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World Poetry Portfolio #46: Carole Satyamurti

Carole Satyamurti is a poet and sociologist. She published three volumes of poetry with Oxford University Press, of which the first and third were Poetry Book Society Recommendations: Broken Moon (1987), Changing the Subject (1990) and Striking Distance (1994). In 1998, OUP published her Selected Poems. Following the termination of the OUP poetry list, her fourth collection, Love and Variations, was published by Bloodaxe in 2000. Stitching the Dark: New and Selected Poems, appeared from Bloodaxe in 2005, and a new collection, Countdown, in 2011.

Until recently, she taught at the University of East London, and at the Tavistock Clinic, where her main academic interest was in the application of psychoanalytic ideas to an understanding of the stories people tell about themselves, whether in formal autobiography or in social encounters. She contributed to, and co-edited, with Hamish Canham, a collection of essays on the connections between poetry and psychoanalysis, Acquainted With the Night: psychoanalysis and the poetic imagination (Karnac, 2003).

Her poetry has been awarded a number of prizes. She won the National Poetry Competition in 1986. She received an Arts Council Writers’Award in 1988, and another in 2008. In 2000, she received a Cholmondeley Award, and she was short-listed for a Forward Prize in 2007. Her poetry has been published in a wide range of magazines, and has been extensively anthologised. She is currently working on a verse re-telling of the Mahabharata.

Carole Satyamurti is an experienced performer, competition judge and workshop tutor. She has been writer in residence at the University of Sussex, and a visitor in the Creative Writing Program at the College of Charleston, South Carolina. She teaches regularly for the Arvon Foundation, and for the Poetry Society (UK). With Gregory Warren Wilson, she runs writing courses in Venice and Corfu.


The Mahabharata is one of the two great epic poems of India (the other being the Ramayana). It is more than 2000 years old, and is immensely long – about 5000 closely packed pages of prose, in Ganguli’s 1890s English translation. Most other English versions of the epic are also in prose. The present version, of which this is an extract, is about 700 pages long, and is written in blank verse in an attempt to convey the poetic quality of the original Sanskrit poem. Blank verse, the form used by Chaucer and Shakespeare, has a place in English poetry which perhaps approximates to the place the shloka form occupied in ancient Sanskrit.

The main narrative thread of the Mahabharata concerns the bitter conflict between two sets of royal cousins, the Pándavas and the Káuravas, over possession of the kingdom. The hundred Káurava brothers are led by Duryódhana; Árjuna is the greatest warrior of the Pándava side. Kunti is the mother of the five Pándava brothers – and also, secretly, of Karna. The eventual outcome of the conflict is a great war, on the eve of which Krishna teaches Árjuna the principles of right action (the Bhagavad Gita).

Karna , through most of the story, is Duryódhana’s loyal friend, implacably hostile to the Pándavas. He is a tragic figure – envious, unfortunate, and the victim of his own virtues. The extract given here tells of his origins and early life. Because he is thought to be low-born, he is excluded from the martial training afforded to princes, (there is a reference to the humiliation he has suffered at court) and has to make his way as best he can.

This version of the Mahabharata will be published by Norton in the USA.


(new translation: an extract)

5.   Karna 

Who was the extraordinary youth,
the strong young eagle, child of nobodies,
who dared aspire to outclass Árjuna?
Born in sorrow, born to encounter trouble,
even as a child he was a stranger
in his own skin. The shining gold cuirass
he was born with, the luminescent earrings,
seemed incongruous for a driver’s son.
And with his tawny eyes, the nobility
of his demeanour, he looked so unlike
his humble parents, he was often mocked
by others, so preferred to walk alone.

To understand who Karna really was
we must now uncover Kunti’s secret.


Some time before her birth, Kunti’s father,
ruler of the powerful Vrishni clan,
had made a promise to a childless cousin,
‘You shall have the first child born to me
to bring up as your own.’ That child was Kunti,
and she grew up in her foster-father’s palace
loved and loving, modest and beautiful.
It happened that one day a famous brahmin,
known for his short temper and ready curses,
came to visit. He was tall, formidable,
abrupt in his demands. Kunti’s father,
extremely anxious not to give offence,
said to him, ‘Great brahmin, my house is yours.
My daughter, who is of excellent conduct,
will supply your needs in every way.
You only have to ask.’ 

                        So, night and day,
putting aside all wishes of her own,
Kunti served the brahmin.  He tested her
by making rude, unreasonable requests
but at all times, promptly and cheerfully,
Kunti served him, and the uncouth guest
grew fond of her. When a year was up
the brahmin was preparing to move on.
‘Lovely one, you have served me perfectly.
You may choose a boon and I shall grant it.’
‘Sir, that you and my father are pleased with me
is boon enough.’ ‘Then,’ said the great brahmin,
‘I shall teach you a mantra; with these words
you can summon any god you like
to bestow a son on you.’ And, having taught her,
he disappeared, to everyone’s relief.

