays melt mountain snow. Her voice feels like a voice from a previous birth and stirs strange pain. He asks how his birth is linked to her. Here Kunti like a doting mother says,
“..Be patient child…..let the sun god first slide to his rest and let evening’s darkness thicken around us”
Kunti’s statement to allow Sun-God to slide to rest before she divulges her secret is like as if she is afraid to speak about the secret when sun is still there lingering on the horizon. Because it was the Sun god who was also a party to her secret pre-marital forbidden adventure!
She now revels that she is Kunti. Karna exclaims,
“You are Kunti! The mother of Arjuna!”
Kunti says yes, she is the mother of Arjuna, But Karna should not hate her for that. Then she recollects the day of tournament. She says when Karna entered in the arena shining like a sun and she felt tortured. She gave him blessings with her eyes only. She says her bosom burst like a fire when Karna was insulted and was asked his father’s name. Kunti also praises Duryodhana for coming forward and crowning Karna as a king of Anga.
Karna now asks why she came there, in the field of battle! She says she came to beg a favor from him and he should not turn her away. Karna had a reputation of being a great donor, a “data”. He asks what she desires. And Kunti say she came to take him away. When Karna asks where will she take him? She says to her thirsty bosom and to her maternal lap. In spite of this Tagore’s Karna do not understand. He says that she is a lucky woman blessed with five sons and he is just a petty princeling, without pedigree and where she would find room for him? Kunti says that she will put him right at the top. Above all her sons as he is the eldest. Here Karna’s nobility began to surface. He says,
“By what right would I enter that sanctum?”
He further adds that the Pandavas are already cheated of empire and how he could take away the portion of mother’s love. A mother’s love is a divine gift. It cannot be gambled away, nor be defeated by force. Kunti says that it was by divine right that he came to her lap and by the same right he should return again to take place amongst his brothers.
Karna touched by the appeal of Kunti tells her that she had whisked him off to some enchanted world, some forgotten home; her words have touched his heart. He feels that obscurity of mother’s womb is encircling him today. He says that indeed he had heard that he had been abandoned by his natural mother and often he had dreamed about his natural mother. In the dream he saw slowly, softly his mother had come to see him. He beseeched her to remove her veil and let him see her face and at once the figure vanished tearing apart his dreams. That very dream has come today in the guise of the Pandava’s mother, on the battlefield on the bank of Bhagirathi.
Now with revocation of this dream, the dilemma also surfaces. He says tomorrow morning a great battle will begin, the horses stamps their hooves in anticipation of the battle and why tonight he had to hear his own mother’s voice from the throat of Arjuna’s mother. His name rings in her mouth with such exquisite music that suddenly his heart rushes towards the five Pandavas, calling them brothers.
Now as Karna accepts that his heart is rushing towards his brothers and mother. Kunti says assertively,
“Then come on, son, come along with me”
And Karna responds like a small child who is dependent on his mother,
“Yes mother, I will go with you. I won’t ask questions……
Without a doubt, without a worry, I’ll go.
Lady you are my mother! And your call has awakened my soul….no longer can I hear the drums of battle……”
He further adds that victory and defeat, hero’s fate and violence of war all seems false now. He says,
“Take me. Where should I go?”
Kunti tells her that he should come with her on the other bank to the Pandava’s camp.
Karna responds that there a motherless son shall find his mother forever. He seems to be craving more and more for mother’s love, which he had suddenly found. He says,
“One more time say I am your son”
Kunti calls him again “My son”
Here now the resentment that Karna had for his natural mother for discarding him begins to surface. He now asks her,
“Then why did you discard me so ingloriously?”
