88 – Kumāravyāsa’s Karṇabheda Part 1 of 2


…ನಡುವೆ ನೀನೋಲಗದೊಳ್ — ಒಪ್ಪುವ
ಕಡು ವಿಲಾಸವ ಬಿಸುಟು, ಕುರುಪತಿ
ನುಡಿಸೆ, “ಜೀಯ, ಹಸಾದ” ವೆಂಬುದು… ಕಷ್ಟ ನಿನಗೆಂದ
…naḍuve nīnu ōlagadoḷ — oppuva
kaḍu vilāsava bisuṭu, kurupati
nuḍise, “jīya, hasāda” eṃbudu… kaṣṭa ninage enda


“…and you in the middle, holding court — throwing away such great glory that befits you, if you choose to go bowing whenever Duryodhana calls, [mumbling] “Your mercy, Master”, … you will find it difficult.” We don’t know what glory the speaker is talking about, but with just the picture of the alternative alone we’re convinced we don’t want to make the wrong choice!

This is the famed Bhāminī ṣatpadi, which has a simple 3-4 x 2 syllable structure in 6 lines, with an extra 3-5 to close out halves. In our experience, the best way to ‘catch’ its innate rhythm is by reciting each 3-4 unit quickly and pausing a bit after it, like this:

ನಡುವೆ ನೀನೋ | ಲಗದೊ ಳೊಪ್ಪುವ |
ಕಡು ವಿ ಲಾಸವ | ಬಿಸುಟು, ಕುರುಪತಿ |
ನುಡಿಸೆ, “ಜೀಯ, ಹ | ಸಾದ” ವೆಂಬುದು | ಕಷ್ಟ ನಿನಗೆಂದ |

Note the ādiprāsa, the alliteration at the second syllable of each line: it seems to serve as a kind of metronome, dutifully ringing the start of every line. Having the alliteration at the second syllable, as opposed to the common style of the first, seems to give it a distinct flavour.


This chapter’s line is from the Kumāravyāsa-bhārata (formally the Karṇāṭa-bhārata-kathāmañjarī), the greatest epic work of Middle Kannada. Composed at a time the great Vijayanagara Empire was ascendant in the early 1400s, this work counts as one of the many magnificent wonders that period has bequeathed to us. We often talk of works ‘belonging’ to a certain language or region: by that, we mostly mean that the work tapped into a large, living culture and drew a tiny sample from it. It is implied that knowing the language and culture of the region are prerequisites to enjoying and appreciating the work. In the case of works like the Kumārvavyāsa-bhārata however, such ideas are turned on their heads: the work is so rich, so exuberant, so full of life itself, that one can be motivated to learn the language and culture in order to enjoy the work.

Indeed, till the last few generations, phrases from the Kumāravyāsa-bhārata were a mainstay in everyday conversations, from the tea-shop narrations to court discussions. If we go back a couple generations further, the Kumāravyāsa-bhārata wasn’t just a literary work, it was a career: thousands of people made their living chanting, singing and explaining its scenes in village plays. The Middle Kannada used in the epic is familiar enough to speakers of modern Kannada to be broadly intelligible, but different enough to cause ‘aha!’ moments when explained lucidly. Stories abound of audience members being spellbound. One of our favorites is a performance of the Krishna-sandhi portion in a typical village. In this scene, Krishna attempts to convince Duryodhana that he should avoid war, telling him that offering even a handful of villages would be sufficient for the Pāṇḍavas to save face. Duryodhana adamantly refuses. One of the members of the packed late-night audience was so enraged that he leapt onto the stage and started thrashing the hapless actor, shouting, “You idiot! You don’t know what’s good for you! Lord Krishna, there’s no use talking to him with words. You don’t know these people. Let me handle this!”

The poet, Nāraṇappa, hailed from Koliwad village near modern-day Gadag. Although he was a highly regarded court poet, he appears to have none of the airs or the self-imposed constraints of one, and suffuses his poetry with an earthy humor and sharpness of expression. Indeed, when it comes to rich local idiom, humor, sarcasm, trenchancy of expression and observation of body language, no poet we have read, not even the Sanskrit greats, comes close to him. On the other end of the spectrum, he also excels when he uses the formal register, and would have done very well as a courtly Sanskrit poet if he had chosen so. Many legends abound about him and how he came to write this work. We will visit some of them in future chapters.

