Karna- the unsung hero

Authors: Umesh Kotru, Ashutosh Zutshi
Authors: Umesh Kotru, Ashutosh Zutshi
Publisher: Leadstart Publishing (www.leadstartcorp.com)
Pages: 283
Binding: Hardbound
Price INR195 or US$8
Available at: Amazon.in, Amazon.com, Crosswords.com, Infibeam.com
This Book is inspired by Karna, a towering character of the Mahabharata. Despite the high stature of this great epic in Indian literature, keeping a copy of ‘The Mahabharata’ at home is still considered inauspicious as it is believed to bring conflict and turmoil in the family. Thankfully this was not the case in our families and our curiosity led us to explore the epic. Consequently we got exposure to have a firsthand experience of the maze of interwoven stories contained in The Mahabharata. At an age when most of our compatriots spent best part of their spare time in play, we used to spend considerable amount of time absorbed in the pages of Mahabharata. Initially, like others, we thought Mahabharata to be a tale describing a most destructive war between two branches of the Puru dynasty namely the Kauravas and the Pandavas. But it turned out that the core story concerning the Puru dynasty named ‘Jaya’ or victory, consists of only ten thousand verses which is a fraction of the complete Mahabharata which comprises of more than one hundred thousand verses.

We have always been convinced that among many characters in The Mahabharata, Karna comes across as the most evocative character. One cannot but be awed by his towering personality and sheer strength of character and at the same time feel moments of frailty in his life full of tragedies. This mix of qualities, make Karna such a believable and lifelike character. The more we researched the epic, the more convinced we became about Karna being not only the real hero of Mahabharata but a tragic hero as well. He did not make a show of his tragedy of existence in public and maintained a facade of normal human behaviour in his dealings with his friends or foes. He kept his mental anguish hidden in the recesses of his mind till the same manifested in the later part of his life through his nightmares. We have tried to bring out this crisis of his existence which has not been addressed adequately in the Mahabharata.

Most people fail to recognise the fact that the eldest Pandava was Karna and he could never get his due. It was unfortunate and tragic that he actually had to be associated with the very enemies of his brothers. He will perhaps always be remembered more as a loyal friend of Duryodhana and less as the eldest Pandava or the eldest son of Kunti. The Book captures the story of Karna right from his birth and brings out his experiences in the shadow of injustice, tragedy and even rebuke. Readers can experience how at every stage in his life he had to endure immense hardships and how he never deterred from the path of righteousness and almost got no credit whatsoever for his greatness, particularly when he was surrounded by evil on account of his close friendship with Duryodhana and the company.

Most tragic part of Karna’s story is the complete silence maintained by his biological mother Kunti about his real parentage till after Karna actually died in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. She did meet Karna just before the start of the war, but only to ask him to switch sides on account of his being her eldest son which he politely declined. He even went on to extract a promise from Kunti, which was not to reveal this fact to the other Pandavas. The emotional turmoil Karna goes though on account of this meeting with kunti is beautifully captured in the Book. The selfish behaviour of Kunti turned Karna into a tragic hero right from his birth, the fact which has been covered adequately in this book.

On the psychological front, the stigma of his lineage never left him. It required Adhiratha, his father, to quote him the tragic story of Eklavya to bring him out of depression into which Guru Dronachaya’s rejection for his enrolment for higher studies had pushed him. His psychological personality was again dented when he was debarred from the tournament on the basis of his lineage despite being the best performer of the day. Another big shock came his way in the Swayamvara of Draupadi, when she rejected him on the basis of his lineage. The biggest ambition of any warrior is to display his prowess in battle. But cruel fate even denied him this privilege when he was forced to sit out of the war of Mahabharata for first ten days till Bhishma was alive. He might have looked normal from the outside but his inner personality was shattered by these and many other tragedies.

