by the light of the setting sun.
During the time of his japa-meditation
the noble and intelligent Vasusena
refused nothing to any Brahmin
who asked for his help.”50
Indra had noted this. Already his son Arjuna was growing up and was expected to be an invincible hero. Who could defeat Karna in his armour, with his ear-rings on? Surya comes in his dream and warns Karna about Indra. Karna replies in the dream:
“If Sakra-Indra comes to me,
as you say, disguised as a Brahmin,
how will it be possible for me
ho refuse a twice-born one?
Brahmins are to be honoured
even more than one’s well-wishing gods.
even if I see through this ruse, I cannot refuse
the god of gods Indra.”51
So it comes to pass and early in his youth Vasusena gives up his kavacha and kundala. In return Indra gives him the Sakti missile. As he gave away his ear-rings and tore away the armour from his flesh, Vasusena came to be known as Karna (Ear) and Vaikartana (the Cutter).
When there is a kind of passing-out parade of Drona’s students, Arjuna’s feats are highly acclaimed. Karna who is an onlooker challenges Arjuna. Duryodhana is delighted that here is someone who is prepared to take on Arjuna. Kunti is aghast to see her eldest born here. Just then Kripa proclaims Arjuna’s lineage and wants Karna to reveal the names of his parents, for royal princes do not fight with lesser men. Immediately Duryodhana anoints Karna as the king of Anga. Bhima is derisive at this short-cut to high birth and there is a war of words between him and Duryodhana. At this moment, the aged foster-father of Karna enters. Karna bows to him in deep respect. A king bow to a charioteer! Bhima laughs while Duryodhana leads Karna out as a bosom friend. By now Kunti is sure that Karna is her first-born, and feels happy that he has become the king of Anga. But she keeps silent still. That is the tragedy of Karna. From today, his hatred of Pandavas would not merely lie smouldering but keep itself ablaze till his death.
At the opening of Santi Parva we find Yudhistira lamenting the death of Karna. If only he had known that Karna was their elder brother! But Karna knew and yet desisted from killing the brothers (except Arjuna) because of the word he had given to Kunti. Yudhistira recollects that even when Karna ranted against the Pandavas and Yudhistira became angry, a mere look at Karna’s feet would cool him down. For they resembled the feet of Kunti! Narada then recounts the story of the curse which rendered Karna helpless on the battlefield.
When Drona had refused to teach Karna the usage of the Brahma missile because Karna was neither a Brahmin nor a Kshatriya of high austerities, he went to sage Parashurama. Concealing his identity, he announced himself as a Brahmin. Parashurama was pleased and soon Karna acquired knowledge of powerful missiles. During these days of residence in Mahendra, Karna happened to kill unwittingly the cow of a Brahmin and was cursed by the owner. At the critical moment of his most important battle, his chariot-wheel would get stuck in the mud! This was first of the many curses which would weaken Karna on the last of his war in Kurukshetra.
Karna had acquired the Brahma missile too and all seemed well. One day, when Parashurama was sleeping with his head resting on Karna’s lap, an Alarka beetle with eight feet and keen teeth began biting Karna’s lap. He allowed it to bore through his limb and suck his blood and remained still, lest Parashurama be disturbed. When Parashurama woke up, the beetle was transformed into the Asura Dansa, saluted the sage for releasing him from the curse of being a beetle and went away. Meanwhile Parashurama was aghast at the manner in which Karna had faced the torture. It could only mean that he was no weakling Brahmin. Karna confessed and begged for forgiveness. The sage was moved but could not refrain from punishing a deliberate lie:
“Since thou hast, from avarice of weapons, behaved here with falsehood, therefore, O wretch, this Brahma weapon shalt not dwell in thy remembrance. Since thou art not a Brahmana, truly this Brahma weapon shall not, up to the time of thy death, dwell in thee when thou shalt be engaged with a warrior equal to thyself! Go hence, this is no place for a person of such false behaviour as thou! On earth, no Kshatriya will be thy equal in battle.”52
No kshatriya will be Karna’s equal in battle! But what was the use of this boon? Repeatedly his alleged low birth causes disappointments to Karna that only helps his hatred of the Pandavas wax strong. We see him next in Draupadi’s swayamvara. Just when he is about to string his bow, and there was no doubt in his mind that he would win, he hears a sharp, loud voice that stops him: ‘No Suta will marry me!’ It is Draupadi who has called out. Reading the message, Karna can only smile bitterly and look up to his personal deity Surya (saamarshahasam prasameekshya suryam), fling aside his bow and withdraw.