This chapter’s half-verse appears in the Udyoga Parva, just after Krishna’s mission fails. Duryodhana refuses to part with even an inch of land. Krishna realizes that war is inevitable, and makes the first war move: he decides to meet Karṇa.

A word on Kumāravyāsa and Karṇa would be appropriate here. In general, Kumāravyāsa is a poet who greatly values bhāvārtha above tattvārtha, i.e. he upholds the truth of emotions more than the truth of cold logic. There is a certain degree of ‘emotional compartmentalization’. If a villainous character happens to be in a pitiable circumstance, Kumāravyāsa will forget everything about the character’s past villainy and highlight the emotions of scene so well that the reader himself forgets, too. If a Kumāravyāsa hero is overcome by sentiment, he is so overcome that no trace of his heroism can be found. This is fantastic when one considers the success of the scene, but when considering a longer arc, such as the work or the character, it may appear inconsistent or even disjointed. Sigh, when have poets ever had easy?

This quirk of Kumāravyāsa comes into sharp focus with Karṇa, an eternally complex character. In recent times, there appears to have been a gradual positive shift in societal perceptions of Karṇa. Most people hold him to be a kind of tragic hero, an icon of loyalty, selflessness, charity and even meritocracy. While Vyāsa’s Karṇa may be argued to possess all these qualities, scholars of Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata say that Vyāsa’s Karṇa is a rather less refined than the general modern perception. Certainly, he was loyal to Duryodhana, but somewhat as a henchman, not as an equal. He fully supported Duryodhana in many of his heinous acts, such as the disrobing of Draupadi. He ran away after losing to the Gandharvas, and was routed by Arjuna during the Gograhaṇa incident. In short, all the external ingredients for a tragic figure are present, but there are also significant personal failings.

In contrast, later poets, including Kumāravyāsa to some degree, subtly change the lighting around Karṇa to a more positive tone. The unsavory parts are lightly modified or glided over, giving a much more compelling and ‘clean’ character. The internal character elements are cleaned up, giving a ‘pure’ tragic figure, a good, honorable man placed in impossible circumstances by Fate. One may argue that this is a result of the Bhakti tradition (of which Kumāravyāsa is a great adherent), which de-emphasizes free will — after all, all characters are puppets of the kapaṭa-nāṭaka-sūtradhārī Krishna. It may also be that the traits that are admired today in Karṇa — loyalty, self-control, generosity — are felt to be sorely lacking in society, whereas his faults — not speaking up, loose grasp of right and wrong, questionable battle skills — simply don’t register as important. In contrast, in the social world of Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata, a much more ‘honour’-driven and -constrained culture, the balance of Karṇa’s traits was less positive.

Be that as it may, as DVG once remarked, the only criterion that matters when evaluation such changes is, what do we lose and what do we gain? If poetic enjoyment is what we’re after, we’re fine either way.

Now then, lest the pickle starts to overwhelm the main course, over to Kumāravyāsa’s Krishna, who is just striking up a conversation with Karṇa:

ಇನ-ತನೂಜನ ಕೂಡೆ ಮೈದುನ-
ತನದ ಸರಸವನೆಸಗಿ, ರಥದೊಳು
ದನುಜ-ರಿಪು ಬರ-ಸೆಳೆದು ಕುಳ್ಳಿರಿಸಿದನು ಪೀಠದಲಿ.
“ಎನಗೆ ನಿಮ್ಮಡಿಗಳಲಿ ಸಮಸೇ-
-ವನೆಯೆ? ದೇವ! ಮುರಾರಿ! ಅಂಜುವೆ-”
-ನೆನಲು, ತೊಡೆ ಸೋಂಕಿನಲಿ ಸಾರಿದು ಶೌರಿಯಿಂತೆಂದ. 2
ina-tanūjana kūḍe maiduna-tanada
sarasavanu esagi, rathadoḷu
danuja-ripu bara-seḷedu kuḷḷirisidanu pīṭhadali.
“enage nimma aḍigaḷali samasēvaneye?
dēva! murāri! anjuvenu”
enalu, toḍe sōṃkinali sāridu śauri intenda.