The Book provides details about various sacrifices he made in order to maintain his principles. How he does not send back anybody empty handed from his presence. His commitment was so strong that he knew that he was virtually giving away his own life to Indra in the shape of his armour and earrings despite having been warned beforehand. In another instance he broke the sandal wood planks of his own palace for charity when he failed to arrange sandal wood normally as demanded by an old Brahmin. Before him all Kaurava, as well as Pandava princes including Arjuna had pleaded helplessness in procuring sandal wood because of its non-availability in Hastinapur. The commitment towards his principles was so deeply embedded in his psyche that he could not breach the same even in the thick of battle and his worst nightmares. Heroics of every other hero including Arjuna pale into insignificance before this tragic hero of Mahabharata. Overall, all this made him a stand out personality with no parallel among his contemporaries.

We decided to present to our readers another aspect of Karna’s personality which does not seem to have been covered extensively by other commentators. One of the traits of Karna’s personality was his tendency to boast about his capability every now and then. He was hauled over live embers for this by Bhishma, Shalya and almost everyone who did not agree with him. We gave some careful thought to this aspect of his otherwise wonderful personality and came up with the premise that his bragging about his prowess stemmed from his basic insecurity as a result of his lineage leading to rebuke and rejection encountered even after he became a king. Otherwise, there was no need to boast considering what he was capable of achieving in battle. That is proved by the last show he put up in his battle with Arjuna where, but for Sri Krishna, Arjuna appeared to lose the contest. It was the last intervention of fate against him, in a series of unfortunate interventions that enabled Arjuna to end his torturous existence, when the wheel of his chariot got stuck and he forgot the use of Bramha Astra as a result of various curses.

Ever since his association with Duryodhana he was busy in guarding his loyalty to him. In the bargain he seemed to have lost some of his individuality resulting in his becoming restless and without purpose in life. With his entry in the war on the eleventh day he arrived in the domain where he actually belonged. After that, life or death, were of least importance to him. Towards the end of his life Karna had begun to perceive not only his own approaching death but could feel clearly the utter death and destruction all round him. He had some premonitions and nightmares pointing to his own demise. He saw complete desolation prevalent throughout the length and breadth of the country after the conclusion of the war. As has been brought out in the book, Karna had sharp intellect. He was very sensitive by nature and well versed in scriptures. His own suffering had made his philosophical approach to life more pronounced. That is why he appeared to be at peace with himself towards the end of the battle of Mahabharata.

Karna could do nothing to change his destiny while he was alive. But he seemed to have redeemed himself in death when a ray of bright light left his body and merged with the Sun shining in the sky. He got immediate deliverance after death. In comparison, all Pandavas had to undergo a brief spell in Hell for their sins prior to getting deliverance.

We have tried to bring out that in the whole of Mahabharata if there was an individual who was endowed with all the good qualities an ordinary human being is capable of having, that was Karna. Nobody was a more gracious donor than him. Coupled with these superlative qualities God had endowed him with a very handsome personality. But as it happens in such cases he acquired some bad qualities mostly by association which made him do some acts which were the very negation of whatever has been referred in the preceding lines.

Although the book is a fictionalized version of life and activities of various characters of Mahabharata we have kept it as close to the text as possible. This is our homage to Karna, whom we believe to be the real hero of Mahabharata since our respective childhoods which happen to be a generation apart. While reading the Book, our reader can time and again discover that Karna was a tragic hero who can stir personal emotions. This aspect of his personality has been adequately captured in the Book.

The flames of the fire in the Yajna Mandapa seemed to touch the sky. Under the influence of the powerful mantras recited by the Ritviks carefully selected by king of Hastinapura, Janamejaya, all snakes were getting drawn towards the raging fire of the Yajna. They arrived in droves and jumped into the fire to meet their own destruction. The burning flesh of the myriad serpents caused a terrible stench and smoke to spread in all directions. Even Vasuki, the king of snakes, could not resist the call of the powerful mantras. Sensing his approaching doom, Vasuki scrambled to his sister in a state of panic. Addressing his sister Jaratkaru he said, “Dear Sister, the time for fulfilling the life’s purpose of your son Astika has arrived. According to the boon granted by Lord Brahma to your son, he is the only one who can stop the Yajna Janamejaya is conducting for the destruction of snakes. Even though he is still a boy, he is well versed in the Vedas and is capable of fulfilling this task. I request you to call him in your presence and instruct him to proceed on this mission.”

