It is not without reason that the character of Karna has attracted so much fascination and attention from readers of the Mahabharata. People have seen and identified in him an ideal friend, an ideal giver, and above all – the fatally wronged son who never got his due from either his brothers or his mother. The right warrior, who fought on the wrong side.
But among all that has been written in the Mahabharata, is there an underlying narrative, hiding between the pages, that that may tell us something more about Karna, and therefore, about human nature itself? To do that, it is instructive to revisit some of the pivotal moments in Karna’s life.
A young Karna had convinced Parashurama to train him in the use of weapons. So desperate was Karna to receive this knowledge that he had described himself as a brahmana, and not as the kshatriya he was (a suta perhaps, but certainly a brahmana he wasn’t). Parashurama would teach no kshatriya. One day, as Parashurama slept on Karna’s lap, a bee stung Karna. Not wanting to disturb his guru, Karna bore the pain. When Parashurama woke up and saw the blood, he accused Karna of having deceived him. No brahmana – or so Parashurama believed – could have withstood so much pain. Parashurama cursed Karna that he would forget the knowledge of his weapons, when he would need them the most. This is well known. The question is – why did Karna not get up or otherwise take some step to swat the bee away? Why was it so important to show that he could withstand huge amounts of pain, if only to not displease his guru?
A dejected Karna walked on, lost in his thoughts. He had just been cursed by his guru, the formidable Parashurama. Distracted by the sound of an animal, he shot his arrows in the direction of the sound. Those arrows ended up killing a brahmana’s cow. Actually, in Karna’s words, “I had unconsciously used my arrows to kill the calf that had been born from his homa cow.” In some ways, Karna had displayed the same rashness of thought as Pandu. Rishi Kimdam had cursed Pandu to a life of forced celibacy. The brahmana in this case uttered an even deadlier curse on Karna than Parashurama had – “Your miserable wheel will be stuck in the ground and you will confront great fear in your heart, when you are fighting in a battle.” The brahmana had described Karna’s fate in literal terms.
The years passed on. The scene shifted to the Kuru sabha in Hastinapura, where a desperately inveterate gambler played, and lost, repeatedly. Yudhishthira, the sovereign who had not long ago performed the Rajsuya Yagya, had lost his riches, his kingdom, his brothers, himself, and even his wife. This was Duryodhana’s revenge for what he had seen and suffered, while at Indraprastha. The fire of envy in Duryodhana’s heart, that had raged at Indraprastha as brightly as the fire of the Khandava forest that had ended up creating Indraprastha in the first place, had culminated in the vile game of dice. Duhshasana had done his brother’s bidding by dragging Droupadi by the hair to the hall. Vikarna had then spoken out in defence of Droupadi, ending with the declaration – “I do not think, she has been won.”
To this defense, who was the first one to respond? Not Duryodhaha. Not Duhshasana. Yet again, an “almost senseless with anger” Karna berated Vikarna and argued that Droupadi had indeed been won by fair means. His tirade ended with these spiteful and biting words [bold emphasis mine] – “It has been ordained by the gods that a woman should only have one husband. However, she submits to many and it is therefore certain that she is a courtesan. It is my view that there is nothing surprising in her being brought into the sabha in a single garment, or even if she is naked. In accordance with dharma, Soubala has won all the riches the Pandavas possessed, including her and themselves. O Duhshasana! This Vikarna is only a child, though he speaks words of wisdom. Strip away the garments from the Pandavas and Droupadi.”
This was a fight between the Pandavas and Kauravas. This was not Karna’s fight. Why then he chose to weigh in defies logic. What did he hope to accomplish more? Wasn’t it enough for him to sit back and enjoy the complete, and utter, humiliation of the Pandavas.