“Speaking in a caring uncle’s tone, Krishna got Karṇa to sit beside him on the chariot’s seat.
Karṇa shrunk back: “Lord, me, sitting beside you?”
To this, Krishna drew even closer, and spoke thus.”

Krishna gives off an air of ‘sarasa’, a sense of playful ease, while Karṇa is filled with inhibitions. In spite of all his achievements, there is a deep sense of insecurity in Karṇa as being unworthy — unworthy of being treated as a Kṣatriya, a family member, or simply, even as an equal. Krishna then draws even closer — toḍe sōnkinali sāridu, literally with their thighs touching — does this reassure Karṇa, or make him more insecure? What would Krishna have wanted?

[There is less of a standard on how to split because of tolerance in variant case endings: for example, ‘ōlagadoḷoppuva’ can be either ‘ōlagadoḷu oppuva’ (lopa sandhi) or simply ‘ōlagadoḷ oppuva’, something never seen in Sanskrit. “murāri añjuve” and “murāriyañjuve” (āgama sandhi) are both acceptable. The three Kannada-specific sandhis -- lopa, āgama and ādeśa -- seem to fiddle with the flow way more than Sanskrit sandhis do!]

“ಭೇದವಿಲ್ಲೆಲೆ ಕರ್ಣ, ನಿಮ್ಮೊಳು
ಯಾದವರು ಕೌರವರೊಳಗೆ ಸಂ-
-ವಾದಿಸುವಡನ್ವಯದ ಮೊದಲೆರಡಿಲ್ಲ ನಿನ್ನಾಣೆ!
ಮೇದಿನೀ-ಪತಿ ನೀನು ಚಿತ್ತದೊಳ್
ಆದುದರಿವಿಲ್ಲೆನುತ”, ದಾನವ-
-ಸೂದನನು ರವಿ-ಸುತನ ಕಿವಿಯಲಿ ಬಿತ್ತಿದನುಭಯವ 3
“bhēdavu illa ele karṇa, nimmoḷu
yādavaru kauravara oḷage
saṃvādisuvaḍe anvayada modalu-eraḍu illa ninna āṇe!
mēdinī-pati nīnu cittadoḷu
āduda arivilla” enuta,
dānava-sūdananu ravi-sutana kiviyali bittidanu ubhayava

““There is no division Karṇa, no hierarchy or precedence between Yādavas and Kauravas! [we are all equals here]
You are a King, you simply don’t know it” — thus, Krishna sowed fear into Karṇa’s ear”

‘Bittidanubhayava’ can be split either as ‘bittidanu bhayava’ (“sowed fear”) or ‘bittidanu ubhayava’ (“sowed a dilemma”). This kind of fine artistry pervades the entire work.

“ದಾನವಾಂತಕ, ಬೆಸಸು! ವಂಶ-
-ವಿಹೀನ ನಾ ನಿಮ್ಮಡಿಗಳೊಡನೆ
ಸಮಾನಿಸುವರೇ ಸಾಕೆನುತ” ರವಿಸೂನು ಕೈಮುಗಿಯೆ
“ಮಾನನಿಧಿ ನಿನ್ನಾಣೆ ಬಾರೈ
ನೀನು ನಮ್ಮೆಲ್ಲರ ಹವಣೆ ವರ-
-ಭಾನು-ವಂಶಲಲಾಮ ನೀ ರಾಮಂಗೆ ಸರಿ”ಯೆಂದ 4

“Dānavāntaka, besasu!
vaṃśa-vihīna nā nimma aḍigaḷa oḍane samānisuvarē?
sāku” enuta ravi-sūnu kai mugiye
“māna-nidhi ninna āṇe bārai
nīnu namma ellara havaṇe
vara-bhānu-vaṃśa-lalāma nī rāmange sari” enda

“Karṇa folded his hands and said: “Please stop, Krishna. I am of low birth, and yet you tell me I am your equal?”
“Karṇa! O fount of honor! Come, can we hope to match you [in lineage]? You are the prize ornament of the Sūryavaṃśa, matching the great Rāma himself!”