Without wasting any time, Jaratkaru did what she was told by Vasuki. Before leaving for the venue of the Yajna, Astika asked, “Mother, why is Janamejaya conducting this sacrifice?” The innocent question of her son seemed to take Jaratkaru into the past. However, after a brief rumination, she was called back to the present by the gentle prodding of her inquisitive son. She took a deep breath and began the story.

“It all started with King Parikshit, grandson of the Pandava hero Arjuna. He was passionate about hunting and on one of those hunting expeditions he injured a deer which escaped into the jungle. Parikshit went after the deer deep into the jungle; but many hours of relentless pursuit brought no success. The King continued the search, which brought him to the doorstep of Maharishi Shamika’s ashram. The King enquired from the sage the whereabouts of the injured deer. On account of having taken a vow of silence (maunavrata), the Rishi did not respond despite repeated queries by the King.

“This seemingly deliberate silence of the Rishi, coupled with the stress on account of fatigue and hunger made the king mad with anger. Having lost his sense of discrimination, King Parikshit committed a grave act of disrespect towards the revered Rishi. He picked up a dead snake lying nearby with the tip of his bow and placed it on the shoulder of the Rishi before returning to his palace. The Rishi remained calm in spite of this humiliation.

“Maharishi Shamika had a son named Shringi, who was virtuous like his illustrious father, but was of a rather acerbic disposition. When he learnt about this incident from another member of the hermitage, Rishi Shringi lost his temper, particularly at the fact that the grievous act was committed by the king without any fault on the part of his saintly father. In a fit of rage he pronounced a sinister curse that the king will die in seven days time from the venomous bite of the serpent Takshaka. When Maharishi Shamika came to know about the King being cursed by his son, he immediately dispatched one of his disciples to warn the King.

“When the fateful day arrived, Takshaka started for the palace of King Parikshit with the intent to kill him. On the way he met a priest from the Kashyapa dynasty hurriedly walking in the same direction. The disguised Takshaka casually enquired from the priest as to where he was heading. The priest responded that he intended to visit the palace of King Parikshit with the objective of obtaining vast amounts of wealth from the king in return for saving his life on the strength of a potent mantra that could neutralize the venom of any snake. Takshaka’s ego was hurt at this claim of an antidote to his poison. Thereupon, taking his real form he challenged the Kashyapa to prove his point. Takshaka bit into a nearby large tree which, under the influence of the venom wilted and burned down to ashes.

“The Kashyapa immediately chanted the mantra and the tree soon recovered its original form. Seeing this, Takshaka felt humiliated and to avoid being shamed further and save his reputation as a venomous snake, he offered huge amounts of wealth to the priest and so managed to turn him back. Thus having overcome this obstacle, Takshaka managed to sneak into the palace of King Parikshit by reducing his size and hiding in a fruit basket, which was being carried for consumption by the King, and thereby the vengeful serpent reached the king. Takshaka lost no time in accomplishing his task. He bit the king and succeeded in killing him.

“However, it so happened that the entire conversation between Takshaka and the Kashyapa, including the burning of the tree, had been witnessed by a woodcutter who at that time was on the upper branch of the same tree and got killed and revived with the tree. He went and related the whole sequence in graphic detail to the king’s ministers, who in turn conveyed this message to Janamejaya, the now-enthroned son of King Parikshit.

“Janamejaya had gone through days of depression and melancholy, struggling to come to terms with his father’s untimely death. He could understand Rishi Shringi’s curse and Takshaka’s role in it but what he could not fathom was the reason why Takshaka would go to such an extent so as to prevent someone from reviving Parikshit once dead. Finally Janamejaya emerged from his solitude. His eyes displayed a renewed sense of purpose; to find Takshaka and kill him. He was advised by his priests and ministers to conduct a snake sacrifice Yajna called Sarpasatra.”

In the light of what his mother narrated to him, Astika understood the chain of events and what he was expected to do. He arrived at Janamejaya’s Yajna but was not allowed inside as it had been prophesied that an intruder would thwart the Yajna; as such, nobody was allowed inside the Mandapa. Astika started praising the Yajna from outside in a loud and sonorous voice. He compared the Yajna with other great Yajnas conducted in the past and declared that Janamejaya’s Yajna was among the all time great ones, like the Ashvamedha Yajna performed by Lord Rama. He also praised Janamejaya for his values and principles.

