A visibly shaken and angry Karna took the reins himself and started riding towards his home. He had just learned that the Pitamaha forbade him from taking part in the war as long as he was the commander.
Karna always harbored negative feelings towards Bheeshma. He secretly thought he could prevail over the grand old man in a duel. He – Karna, the king of Anga – came from the most humble of backgrounds. He didn’t have extended formal training spare those few years with the mighty Parashuraama. He was self-taught. He mastered every weapon known to man. The old guard at Hastinapura was intimidated by his achievements and constantly sought to demoralize and impede him. He was a bitter man as he rode into the chill of the night.
But something seemed off. He knew he was wrong. He slowed his chariot down, closed his eyes and focussed. He sought the counsel of his inner voice. He then made the decision to turn around to head towards the old man’s mansion. He announced himself at the front door and was ushered in.
“Would you like some soma, Anga Raj?”, asked Bheeshma pouring himself some from the decanter.
“I am a very disturbed man tonight, Pitamaha. And I have come to resolve it with you”
Bheeshma looked up, picked another chalice, poured some into it and gestured the servant to leave them alone.
The PItamaha walked up to Karna’s chair, gave him the drink and put his arm on Karna’s shoulder. Karna felt affection from Bheeshma, for the first time ever.
“My dear Radheya. I have always admired you, even though I never approved of you.
I know who you are Karna. I know everything about you. I had sworn to protect this throne – you think I did not do my homework? I have had my spies on you – ever since we saw you at the archery competition – all those years ago.
I found out who you were born to, where your foster parents found you, how you were raised, who you trained with, why you chose to compete. Every little thing. I knew you were a Kunti Putra long before she realized you were her child”, said the grand old man of the Kuru dynasty, carefully avoiding the word “abandoned”
He continued, as Karna listened in amazement, “I also know why you are here tonight, although I didn’t need any secret agent to tell me.
Karna, you are a brilliant warrior, valiant to your last breath with unparalleled skill with bow and sword alike. Duryodhana trusts you more than he trusts himself. There is only one reason he refused to give the Pandavas their fair share – you. He believes that with you on his side, they can be defeated in this war.
When I called him into my chamber tonight and told him you cannot be on the same battlefield as I, I knew exactly what I was talking about. I had to make it sound like I didn’t want you because you were a Suta Putra. Duryodhana wouldn’t understand otherwise.
Listen my child. This is a war of right versus wrong. I will not put you on a spot about which side is right. As far as I am concerned, I am the commander of this army and need to give us the best chance of winning”, said Bheeshma.
His voice quickly went from mellow to stern as he assumed the role of a chief speaking to his ward.
“On the battlefield, I am the leader. Unquestioned, unopposed and absolute. There cannot be any questions in the minds of the thousands of soldiers, captains and generals. I demand their unadulterated and unconditional loyalty. That is the first step to success in a battle. This is war, not a game of hide and seek. You follow me to your death. Otherwise you don’t belong here. I need my people to be devoted, bound and faithful. There is no room for wavering under my command.
With you on the battlefield, the situation changes. You will agree that you are willing to bend rules according to your convenience, even going against rules of engagement to get your way. Take the Virata attack a few months ago. The rulebook says it is wrong to attack a kingdom from two sides. Yet, in your blind fragility to pursue and find the Pandavas you did exactly that, even defying my explicit orders.
If that happens at Kurukshetra – and it will, Duryodhana and his henchmen will rather follow you than me. There will be a mental rift in the soldiers’ minds which will lead to frailty and instability and eventually, mutiny. I will not let insurrection be the cause for our defeat. I will fight till I die, and take as many enemy warriors with me. But I will not let historians write that my army fell due to insubordination. I am a proud and glorious Kshatriya. I will not let your pitiful friend and his wretched uncle taint my august legacy”
Karna sat there bewildered. This man was not only old and scholarly. His military genius was unmatched. He could counsel like a sage and yet galvanize like a champion.
Seeing Karna’s assured look, the Pitamaha gently said, “Go home now, my dear Kunti Putra. Your time will come. Your valor will be spoken about for eons. You will have your place in history. Come see me again when I am on my death bed. You will need my blessings”