Karṇa — the lowly charioteer’s son who was rescued from vulgarity by the mercy of the hot-blooded and fickle Duryodhana, and who has been a loyal footservant since, and who cannot even get himself to say “nimmoḍane samānisuvirē?” (“do you hold me as your equal?”) and instead can only dare to utter, “nimmaḍigaḷoḍane samānisuvirē?” (“do you hold me as equal to your feet?”) — this wretched Karṇa is an ornament of the Sūryavaṃśa?! Likened to Rāma himself?! To go from ‘vaṃśa-vihīna’ to ‘vara-bhānu-vaṃśa-lalāma’ in the space of one verse — what a ride!

ಕಳೆದುಕೊಂಡನು ವೀಳೆಯವನಂ-
-ಜುಳಿಯಲಾತಂಗಿತ್ತು ಕರ್ಣನ
ಕೆಲಕೆ ಬರಸೆಳೆದವನ ಕರದೊಳು ಕರತಳವನಿಕ್ಕಿ.
“ಎಲೆ ದಿವಾಕರ-ತನಯ! ನಿನ್ನಯ
ಕುಲವನರಿಯೆಯಲಾ ಸುಯೋಧನ-
-ನಲಿ ವೃಥಾ ಸೇವಕ-ತನದಲಿಹುದುಚಿತವಲ್ಲೆಂದ” 5
kaḷedu-konḍanu vīḷeya
avana anjuḷiyali ātangittu
Karṇana kelake bara-seḷedu avana karadoḷu karataḷavanu ikki.
“ele divākara-tanaya! ninnaya
kulavanu ariye elā suyōdhananali
vṛthā sēvaka-tanadali ihudu ucita-valla” enda

“Krishna gave Karṇa the betel leaf, placed his palm in his, and spoke:
‘O Son of Sūrya! You don’t know your own birth! And you’re serving Duryodhana! What a waste! Surely this does not befit you!”

Note the attention the poet pays to body language — passing a betel leaf, indirectly showing how easy and casual this all seems for Krishna, and how he’s completely in control; placing his palm in his like a trusted elder comforting a child — the picture draws itself. No wonder the Kumāravyāsa-bhārata was so popular with audiences!

“ಲಲನೆ ಪಡೆದೀಯೈದು ಮಂತ್ರಂ
ಗಳಲಿ ಮೊದಲಿಗ ನೀನು. ನಿನ್ನಯ
ಬಳಿ ಯುಧಿಷ್ಠಿರ-ದೇವ. ಮೂರನೆಯಾತ ಕಲಿ-ಭೀಮ.
ಫಲುಗುಣನು ನಾಲ್ಕನೆಯಲೈದನೆ
ಯಲಿ ನಕುಲ ಸಹದೇವರಾದರು
ಬಳಿಕ ಮಾದ್ರಿಯಲೊಂದು ಮಂತ್ರದೊಳಿಬ್ಬರುದಿಸಿದರು” 6
“lalane paḍeda ī aidu
mantrangaḷali modaliga nīnu.
ninnaya baḷi yudhiṣṭhira-dēva. mūrane āta kali-bhīma.
phaluguṇanu nālkaneyali aidaneyali
nakula sahadēvaru ādaru
baḷika mādriyali ondu mantradoḷu ibbaru udisidaru”

“Of the five mantras that Kunti received, you rose from the first. After you came Yudhiṣṭhira, and with the third, Bhīma. Arjuna came from the fourth, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva from Mādrī from the fifth.”

“ಅದರಿನಾ ಪಾಂಡವರಲೈವರ
ಮೊದಲಿಗನು ನೀನಿರಲು ಧರಣಿಯ
ಕದನವಿತ್ತಂಡಕ್ಕೆ ಕಾಮಿತವಲ್ಲ ಭಾವಿಸಲು.
ಇದು ನಿದಾನವು ಕರ್ಣ. ನಿನ್ನ-
-ಭ್ಯುದಯವನೆ ಬಯಸುವೆನು. ನಿನ್ನಯ
ಪದಕೆ ಕೆಡಹುವೆನೈವರನು ಬಹುದೆನ್ನ ಸಂಗಾತ!” 7
“adarim ā pānḍavarali aivara
modaliganu nīnu iralu dharaṇiya
kadanavu ittanḍakke kāmitavu alla bhāvisalu.
idu nidānavu karṇa. ninna
abhyudayavane bayasuvenu. ninnaya
padake keḍahuvenu aivaranu ‘bahudu’ enna sangāta!”