Hearing all this from Astika, Janamejaya was very pleased. He, therefore, decided to offer a boon to Astika. However, one of his Ritviks stopped Janamejaya from doing so, stating that the main purpose of the Yajna had not been achieved yet as Takshaka was still alive. Janamejaya was informed that Takshaka had fled to the palace of his friend Indra, and taken refuge under his throne. Janamejaya requested his Ritviks to invoke such mantras which would force both Indra and Takshaka to arrive at the place together, which they did.

Takshaka was hiding in the clothes of Indra, forcing angry Janamejaya again to ask his Ritviks to invoke mantras that would make both Takshaka and Indra fall into the fire of the Yajna. Seeing this, Indra got terrified and fled back to his palace, leaving Takshaka in an exposed and vulnerable position. The Ritviks began reciting mantras which started pulling helpless Takshaka towards the fire. At the same time, they started congratulating Janamejaya as the conclusion of the Yajna was about to be reached with the imminent death of Takshaka. It was now time for Janamejaya to grant a boon to Astika as he wished.

Janamejaya turned towards Astika and asked him to spell out his wish, promising the same would be granted. Seizing this opportunity, Astika told Janamejaya that he wanted the Yajna to be stopped immediately so that Takshaka and the remaining snakes could be saved. Janamejaya was taken aback at this and urged Astika to ask for something else, such as an immense amount of wealth. Janamejaya tried a lot to persuade Astika to change his mind but with no effect. While this discussion was going on between Janamejaya and Astika, the latter, using his Yogic power managed to keep Takshaka poised at one place, thereby preventing him from plunging into the fire of the Yajna under the influence of the powerful mantras being recited by the Ritviks. Ultimately Janamejaya had to relent and the Yajna had to be stopped, leading to the snake species being saved from total extermination.

Just when the Yajna was thus prematurely concluded, Maharishi Vyasa along with a large retinue of his disciples arrived at the scene. After receiving Maharishi Vyasa with full reverence and offering a proper seat to him, Janamejaya requested him to recite the story of his ancestors (belonging to the Puru Dynasty) as contained in the Mahabharata composed by Maharishi Vyasa himself. Maharishi Vyasa informed Janamejaya that he had narrated the entire story to one of his chief disciples Vaishampayana and since he himself was getting old, he would like Vaishampayana to narrate the story to all while Vyasa himself would also listen in. Vaishampayana obeyed the instruction from his guru and started narrating the story to the entire gathering.

Vaishampayana began by providing details about evolution itself and informed the gathering about how various Devas, Asuras, Humans, Animals and other living beings were created. Before proceeding with narrating the entire story of Mahabharata in detail, he provided details about the Puru dynasty, also called the Puruvamsha, to Janamejaya. Addressing him he said, “O King, Puru, from whom your dynasty got its name was the son of Yayati from his second wife Sharmishtha. Yayati himself was a progeny of Daksha, one of the mind-born sons (Manasputra) of Lord Brahma. Much later in the same lineage there was a great king called Shantanu.”

Vaishampayana further explained, “Shantanu got married to Ganga and had eight sons from her, youngest of them being Devavrata. Subsequently Shantanu fell madly in love with Satyavati, who was a fisherman’s daughter. He wanted to marry her, but could not proceed further because of the unacceptable condition put forth by her father, which was that only her son would ascend the throne. When Devavrata heard about this condition, he took a vow that he will never marry or ascend the throne of Hastinapura, which enabled Shantanu to marry Satyavati. Because of these terrible (bheeshana) vows, he came to be known by the appellation, Bhishma, and was also blessed by his grateful father with the unique power to choose the time of his own death. Shantanu had two other sons with Satyavati, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Chitrangada died in a battle and Vichitravirya became the king. He had two wives Ambika and Ambalika. He also died before he could have any sons. Before her marriage to Shantanu, Satyavati had a son from Maharishi Parashara, who left for intense penance and promised his mother that he would present himself before her whenever she needed him. This son of Satyavati is none other than Maharishi Vyasa himself.”