He says he had no family honour, no mother’s eyes to watch him. She abandoned him to the mercy of this blind, unknown world? He now throws volley of questions at her. Like why did she allow him to flow on the current of contempt? Banishing him for his brothers? He says that she had put a distance between Arjuna and him and since childhood a subtle invisible bond of bitter enmity pulls them to each other. Kunti feels obviously embarrassed at his questions. Karna rescues her by saying that she may choose not to answer his question. But she should tell him why she came to take him back again. But Kunti responds to Karna’s questions. Seeking redemption for her grave sin of discarding an infant! She says,
“Child, let your reprimands, like a hundred thunderclaps rend this heart of mine into a hundred pieces”
She says that as she had casted him aside, it is a curse that hounds her. Her heart is childless even with five dear sons. She had committed a hundred crimes by discarding him, who had not even uttered a word and now she asks him to forgive her and let that forgiveness burn fiercer than any rebukes within her breast. Forgiveness burning fiercer than rebukes is a very noble thought and highlights the tenderness of relation between mother and son. She further says that his burning forgiveness will reduce her sins to ashes and make her pure.
Karna is melted by reaction. He says,
“O mother, give-give me the dust of your feet and take my tears!”
Kunti now reveals the purpose for which she came to him. She says, she did not come simply to clutch him to her breast, but to take him back where he by right belongs. She says that he is not a charioteer’s son, but of royal birth and he should cast aside the insults that have been his lot and came where his brothers are.
But now Karna seems to be recovering from the emotional frenzy that had seized him. Addressing Kunti as mother, he says he is a charioteer’s son and Radha is his mother. That is most glorious identity. He does not have any other identity glorious than this. He says,
“Let the Pandavas be Pandavas, the Kauravas, Kauravas- I envy nobody”
With initial emotional fever cooling down, Kunti now appears more balanced. She says to Karna that with the strength of his arms he should recover the kingdom that is his own. She now presents a very ideal picture of family felicity and brotherhood. She says as Karna is the eldest, he will be the king and sit on the jeweled throne. Judisthir will cool him by white fan, Bhim will hold umbrella for him and Arjun will drive his chariot.
But Karna refuses to get carried away. He tells Kunti rather sarcastically,
“To one who’s just refused the maternal bond are you offering, mother assurance of a kingdom?”
He now reproaches her and says,
“The riches from which you once disinherited me cannot be returned- it’s beyond your powers”
He accuses her of tearing him away from mother, brothers and royal family all at one go.
But now if he discards his foster mother and accepts his royal mother, it will be a cheating. He says fie on him, if he snaps the tie that binds him to the lord of the Kuru clan, and lust after a royal throne.
Kunti though failed in her mission, appreciates his heroism. She now enters into a monologue and says that how stern the justice of Dharma is. She says that how a tiny, helpless child, who was forsaken by her, had got hero’s powers and returned to hurl weapons at his brothers. What kind of curse it is!
Karna now reassures her, and tells her not to be afraid. He predicts that it is the Pandavas who will win. He says that on the panel of the night’s gloom, he can clearly read before his eyes the divine results of war. He implores her not to ask him to abandon the side that is going to lose,
“Let Pandu’s children win, and become kings, let me stay with the losers, those whose hopes will be dashed”
His utterance acquires an emotional overtone. He says,
“The night of my birth you left me upon the earth;
Nameless, homeless. In the same way today be ruthless, mother and just abandon me”
He asks her to leave him to his defeat; infamous and lusterless. He only asks for the blessings that greed for victory, fame or kingdom never deflect him from hero’s path and salvation.
Karna as a tragic hero had fascinated the mind of people for centuries. He struggled for glory throughout his life. He rejected the offer of becoming the eldest of the Pandavas and becoming an emperor but embraced the death. The death which was more glorious than living the stigmatized life of being disloyal! In the war that comes immediately after this, Karna fights valiantly. But he fights with the awareness that he is fighting against his own younger brothers and the Pandavas fights against him perceiving him as their enemy.
Throughout the narration of the epic, it seems that Karna’s destiny is doomed in spite of his heroism. He is abandoned at birth, cursed by his preceptor Parshurama and the Brahmin, whose cow was accidently killed by him. Indra, the divine father of Arjuna also takes away his natural armor. Krishna and Kunti reduces the sting of his strike by reveling that he is attacking his brothers. Karna was indebted to Duryodhana and finally opted to make a supreme sacrifice for him.
1. The poem (English translation) is available on www.parabaas.com/translation/database/translation/poems/RT_karnakunti.html.