“Therefore, you are the eldest of the Pāṇḍavas. With you present, what is the need for two sides and a war? This will summarily end the conflict. I wish only for your good, Karṇa. I will drag the five (Pāṇḍavas) and cast them at your feet — just say yes.”

“ನಿನಗೆ ಹಸ್ತಿನಪುರದ ರಾಜ್ಯದ
ಘನತೆಯನು ಮಾಡುವೆನು! ಪಾಂಡವ
ಜನಪ ಕೌರವ ಜನಪರೋಲೈಸುವರು ಗದ್ದುಗೆಯ!
ನಿನಗೆ ಕಿಂಕರವೆರಡು ಸಂತತಿ
ಯೆನಿಸಲೊಲ್ಲದೆ ನೀನು ದುರಿಯೋ
ಧನನ ಬಾಯ್ದಂಬುಲಕೆ ಕೈಯಾನುವರೆ ಹೇಳೆಂದ” 8
“ninage hastina-purada rājyada
ghanateyanu māḍuvenu! pānḍava
janapa kaurava janaparu ōlaisuvaru gaddugeya!
ninage kinkara eraḍu santati
enisalu, ollade nīnu, duriyōdhanana
bāydaṃbulake kaiya ānuvare hēḷu” enda

“I will make the kingdom of Hastināpura bow before you.
Pāṇḍava kings and Kaurava kings will celebrate your rule.
Both families will be your servants — but if you refuse,
you will hold out your hand for Duryodhana’s spittoon. Would you do that?”


“ಎಡದ ಮೈಯಲಿ ಕೌರವೇಂದ್ರರ
ಗಡಣ. ಬಲದಲಿ ಪಾಂಡು ಪುತ್ರರ
ಗಡಣವಿದಿರಲಿ ಮಾದ್ರ ಮಾಗಧ ಯಾದವಾದಿಗಳು.
ನಡುವೆ ನೀನೋಲಗದೊಳೊಪ್ಪುವ
ಕಡು ವಿಲಾಸನ ಬಿಸುಟು ಕುರುಪತಿ
ನುಡಿಸೆ “ಜೀಯ ಹಸಾದ” ವೆಂಬುದು … ಕಷ್ಟ ನಿನಗೆಂದ” 9

“eḍada maiyali kauravēndrara gaḍaṇa.
baladali pānḍu putrara gaḍaṇa
idirali mādra māgadha yādava ādigaḷu.
naḍuve nīnu, ōlagadoḷ oppuva
kaḍu vilāsana bisuṭu kurupati
nuḍise “jīya hasāda” eṃbudu … kaṣṭa ninage enda”

“On your left will sit the Kaurava kings.
On your right, the sons of Pāṇḍu.
In front, the Mādras, the Māgadhas, the Yādavas, countless others.
And you in the middle, holding court — throwing away such great glory that befits you, if you choose to go bowing whenever Duryodhana calls, [mumbling] “Your mercy, Master”, … you will find it difficult.”

The intensity of expression in unmatchable. The poke is even sharper if even a part of Karna had thought that he was a friend of Duryodhana, not a servant. How much the born Kṣatriya would have winced at this mental image!

Krishna then delivers the final blow:

“ಶೌರಿಯದಲಿದಿರಿಲ್ಲ ಕುಲದಲಿ
ಸೂರಿಯನ ಸುತನೊಡನೆ ಹುಟ್ಟಿದ
ವೀರರೈವರು ಪಾಂಡು-ತನಯರು ನಿನ್ನ ವೈಭವಕೆ
ಆರು ಸರಿಯೈ? ಕರ್ಣ, ನಡೆ! ನಡೆ!
ಧಾರಿಣೀಪತಿಯಾಗಿ ನೀನಿರೆ
ವೈರವಿತ್ತಂಡಕ್ಕೆ ಬಳಿಕಿಲ್ಲೆಂದನಸುರಾರಿ” 10
“śauriyadali idiru illa. kuladali
sūriyana suta. oḍane huṭṭida
vīraru aivaru pānḍu-tanayaru ninna vaibhavake āru sariyai?
karṇa, naḍe! naḍe!
dhāriṇī-pati āgi nīnu ire
vairavu ittanḍakke baḷikilla endanu asurāri”

“There is none to match you in valour.
In birth, you are the son of Surya himself.
Who among your five brothers from Pāṇḍu can hope to match your glory?
[The very question is absurd!] Karṇa, come! Come!
If you reign as King, there will be no trace of enmity or division!”

