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.
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.
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
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
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.
Dialogue between Karna and Kunti
On sacred Jahnavi’s shore I say my
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
That’s me, and today I’ve cast aside
all embarrassment, to tell you who I am.
Respected lady, the light of your lowered
melts my heart, as the sun’s rays melt
mountain snows. Your voice
pierces my ears as a voice from a
and stirs strange pain. Tell me then,
by what mystery’s chain is my birth
to you, unknown woman?
child, for a moment! Let the sun-god first
slide to his rest, and let evening’s
thicken round us. – Now let me tell you, warrior,
I am Kunti.
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
slowly entered the arena in Hastina-city
as the newly rising sun enters the margin
of the eastern sky, still pricked out
Of all the women watching from behind a
who was she, bereft of speech, of luck,
who felt within her tortured breast the
of hungering love, a thousand she-snake
Whose eyes covered your limbs with
It was Arjun’s mother! When Kripa advanced
and smiling, asked you to announce your
saying, ‘He who is not of a royal family
has no right to challenge Arjun at all,’
then you, speechless, red with shame,
just stood there, and she whose bosom
of embarrassment burnt like fire: who was
unlucky woman? Arjun’s mother it was!
Blessed is that lad Durjodhan, who
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
when, making his way into the arena,
in entered Adhirath the charioteer,
with joy, and you, too, in your royal
in the midst of the curious crowds
bowed your only-just-anointed head, and
the feet of the old charioteer, calling
Cruelly, contemptuously they smiled –
the friends of the Pandavs; and right at
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
I’ve come to beg a favour of you –
Don’t turn me away empty-handed.
favour? From me!
Barring my manhood, and what dharma requires,
the rest will be at your feet if you so
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
and I am just a petty princeling, without
where would you find room for me?
at the top!
I would place you above all my other
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
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.
with a divine right indeed you had one
come to this lap – and by that same right
return again, with glory; don’t worry at
take your own place amongst all your
on my maternal lap.
As if in
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
to the very dawn of awareness. Your words
like age-old truths touch my fascinated
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
for just a moment. Indeed I had heard
that I had been abandoned by my natural
How often in the depth of night I’ve had
that slowly, softly my mother had come to
and I’ve felt so bleak, and beseeched her
‘Mother, remove your veil, let me see
your face,’ –
and at once the figure has vanished, tearing
my greedy thirsty dream. That very dream –
has it come today in the guise of the
this evening, on the battlefield, by the
Behold, lady, on the other bank, in the
the lights come on, and on this bank, not
in the Kaurav stables a hundred thousand
stamp their hooves. Tomorrow morning
the great battle begins. Why tonight
did I have to hear from Arjun’s mother’s
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
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
Lady, you are my mother! And your call
has awakened my soul – no longer can I
the drums of battle, victory’s
The violence of war, a hero’s fame,
triumph and defeat –
all seem false. Take me. Where should I
There, on the other bank,
where the lamps burn in the still tents
on the pale sands.
there a motherless son
shall find his mother for ever! There the pole star
shall wake all night in your lovely
Lady, one more time
say I am your son.
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
so irreversibly, banishing me from my brothers?
You put a distance between Arjun and me,
whence from childhood a subtle invisible
of bitter enmity pulls us to each other
in an irresistible attraction. –
you have no answer?
I sense your embarrassment piercing these
and touching all my limbs without any
closing my eyes. Let it be then –
you don’t have to explain why you cast me
A mother’s love is God’s first gift on
why that sacred jewel you had to snatch
from your own child is a question you may
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
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
pays its homage to the Maker of this
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
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
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
You are not a charioteer’s son, but of
royal birth –
so cast aside the insults that have been
and come where they all are – your five
But Mother, I am a charioteer’s son,
and Radha’s my mother – glory greater
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
Judhisthir will cool you, moving a white
Bhim will hold up your umbrella; Arjun
will drive your chariot; Dhaumya the
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
The riches from which you once
cannot be returned – it’s beyond your
When I was born, Mother, from me you tore
mother, brothers, royal family – all at
If today I cheat my foster-mother, her of
and boldly address as my own mother a
if I snap the ties that bind me to the
of the Kuru clan, and lust after a royal
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
return one day along a darkened path,
and with his own cruel hands hurl weapons
who are his brothers, born of the same
What a curse this is!
Mother, don’t be afraid.
Let me predict: it’s the Pandavs who will
On the panel of this night’s gloom I can
before my eyes the dire results of war:
legible in starlight. This quiet, unruffled hour
from the infinite sky a music drifts to
of effort without victory, sweat of work
without hope –
I can see the end, full of peace and
The side that is going to lose –
please don’t ask me to desert that side.
Let Pandu’s children win, and become
let me stay with the losers, those whose
hopes will be dashed.
The night of my birth you left me upon
nameless, homeless. In the same way today
be ruthless, Mother, and just abandon me:
leave me to my defeat, infamous,
Only this blessing grant me before you
may greed for victory, for fame, or for a
never deflect me from a hero’s path and
by Ketaki Kushari Dyson
Ketaki Kushari Dyson