Dialogue Between Karna and Kunti

Rabindranath Tagore

Translated from Bengali by Ketaki Kushari Dyson



Translator’s Note


This dramatic poem based on an episode in the Mahabharata is from Tagore’s collection Kahini (1900). Reworking old stories from the Mahabharata or from Buddhist lore, reinterpreting them so that they resonate in modern times, so that the new interpretations act as bridges between tradition and modernity: these were artistic tasks that Tagore took very seriously in his poetry and drama.


For this particular poem, Tagore takes details from two contiguous sections of the ‘Udyogaparva’ of the Mahabharata, a dialogue between Krishna and Karna, and a dialogue between Karna and Kunti, to make a new composite story of an encounter between a fostered son and a long-lost natural mother, set against the backdrop of the preparations for the great war between the rival collateral houses of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The outline of the original story should be familiar to most Indians. Kunti, of course, is the mother of the five Pandavas – the natural mother of the three elder brothers, Yudhisthira, Bhima, and Arjuna, and the stepmother of the two younger ones. Karna is Kunti’s eldest child, born before her marriage, whom she had carefully packed and consigned to the mercy of a river, just as Moses had been consigned in the Jewish story. Karna was found and reared by foster-parents of the charioteer caste, eventually becoming a warrior, a man noted for his generosity, and an ally of the Kauravas, led by Duryodhana. On the eve of the war of Kurukshetra there is an attempt to woo Karna over to the side of the Pandavas, first by Krishna, who is an ally of the Pandavas, then by Kunti. Karna refuses to change sides.


In the Mahabharata, Kunti meets her first-born son when he is finishing his late morning prayers by the Ganges. She waits in the scorching sun till he finishes his prayers at noon. Tagore transfers the meeting to the glow of twilight deepening into a starlit night. The softer setting is more appropriate for Tagore’s purpose of highlighting the human emotions. Also in the epic, Karna does not really learn about his birth for the first time from Kunti. Krishna has already told him the details before Kunti has had a chance to do so, and in any case, Karna seems to know the essential facts already, what Krishna says being merely a confirmation. Tagore, interested in making a different kind of audience impact, makes Karna hear about who his natural mother is from her own mouth, thus making the encounter much more meaningfully dramatic. At the same time, Tagore’s Kunti, more of a Victorian aristocratic matron, is too embarrassed to reveal the actual details of how she had conceived him out of wedlock, whereas in the Mahabharata, both Krishna and Kunti relate them to Karna in a matter-of-fact manner in keeping with the mores of the old epics. In the original poem, Karna is much sterner with his mother, more outspoken, acerbic, and unambiguous in his condemnation of her actions, past and present, more sharply Hindu in his understanding of right action and caste ethics. He actually offers Kunti the consolation that he will not kill all her sons: he will either kill Arjuna or be killed by him, so that she will still remain the mother of five sons! He is, of course, eventually killed by Arjuna. Tagore’s treatment is more psychological: Karna is humanized to suit the tastes of Tagore’s own times. Tagore’s Karna berates his mother indirectly, rhetorically, through questions, with a mixture of sentiment and irony. He wavers, is flooded with nostalgia and filial affection, then retreats to a noble resolve.


Jahnavi and Bhagirathi are names for the Ganges. Kripa is a martial instructor. In the transliterations of proper names I have given a slight tilt towards the original Bengali sound-values by making them end-stopped when they are so in Bengali pronunciation, i.e. Adhirath, not Adhiratha; Bhim, not Bhima; Arjun, not Arjuna.  I have also written Durjodhan and Judhisthir instead of Duryodhan and Yudhisthir. These are just a few gentle hints to remind potential readers/performers that this is after all a Bengali text that has been translated, and it is right that the names should be heard as they would be in Bengali. Those who intend to perform the text should find out from native Bengali speakers how all the names need to be pronounced. It is impossible to indicate all the sounds without an elaborate academic apparatus.


This translation was done in the spring of 2000 at the request of Bithika Raha of London, who choreographed a dance performance to accompany the words.


Rabindranath Tagore


Dialogue between Karna and Kunti




On sacred Jahnavi’s shore I say my prayers

to the evening sun.  Karna is my name,

son of Adhirath the charioteer, and Radha is my mother.

That’s who I am.  Lady, who are you?


Child, in the first dawn of your life

it was I who introduced you to this wide world.

That’s me, and today I’ve cast aside

all embarrassment, to tell you who I am.


Respected lady, the light of your lowered eyes

melts my heart, as the sun’s rays melt

mountain snows.  Your voice

pierces my ears as a voice from a previous birth

and stirs strange pain.  Tell me then,

by what mystery’s chain is my birth linked

to you, unknown woman?