Duryodhana and others would not give up so easily. When Arjuna (as a Brahmin) had won Draupadi’s hand, there was a huge clamour. The assembled kings attacked Drupada and the Pandavas. Arjuna and Karna were locked in a straight fight. But at some point of time Karna gave up as he did not want to fight the Brahmin anymore:
“‘Brilliant Brahmin’, Karna said,
‘you impress me
with your ceaseless skill in arms.
you deserve to win.
You seem to be Bowcraft itself!
Or are you Parasurama,
or Visnu as Acyuta the Undeteriorating One?
Have you come disguised
as a Brahmin
after mastering the science of arms
in order to defeat me?
None except Saci’s husband Indra
or Pandu’s son
Kiritin-Arjuna can equal me
when I am roused to battle.’”53
Arjuna assured Karna that he was only a Brahmin and had learnt the Brahma and Paurandhra missiles by the grace of his teacher and he was ready to defeat Karna. And yet, Karna went away thinking he could never defeat a Brahmin who had brahma-tejas. In his arrogance he was sure that only a Brahmin possessing brahma-tejas could be such a marvellous archer, and his own kshatra-tejas will be no match for him.
But the sting of Draupadi’s words remained. Thus he became one of the Inglorious Four (Dushta Chatushtaya) for all time. Duryodhana, Duhshasana, Karna and Sakuni would be the major players in the management of the Dice Game in Hastinapura. The lone sane voice in the Kaurava camp, Vikarna says that Draupadi has not been won by the Kauravas, manye na vijithaamimaam! While the assembled kings applaud Vikarna and Duryodhana and others are silent, it is Karna who speaks hate-filled words, because he is as one who has lost his senses due to hatred, krodhamurchitah. Waving his hands in agitation he bellows:
“Vikarna! This world has all kinds
Wood feeds fire, and fire devours wood;
so a son sometimes destroys his family.
Disease grows in the body,
and disease eats up the body.
Cattle graze on grass,
and cattle trample grass.
And you, you were fed on Kaurava glory,
and now you are out to destroy it!
maha-intelligent Vidura, Dhritarashtra,
and Gandhara – all wise elders –
all of them here,
in spite of Krsna-Draupadi’s pleas,
are silent. They feel Drupada’s daughter
has been won by dharmika means.
Son of Dhritarashtra,
callow in years, and loud in words!
You’re a boy, yet you come here
and preach like an old man!”54
From time to time the Kauravas and Pandavas get locked in fight and Karna is in the forefront as Duryodhana’s right hand man. Repeatedly Karna gets defeated by Arjuna and this only feeds the flame of hate in his heart. There is no doubt that Karna was a great warrior but his boastfulness proves to be his undoing. Vyasa reports one of the scenes when the war-clouds had gathered thick in the sky and discussions are going on. Karna boasts that single-handed he can take on the entire Pandava army. Has he not been a disciple of sage Parashurama?
“Through the grace of that rishi
subduing the Panchalas,
the Matsyas, the Karusas,
the Pandavas, their sons
and grandsons, I’ll offer
the worlds in your hands.
Let Bhisma Pitamaha,
let Drona and others
all protect you.
I and my warriors
will take on the task
of killing the Pandavas.”55
Immediately Bhishma stops him with words of anger and derision. How can one forget that Arjuna is being guarded by Krishna? Incensed Karna declares that he is laying down arms. Bhishma will see him only in the Audience Hall but never in the battlefield. He will show his strength only when Bhishma is silenced. Sulking, Karna goes home. Bhishma declares to those present that all this boasting is of no avail, and Karna’s dream to prove his valour in the presence of Jayadratha and other great Kings will never come true.
“But he lost both tapasya
and dharma when, posing
as Brahmin,he tricked
to give him the missile –
a despicable deed.”56
As a result, when Bhishma is being anointed as the Supreme Commander of the Kaurava forces, he lays down a condition that in this war either he goes first to fight or Karna. This is because Karna has always been boasting that he is a better warrior than Bhishma and could destroy the Pandavas single-handed. Bhishma would rather not lay himself open to odious comparisons on the battlefield. Karna immediately says that he would not fight as long as Bhishma is alive. Thus the first ten days of war Karna has no part in the war he was eagerly looking forward to.
