Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"They don't share their vinegar": Karna on the Madrakas

Lesson 3 from the Mahabharata: when your driver says nasty things to you, insult his lineage and question the character of the people from the region he belongs to. But do this in very ornate language, otherwise it will merely be in bad taste and not at all entertaining.

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.

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.
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:
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


  1. I think the context must surely have been lost in translation or maybe the meanings were different in the older texts.

    I am not much familiar with Mahabharata, except from the tamil movie "Karnan" and a couple of children's comics read years ago and yes, I have also thought him to be the saddest anti-hero in history. I have always wanted his ending to have been different. Given that, I cannot think that such vile words would have been spoken by him.

    As for the owl who accompanied Jayadratha, it could have denoted his advisor.

    Just goes to show that translations can distort stories, acc: perception of translator. Then again, who knows maybe the authors of the past were depraved?

  2. I have been reading Mr. Ganguli too. I think his language is quite exquisite, but a tad too high for me.

    And I am a big fan of Karna as well. The ideal tragic hero.

  3. Ouch!... Yet, somehow, reaffirming. A sign from the blogiverse that the work I'm doing now on Karna is... seen to by a power that moves things, perhaps? (Cryptic, sorry -- but thanks.)

  4. 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.

    I *knew* this standard-two-parent-five-children-happy-bihari-family thing was a sham.

    I'm a Madraka woman!

    And yeah, I ain't givin' NOBODY my vinegar neither.

  5. Chronicus skepticus: You borrow boiled rice from elsewhere?! Reprobate! Why can't you buy and boil your own?

    As for the owl who accompanied Jayadratha, it could have denoted his advisor.

    Art: I prefer to believe it's a real owl (preferably a horned one). The epics are what we make of them, after all.

    More seriously, when you say "I cannot think such vile words would have been spoken by him": if you read the original text, you'll find that even the noblest characters do and say the vilest things at certain times (notably in the heat of battle when all lofty notions about dharma vanish). This doesn't take the sheen away from Karna's essential character, it's just another pointer to the greatness of the Mahabharata as a story about human complexities (not just a simplistic good-vs-evil tale).

  6. 'S tradition Jai.

    We DON'T share our vinegar, and we DON'T buy our own rice!

    You don't mess with tradition. Or a Mardaka woman.

  7. It is not that Karnan said vile things that provoked my reaction but rather it did not feel that it was in keeping with his character (I admit it is the one I built in my mind) to lash out at women like that. I felt it would have been more appropriate for Karnan to lash out at his charioteer, without invoking the women of his birthplace.

    Anyway, thanks for stimulating my interest in Mahabharata. Maybe I will read it (a translated version) one of these days, to see how I interpret the epic and how much of my childhood perceptions of the characters remain.

  8. Divya: Madraka, not "Mard"aka. Unless that was a Freudian slip :)

    ART: I see your point, but one thing that's worth remembering about Karna is the simmering anger/resentment he carried, which was always waiting for a chance to come to the surface. There are numerous instances in the epic of him saying some very strong, cruel, even foolish things not because he really believed in them but because it provided an outlet for the anger and bitterness.

    Anyway, I think Kamala Subramaniam and Ramesh Menon's novelistic versions do a much better job of bringing out the human element of the Mahabharata than Ganguli's literal translation does.

  9. As many Ramayanas, so many Mahabharatas.

    There is no authoritative version of the Mahabharata (the Bhandarkar Institute version comes closest), so it's hard to tell if this came from the original version, or was inserted as an afterthought.

    Karna was fairly vanilla when it came to sex, by all accounts he was married to one woman and remained faithful to her (contrast with Arjuna and Krishna). So I can imagine him as a sexual prude.

  10. First time i read about Karna in that light.. today i lost admiration for the only character in mahabharata i ever liked. That was not a pinch but a handful of salt.

  11. Sanskrit for owl is Ulooka, the name of Shakuni's (='Vulture') son. Perhaps that was what was intended? Was killed by Nakula soon after Shakuni himself was killed by Sahadeva.

  12. Black Mongoose: thanks, you're probably right - Uluka slipped my mind. I still wistfully imagine Jayadratha flanked by a frowning horned owl though :(

    Are you perchance related to the half-golden mongoose that appeared at Yudhisthira's Ashwamedha yagna?

  13. Impressive indeed....keep it up.

    It would be interesting to present similar excerpts about Krishna who was quite a scheming and devious character in the context of Mahabharata.

  14. oh definitely..ive been reading through it all and mr. ganguli and i think his language is kind of intelligent but yet at a higher art of destination.

  15. Have just started on the Van Buitenen translation which am thoroughly enjoying. Pity he died without finishing it. The vinegar is wine, perhaps made of dates?

  16. Renunciation- the ultimate lesson of life!

  17. i like arjuna very much i dont like karna though he is very generous he called draupadi a prostitute

  18. this is an inspired post. does it make me a total wimp if i liked yudhishtra best when i was small? i think it was his devotion to dogs (as i saw it then) that most inspired me.

    i am currently struggling through this exact version, and it (and your post) remind me of this wonderful bit in umberto eco's mouse or rat where he puts a few lines out of the bible into altvista's babel, and translates it into (i think) french and then back, and gets this wonderful mish-mash where the holy spirit becomes liquor.
    i fear this mr ganguli would've failed the turing test.

  19. Why am I not surprised? He has a consistency to lash out at women when he cannot confront their men. Read taunting Draupadi, when he could not defeat Arjun in any battle. Then Shalya, who is out of bounds as they are in the same team; so he flings mud at their women instead.

    All his rigid rules of conduct (he sounds like the prude, sour moral police) seem to apply only to women. And no, he was not a one-woman fella. He had about 2 wives (known) and many sons. So cut out that poor-little-warrior aura from him