Krishna calls Karṇa ‘Sūriyana suta’, but his brothers are merely ‘Pāṇḍu-tanayaru’. Calling them ‘vīraraivaru’ almost seems like sarcasm in context! When he later says , ‘Karṇa, naḍe naḍe’, it feels like he has himself become so convinced of his proposal that it seems absurd to even consider the alternative.

Throughout this narration, Karṇa was silent. The ‘camera’ was entirely on Krishna and his dulcet persuasion, and now it pans a bit to Karṇa. Once again, Kumaravyasa is all about body language:

ಕೊರಳ ಸೆರೆ ಹಿಗ್ಗಿದವು ದೃಗುಜಲ
ಉರವಣಿಸಿ ಕಡು ನೊಂದ“ನಕಟಾ
ಕುರುಪತಿಗೆ ಕೇಡಾದುದೆಂದನು” ತನ್ನ ಮನದೊಳಗೆ
ಹರಿಯ ಹಗೆ ಹೊಗೆದೋರದುರುಹದೆ
ಬರಿದೆ ಹೋಹುದೆ ತನ್ನ ಜನನವ-
-ನರುಹಿ ಕೊಂದನು ಹಲವು ಮಾತೇನೆಂದು ಚಿಂತಿಸಿದ 11
koraḷa sere higgidavu
dṛgu-jala uravaṇisi kaḍu nondanu,
“akaṭā kuru-patige kēḍu ādudu” endanu tanna manada oḷage
“hariya hage hoge tōrade uruhade
baride hōhude? tanna jananavanu
aruhi kondanu halavu mātu ēnu?” endu cintisida

“His neck tightened, tears brimmed forth, and he lamented to himself, ‘Alas, Duryodhana will suffer!
Will Krishna’s enmity ever go in vain! By just revealing the secret of my birth, he has killed me. What more is there to say!’ ”

This is the keystone verse of the entire chapter, and to us personally, the Kumaravyasa-bharata itself. And yet, our translation is a spectacular failure, having absolutely not one whit of the power of the original. Even a translation to prose Kannada seems completely useless:

ಅವನ ಗಂಟಲು ಕಟ್ಟಿತು. ಕಣ್ಣೀರು ಹರಿದು ಬಂದಿತು.
ತನಗೆ ತಾನೇ ನೊಂದುಕೊಂಡನು —
‘ಅಯ್ಯೋ, ದುರ್ಯೋಧನನಿಗೆ ಕೇಡಾಯಿತೇ!
ಈ ಕೃಷ್ಣನ ವೈರತ್ವ ನಮ್ಮನ್ನು ಸುಡದೇ ಬಿಟ್ಟೀತೆ?
ನನ್ನ ಹುಟ್ಟಿನ ರಹಸ್ಯವನ್ನು ಹೇಳಿಯೇ
ನನ್ನನ್ನು ಕೊಂದುಬಿಟ್ಟನಲ್ಲಾ! ಅಯ್ಯೋ, ಇನ್ನೇನು ಹೇಳಲಿ?’

Both translations miss highlighting the soul of the verse. The first thing Karna laments is that this news will hurt Duryodhana. What heartrending loyalty! What friendship! This is brought out in the verse because the regular rhythm of the Bhāminī Ṣaṭpadi gives it breathing space. The first two lines just describe what happened to him, and when his thinking is revealed in the third line, it comes as a surprise to the reader. Even at this moment, his first thought is not of himself, but of his friend.

The second bit also is similar. “Killing me by revealing the secret of my birth” is a truth, but a somewhat corny thing to say. The delightfully alliterative ‘tanna jananavan aruhi kondanu’ rescues it and makes it memorable. ‘hariya hage hogedōraduruhade’ with its crackling ‘has’ and ‘ras’ almost seem to be describing the hidden fire by their sound as well!

The magnitude of failure of our translations makes us this think this is a fundamental property of verse itself. A verse feels like a smooth road, with little bumps and dips engineered in by the poet. If one is driving along, just the expectations of the smoothness and speed make those bumps and dips easily felt. First words, alliterations, subtle tricks — all these show up naturally, and in sharp relief.