                                                Oh, be patient,

child, for a moment!  Let the sun-god first

slide to his rest, and let evening’s darkness

thicken round us.  – Now let me tell you, warrior,

I am Kunti.


                        You are Kunti!  The mother of Arjun!


Arjun’s mother indeed!  But son,

don’t hate me for that.  How I still recall

the day of the tournament when you, a young bachelor,

slowly entered the arena in Hastina-city

as the newly rising sun enters the margin

of the eastern sky, still pricked out with stars!

Of all the women watching from behind a screen

who was she, bereft of speech, of luck,

who felt within her tortured breast the pangs

of hungering love, a thousand she-snake fangs?

Whose eyes covered your limbs with blessing’s kisses?

It was Arjun’s mother!  When Kripa advanced

and smiling, asked you to announce your father’s name,

saying, ‘He who is not of a royal family born

has no right to challenge Arjun at all,’ –

then you, speechless, red with shame, face lowered,

just stood there, and she whose bosom your gleam

of embarrassment burnt like fire: who was that

unlucky woman?  Arjun’s mother it was!

Blessed is that lad Durjodhan, who thereupon

at once crowned you prince of Anga. Yes, I praise him!

And as you were crowned, the tears streamed from my eyes

to rush towards you, to overflow your head,

when, making his way into the arena,

in entered Adhirath the charioteer, beside himself

with joy, and you, too, in your royal gear

in the midst of the curious crowds milling around

bowed your only-just-anointed head, and saluted

the feet of the old charioteer, calling him Father.

Cruelly, contemptuously they smiled –

the friends of the Pandavs; and right at that instant

she who blessed you as a hero, O you jewel amongst heroes,

I am that woman, the mother of Arjun.


I salute you, noble lady.  A royal mother you are:

so why are you here alone?  This is a field of battle,

and I am the commander of the Kaurav army.


                        Son, I’ve come to beg a favour of you –

Don’t turn me away empty-handed.


                                                A favour?  From me!

Barring my manhood, and what dharma requires,

the rest will be at your feet if you so desire.


I have come to take you away.


                                    And where will you take me?


To my thirsty bosom – to my maternal lap.


A lucky woman you are, blessed with five sons,

and I am just a petty princeling, without pedigree –

where would you find room for me?


                                                            Right at the top!

I would place you above all my other sons,

for you are the eldest.


                                    By what right

would I enter that sanctum?  Tell me how

from those already cheated of empire

I could possibly take a portion of that wealth,

a mother’s love, which is fully theirs.

A mother’s heart cannot be gambled away

nor be defeated by force.  It’s a divine gift.


                                                O my son,

with a divine right indeed you had one day

come to this lap – and by that same right

return again, with glory; don’t worry at all –

take your own place amongst all your brothers,

on my maternal lap.


                                                As if in a dream

I hear your voice, honoured lady.  Look, darkness has

engulfed the entire horizon, swallowed the four quarters,

and the river has fallen silent.  You have whisked me off

to some enchanted world, some forgotten home,

to the very dawn of awareness.  Your words

like age-old truths touch my fascinated heart.

It’s as if my own inchoate infancy,

the very obscurity of my mother’s womb

was encircling me today.  O royal mother,

loving woman, – be this real, or a dream, –

come place your right hand on my brow, my chin

for just a moment.  Indeed I had heard

that I had been abandoned by my natural mother.

How often in the depth of night I’ve had this dream:

that slowly, softly my mother had come to see me,

and I’ve felt so bleak, and beseeched her in tears,

‘Mother, remove your veil, let me see your face,’ –

and at once the figure has vanished, tearing apart

my greedy thirsty dream.  That very dream –

has it come today in the guise of the Pandav mother

this evening, on the battlefield, by the Bhagirathi?

Behold, lady, on the other bank, in the Pandav camp

the lights come on, and on this bank, not far,

in the Kaurav stables a hundred thousand horses

stamp their hooves.  Tomorrow morning

the great battle begins.  Why tonight

did I have to hear from Arjun’s mother’s throat

my own mother’s voice?  Why did my name

ring in her mouth with such exquisite music –

so much so that suddenly my heart

rushes towards the five Pandavs, calling them ‘brothers’?


Then come on, son, come along with me.


Yes, Mother, I’ll 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, victory’s conch-shells.

The violence of war, a hero’s fame, triumph and defeat –

all seem false.  Take me.  Where should I go?


                                    There, on the other bank,

where the lamps burn in the still tents

on the pale sands.