Kunti was curious. Would the brahmin’s mantra
really summon the celestials?
One morning, early, as she watched the sun
rise in its glory over the distant hills,
the mantra came into her mind. At once
Surya, the sun god, in human form
blazed before her, the most beautiful
creature she had ever seen. Immense,
armoured in gold, he said, ‘Speak, lovely girl,
you summoned me, what shall I do for you?’
Kunti cried out in terror, ‘Go back, my lord,
back where you came from! I was only playing.’
Surya frowned. ‘You cannot call forth a god
simply to dismiss him. I know your mind –
you wish to lie with me, and to bear a son
who will be unrivalled in his prowess.
Come now – if I simply take my leave
and do not give you the son your heart desires
I shall be ridiculed by all the gods,
and I shall curse you – and your father too.’
Kunti sobbed, ‘I am only a child,
a virgin. The good name of my family
will be ruined – please, spare me! To lie with you
would be a dreadful sin.’
                          ‘Not at all,
sweet and lovely woman,’ said the sun god.
‘How could I urge you do something wrong,
when I have the welfare of the world at heart?
Besides, after we have lain together,
you will remain a virgin.’
                        ‘And will my son
have golden armour as you have?’
                                   ‘He will,
and, in addition, he will be endowed
with divine earrings to save him from harm.’
‘Then,’ said Kunti, ‘I will lie with you.’


She managed to conceal her state from all
except her nurse, and when she came to term,
Kunti gave birth to a boy, most beautiful,
wearing a cuirass of gold, and earrings
that lit up his face. She wept – with joy,
but with grief too, since she must give him up,
play the part of the innocent, carefree girl
she was before.  She placed him in a box
and, at first light, Kunti and her nurse
crept to the river bank. The air was cool
and hushed. It was that hour when everything
is still, only a rustling, as the reeds
were stirred by the morning breeze. Holding the casket,
Kunti whispered a blessing to her son:
       ‘May the world welcome you.
        May no creature harm you,
        neither those that walk on land
        nor those that lurk in water.
        May your shining father guard you.
        May you perform heroic deeds.
        May you be loved, my son.

‘How fortunate you are to have a father
who will watch over you. How fortunate
is the woman who will nurture you,
hear your first words, guide your first tottering steps
and see you blossom into glorious manhood.’
Then, in tears, she floated him adrift
in his casket on the shining water
and he was borne up by the gentle current,
carried on the black breast of the river
drifting onward calmly, silently.
Eventually, the casket caught in reeds
and there its journey ended. 

                              At that time,
a worthy chariot driver , Adhiratha,
went with his wife, Radha, to the Ganga,
to offer prayers at the sacred river,
as they always did as dusk descended.
They were a devout and devoted couple
but they had no children – a great sorrow.
Radha had attempted every remedy,
always disappointed.  On that evening,
she saw a casket by the river bank
and, when Adhiratha brought his tools
and prised off the lid, they were amazed –
they saw a baby, glowing like the sun,
with golden armour and bright, sparkling earrings
that were joined to him. The man and wife
were overcome with joy, ‘A miracle!’
said Adhiratha, ‘this is certainly
the child of a god, given us by the gods.’

They took the baby home and, after this,
Radha bore other children of her own.
The boy grew strong, devoted to the truth.
They named him Vasusena, ‘armed with riches’,
later known as Karna .  When he was old enough,
his parents told him how he had come to them.
They would often talk about that day
and speculate about his origins.


All through Karna’s life, although his birth
was unknown to him, he was attracted
to the sun god as his special deity.
The brazen heat of day, that drove most others
to seek the shade, slapped him on the shoulders
like a call to action. And at evening
the horizontal fingers of the sun,
piercing the forest foliage, appeared
to beckon to him.  Every morning, early,
as the majestic sun, breasting the hills,
painted the world blood-red, he stood alone,
facing east, worshipping Surya.
And in the evening, as the sun declined,
he stood in contemplation, his palms joined
in prayer and devotion. At such times,
if brahmins came to him begging for alms,
he would always give them what they asked.
This was his lifelong practice, and his vow.

No parents could have cherished a child more
than Karna’s; none were more worthy of respect,
and he in turn loved and revered them.
He was very different from his brothers.
Rather then being a driver like his father,
his natural talents and his inclinations
tended towards a hero’s martial calling.
He listened avidly to the old tales
told by his father, of heroic conquest
and courageous deeds. At night, he dreamed
he was the greatest archer in the world.

His father understood what must be done.
When the boy grew old enough, Adhiratha
took him to train at Drona’s weapons school –
and we have heard what happened to him there.
At Hástinapura, he learned many skills,
but he also learned humiliation.
His obsession, his defining passion,
was resentment of the Pándavas –
the unchallenged way they seemed entitled
to be, and have, the best of everything.
His envy fixed, above all, on Árjuna.
The iron entered his soul; he became
proud and bitter, and these qualities
remained with him, lifelong. 


