The Birth of Karna

Kunti, the wife of Pandu and the mother of five Pandavas, has been projected as one of the most tragic characters in Mahabharata. She was married to an arguably impotent king and in no time was put to competition against her husband’s second wife. Being the wife of a king, she spent a considerable part of her life in the forest, first with her husband and then twice with her sons (each phase consisted of several years). Yet, the biggest of all tragedies that she probably faced was seeing her eldest son die at the hands of her fourth son in the Kurukshetra war. What made it worse was that all her life she couldn’t give her eldest son the love of a mother and the care that was his right.¬†This son, of course, was Karna.

Kunti’s original name was Pritha and she was the daughter of Shurasena. Biologically, she belonged to the Yadava clan. However, she was adopted by Shurasena’s friend, Kuntibhoja and he renamed her Kunti. She led a life of princesses at the palace of Kuntibhoja. Those were probably the only years of her without misery.

Once Rishi Durvasa, the sage known for temper as short as the name of Ram Gopal Varma’s ‘superhit’ movie “D”, an expert at pronouncing curses, visited the kingdom of Kuntibhoja. People were so scared of crossing his path that they weren’t sure what would anger the sage that would make him pronounce a curse that will ruin their lives forever. I have never been able to understand why this person was honoured and respected so much by one and all when being a sage he had not get rid of his anger. Anyway, the king, being aware of Mr. D’s special requirements, made sure that he is not attended by any maid, but by his adopted daughter, Kunti.

Kunti’s values par excellence ensured that no wish of Mr. D was returned unfulfilled. As a fourteen year old teenager, she displayed extra-ordinary skills of hospitality that far from a curse, Mr. D was actually impressed. When it was time to leave he told Kunti…

Mr. D: Kid, you’re good! Your parents have brought you up well and I’m impressed. Tell me what do you wish for and it will be yours.

Kunti: Respectable Mr. D, I have still not added items on my Flipkart wish-list, and my wifi is down, so please bless me with something that you think I will require in future.

Now no one knows what Mr. D actually foresaw, but he blessed Kunti with a mantra through which she could invoke a deva and bear a son from him. Probably, he foresaw that Kunti would be married to a (arguably) impotent king and would need this boon to run the future generations. Or simply, he would have thought what could be a better blessing for a future queen to have supernatural sons. Finally, he left.

Remember the time when you were a teenager and your parents told you to take care. Not many parents allow their kids to experience some kind of adventures too early in life. This female has a big role to play in that. One day, when Kunti was offering her early morning prayers to the Sun-god, she was fascinated by the sheer purity of the light that originated from the far-away star. She wondered whether the boons she had actually had the power to invoke a deva and make him appear before her. In her curiosity, she invoked the mantra given by Mr. D while thinking of the Sun-god. In an instant, she was surrounded by the brightest beam of light and saw the Sun-god appear before her.

Sun-god: Thanks for the invitation Kunti! Let me offer what I have been invited for.

Kunti: No Sun-god. I invoked you just to check if the mantras really worked. I have no such intentions. I am still a kid. A fourteen and a half year old teenager who still plays with dolls.

Sun-god: That might be true Kunti, but no one can overturn the power of mantras. If I have been invited on earth by this specific mantra, then I will have to give you a son irrespective of your situation. Not performing up to the mantra will disrupt the cosmic balance of nature. Your culture might not allow you to have a son as a teenager, but nature has no such barriers. The son has to be provided.

Kunti: But please think about me once. I will grow up to be married to a king. Who will marry me once I deliver a child before marriage. No king shall accept me as his wife if I am not a virgin.

Sun-god: What you will do is not my concern. I am here to perform my duty and I will. You decide what you want to do with the son. You have taken an action, bear the consequences. All that I can do is to ensure that your virginity will stay in tact even after your delivery. Your husband will never know about the reality unless you reveal it to him personally.

Saying this, the Sun-god finally gave Kunti a beautiful son, an infant bedecked with a celestial armor and earrings.