                                                And there a motherless son

shall find his mother for ever!  There the pole star

shall wake all night in your lovely generous

eyes. Lady, one more time

say I am your son.


                                    My son!


                                                Then why

did you discard me so ingloriously –

no family honour, no mother’s eyes to watch me –

to the mercy of this blind, unknown world?  Why did you

let me float away on the current of contempt

so irreversibly, banishing me from my brothers?

You put a distance between Arjun and me,

whence from childhood a subtle invisible bond

of bitter enmity pulls us to each other

in an irresistible attraction. –

                                                Mother, you have no answer?

I sense your embarrassment piercing these dark layers

and touching all my limbs without any words,

closing my eyes.  Let it be then –

you don’t have to explain why you cast me aside.

A mother’s love is God’s first gift on this earth;

why that sacred jewel you had to snatch

from your own child is a question you may choose

not to answer!  But tell me then:

why have you come to take me back again?


Child, let your reprimands

like a hundred thunderclaps rend this heart of mine

into a hundred pieces.  That I’d cast you aside

is a curse that hounds me, which is why

my heart is childless even with five dear sons,

why it is you that my arms go seeking in this world,

flapping and flailing.  It is for that deprived child

that my heart lights a lamp, and by burning itself

pays its homage to the Maker of this universe.

Today I count myself fortunate

that I have managed to see you.  When your mouth

hadn’t yet uttered a word, I did commit

a horrendous crime. Son, with that same mouth

forgive your bad mother.  Let that forgiveness burn

fiercer than any rebukes within my breast,

reduce my sins to ashes and make me pure!


O Mother, give – give me the dust of your feet,

and take my tears!


                                    Son, I did not come

simply in the happy hope of clutching you to my breast,

but to take you back where you by right belong.

You are not a charioteer’s son, but of royal birth –

so cast aside the insults that have been your lot

and come where they all are – your five brothers.


But Mother, I am a charioteer’s son,

and Radha’s my mother – glory greater than that

I have none.  Let the Pandavs be Pandavs, the Kauravs

Kauravs – I envy nobody.


                                    With the puissance of your arms

recover the kingdom that’s your own, my son.

Judhisthir will cool you, moving a white fan;

Bhim will hold up your umbrella; Arjun the hero

will drive your chariot; Dhaumya the priest

will chant Vedic mantras; and you, vanquisher of foes,

will live with your kinsmen, sole ruler in your kingdom,

sitting on your jewelled throne, sharing power with none.


Throne, indeed!  To one who’s just refused the maternal bond

are you offering, Mother, assurances of a kingdom?

The riches from which you once disinherited me

cannot be returned – it’s beyond your powers.

When I was born, Mother, from me you tore

mother, brothers, royal family – all at one go.

If today I cheat my foster-mother, her of charioteer caste,

and boldly address as my own mother a royal materfamilias,

if I snap the ties that bind me to the lord

of the Kuru clan, and lust after a royal throne,

then fie on me!


                                    Blessed are you, my son, for you are

truly heroic.  Alas, Dharma, how stern your justice is!

Who knew, alas, that day

when I forsook a tiny, helpless child,

that from somewhere he would gain a hero’s powers,

return one day along a darkened path,

and with his own cruel hands hurl weapons at those

who are his brothers, born of the same mother!

What a curse this is!


                                    Mother, don’t be afraid.

Let me predict: it’s the Pandavs who will win.

On the panel of this night’s gloom I can clearly read

before my eyes the dire results of war:

legible in starlight.  This quiet, unruffled hour

from the infinite sky a music drifts to my ears:

of effort without victory, sweat of work without hope –

I can see the end, full of peace and emptiness.

The side that is going to lose –

please don’t ask me to desert that side.

Let Pandu’s children win, and become kings,

let me stay with the losers, those whose hopes will be dashed.

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:

leave me to my defeat, infamous, lustreless.

Only this blessing grant me before you leave:

may greed for victory, for fame, or for a kingdom

never deflect me from a hero’s path and salvation.



15 Phalgun 1306

[Spring 1900]



Translated by Ketaki Kushari Dyson

[Spring 2000]


© Ketaki Kushari Dyson

Published September 10, 2002

The original poem [karNakuntiisa.nbaad] by Rabindranath Tagore appeared in the collection of poems kaahinii * first published in 1900.

Translated by Ketaki Kushari Dyson [ketakI kushaarI Daaisan*] - Ketaki Kushari Dyson was born in Calcutta in 1940 and educated at Calcutta and Oxford. She has been based in England since ... (more)

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* To learn more about the ITRANS script for Bengali, click here.