                              After he left
the City of the Elephant , he travelled
to where the legendary weapons teacher,
Rama Jamadagnya, had his home –
a hermitage in lovely fields and forest
close beside the sparkling western sea.
This Bhárgava , both divine and human,
belonged to another age. Long, long before,
to avenge his father, killed by kshátriyas,
he had slaughtered the whole warrior race
many times over. But now he lived
in peaceable retirement. Karna knew
he still hated kshátriyas – although once,
long before, he had been Bhishma’s teacher.

How would Karna best present himself?
Probably not as a driver’s son.
He abased himself at the master’s feet,
begging to be taken as his pupil.
‘I am a brahmin, Master,’ he declared –
only half a lie since, as a suta,
his community was of mixed descent.
The master, touched by the youth’s desperation,
agreed to teach him. 

                       So began the years
of training with the celebrated teacher.
Never again would Karna be as happy
as he was then, learning the arts and skills
that most accorded with his deepest nature.
His master loved him, valuing his grace,
his devotion, above all, his truthfulness.
He was a brilliant pupil, more than meeting
every challenge the guru threw at him.
He nurtured in his heart’s secret recess,
a goal: ‘One day, I’ll be respected, famous.
One day, I’ll show the people who despise me
that I’m as good – no, better than anyone!’


Once, Karna was wandering near the hermitage,
beside the ocean. At his feet, the water
trailed its frothy hem around his ankles.
The sun had kept him steadfast company
from dawn, when the sky was tinged with rose,
to evening, when the final fiery blaze
cast a crimson sheen over the water.
Karna stood, praying beside the ocean
that seemed to stretch out to infinity.

He had his bow with him, and practising,
he accidentally shot a cow, provider
of milk for the ritual offerings
of a devout, Veda-reciting brahmin.
Karna begged forgiveness, ‘Holy one,
I didn’t mean to kill your cow. Forgive me!’
This he said over and over, and offered
compensation, but the furious brahmin
refused to be placated in any way:
‘Wicked kshátriya! You’ve killed the creature
who was my lovely daughter, mother, friend,
who gave milk for my daily sacrifice.
She was everything to me. I curse you!
Since you killed my cow through inattention,
when you meet your enemy in battle
your chariot-wheel will get bogged down in mud
and your enemy will kill you then and there
as you are struggling with the wheel, distracted,
unprepared for death.’  Karna sank down
as if oppressed by an enormous weight.


The master’s final teaching to his pupil
was how to bring to mind the arcane mantras
that would invoke the terrifying astras,
the weapons of the gods, especially
the death-dealing Brahma weapon. To prepare,
Karna performed rigorous austerities,
endured extremes of hunger, thirst and pain.
‘Now,’ said the teacher, ‘you are unbeatable.
Your genius with the bow far surpasses
that of any pupil I have known;
and you command the astras. But remember,
you should only use these sacred powers
in the service of dharma. Death is the price
of using them for any sinful purpose.’

One day, the master feeling tired, Karna
made a pillow of his lap, and soon
Rama was sound asleep. Time passed slowly
in peaceful meditation. Suddenly
Karna felt a piercing pain – a worm,
a hideous feeder on flesh and blood,
was sitting on his thigh, burrowing, biting!
He wanted to leap up and crush the creature
but, fearing to wake his master, he sat still,
enduring agony. When his blood trickled
onto his teacher, Rama sprang up, shouting:
‘Aaah! I am polluted! What have you done?
Out with it now – tell me what has happened.’
Karna explained. 

                  The master was enraged.
‘No brahmin could have tolerated pain
so agonising – you have lied to me,
you must be a kshátriya! I have given
the astras to a lying kshátriya!’
Karna explained – ‘My passionate desire
to learn the Brahma weapon tempted me
to lie about my birth – Master, forgive me!’
But the teacher uttered a solemn curse:
‘Your selfish craving is at the root of this.
One day, when your very life depends on it,
and you try to invoke the Brahma weapon,
your memory will fail you. That is the day
that you will meet your death. Now, go from here!’ 

Karna was horrified, inconsolable
at the loss of his master’s good opinion.
It was as though he had lost a limb,
bereft of the approval of the one man
whose respect mattered to him most of all.
He knew that in his desperate wish to learn
he had been dishonest, been unfaithful
to his parents’ virtuous example.
At that moment, even his achievements,
even the allure of fame and glory,
could not expunge his painful self-reproach.


On that day, the youth became the man.
From then on, Karna walked through the world
alone.  Destiny could not be bargained with.
He must dedicate himself to the pursuit
of truth and virtue for their own sake,
looking for no immediate reward.
The curses always crouched in wait for him.
Living his life according to his nature,
he was crucial to the cosmic drama
the gods had devised for the sake of Earth.

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