The Birth of Karna 1

Sun-god: This celestial armor and earrings are my blessings to this son of ours. No weapon can harm this boy as long as they are on him. He is destined to be a great warrior, and he will need these. It’s time for me to leave.

And the Sun-god disappeared just as quickly as he had arrived. The teenager Kunti was now suddenly a mother. But who could she reveal it to? No one. For having a son as a teenager would have brought great shame to her as per the culture and more so, as she was the daughter of a king. With great agony in her heart, she decided to abandon the son and promised herself not to reveal the secret to anyone.

She swaddled the baby and placed him in a box. She put some of her jewelry into the box to ensure that whosoever finds the box just doesn’t view the baby as an onus but as a reward and that jewelry help him take care of the son, for as long as it could. Finally, the teenaged mother floated the box in the river and prayed Sun-god to take care of their child from the sky as she knew she would fail to do it on earth.

The Birth of Karna 2

This son was found by Adirath, the charioteer of the king of Hastinapur, Dhritarashtra. Adirath had always longed for a son but he and his wife, Radha could never have one. He saw this son with celestial armor and earrings as a blessing of God and decided to adopt him. They named this son Vasusena, but the people who knew him also called him Radheya (the son of Radha). However, in her graduation certificate, the official name appeared as Karna.

17. The Generation of Supernatural Warriors

Hastinapur now had its worthy king in the forest, repenting for his mistake, and his blind representative on the throne. Except for time (and me….huhahaha) no one knew what was to come.

One day (or maybe night), Dhritarashtra felt that the only way he could ensure his bloodline continued to rule the kingdom was that he had a son before Pandu. He expressed his desire to Gandhari who, being the most obedient wife ever, agreed.

Soon, the news spread in the kingdom that Gandhari was expecting. There was a wave of exhilaration in the kingdom as a pregnant queen promised a bright future ahead. But could a queen, who had willingly embraced darkness for life, bring brightness to the future of a kingdom? Time revealed it in the most evil of forms.

The news of Gandhari’s pregnancy also reached Pandu, who was residing in the forest with his wives. While he was happy for his brother and his wife, the news also dejected him as it made him aware of what he wasn’t capable of doing (or maybe not allowed to do, courtesy Rishi Kashyap’s curse). He shared his concern with his wives Kunti and Madri. On hearing her husband’s concern, Kunti revealed about a special privilege that she had in the form of a boon.

Long ago, even before she got married, Kunti had served Rishi Durvasa (who was a guest to her palace) so well that even the short-tempered rishi was impressed with her extra-ordinary hospitality and offered her a boon. Now Kunti was a teenager and had no idea what to ask for. She requested him to give her a boon that would help her in future. Rishi Durvasa foresaw here future with his yogic powers and gave her a boon in form of a mantra to be able to invite a devta and bear a son from him. (It was the accidental use of this boon before her wedding that Kunti ended up with a son of the Sun, Karna, whom she abandoned into the river to save her reputation). 

She told Pandu that she could use these boons to invite devas and have sons from them to ensure that Pandu had sons too. Pandu found the idea of letting his wife bear sons through another men (sorry deva) awkward. This is when she reminded him that she wasn’t doing something new. Pandu himself was a son of niyog performed by Vyas and it had almost been the legacy of Kuru clan to have sons through niyog since the kings had often been sterile / impotent / cursed / uninterested / under-oath and as a result, could not give birth to sons. What’s more? Those niyog operations were through men or rishis but here it was the intervention of a god. Also, these sons would be born almost instantaneously, without Kunti having to lose her virginity or get pregnant.

Pandu agreed to it and told Kunti to invite none other than Dharma deva (the god of righteousness). He believed that the future generation could not ensure the security of Hastinapur unless there was establishment of dharma in the kingdom. And therefore, first and foremost quality that he desired in his son was his adherence to dharma. So Kunti summoned Dharma deva and received a son from him. Dharma deva stated that this son would always be patient, empathetic, brave and stable in war (yudh mein sthir) and he was named Yudhishthir.

