ANY ray of hope there might have been of a peaceful settlement when Krishna went to Hastinapura was extinguished when he returned and narrated what happened. Kunti was overwhelmed with grief when she learnt that it was to be war to the death.
"How can I" reflected Kunti, "give my thoughts tongue and say to my sons, 'Bear the insults. Let us not ask for any territory and let us avoid war'? How can my sons accept what is contrary to kshatriya tradition?"
"At the same time," she thought, "what can be gained by mutual killings in the war and what happiness attained after the destruction of the race? How shall I face this dilemma?" Thus was she tormented by the prospect of wholesale destruction on the one hand and the claims of kshatriya honor on the other.
"How can my sons defeat the mighty three combined, Bhishma, Drona and Karna? They are warriors who have never yet met defeat. When I think of them, my mind trembles. I do not worry about the others. These three are the only people in the Kaurava army capable of fighting the Pandavas with any hope of slaying them. Of these, Dronacharya might refrain from killing my children from either love or unwillingness to meet one's own disciples in battle. The grandsire will certainly not want to kill them. But Karna is the Pandavas' chief enemy. He is anxious to please Duryodhana by killing my sons. Karna is a great man-at-arms. As I think of him engaged in battle against my other sons, my heart is consumed with agony like a faggot in the fire. Now is the time for me, to seek Karna out and tell him the truth about his birth, on knowing which, he is bound to abandon Duryodhana's cause."
Tormented by these anxious thoughts about her children. Kunti went to the banks of the Ganga where Karna usually offered his daily prayers.
Karna was there at his devotions. Facing east and with uplifted hands he was in deep meditations. Kunti quietly stood behind him and waited.
Karna was in meditation and was unmindful of everything until he felt the hot rays of the sun on his back.
His prayers over, Karna looked back to find Kunti standing behind him and holding the hem of his upper garment over her head to shield it from the burning sun.
That Pandu's queen and the mother of the Pandava princes should be there, waiting patiently for him to finish his prayers, filled him with great confusion and amazement.
"The son of Radha and the chariot-driver Adhiratha bows to you. I am at your service. What can I do for you, O queen?" asked Karna, according to the established forms of respectful address.
"Karna," said Kuntidevi, "you are not Radha's son, nor is the charioteer your father. Do not think that you are a man of the chariot-driver's caste. You are Surya's son born out of the womb of Pritha of royal blood, otherwise known as Kunti. May good fortune attend you"!
She then narrated the story of his birth. "You who were born with full armor and golden earrings," said Kunti, "not knowing that the Pandavas are your brothers, have joined Duryodhana and have come to hate them. To live in dependence on Dhritarashtra's sons, does not befit you. Join Arjuna and be one of the kings of the realm. May you and Arjuna put down the wicked! The whole world will be at your feet. Your fame will reach far and wide, like that of the brothers Balarama and Krishna. Surrounded by your five brothers, your effulgence will be like that of Brahma among the gods. In perplexing situations, one must do what gives satisfaction to loving parents. This is the highest dharma according to our scriptures."
When his mother spoke thus to him at the end of his devotions to the sun, Karna felt a sign in his heart that the Sun god endorsed Kunti's request. But he checked himself and took it to mean that the Sun god was testing his loyalty and strength of mind. He should not be found wanting.
With an effort of the will, he controlled alike the temptations of self-interest and the prompting of natural affection. He said sadly but firmly: "What you have said, dear mother, is contrary to dharma. If I swerve from the path of duty, I shall have done myself much more hurt than any that an enemy might inflict on me in the battlefield. You deprived me of all that was my birthright as a kshatriya when you threw me, a helpless babe, into the river. And now, you talk to me of my duties as a kshatriya. You denied me the motherly love, which blesses all life. And now, thinking of your other children's good, you tell me this story. If I now join the Pandavas, will not the world proclaim that I have done so out of fear? I have eaten the salt of Dhritarashtra's sons, won their confidence as their champion and enjoyed all the consideration and kindness they showed me. And now you want me, when the battle is about to be joined, to be untrue to my salt and go over to the Pandavas. The sons of Dhritarashtra look on me as the ark, which will enable them to cross the deluge of war. I have myself urged them into this war. How can I now desert them? Could there be blacker treachery and baser ingratitude? What in life, or beyond it, would be worth a price like that? Mother dear, I must discharge my debt, aye, with life, if necessary; otherwise, I shall be no better than a common thief purloining my food all these years. I shall surely use all my followers against your sons in this coming war. I cannot deceive you. Please forgive me."
"But yet," continued he, "I cannot have my mother plead completely in vain. Part with Arjuna to me. Either he or myself must die in this war. I will not kill your other sons, whatever they may do unto me. Mother of warrior sons, you will still have five sons. Either I or Arjuna will survive this war. And with the other four sons, you will still have five".
When Kunti heard her first-born speak thus firmly, adhering to the kshatriya code, her heart was full of tumultuous and contrary feelings and, without trusting herself to speak. She embraced him and departed in silence.
"Who can go against what has been ordained?" she thought. "He has, at least, offered not to harm four of my sons. That is enough. May God bless him," and she returned home.