Vaishampayana continued, “Consequent to the untimely death of her sons from Shantanu, Satyavati, after consulting the celibate Bhishma, asked her eldest son Maharishi Vyasa to beget sons from the wives of Vichitravirya, consistent with the ancient custom of Niyoga. Thus Maharishi Vyasa sired Dhritarashtra through Ambika; Pandu through Ambalika; and Vidura through a maidservant of Ambika. Dhritarashtra had hundred sons and a daughter from Gandhari and another son named Yuyutsu from a palace courtesan. Dhritarashtra’s children came to be known as Kauravas. Since Dhritarashtra was born blind, Pandu was crowned as the King.

“During her stay in her father’s palace before getting married to Pandu, Kunti had served Maharishi Durvasa with great dedication. Maharishi Durvasa, being very pleased with Kunti’s ministrations, granted her a powerful mantra through the use of which she could have a son from any of the Devatas. Her youthful curiosity led her to test the mantra on the sun-god Surya, resulting in her becoming an unwed mother of a handsome boy, who later came to be known as Karna. Besides being a very good king, Maharaja Pandu had a great passion for hunting. It was during one of his hunting expeditions that he inadvertently killed a Rishi who was in an intimate position with his wife. Before breathing his last, the Rishi cursed Pandu that he will die in a similar way if he ever tried to get intimate with any woman. By way of repentance for having killed a Rishi, Pandu gave up his kingdom in favour of his brother Dhritarashtra and retired to the forest, along with his two wives Kunti and Madri.

“The fact that he could not have children on account of the curse tormented Pandu, which reflected in his behaviour. Realising this inner turmoil Pandu was going through, Kunti informed him about the mantra she had received from Maharishi Durvasa. Therefore, to prevent the termination of the dynasty, Pandu asked Kunti to have sons from the deities Dharma, Vayu and Indra by the use of the mantra. Accordingly Yudhishthira, Bhimasena and Arjuna were born from Dharma, Vayu and Indra respectively. At Pandu’s behest, Kunti also passed on the mantra to Madri who invoked the Ashvini Kumaras, resulting in the birth of Nakula and Sahadeva.

One day after a long time, Pandu became passionate on seeing Madri and tried to be intimate with her despite her protests. Even Madri’s reminding him about the Rishi’s curse had no effect on him and, as a result he died. Madri blamed herself for the death of Pandu and sought death for herself by ascending the funeral pyre of her husband. Thereafter Kunti returned to Hastinapura with her sons and handed them over to the care of Bhishma, Vidura and the King Dhritarashtra. These five sons came to be known as the Pandavas. The Kauravas led by Duryodhana, the eldest son of Dhritarashtra, never liked the Pandavas’ return to Hastinapura, and thus began a saga of intrigues which culminated in the great war of the Mahabharata.”

After recounting these details to King Janamejaya about his own ancestors, Vaishampayana continued narrating the entire story of Mahabharata to him and others who had gathered there during the Yajna.

The narration also brought out the whole fabulous story of how Karna, despite being the eldest Pandava by birth, landed in the lap of a charioteer of King Dhritarashtra and how the fascinating journey of his life – studded with tragedies, acts of extreme valour, sacrifices and unparalleled charities – came to an end in the war of Mahabharata.
About the Authors
Umesh Chandra Kotru, a specialist in accounts and finance of the Government of India, retired in 2010 from the Ministry of Power, after a distinguished career spanning years of professional work in the Ministry of External Affairs; Indian Embassy in Washington; Ministry of Finance; and Ministry of Environment & Forests.

An avid reader of books on Philosophy, Religion, Mythology and Fiction, and a passionate aficionado of Sports, Umesh now divides his time between his two pursuits of the mind and the body.

Living in Noida with wife, also retired from Central Government Service, they have a daughter who is a doctor and a son who is an engineer with MBA, both married.

Ashutosh Zutshi, like-minded nephew of Umesh Kotru, is a technocrat with a difference. An electronics & communication engineer, Ashutosh is engaged in higher-level corporate management as General Manager of a Japanese MNC in Delhi. At the same time, an inner urge for self-actualisation drives him to find some time – mostly in the weekends – to pursue his other interests, in music, in singing and of course, in serious reading.

Ashutosh too lives in Noida with his wife, who works with the United Nations and two sons who are in school.