Consistent Loyalty v. Contextual Thinking

Shyam’s Offer

Shyam also met Karna and in attempt to avert war told him what no one else had told him.

‘Know that your birth mother is Kunti. By law, you are the eldest son of the man she married, Pandu. This makes you, by law, the eldest Pandava, with full rights to Pandu’s kingdom and to Draupadi, common wife of the Pandavas. Join your brothers as a brother should. Be king and rule over the Pandavas and Kauravas. Do this for the sake of peace.’

Karna replied, ‘Your talks have failed. Your compromise has failed. So now you try to bribe me and reduce the strength of the Kauravas, for you know that I am to Duryodhana what Arjuna is to Yudhishtira. Indeed, you are not just a diplomat, but you are a manipulator.’

‘Peace is more important,’ said Shyam.

‘Then tell the Pandavas to give up claim over the kingdom and let Duryodhana rule in peace,’ said Karna

‘If Duryodhana, a man who does not keep his word, who publicly disrobes his sister-in-law, who denies livelihood to his own cousins, is allowed to rule, then there is no hope for the meek. Why would anyone respect any boundaries? Why then should there be kings? In your love for Duryodhana you abandon dharma.’

‘I would rather be a loyal friend than an opportunist. Do the Pandavas know that I, whom they abuse constantly as charioteer’s son, am their elder brother? Why did Kunti keep quiet all these years? Why is the secret of my birth being revealed to me now, when there is a possibility of a Pandava defeat? I am just a tool, a lever for Pandava success. You don’t care for me, Shyam.’

‘Duryodhana does not care for you either. He cares only for your skills. You are letting yourself be a tool, a lever for Kaurava success.’

‘The Kauravas gave me dignity for my skills whereas the Pandavas mocked me for having been raised by charioteers. Whom should I prefer Shyam: the Kauravas who appreciate me for that what I have, or the Pandavas who mock who I am?’

‘You are neither Kunti’s biological son, nor Adiratha’s foster-son. You are Karna. Just as I am more than Devaki’s biological son and Nanda’s foster-son. Warrior, charioteer, cowherd – these are artificial identities imposed by society. You are not merely your skills either. You are more than an archer. I see you, Karna: you are someone who has the power to stop a war. That is most important, even more than justice. As lawyers we can always argue who is right and who is wrong, but no man can bring back the dead. Let us not get people killed. Let us not create widows and orphans.’

‘You told Duryodhana that he must keep his word. That is what honourable kings like Ram do. Now you ask me to break my word. How can anyone trust you?’

‘Duryodhana functions as a king. I told him what a king should do as part of good governance. You function as a king’s aid. I speak to you differently. Context matters. The rules for Ram, eldest son of a royal family, are not the same as the rules for Shyam, younger son in a cowherd’s family.’

‘I choose consistent loyalty over your contextual thinking. I choose to be loyal to Duryodhana as Hanuman was to Ram,’ said Karna firmly, his head held high.

Shyam smiled. Those who believed they were righteous never listened. Still, he said, ‘No, Karna. You are no Hanuman as Duryodhana is no Ram. Duryodhana is like Ravana, who forcibly takes and clings to what is not his. And that makes you Kumbhakarna, for like him, you too will be killed in the war. When you provide one hundred brothers the power to usurp a kingdom that was built by five brothers, you allow the mighty to dominate the meek, you uphold adharma.’

Devdutt Pattanaik, Shyam, (Penguin Books, 2018).