The Son of the Sun – Part 3
When Krishna offered Karna kingship of the Pandavas’ kingdom if he defected to their side, Karna by the side of Duryodhana. Doesn’t this make him a glorious example of a faithful friend?
Sadly, no. It makes Karna a classic but tragic example of a good person becoming bad due to bad association – and then mistaking faithfulness to that bad association to be a matter of honor.
It is true that Duryodhana helped Karna in his time of need by giving him the kingdom of Anga. And it is laudable that Karna was grateful to him for that generosity. Yet in the larger picture the Kauravas were immoral and evil. The way Duryodhana dishonored the Pandavas and especially their wife was heinous.
When an honorable person gets unknowingly entangled in something dishonorable, then honor requires that the honorable person come out of the mess on coming to know of it, not stay on in it in the name of honor.
To illustrate with a provocative parallel, suppose a starving boy in Pakistan is offered food and shelter by a group of terrorists who brainwash people into becoming suicide bombers. The boy may not be initially aware of the evil agenda of his helpers, but when he becomes aware, should he in the name of loyalty to those who helped him once continue lifelong to be a part of a machinery of death and destruction? Is Karna’s faithfulness to Duryodhana all that different from Mohammed bin Atta’s faithfulness to Osama bin Laden in becoming a suicide bomber who brought down the twin towers and killed thousands?
Karna may not have had any idea of the evil nature of Duryodhana initially, but when he came to know about it, he should have parted ways. But unfortunately, far from parting ways, Karna not only joined Duryodhana’s way, but also egged the wicked Kaurava further along that way. Karna, in his mistaken desire to please Duryodhana, suggested the dishonoring of Draupadi. Karna’s joining Duryodhana emboldened that arrogant prince to become even more insolent, imagining that he could excel the military prowess of the Pandavas, thereby courting self-destruction and causing world destruction.
What Krishna offered Duryodhana and Karna when he came as a peace messenger shows his extremely accommodating nature – his willingness to go to any length to avoid or minimize bloodshed. Krishna asked Duryodhana to give just five villages, but that evil prince rejected the offer.
Then Krishna knowing that bloodshed was inevitable decided to try to minimize it. He knew that the various formidable Kaurava generals like Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and Ashwatthama bore no animosity towards the Pandavas – they would fight only because they were obliged to. The only formidable Kaurava general apart from the Kaurava brothers who was bent on the fight was Karna. If he could be won over, then that would break the back of Duryodhana’s obstinacy. It might even persuade him to agree for a peaceful settlement. If not, at least it would shorten the fight. With this intention to minimize violence, Krishna invited Karna to come on the side of the virtuous Pandavas. And when Krishna offered Karna the kingdom, that offer was not as a temptation but as Karna’s rightful legacy as the eldest Pandava.
It was Krishna’s accommodating nature that he not only gave Karna a chance to do the right thing, but also offered him an unparalleled reward for doing the right thing. After all the wrong things Karna had participated in or even instigated, it could well be said that he didn’t deserve such an offer. Yet Krishna magnanimously made the offer, thereby making it as easy as possible for Karna to do the right thing at least at that late stage. When Karna refused that offer, he chose wrong instead of right – all due to a mistaken sense of honor.
From the devotional perspective, Karna rejected God for the world; he gave greater importance to being honored by the world than by God. He didn’t have the intelligence to recognize that whatever Duryodhana had given him ultimately belonged to God, who had given it temporarily to Duryodhana. And it was that God who was now offering him the world’s emperorship.
Even if Karna didn’t accept Krishna as the Supreme God and so didn’t consider his word authoritative, he could at least have accepted the authority of his worshipable god, Suryadeva. That effulgent deity advised Karna that for his own well-being he should side with the virtuous family of his birth and not the vicious family that he had befriended. Yet Karna stuck to his own notion of what would be honorable.
What Krishna was inviting Karna to was not defection, but redemption – a return to the path of virtue that Karna would probably have tread had he not become attached to Duryodhana.
To err is human, but to continue in error isn’t. And to mistake continuing in error to be loyalty is stupidity. And when that mistake causes the death of millions, that mistaken loyalty ceases to be mere stupidity; it becomes monstrous perversity. Karna’s mistaken loyalty was his greatest inner enemy and it made him a puppet in the hands of the evil Duryodhana.
Was Karna not disadvantaged during the final fight because of the curses of Parashurama and the brahmana that caused respectively his forgetfulness of the mantras for his potent weapons and his chariot’s sinking into the earth?
Yes, but again he was not the only one to be cursed. Arjuna was cursed by Urvashi to become a eunuch. And Arjuna’s being cursed was even more unfair than that of Karna’s.
Urvashi had wanted to unite with him, but Arjuna respectfully refused, regarding her like a mother as she had been the wife of his ancestor Pururava. Being infuriated at being turned down, Urvashi cursed Arjuna. So Arjuna got the curse without having done anything reproachable – in fact after having done something immensely laudable. Indra lauded him later, “Your self-control exceeds even that of the great sages.” In contrast, Karna’s curses were due to his having done something reproachable, even if it might not have been with bad intention. He lied to Parashurama, saying that he had been born in a brahmana family. And he accidentally killed the brahmana’s cow, mistaking it to be an animal to be hunted.
Further, many other people have also got cursed disproportionately for minor transgressions: Dasharatha, Pandu and Parikshit, for example. So there’s nothing uniquely tragic about Karna’s getting cursed – no need to make a martyr out of him.
Moreover, what happens to us is not as important as we respond to it. By choosing right responses, the effect of unfortunate happenings can be minimized. Arjuna used the curse to live discreetly as a dance teacher during the period when the Pandavas were expected to live incognito. Karna too could have done something to deal with the curse. To minimize the effect of the “chariot-being-swallowed” curse, he could have had a backup chariot always ready or could even have switched to an entirely different carrier, say, an elephant. To minimize the effect of the “mantras-forgetting” curse, he could have done austerities and acquired other weapons along with the mantras to hurl them – Parashurama’s curse applied only to the mantras he had given to Karna. Overreliance on one weapon, especially that is known to, even fated, to let one down is a suicidally unsound strategy – entirely unworthy of anyone who wishes to be considered as the world champion archer. And of course he could have entirely avoided this ill-starred conflict if he had had the good sense to listen to Krishna and chose the side of virtue.
(To be continued)