The earlier threads covered the choices before Bhishma and Drona and the path that they chose to undertake.
In this part, I shall cover Karna.
Karna’s story is a typical quintessential tragic hero. Born in an unacceptable situation (by society), cast away at birth, raised by foster parents of slightly lower caste, ever ridiculed throughout life for his apparent low birth, twice cursed, robbed off his life saving kavach-kundal, disclosed of his birth secret when war seemed apparent (and attempting to remove his hatred for the Pandavas), forever “taken for a ride” by people with greed in mind (right from Duryodhana, to Shakuni, to Indra, to Krishna and finally own mother Kunti). Can a person bear so many misfortunes (and more) and yet not only survive them but to come on top?
We all know the story of Karna. Even persons who have strong control over their emotions, cannot help but cry when this great hero dies. All ask, why does a single person deserve such misfortunes? Hinduism and in particular the Gita describes the phenomenon of life and death, how the soul is immortal and that there rebirth after death. It also stresses on the fact that bad deeds and sins of the past life catch up with you in this life.
Perhaps. Perhaps, not. I, for one, believe that a paapi/adharmi must be punished in the same life. This should not be a case of your “privilege leave” being carried forward to the next year.
Be it as it may, Karna’s life story holds bitter-sweet lessons about self-discovery that have often been overlooked.
Karna was ridiculed at the contest that happened just after the formal education of the Kuru princes was complete. Arjuna had almost mesmerized the crowd with his feats. Just then Karna entered the arena, repeated all the wonderful deeds of Arjuna and then staked a claim to fight Arjuna to prove who was to be the greatest. But once when his parentage was known, he was ridiculed by many. At this time, Duryodhana came forward to proclaim him as his friend. And he said, “If Karna cannot fight Arjuna because he is not a King, then I crown him the King of Anga, a territory that is under my command”.
No doubt, Duryodhana’s hand of friendship and this gesture was born out of avarice and selfishness. But this was enough for Karna. From that point on, he was an eternal devotee of Duryodhana, in right or wrong – more in the wrong than right.
With all the bright side of Karna, I often think that his sense of gratitude and friendship did not steer Duryodhana in the right path. In fact, he often plotted actively in the wrongful deeds. This was extremely vexing and the most severe black spot on Karna’s character.
- The Lakshagriha incident: Although Karna was somewhat against this plot (of murdering the Pandavas by burning them live), he still went along. He did not strive at all to dissuade Duryodhana. Perhaps, we could grant him the excuse of youth and that the young are ever reckless.
- Draupadi Vastraharan incident: Granted that Draupadi could have insulted Karna by refusing to marry a person of lower-birth, a fact that is supported only by a very handful of recenssions and completely excised by BORI CE. But even assuming that it was true, was this really an insult? As per the shastra and scriptures, marriage between a girl of upper caste to a person of lower caste was prohibited in those days. It still is and often results in “honour-killings” in our times. But that does not make Karna’s actions in the “sabha” acceptable. In the court, he said, “A woman can have one husband. A woman who cohabits with several men is called a prostitute and a prostitute does not have any claim to honour” and then he spurred Dushasana on to disrobe her.
- The Kauravas plotted the evil plot of visiting Pandavas in the exile in an attempt to mock them, infuriate them and if possible kill them. Karna was not just a willing participant – he was the intigator in chief.
- Karna also knew that Pandavas had successfully completed their 12 years of exile and 1 year of incognito. He could have said to Duryodhana, “My dear friend, as per me, I believe that Pandavas have kept their word. Their part of deal stands fulfilled. I believe that you should adhere to your part of the deal. If you choose not to and go for war, I will fight on your side but please let my opinion and thought be stated for the record”. But he did not.
- Everybody knows the evil act of killing of Abhimanyu. I need not elaborate. Karna tried to absolve himself later when he became the commander-in-chief, by trying to go back to the rules that were laid at the beginning of the war. His argument was that he followed orders when he was not C-in-C but now that he is in the same position, he will fight the war, the just way. Unfortunately, it was too late then.
(The above may not be an exhaustive list but a major list nonetheless).
In my opinion, Karna took the envy of Arjuna to the extent of marked hatred. This caused him to take many steps towards adharma. Karna’s case was one of gaining a status among the greats – the recognition that he was a great, nay greatest warrior. He was only obssessed with this single thought and it irked him no end when people said Arjuna was a better warrior.
This concludes my assessment of the three of the main heroes. It tells us how misplaced sense of duty, honour, friendship, vows, gratitude and valour can lead to great misfortunes.
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