The strategist in Krishna sees an opportunity to get the sulking Karna on the side of the Pandavas. He takes Karna in his chariot for a ride and reveals to him the secret about his birth. As Kunti’s eldest born he must come away with Krishna and the Pandavas will immediately make him their leader. Since Kunti is a sister of Krishna’s father, Karna will have both the Pandavas and the Vrishnis on his side. It is a very tempting picture. It must be said to the credit of Karna that he remains unmoved. He would prefer to be the son of Adhiratha and Radha and offer them pinda. While Kunti had abandoned him, had not Radha brought him up as her own? Had she not cleaned his urine and dirt, saa me mootram pureesham cha pratijagraaha! It is a very honest, moving reply. Krishna must not reveal his birth to the world. Else, the high-souled Yudhistira would handover the kingdom to Karna and Karna will have to give it away to Duryodhana. Soon he waxes eloquent listing all those on the side of the Pandavas as victors, if there is to be a war and likens the war itself to a Yagna, presenting a momentous epic simile.
Karna’s sustained dream-vision is yet another high water-mark in the Udyoga Parva, a close companion to the dream-vision of Trijata related to Sita.
“Cruel-karma-creator Vrikodara Bhima
also climbed a hill, mace in hand,
and seemed to be swallowing the earth,
What can this mean except that he
will kill us all in the maha-war?
I know, Hrishikesa-Krishna,
that where dharma is, victory is.”57
Viditam me Hrishikesa yatho dharmastato jayah. Karna embraces Krishna and takes leave of him saying that henceforth they will meet thus only in heaven.
Friendliness, admiration, and affection are all gone from Karna’s heart when Krishna and Karna meet again in Kurukshetra. Once Bhishma has fallen and Drona is the Supreme Commander, Karna enters the battlefield and spreads havoc among the Pandava army. Ghatotkacha is killed by the Shakti missile of Karna. He takes part in the shameful act of encircling Abhimanyu and killing him when he is defenceless. Once Drona is gone, Karna becomes the Supreme Commander. But the inspiration is gone for defeat stares the Kaurava army in the face. Karna is the leader for two days and they are full of all-round devastation in the Kaurava camp. Then, the final scene. A battle that rages through many cantos. It is as if universal destruction is at hand. And yet Arjuna seems to suffer from some rare trepidation. His missiles are rendered powerless by Karna. Why? Krishna and Bhima call upon him to give up this unsteady approach to the battle with Karna. There follows a fierce battle but at the most critical moment, Karna’s chariot wheel gets stuck in the mud. Nor can he direct the Brahma missile at Arjuna now since the Brahmin sage’s curse had taken effect, and he could not remember the directing mantra. Karna rails against dharma. Dharma does not protect!
“They that are conversant with righteousness always say that righteousness protects those that are righteous. As regards ourselves, we always endeavour, to the best of our ability and knowledge to practise righteousness. That righteousness, however, is destroying us now instead of protecting us that are devoted to it. I, therefore, think that righteousness does not always protect its worshippers.”58
Shedding tears of anger and frustration, he asks for a little time to set right his chariot wheel. It is not dharma to kill the defenceless! Now look who talks of Dharma, is Krishna’s pointed reaction. Ah, so you have begun to remember the existence of dharma, smaraseeha dharmam! Now where had gone this consciousness of dharma when Draupadi was dragged into the Assembly Hall and Duhshasana laid his hateful hands on her? Krishna gives a long list of the misdeeds of the Dushta Chatushtaya. Each time the words toll the end of Karna: whither had this virtue of thine then gone, kha the dharmasthadhaa gathah? And the young boy Abhimanyu!
“When many mighty car-warriors, encompassing the boy Abhimanyu in battle, slew him, whither had this virtue of thine then gone? If this virtue that thou now invokest was nowhere on those occasions, what is the use then of parching thy palate now, by uttering that word?”59
As Karna dies struck by Arjuna’s Anjalika missile, a light goes out of him and enters the regions of the Sun above. The light of Radha-Adhiratha’s home thus goes back to the Home of Light.
The great Kannada dramatist, T.P. Kailasam wrote an English play, Karna: the Brahmin’s Curse in 1946. Beginning with his abandonment by Kunti, destiny defeats Karna at every turn and he dies with the hate in his heart for Arjuna unquenched. In this play, Draupadi’s speech is justly famous:
‘Twas royal Drupada,
Obsess’d of hate, in rite of hate did force
The sacrificial fire to yield him triplets, tongues
Of flame in me and brothers two, with but
A single purpose in our lives; the burning of