On Day 17 of the Kurukshetra War, as Karna sets out for his fated battle with Arjuna, his charioteer (by special request) is Shalya, the King of Madra. Unbeknownst to Karna, Shalya has conspired with the enemy to sap Karna’s morale and undermine his confidence at this crucial hour. This he now proceeds to do by saying things like “Arjuna and Krishna are like two mighty Suns and you are but a firefly in comparison, chirrup chirrup, muhahaha!” (I paraphrase slightly.) Whereupon Karna, never known for being able to hold his temper in check, embarks on this quite remarkable diatribe against the people of Shalya’s kingdom:
Hold thy tongue, O thou that art born in a sinful country. Hear from me, O Shalya, the sayings, already passed into proverbs, about the wicked Madrakas. There is no friendship in the Madraka who is mean in speech and is the lowest of mankind. The Madraka is always a person of wicked soul, always untruthful and crooked. It hath been heard by us that till the moment of death the Madrakas are wicked. Amongst the Madrakas, the sire, the son, the mother, the mother-in-law, the brother, the grand-son, and other kinsmen, companions, strangers arrived at their homes, slaves male and female, all mingle together. The Madraka is the dirt of humanity.At this point I’m thinking that the Madrakas sound suspiciously like the protagonists of reality TV shows such as Big Boss. But Karna continues:
The women of the Madrakas mingle, at their own will, with men known and unknown. Of unrighteous conduct, and subsisting upon fried and powdered corn and fish in their homes, they laugh and cry having drunk spirits and eaten beef with garlic and boiled rice borrowed from elsewhere. They drink the liquor called Gauda, and eat fried barley with it. They sing incoherent songs and mingle lustfully with one another, indulging the while in the freest speeches. Maddened with drink, they call upon one another, using many endearing epithets. Addressing many drunken exclamations to their husbands and lords, these fallen women, without observing restrictions even on sacred days, give themselves up to dancing.
Knowing this, O learned one, hold thy tongue, or listen to something further that I will say. Those women that live and answer calls of nature like camels and asses, being as thou art the child of one of those sinful and shameless creatures, how canst thou wish to declare the duties of men? Intoxicated with drink and divested of robes, these women laugh and dance outside the walls of the houses in cities, without garlands and unguents, singing while drunk obscene songs of diverse kinds that are as musical as the bray of the ass or the bleat of the camel. In intercourse they are absolutely without any restraint, and in all other matters they act as they like.Lesson 4: take your childhood heroes with a pinch of salt (or a dash of vinegar)
As a child, like every other warped little boy (and a few warped little girls) who came from a dysfunctional family and imagined he was the sole Outsider in a world where everyone else belonged, I hero-worshipped Karna. (I still do to an extent, though being an adult now I also like Ben Stiller.) Imagine then my astonishment when I came across the following lines spoken by this noble warrior, one of the great tragic heroes in all literature:
When a Madraka woman is solicited for the gift of a little quantity of vinegar, she scratches her hips and without being desirous of giving it, says these cruel words, 'Let no man ask any vinegar of me that is so dear to me. I would give him my son, I would give him my husband, but vinegar I would not give.' The young Madraka maidens, we hear, are generally very shameless and hairy and gluttonous and impure.Suddenly, all the vignettes from the life of Karna, the long litany of misfortunes that gave such a sheen to the story of this unhappy hero, receded into the background, to be replaced by the surreal image of Karna, empty vessel in hand, asking for some vinegar and having the door rudely slammed in his face. It’s obvious from the above passage that Karna is greatly displeased at being spurned in his quest for vinegar. But why did he want so much vinegar in the first place? And why go to a Madraka woman to get it?
Questions, questions. Now I know what the sage meant when he said that every time you read the Mahabharata you will ponder the human condition anew.
Note: The passages quoted here are all taken from Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s exhaustive 12-volume English version of the epic (which you’ll find on the Sacred Texts site) and it’s possible that something was lost in translation from the original Sanskrit. Maybe “vinegar” was meant to be “wine”. (There are many other puzzling incongruities in the Ganguli text, such as one sentence that reads: “Jayadratha now rode against the mighty King Drupada, with his owl and his footsoldiers at his side.”)
Previous lessons from the Mahabharata: 1 and 2