Some thirteen years later, a small contingent of the Kuru army stood at the outskirts of the Virata kingdom. This army, with the redoubtable Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, Duryodhana, and of course Karna, faced the lone prince Uttara and his big-stick charioteer, the eunuch Brihanalla. The Kurus didn’t know that Brihanalla was none other than Arjuna. Arjuna had retrieved his weapons from the shami tree, and was seated in the chariot, with Uttara the prince. The Pandava blew his conch, and “The earth trembled from the sound of the conch shell, the roar of the chariot and the thunder of the Gandiva.” Drona recognized it to be none other than Arjuna’s conch, and acknowledged the Pandava’s might – “From the roar of the chariot, the blast of the conch shell and the trembling of the earth, it can be no one other than Savyasachi. Our weapons are no longer shining and our horses have lost their spirits.””
Yet again, Karna could not bear this praise of his nemesis. The task at hand was to fight the lone warrior in the lone chariot. Yet Karna could not stop himself from letting loose a diatribe, yet again – “Horses always neigh, whether they are walking or standing. The wind always blows. Vasava always showers down. The roar of the thunder can be heard many times. What does this have to do with Partha and why should he be praised?” Yes, Karna was a mortal enemy of Arjuna. But just what did he achieve through this volley of words?
For all of Karna’s boasting and bravado, how did the battle end? We all know, how it ended. What about Karna? He fled from the battle – “Thus wounded by the arrows shot by Partha, and scorched by Pandava’s arrows, like a swift elephant that has been defeated by another elephant, Vaikartana fled from the forefront of the battle.”
The die had been cast. The battle at Kurukshetra was now announced. The armies had collected. A war that would see only three survivors from the Kaurava army of eleven akshaunis. This was the battle that Karna had waited all his life. The Kaurava warriors had assembled. Duryodhana wanted to know from Bhishma his assessment of the warriors on either side of the armies. Bhishma obliged. Shalya was an atiratha, as were Kritavarma, Shalya, and Bhalika; Shakuni and Sudakshina were equal to a single ratha, and so on. Bahlika was an atiratha. Even Vrishasena, Karna’s son, was rated as equal to a maharatha. And Karna? Bhishma’s assessment ran thus – “Karna Vaikartana is harsh, boastful and inferior. … He is insolent and has been extremely uplifted by you. O king! He is not a full ratha. Nor is he an atiratha. … it is my view that he is only half a ratha.” Drona concurred with Bhishma’s assessment.
These were grievous insults that no warrior would have taken lying down. Nor did Karna. He made his decision – “I will never fight as long as Gangeya is alive. But once Bhishma has been slain, I will fight with all the maharathas.” Thus, did Karna sit out of the war for ten days. However, Karna had forgotten, what was more important.
The war commenced. Ten days passed. Bhishma fell. Karna entered the battlefield. The fortunes of the Kaurava army, however did not improve. Drona fell on the fifteenth day. Karna was appointed commander of the Kauravas and took charge of what was left of the Kaurava army on the sixteenth morning. His charioteer was the redoubtable Shalya – uncle of the Pandava brothers Nakula and Sahdeva. How the brother of Madri came to fight on the side of the Kauravas is a tale in itself, but how did the two warriors spend the morning before the battle resumed? Arjuna and Krishna had spent the time before the battle began by getting to understand the purpose of the battle itself. Krishna had delivered the eternal message of the Bhagvad Gita to Arjuna. How did Shalya and Karna spend the time on the sixteenth morning? By arguing. Shalya provoked Karna, comparing him to a child wanting to touch the sun, to “a stupid jackal” shouting “at a maned and angry lion.” The “stupid jackal” being Karna, while the “angry lion” was Arjuna.
How did Karna respond? Need we guess? Karna took Shalya’s bait, and thus began a long argument, a cacophony that was as ugly as the real battle being fought. Karna had the choicest of abuses for the king of Madra, Shalya, his charioteer – “evil in nature“, “You are stupid“, “There are no good feelings in a Madraka“, “He [a Madraka] always lies and is never straight.“, “Noble women [Madrakas], according to their own wishes, mingle with men, known and unknown“, “They drink liquor, eat the flesh of cows and dance and laugh. The songs don’t have proper rhymes“, “Women who are intoxicated by liquor cast off their clothes and dance around. … O Madraka! You are the son of one such“, “They drink liquor made from grain and molasses. They eat the flesh of cows, laced with garlic. They eat bread mixed with meat and fried barley that has not been sowed.”