In contrast, prose feels like walking on a hill. One is rarely surprised by a bump or a dip, because of the way one anticipates and moves around them. The only way one is surprised is if something fell through or a new vista opened up — exactly the kind of plot devices that talented prose writers engineer.

Let us return to the story, and take stock of what happened. In the beginning of the chapter, Karna was a loyal friend of Duryodhana. He was a loyal friend because of the patronage Duryodhana had so graciously, meritocratically offered him, at a time when the entire Kuru race thought him to be worthless. The Pāṇḍavas were never good to him either, and in their years of enmity with Duryodhana, had crossed Karna many times.

If a reader dozed off and woke up to the last verse, what changed? Did any of the facts above get altered in any way?

No! No event in Karna’s past has changed. And yet, he is a completely different person after Krishna’s revelation, because his story of himself changed.

All that Krishna uttered were a few words, a few wisps of air that dissipated not moments after they were created. Just before they did, they happened on fall on Karna’s ears, and poof! The man was never the same again.

In a very underrated episode of Breaking Bad, a half-tranquilized Walt says this:

[Background: Walt is so inextricably entangled in the drug business that his wife cannot even begin to comprehend it. She knows something is up, and she knows Walt is lying to every one of her questions. She's passed through concern, sternness, anger, and rage, and is on the brink of leaving Walt. In that context, Walt says this to his drug partner Jesse]

“But she just won’t… she just won’t understand. I mean, no matter how well I explain it, these days she just has this… this… I mean, I truly believe there exists some combination of words. There must exist certain words in a certain specific order that can explain all of this, but with her I just can’t ever seem to find them.”

‘Some combination of words in a certain specific order’ — that is all Krishna had here. It is irrelevant if the words are true. Krishna has the kind of authority that always gives one pause, even when everyone knows that he often lies and is a trickster. Even if Karna thought this was merely a deceitful tactic of Krishna’s, it is sufficient that there is reasonable doubt that may be true. Karna himself recognizes at some level that Krishna’s move is a checkmate: no matter what, ‘ಕುರುಪತಿಗೆ ಕೇಡಾದುದು’.

Prof. Paul Bloom has a fascinating talk on the ‘origins of pleasure’, where he describes how the value we ascribe to things is dramatically affected by the ‘stories’ we have of them. In one telling example, he talks of paintings that were regarded as masterpieces by scholars, hung in prestigious museums and even stolen by well-cultured criminals. Then one day suddenly, they were revealed to be forgeries. Exceptionally good forgeries — after all, even the experts couldn’t find a single trace of fraud for years, and the only way they were proven to be forgeries was when the forger publicly demonstrated his skill, to the slack-jawed amazement of the experts. Immediately after that, in spite of not one pixel changing after the revelation, the paintings’ prices immediately dropped, and they were promptly junked.

Isn’t this similar to the ‘narrative hack’ that happened to poor Karna as well?


Jayanta Bhatta, a Sanskrit poet from Kashmir of the 9th century, seems to invert the message of this chapter when talking about poetry and poets’ work:

कुतो वा नूतनं वस्तु वयम् उत्प्रेक्षितुं क्षमाः ।
वाक्य-विन्यास-वैचित्र्य-मात्रम् अत्र विचार्यताम् ॥
kuto vā nūtanaṃ vastu vayam utprekṣituṃ kṣamāḥ |
vākya-vinyāsa-vaicitrya-mātram atra vicāryatām ||

“Where can we find a new thing to observe, really? [i.e., what new thing exists in this world?]
Let us simply discuss the wonder of placing words together!”

Fittingly, “vākya-vinyāsa-vaicitrya-mātram atra vicāryatām” with its multiple alliterations is itself a fine example of “vākya-vinyāsa-vaicitrya”!

This sentiment is especially true for classical literature, which constrains its focus to timeless, inward emotions. The particular external circumstances that give rise to these emotions are of course infinite, but incidental — they are simply the means to an end.

If we expand that focus to include what we have learnt in science and technology, would we have something legitimately new? Or would that too be mostly incidental to the antics of the ancient ape brain that will forever hold the limelight?

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