K is for Karna from the Mahabharata

Karna the beautifully flawed other
Karna our very own unrecognised brother

Karna, in his growing years and even later, when he had distinguished himself as the greatest warriors of his time, was often ridiculed and called Sutputra, which means ‘son of a charioteer’. It was a name that was meant to remind him of his lowly station in life. But all the name calling, could not take away from the fact that he had the bearing, grace and courage of a king, the urge to be the greatest warrior and the generosity and warmth of the Sun God himself! Also he had been born with a golden armour, that was inseparable from his skin, which made him feel invincible. These were not qualities and urges that one appreciated in the son of a charioteer in the rigid caste bound society that he lived in.

Karna does not know, who his birth parents are, He knows that he has been found and raised by a kindly charioteer and his wife. His humble father tries to teach him the skills required to be a good charioteer, but Karna is not interested in becoming a charioteer, he is interested in becoming the best warrior in the land.

With this in mind, he goes to Dronacharya (of D) and asks to be taken in as his student. Dronacharya refuses, citing the latter’s low birth as the reason for his refusal. Karna, not to be dissuaded, goes to Drona’s teacher, Parshurama and asks to be taken in as his student. Seeing that honesty had got him nowhere the last time, he lies this time and pretends to be a Brahman boy! He is accepted and the great Parshurama teaches the young boy everything he knows. Young Karna turns out to be the best student that Parshurama has ever had, and Parshurama, even teaches him mantras (sacred chants) that can summon divine weapons, and will never miss their mark.

One day, the teacher lies down to rest on the forest floor, the young student offers his lap as a resting place for the teacher’s head. The teacher drifts off into a deep slumber when a bee stings the young boy’s thigh. It is extremely painful and blood flows continuously, but Karna does not let out a cry or move, lest his teacher is disturbed. When the teacher gets up, he find his student sitting in a pool of blood. Parshurama realizes that this boy has to belong to the warrior caste, to be so courageous ; and furious at being lied to, the teacher curses young Karna, ” When the time comes, and you need it the most, you will forget the mantra to summon the divine weapon.”

Another time, he is cursed by mother earth, ‘When the time comes, and you need your chariot to move fast on the battlefield, the wheel of your chariot will get stuck in me, and you will not be able to move your chariot.’

Whether it is at a friendly contest between the best warriors of the earth, or a contest that will enable him to marry the princess of his dreams, each time, he is insulted by the Pandavas, who call him names and bar him from entering any contest. It so happens, that each time, the only person who supports him, is prince Duryodhana, the first born of the hundred Kauravas. Thus Karna becomes eternally grateful and loyal to Duryodhana. And his one dream is to be allowed to fight Arjuna, and prove his supremacy over the Pandavas to the world.

When, the battle lines are drawn, Karna most readily agrees to fight for his one and only friend Duryodhana, on the side of the Kauravas. This news sends shivers down the spine of Kunti, the mother of Pandavas, as well as Indra, the God of Rain and Thunder, who is the real father of Arjuna (though the world knows him as Pandu’s son.)

Karna, is known for his extreme generosity, and no alms seeker had ever been turned away from him empty handed. And so Indra, comes to Karna, disguised as a poor Brahman and asks him for his protective golden armour. Karna knows that this armour makers him invincible, but he tears it off his body and it comes off with a lot of his skin and muscle. Bloodied and wounded, he hands it over to the God.

You would think this is enough, but you are wrong! Queen Kunti (mother of the Pandavas),  chooses this moment, the eve before the war to visit him secretly and disclose to him that the Sun God Surya is his father, she is his unwed mother, and that the Pandavas who he will fight, when the sun rises, are his very own brothers.

She cries copious tears and asks if this loyal man, will consider betraying his best and only friend and join his younger brothers.  Generous Karna, forgives his mother the initial abandonment, the years of silence when his own brothers and the whole world jeered at him, the critical time, that she chooses to reveal the truth and the sheer selfishness and callousness of her request. He promises not to hurt four of his brothers. But he tells her, that he and Arjuna, will fight it to the death and in the end she will still be the mother of five sons. Does the mother ask the same of Arjuna and the other brothers? Does she ask them to spare Karna, their eldest brother, who has been wronged all his life? No, she does no such thing. The favoured Pandavas are given another advantage, they go to war not knowing that Karna is their elder brother.

On the 16th and 17th day of the war, Karna becomes the commander in chief of the Kaurava army. He has many chances to kill his brothers, but spares them as promised. In the end, the fight is between him and his younger brother Arjuna. Robbed of his fathers protective armour, weakened by the damning knowledge that his treacherous mother decides to share with him just before the war, he is still a better archer and warrior then Arjuna. The two curses now come into play. He tries to call on his divine weapon, but cannot remember the mantra and fails to summon it to do his bidding, and his wheel chooses this moment to get stuck in the mud! He puts down his weapons and gets off his chariot, to pull the wheel out of the mud. The rules of war clearly state that you cannot fight the enemy when he has put his weapons down. But Krishna instigates Arjuna, reminding him of the two grave errors that Karna had made and bids him to kill Karna while he is helpless and unarmed. Arjuna does just that.

And so it is that the greatest warrior of his time, the generous son of the Sun God, the most loyal friend a man could ever wish for, and the eldest brother of the Pandavas is killed.

The Pandavas rejoice, for with the death of Karna, their victory is a foregone conclusion. This is when the mother tells them the truth about the birth of Karna, and they forever have to bear the burden of having killed their eldest brother.

Karna is not flawless, but he is more wronged by the world than he has ever wronged it. None of this makes any sense until and unless one accepts the world view that we all have our karmic debts to be paid and this life is all an illusion, a game; and we come into this world as players/actors and play out are predestined parts on this earth. Who knows these things? To me today, in this moment, Karna’s story speaks one truth that I do subscribe to and that is the fact that our most hated enemy, our most dreaded foe, the horrible other is really our own unrecognised and unloved brother.

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3 Responses to K is for Karna from the Mahabharata

  1. Tarkabarka says:

    Such a tragic character. The moment when he tears his armor off is a dramatic high point in the epic…

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
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  2. josna says:

    And what a powerful truth! “…the fact that our most hated enemy, our most dreaded foe, the horrible other is really our own unrecognised and unloved brother.”
    Another beautifully written piece–with just the right amount of detail. While reading it one feels so keenly the unfairness of Karna’s treatment and the pain that he suffers. What a noble figure–how loyal and true, despite the way the deck is stacked against him.

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