On and on went the bickering. Shalya recounted a tale about a crow and swan, comparing Karna to the crow “that fed on leftovers from a vaishya household.” Karna, in Shalya’s estimation, was no different, and had “subsisted on leftovers from the sons of Dhritarashtra.”
This then was Karna’s state of mind as he entered the battlefield.
How did the end come? In the middle of the furious battle, Parashurama’s curse manifested itself, as did the brahmana’s. “the earth swallowed up one of the wheels of Radheya’s chariot.” Karna “wept in rage.” An anjalika arrow, invoked with the right mantras, affixed to Arjuna’s Gandiva, severed Karna’s head.
Karna was the eldest of the four sons of Kunti. He was elder to Arjuna, Bhimasena, and Yudhishthira. Yet his lifelong battle had been with Arjuna. If one looks at Arjuna, the image most likely to be imprinted on the minds of people would be of Arjuna in a chariot commandeered by Krishna, who held the reins of the horses of the splendid chariot. The image cannot, but remind oneself of these lines from the Katha Upanishad:
“Know the Self as lord of the chariot,
The body as the chariot itself,
The discriminating intellect as
The charioteer, and the mind as reins.
The senses, say the wise, are the horses;
Selfish desires are the road they travel.
When the Self is confused with the body,
Mind, and senses, they point out, he seems
To enjoy pleasure and suffer sorrow.” [Katha Upanishad, tr. Eknath Easwaran]
The contrast between Karna and Arjuna could not have been starker. All through his life, although Karna was a man, who possessed the greatest of talents, he could not bring himself to focus with single-minded attention to any one task. Distracted, he killed a calf, and got cursed. In the Kuru dyuta sabha, he could not keep his mouth shut, ordering Duhshasana to disrobe Droupadi. At Virata, he could not go after Brihanalla, and got distracted in arguing with Drona. Later, before the Kurukshetra battle, he would not ignore Drona and Bhishma’s taunts and walked off the battlefield in a huff. While on the one hand Krishna had dispelled the demons of doubt that raged in Arjuna’s mind at the start of the battle, Shalya, on the other hand, filled Karna’s mind with rage, doubt, and fear.
Thus, when Karna’s end came, the “Self“, for all practical purposes, had already dismounted the “body“. The “intellect” had refused to cooperate with the “Self“, as we witnessed. Karna was a distracted person. In a final assessment, the only thing that separated Karna from Arjuna was focus. One possessed an “intellect” as Krishna, the other Shalya. Shalya himself had not exactly distinguished himself, when he had allowed himself to get fooled by Duryodhana, had he? Karna chose such a person as his charioteer. A starker contrast between the marriage of the self and intellect could not be found than what was on display with Jishnu and Vishnu on the one hand, and Karna and Shalya on the other.
A last question that reinforces this contrast was raised by Dhritarashtra himself, when he asked Sanjaya after Ghototakacha had been killed by Karna’s Shakti weapon. He wanted to know from Sanjaya, “Why did he [Karna] not forget everyone else and hurl it [Indra’s spear] at Partha? Had he been slain, all the Pandavas and Srinjayas would have been killed too. Had that brave one alone been killed, why should victory in the battle not have been ours?” The answer was provided by Krishna himself, to a similar question posed by Satyaki – “The thought of killing the wielder of Gandiva was always in Karna’s heart. O foremost among warriors! But I confused Radheya.” Through his yogic powers, Krishna had been able to distract Karna’s mind. Day after day, for four days, till Karna had been forced to use the Shakti against Ghatotakacha.
I forgot to mention one thing. When Bhishma had assessed Karna’s capabilities, Drona had also weighed in. Before rating Karna as “half a ratha,” Drona had said this about Karna, to Karna himself – “Karna is generous. But he is also distracted.”
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Abhinav Agarwal is a son, husband, father, technologist and an IIM-B Gold Medalist.