Image Courtesy: Star Plus India

Image Courtesy: Star Plus India

Had it been completely up to the natural processes, Gandhari’s son would have been the eldest. But Kunti’s sudden use of the trump card resulted in an instant son without a pregnancy ended up breaking the dreams of both Gandhari and Dhritarashtra. Dhritarashtra felt that like he was not allowed to become the king because of his blindness, now his son would not be able to become the king because of his age. But more importantly, Gandhari’s pregnancy had prolonged and she did not deliver a child even after nine months.

Months passed but there was no sign of Gandhari giving birth to a child. Gandhari’s patience exceeded all limits and she ordered her maids to hit her belly with an iron rod and get her rid of what was inside her womb. What came out stunned everyone! It was a life-less ball of flesh. She wailed and her wailing brought tears in the eyes of every woman of Hastinapur. She questioned Rishi Vyas that why was her fate playing this game when she had been blessed for a hundred sons.

Rishi Vyas promised her to keep the dignity of that blessing. He divided that ball of flesh into hundred pieces and put them in hundred pots of ghee. He promised Gandhari that those hundred pieces would grow up to become her hundred sons. Gandhari, even at this moment of tension, expressed that she also always wanted a daughter. You can guess what Mr. Vyas did next.

Gandhari's sons in pots of ghee

Image Courtesy: Star Plus India

Meanwhile in the forest, on learning that his elder brother was about to get hundred sons, Pandu did feel – Kaurav 100 aur Pandav 1, bahut na insaafi hai! So once again on Pandu’s will Kunti summoned Vayu Devta (god of wind) who gave her a son as strong as storms and tornados put together. When the child cried, he was so loud that out of fear Kunti dropped it on a rock. Poor rock…it was found cracked! This child was named Bheem.

Then on her own will, Kunti summoned Indra who gave her a son who was to grow up into an extremely skilled man and achieve great adulation from history, none other than Arjun. Now Pandu had started believing that Kunti was no less than a hen who laid golden eggs and he wanted to populate the poultry farm of his lineage with golden eggs from Kunti. This was also because he had got the news that his brother was about to become a father of hundred sons. But Kunti said that she could not bear any more sons as shastras didn’t allow a woman to be with more than four men (Ahem Ahem….really? Sun god, Pandu, Dharma god, Wind god, Indra – What’s the total?). So she shared the mantras with Madri who shot two targets with one arrow and invited Ashwini twins who gave her two sons – Nakul, the most handsome man and Sahadev, the most knowledgeable man.

And meanwhile, hundred sons and one daughter were born from the pots in Hastinapur. When the first pot broke, a child came out amidst the wailing of owls, jackals and crows on the streets. Kripacharya and Vidur suggested that since it was a bad omen, the child would bring misfortune to the kingdom and thus Dhritarashtra should get rid of the new born. While on one hand it was an inhumane task to kill a new-born based on the signals, Vidur argued that it was required for the larger good of the kingdom and also because Dhritarashtra would still be left with ninety-nine sons and one daughter anyway. Bheeshm did not speak.

Image Courtesy: Star Plus India

But for the blind king, emotions overpowered logic and he clung to that son. This son was named Duryodhan, one who would be difficult to overpower. The remaining ninety-nine sons were also given names, and probably later, even ID badges so that they could be recognized. The one daughter born was named Dushala.

Gandhari’s 100 sons

Thus was born the generation of supernatural warriors, sons of Pandu and sons of Dhritarashtra, who actually were the two opposing sides in the Kurukshetra war. But there is a long way to go, so let’s leave Hastinapur with its own moment of jubilation.

