Few characters in ancient literature have been painted with such consummate skill and insight into human nature as Maharathi Karna, a character which in the past has never been properly understood — has in fact been consistently misunderstood — though the epic has furnished us with details of his life with remarkable fullness, candor and clarity. The most significant factor of his life-history, which is generally ignored or glossed over by modem wafers but which has far-reaching consequences, is that he was ran out of wedlock and there fore cast away at his birth. The epic tells us in so many words that he came into the world as an indirect and undesired consequence of the almost irresistible curiosity (kautuhala) of his other, Kunti, who, while yet an unmarried virgin living in the house of her parents, in her youthful indiscretion operated with a secret sexual charm which had been given to her by an erratic and irascible sage. The charm worked —to her surprise and dismay.
On the god appearing before her in person in obedience to the call to satisfy her desire, she was frightened and begged him earnestly to depart and not compel her to become the mother of his son. But her entreaties were of no avail, because her suitor, the sun-god, would not be dissuaded from his purpose.
Against her will and intention a child was born of her, refulgent as the sun, strong as though made of iron, and clad in natural armor, which was a sign of his invincibility. In great sorrow the young maiden took the radiant child of the sun-god, under cover of darkness, to the river-side and putting it in a bejeweled casket set it afloat on the river and left it to its destiny. The child was picked up on the outskirts of the enclave of the high-brow Society and brought up lovingly by the nameless Superintendent of Royal Chariots (Adhiratha) and his wife Radha. This is a plain and unvarnished story of the “unwanted child,” a familiar figure of romantic literature, and the behavior of the child when it grows up to manhood is absolutely correct to type.
This unfortunate foundling, not wanted by Society and sheltering itself under the wings of its foster parents, turns naturally, as soon as it gets the opportunity, to revenge itself on the Society, which had rudely thrust it aside, while still helpless, for no fault of its own. Karna’s enmity is unconsciously but inevitably directed against his own brothers, the Pandavas, who have robbed him, equally unconsciously but irrevocably, of all the good things of life : wealth, position and the good opinion of society. But it is focused especially against their common wife Draupadi, the visible embodiment of their worldly enjoyment and happiness, — the divine Draupadi who would have been his, had he not been unceremoniously cast away in his childhood. Driven by an inner necessity, he equips himself for the coming conflict, applying himself avidly to the acquisition of proficiency in the handling of arms along with his brothers and cousins, and easily excels everybody except his younger brother, Arjuna. Arjuna thus becomes another object of his special hatred and enmity.
At the royal tournament, which had been arranged to test the proficiency of the young princes in martial accomplishments, he encounters his first public humiliation. He challenges Arjuna to a single combat, thinking that he would score an easy victory over his rival, but the friends of Arjuna evade the fight on the ground that Karna is not the equal of Arjuna in birth, the challenger being a parvenu, not fit to compete with princes with blue blood flowing in their veins. Karna resents to the death this slight leveled at his birth.
The conflict could not however be avoided; it was only postponed. Arjuna had to take up the challenge many years later, when Karna again faces him, as the generalissimo of the Kaurava forces. And Karna and Arjuna meet then, not in mock fight as now in Hastinapura, but in a mortal combat on the field of Kuruksetra.
In the meanwhile Karna gives his ego full rein. His wounded vanity drives him to amass wealth, power and allies to help him in his secret vendetta. He attaches himself to the Kaurava court and plays willingly second fiddle to Duryodhana in order to have an opportunity to dispossess those who had dispossessed him. His inferiority complex makes him oppose and insult the noble Bhishma, who is to him the hateful symbol of smug decorum and prudery.
Karna was generous to a fault. But his generosity, which has become proverbial, was but a pose, albeit an unconscious pose, a clever artifice to outdo the accredited nobility in their vaunted virtue, liberality, and to hear himself lauded to the skies by the begging fraternity, as a compensation for the taunts and sneers of the highbrow nobles, at the Kaurava court, proud of their birth. He had no true generosity of heart.
With his frustration complex unresolved, he was incapable of real sacrifice or true charity. He joins with secret pleasure the ribald crowd at the court of Hastinapura during the fateful game of dice in relentlessly humiliating and persecuting the innocent Draupadi, who had herself done him no harm at any time. Again, when his mother, Kunti, reveals to him his identity and beseeches him tearfully, on the eve of the Bharata war, to be reconciled with the Pandavas, who were his own brothers, and thus help to stop the carnage which was about to take place, he remains unmoved, parading his obligations towards his foster parents and loyalty to his benefactor, Duryodhana. His pose of unbounded generosity leads in the end to his own undoing. Taking advantage of his vow of not refusing any request of a Brahmin, Indra, in the guise of a Brahmin mendicant, begs of him his natural coat of mail and his precious ear-rings, which had rendered him invincible.
Karna is on the horns of a dilemma. To be or not to be: should he break his vow, as the sun-god, his putative father, had exhorted him to do; or should he surrender his invincibility ? Characteristically he disobeys his father and chooses the second alternative. He hugs still more closely round himself the pretentious cloak of generosity and parts with his precious possessions, with apparent nonchalance.
Were he capable of analyzing his motives and realizing that his vow of charity was but a sham pose, as the sun-god had evidently recognized, he would have known himself as he was and could have remained invincible. But that was not to be: indeed that could not be. For, the Ego in its conflict with the Self i.e. Superself, cannot remain invincible.
One can inflate the Ego tremendously, inflate it frightfully, but not indefinitely. Nature has set limits everywhere. When inflated beyond a certain limit the bubble bursts. Who or what bursts it? It creates itself and brings into operation a subtle force that bursts it.
The force, being just sufficient for the purpose, seeks out and attacks the very weakest point of the bubble. It is thus in nature. So it is with the human personality.
