Appendix 1: Karṇa’s Birth

Once the great sage Durvāsā visited King Kuntībhoja. He stayed for some days in the king’s palace and was attended by Kuntī, then a young girl. Due to her expert service and humble attitude, the sage became pleased with her. He gave her a mantra with which she could summon any god and have him do her bidding.

After the sage had left, Kuntī was sitting alone in her room. She gazed out her window and saw the sun rising. Suddenly, she found herself gifted with celestial sight. She was able to see the personified form of the sun. Seeing the effulgent and beautiful deity, her mind became attracted. She began to wonder about the mantra. Did it actually work? Could she summon the sun-god himself? The girl recited the mantra as she thought of Sūrya. To her amazement, he appeared before her, filling her room with brilliance. The deity, who had a complexion like molten gold and was adorned with shining bracelets and a diadem, smiled at the astonished maiden. “What would you have me do?” he asked.

Kuntī almost cowered before the god. “O lord, go back to the place from where you came,” she replied in a bashful voice. “It was only childish curiosity that made me call you. Pray forgive me for my folly.”

“O slender-waisted girl, I will return as you request, but first I must do something for you. It is not proper that my visit should go in vain. Indeed, the gods’ acts always bear fruit. You have desired me. I will therefore bestow upon you a splendid child, furnished with his own armor and celestial earrings to endow him with full power.”

Kuntī’s mouth fell open in horror as the god continued. “O maiden, I will only leave after having enjoyed you. If you do not comply with my words and gratify my desire, then I will curse you, your father, and the Brahmin who foolishly gave you the mantra without knowing your character.”

Sūrya told Kunt that all the other gods were laughing at him to see his plight. The girl had called him with desire in her heart and was now rejecting him. He would not leave without giving her a son.

Kuntī spoke in an imploring voice. “O great lord of rays, please go to your own abode. Surely such an outrage is not befitting you. I am a maiden and cannot surrender myself to a man until I am properly married. My father, mother, or other superiors must first bestow me upon another. I will not abandon virtue. In this world, keeping her body pure is considered a woman’s highest duty.”

Kuntī again explained that it had only been childishness and naivete that had made her use the mantra. She begged the god to forgive her and to leave.

Sūrya would not relent. “It is because you are only a girl that I am already so lenient. Where others might have been punished for insulting me so, I am instead offering you the boon of a powerful child like myself. If I go without enjoying you, I will be the object of ridicule among the celestials. Therefore, surrender yourself to me and receive a son who will be extolled in all the worlds.”

Afraid to commit sin, Kuntī repeatedly tried to sway the god from his purpose, but to no avail. He remained unmoved. Finally she said, “O lord of the world, how will I be saved from sin and the world’s censure? How will the reputation of my house be protected? It seems that my surrendering to you is an act condemned by scripture. Please instruct me how it may be done without my losing my chastity. Surely the virtue, reputation and, indeed, the life of all beings rests in you. Tell me how your proposal may be consistent with virtue.”

Sūrya assured her that there would be no sin in her having intercourse with him. “How could I, who desires the welfare of all beings, cause anyone to commit a sinful act, which leads only to suffering? Do not fear. Even after uniting with me, you will remain a virgin. O fair-complexioned girl, you need have no doubt.”

Assured and seeing that she had no choice, Kuntī assented to the god’s request. He at once entered her by his yogic power and, overwhelmed by his energy, she fell senseless to her bed. The god then departed. Ten months later, Kuntī gave birth to a son as beautiful as a celestial. No one but one or two of her most trusted servants knew of her pregnancy and of the birth.

When the child was born, Kuntī saw that he was adorned with bright earrings and a natural coat of mail. His eyes resembled those of a lion and his shoulders, even as a newborn baby, were broad. Kuntī consulted with her nurse as to what to do with the boy. She was torn. This was her first-born son, the offspring of the powerful sun-god, but how could she keep him? Although the deity had assured her that she would remain a virgin, who would believe it? How could it ever be acceptable for a maiden to have a child? Who would accept her as a wife if she had already given birth?

Kuntī finally concluded that the baby had to be cast away. He was the great Sūrya’s son. Surely Sūrya would protect him. Kuntī also prayed to Viṣṇu for the boy’s welfare. Then, along with her nurse, she took the child in a large wicker basket to the bank of the Ganges. She sat on the river bank gazing at the baby for some time. Tears fell from her eyes and she cried out in pain as she contemplated losing the child. Her anguished voice carried across the water.

“O my son, may all the creatures inhabiting the earth, heavens and waters protect you. May Varuṇa, god of the waters, and Pavana, god of the winds, carry you safely away. May your powerful father, the god of shining rays, watch over you.”

Kuntī beseeched many of the gods to look after her son and prayed that he would find a good father and mother. “What a dream she has dreamed who will adopt you as her son,” she cried. “Blessed is that lady who will see you crawl on the ground, your radiant face covered in dust and your dark and curling locks strewn about. Fortunate are they who will hear your inarticulate speech and who will see you grow to manhood, like a lion in the Himālayan forests.”

Having wept long and bitterly, Kuntī at last closed the basket and pushed it out into the flowing river. She watched as it bobbed away on the waters. Then, supported by her nurse, she made her way back to the palace.

The basket finally came to rest in still waters near the city of Champa. There, Adhiratha, leader of the suta tribe, had gone to the river with his wife, Radha. The lady saw the basket and had it brought onto the bank. When it was opened, the couple saw with amazement the effulgent child lying there. Radha at once took the infant onto her lap and asked her husband if she could take him home. She had been praying to the gods for a son and considered that this baby must be a gift from them. With her husband’s permission, she brought the child home and raised him with tenderness as her own son. They named him Vasusena, but later he became known as Karṇa and Radheya.