15. The Two Wives of Pandu

The new king of Hastinapur, Pandey ji (read Pandu) proved to be efficient within a very short time. After more than a quarter of a century, there was finally a king in the court of Hastinapur and he was, for a change, pretty good. And being an old reader of this blog you would know the first thing the kings of Hastinapur did when they achieved something. They got married. Pandu was no different. But the question was to find a deserving queen for Hastinapur.

Far somewhere, in the kingdom of Kuntibhoja was a princess who was probably destined for that. Her name was Kunti (orginally Pritha, but was renamed Kunti since she was adopted by Kuntibhoja. Was it tough to guess anyway?) Kunti’s little known secret to all was that she had given birth to a son (Karna) of the Sun when she was just teenager (read here in detail, only if you want to). Since this secret was a secret that remained secret for long, Kunti’s reputation was in tact and so Bheeshm and other elders of the family deemed her worthy of becoming Pandu’s wife and Hastinapur’s new queen.

A grand wedding took place and Kunti became a part of the royal family of Hastinapur. However, Pandu never got the opportunity to sing the evergreen words that Amitabh Bachchan once did, “Suhaagraat hai, ghoonghat utha raha hoon main…” as there was a military urgency that expected him to leave for a battle immediately after his wedding. He promised Kunti that he will return, and he kept his promise much better than Bhairo Singh. I say “much better” because after winning the battle, he did not return alone, but with a second wife. This second wife was Madri, the sister of Shalya, the king of Madra. Pandu had taken a military procession to subdue Madra but Shalya insisted that they avoided war and rather formed an alliance. Thus Pandu and Madri were married. Kunti certainly did not take this very positively, but there was not much she could do. She had already done something before that she was guilty about, and she could not gather confidence to stand for something that was considered normal by the society standards.

Pandu then decided to go on an extended honeymoon with both his wives at once. Bali was not that hot a destination in those days so he settled with going to nearby forests and enjoyed what he and his ancestors had always enjoyed. Hunting. Pandu’s archery skills were profound and it was the impact of these skills that he formed great alliances across the sub-continent. He forgot that there were better things to do on a honeymoon. His needless desire to try those skills on the helpless animals of the forests proved disastrous – for all the animals you see in the forest are not actually animals. They can be human beings in various forms, sometimes having uniquely weird desires. First, the desires are unique; second, they implement them in weird manners.

I am talking about Rishi Kindam and his wife. The couple lived in the same forest that was Pandu’s honeymoon destination. One day an idea occurred to the couple that they should make love in the open. Imagine, Pandu who was on a honeymoon, that too with two wives at once, hadn’t thought of it but these guys had! If this was not enough, they planned to have it in cervine form so that normal human beings would not be able to make out that this is the great sage Rishi Kindam and his wife doing the act. While they were engaged, Pandu shot an arrow in the direction of the sound the couple was making thinking that it was a deer out in the forest. This was a form of archery known to very few. The arrow struck the couple. They cried in agony, suddenly transformed to their original form and lied wounded on the forest floor.

15. Pandu

Pandu was shocked to see what unfolded before him. Rishi Kindam was dying, but his anger for not being able to do what he had been waiting to do for years burst out on Pandu. He said, “Oh King of Hastinapur, Pandu! You killed a couple while they were making love. It was after my years of tapasya that I was finally uniting with my wife and you interrupted it so violently. Therefore, I curse you that you will die moment you try to make love to any woman.

And so, the future of Hastinapur was again in problem with the kingdom having a king who could not have sons. Pandu was engulfed with the guilt of killing a brahmin and being cursed at the same time (Imagine which affected him more!) He planned to go back to Hastinapur and reveal the matter in the court to seek the advice of the elders.

Important Terminologies from Mahabharata

There are a few terminologies that appear as frequently in Mahabharata as cheer-leaders appear in the IPL matches. The only difference is that the terminologies mostly appear for a reason.

I hope knowing these terminologies would help in understanding the Epic more. Dissecting them, however, would not do much good. They can be highly confusing and unbelievably random but that’s true for most of our studies. Isn’t it?