With overweening confidence in his own powers, Kama refuses to fight while Bhishma is alive, and remains sulking in his tent. His stupendous vanity thus deprives Duryodhana of whatever help he could have rendered during the first ten days of the war, a circumstance which did not fail to give the Pandavas a certain initial advantage over their enemies in spite of the heavy numerical odds against them.
In technical skill Karna was the equal of Arjuna, if not his superior; but he lacked the spiritual strength which sustained Arjuna in the tour of trial. The virtuosity of Karna is foiled at a critical moment by a higher power, which taking advantage of some loophole in Kama’s armour of invincibility, strikes him down, to help the struggling and down-trodden adherents of the cause of justice and righteousness.
Much capital has been made by modem critics of the fact that Sri Krsna urges Arjuna to kill Kama while the latter is engaged in releasing the wheel of his chariot, which had sunk into a hollow of the earth. Kama pleads for time, asking his opponent to wait until he has freed the wheel. He points out that it is unrighteous for a man to fight from a chariot against one who has no chariot; it is unbecoming behaviour in a cavalier as Arjuna called himself. How easy it is to pick faults in the behaviour of others, and how difficult to see the faults in one’s own! But Providence, which rules over the destinies of men, has no such preference between one individual and another. It therefore unfailingly metes out justice with meticulous precision to all alike in appropriate ways and through devious channels. That is evidently the lesson which the epic poets want to teach.
Some writers who have been dazzled by the intrepid courage, deep loyalty and unbounded generosity of Karna have challenged the authenticity of the epic text, contending that the character of Kama as depicted in the present form of the epic is not consonant with his fate and with the criticism by the epic poets of his actions.
They attribute this contradiction to an inversion of the epic theme already referred to, maintaining that in an earlier form of the epic Karna, the son of the sun-god, was himself the hero, a role usurped in the present epic by some other person or persons. The advice given to him by the sun-god was a test of his character, and Karna’s refusal to act on it is sufficient evidence of the nobility of his character and his lofty idealism.
This, the critic maintains, is in sharp contrast with the unchivalrously actions of the Pandavas, who abandon too easily the high ideals of knightly conduct and honour, and resort to unworthy means for bringing about the death on the battlefield of their honourable and chivalrous foes like Bhishma, Drona and Duryodhana. But such a view is quite baseless and shows little understanding of the epic and of the ideology of the epic poets.
When one remembers the circumstances of Kama’s birth and early life, one can readily account for the apparent contradictions in his character and understand his behaviour as also his fate. It is easy to recognize in his features, as explained above, the physiognomy of a man with frustration complex and therefore a clear case of abnormal mentality.
The secret which Kunti wanted to preserve and which she thought she had skillfully buried, unknown to anybody, by severing her connection with her first child at its birth, could not be maintained for long, as no secret can. The ocean of life brings back to her, after the lapse of some time, the unwanted child which she had snatched away from her warm palpitating milk-full breasts and unkindly set afloat on the insensible bosom of the cold indifferent river. In the end she had to divulge the secret to the very persons whom she wanted to screen from it and from its effects,— from those very people before whom she felt need to appear as a good, wise and virtuous woman, namely from her own children. First she had to recount the story of her youthful indiscretion to her eldest son, Karna, whom she had wronged. She had hoped that by telling him the great secret of her little life, she could avoid the consequences of that act recoiling on her other sons, the five Pandavas, whom she loved.
In that she was destined to be disappointed, as Karna, in his turn, remained adamant, refusing, firmly but politely, to oblige her and make a scape-goat of himself. For her complete emancipation she had in the end to repeat the story with her own lips, after the death of Kama, to the surviving sons, in order that the last rites at least may be duly performed if the first had been neglected, in the pious hope that his life in the hereafter may not be a repetition of the hell in which he had lived on the earth. She had thus to acknowledge before the world her motherhood of the fatherless child after the death of Karna, which she had failed to do at his birth. Could anything be more silently tragic?
When she had unburdened her soul to her sons, she was at long last freed from the torturing power of that secret which acting through devious channels had helped to grind to dust the flowers of youth and chivalry of the heroic age of India. Could the epic fulfil better and in a more poignant and emphatic manner its function of catharsis for those who can follow its language and understand its deep meaning and vital message to mankind?
Vidura is in many ways the exact counterpart of Karna. There are innumerable ways in which one can injure the mind of a growing child. One of them is by treating it on any other basis than that of its own individuality. Karna was the victim of such faulty and harsh treatment. The society which had treated him like an outcast had suffered the dire consequences of its own actions. Vidura was mercifully saved from such treatment. His birth was likewise of a somewhat shady character. Although he passed as the brother of Dhritrahstra and Pandu, he was as a matter of fact born of a slave girl employed in the royal household. But there was no secrecy about his parentage because his birth was quite legitimate according to the ideas prevailing in those times,— a somewhat unexpected result of a miscarried form of marriage by levirate. However, he was brought up for what he was, and treated with kindness and consideration in the house of his parents. His station in life was that of a major domo in the royal household, and he did not aspire to be anything else, performing the duties pertaining to the post with great efficiency and singular fidelity.
Placed in an inferior and unenviable position from birth, he had overcome his ego, subduing it completely and sublimating it. Having resolved all the conflicts of his nature, he is represented and known in Indian antiquity as being gifted with deep insight into the mysteries of life and respected by all as a wise man. As such he advises his errant elder brother, who constantly turns to him, when in distress, for advice and consolation. Thus having been gifted with the boon of a peaceful and contented soul, his benign presence helps to tone down the conflicts and mitigate the sorrows which he cannot altogether prevent.
Text is taken from ON THE MEANING OF THE MAHABHARATA by Dr. V. S. SUKTHANKAR (Read Complete Book – On the meaning of the Mahabharata)