1. Boon / Vardaan

A boon is a promise made by a higher party (a demi-god, rishi or a parent) that grants the receiver a certain power or some kind of advantage. Sometimes the receivers achieve boons by the virtue of their devotion in the party and sometimes just because of their luck. Boons can be highly technical and may come with if-else conditions. Eg., Jaydrath receives a boon from Shiva that one day in a war he would be able to overpower the Pandavs IF Arjuna is away!

2. Curse / Shaap aka Shraap

Curses are the antonyms of boons. They are the most undesirable things or situations that one is bound to suffer mostly because of a mistake he made or a crime that he committed. Eg., Karna is cursed to die in the battlefield unarmed because he killed an innocent cow by mistake. Curses are highly technical too, can be modified and sometimes intelligent people use them to their advantage. Eg., Arjuna was cursed by Urvashi to become a eunuch for life but Indra’s intervention reduced the duration of that curse to ‘one’ year. Arjuna used this curse during the 13th year of his exile when he was required to conceal his identity.

3. The Law of Karma

This law is the actual source from which Newton derived the third law of motion. It simply states that for every action there is a consequence, either in this life or in the next. No person can escape the consequences of his action. An action taken today will yield a result one day and the person concerned will suffer its consequences. If he doesn’t, then his relatives or progeny does. But there is no escape.

4. Niyog

This was the concept of surrogate father which was much prevalent in those days. To ensure a continued and unharmed inheritance kings always desired sons. But some were not lucky enough to effectuate their desires into results. So they summoned higher mortals, and at times immortals, to make their wives conceive sons. Ideally, the chosen man was supposed to be of a higher stature and preferably a stranger who would have no emotional attachment or anything to do with the wife after the moment. The culture considered the husband and not the biological father to be the child’s actual father. It would require data analytic experts years to calculate how many characters in the Mahabharata were a result of Niyog.

5. Brahmastra

This was one of the most potent missiles, the weapon of Brahma, that the best warriors possessed. In Ramayana, Ram, Lakshman and Meghnadh are known to have possessed the Brahmastra. In Mahabharata, Krishna, Bheeshm, Dronacharya, Arjun and Ashwatthama possess it. The scarcity power comes from the fact that a warrior could receive it only from his guru through a mantra after displaying extremely profound learning of archery. If the guru did not find his student worthy, he chose not to give it to him and he could not attain it in any other way. Karna received the Brahmastra from Parshuram but the curse of Parshuram made him forget that mantra. The Brahmastra was close (or probably a little more intense) than the nuclear bomb of today and its use meant nothing but the destruction of the entire world hence it was never practically executed.

6. Pashupatastra

This was another terrific missile, the weapon of Shiva (Pashupati), that was possessed by a few great warriors. Meghnad, Bheeshm and Arjun are known to have possessed it but never practically used it. As opposed to the Brahmastra that destroyed the entire world, Pashupatastra could be focussed even to a needle point but possessed infinite energy to destroy that object within a fraction of a second.

7. Narayanastra:

This was the terrific weapon of Vishnu, with almost equal in impact as the Brahmastra but could also be customized to damage selected areas like the Pashupatastra could be. The major condition of using this weapon that it could be used only against someone who was violent. The weapon wouldn’t harm anyone who was calm. Meghnad and Ashwatthama are known to have possessed the Narayanastra.

8. Prayshchit / Pashchataap:

The English translation of these two words is “Penance”. It is the act of observing severe austerities or inflicting pain on oneself as an expression of repentance of a wrong-doing. Throughout the Mahabharata, there are many characters who underwent through this as a mistake they made. Eg., On discovering that the deer he killed in the forest were Rishi Kindam and his wife, Pandu left the throne of Hastinapur and went to the forest away from all luxuries for pryayshchit. It must me noted that it is a self-inflicted punishment and wasn’t imposed on anyone by the society. A person followed it out of guilt in order to punish himself for his own mistake.