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The celebration of weakness: Eulogizing Karna

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Public Health Scientist, Hindustani Singer, Kuchipudi Dancer, Ardent Traveller, Polyglot. Badly needs a break!

The Mahabharata has been a subject of many adaptations, discourses and commentaries since its writing. Interpretations highlighting the point of view of every important character have been written, but none has gained as much traction as that of Karna’s.

Ask 100 people who their favorite character from the Mahabharata is, and it is likely that at least half of them will say Karna. He has been painted as the tragic untainted hero, caught in a web of circumstances beyond his control, embracing death meted out to him by a tainted adversary, with a smiling face while fighting for his cause. He is the darling of present day leftist Marxists masquerading as social justice warriors. I write this in response to their slandering Shri Krishna and the Pandavas as perpetrators of upper caste atrocities against Dalits and the eulogizing of Karna and Duryodhana.

Karna is the low-born who fights against the hegemonic societal order, gains Vidya and uses it unflinchingly and generously in the cause of his friend, whose side he never leaves, no matter what. The Marxists use his example and that of Ekalavya to show that Hinduism has always been entrenched in caste rigidity and oppression by the Brahmin-Kshatriya nexus, and many an unsuspecting Hindu subscribes to their view due to dual factors – they have never read the Vyasa Mahabharata; the Marxists present their side in a way that appeals to the sensibilities of any good-natured human, even if their interpretation has no basis in the actual epic. Who really was Karna? Was he unblemished as claimed by the Marxists? Let us look at five of the most defining courses of events in Karna’s life.

Karna wanted to learn archery. He was taught the basic skills of archery (shastra Vidya) by Drona himself (Section 134 of Sambhava Parva of Adi Parva). The text of the Sambhava Parva explains how Drona taught the same concepts to everyone, but only Arjuna was passionate about learning the art of warfare and through sheer determination and practice, becomes good at it and betters his classmates. It also goes on to say that Karna becomes jealous of how good Arjuna is at archery and starts defying his guru and a nascent bond develops between Duryodhana and him.

Drona teaches advanced warfare techniques to his son Ashwatthama. He did not forbid any of his pupils from joining these lessons, however only Arjuna showed the initiative to join in and was able to learn these techniques. Karna asks to be taught these as well, but considering the nature of the Vidya (Astra Vidya) and Karna’s propensity to jealousy, Drona refuses. At this point, Karna leaves the Ashram and seeks Parasurama.

Brahmin according to the Vedas, is any person who seeks knowledge for the sake of knowing and not for any kind of gain, and exhibits the qualities of equanimity and Ahimsa, and teaches what he knows to worthy students. It has nothing to do with birth and everything to do with one’s deeds and qualities. Anyone who ceases to exhibit these qualities ceases to be a Brahmin. Parasurama wanted the knowledge he gained to be propagated while at the same time, establish peace after waging war over Kshatriyas for insulting his father. He thus vowed to train only Brahmins. Hence, at Parasurama’s Ashram, Karna disguises himself as a Brahmin and seeks Astra Vidya. Karna wanted Astra Vidya for profit – he wanted to show the world he was better than Arjuna. He could very well have sought out another guru, but he did not. While leaving Drona’s ashram, he challenges him that he will learn from his teacher and become better than even he! So he lied to Parasurama and by deceit, made him break his vow. Upon discovering the truth, Parasurama curses him to forget the Bramhastra during a single battle which would be the most important one of his life. It is to be noted that the curse applied only to Bramhastra and not to any other Astras learnt from Parasurama or to the Shastra Vidya learnt from Drona.

Karna, as early as his student days, displays the qualities of jealousy and deceit. Today’s Marxists say that a corrupt system made Karna lie to Parasurama. In reality, Karna’s jealousy made him fall out of favor with his first guru, his jealousy gave rise to anger which made him decide he wanted to learn only from Parasurama, to whom he has no qualms about lying.

According to section 189 of the Swayamvara Parva of Adi Parva, at Draupadi’s Swayamvar, Karna wants to win the contest to achieve twin objectives – to win Draupadi for his friend and to establish that he is the best archer. He has no interest towards Draupadi. Draupadi decides she does not want to be won over by him and says she does not want to wed the son of a charioteer. Though Karna is the king of Anga, he lives in a simple house with his adoptive parents and leads the life of Duryodhana’s servant. Draupadi on the other hand, is a princess of Panchala, one of the three most powerful kingdoms of those times. Even today, women have the freedom to choose who they want to marry. When a marriage is performed, the antecedents of the bride and groom are seen as important. Women generally want to marry into a household with better or at least equal income to their birth family, so that they lead a comfortable life. Such a choice of today’s women is respected but the same respect is not accorded to Draupadi’s choice. Is this not hypocrisy?

In one of the most kairotic moments of the Mahabharata, in the Sabha Parva, he calls Draupadi a whore and is gleeful as she is being dragged to court by her hair and laughs raucously as she is being disrobed. When Vikarna protests and tries to convince his brothers to stop, Karna lambastes him and asks him to shut up. When Vikarna realizes he can’t stop the dastardly act, he leaves the hall in disgust.

According to section 47 of the Drona Parva of the Vyasa Mahabharata, on the thirteenth day of war, when Abhimanyu dies in the Chakravyuha, fighting 11 Athirathis simultaneously, Karna is jubilant. He dances cheerfully at the battlefield as the boy takes his last breath and that night, takes part in the festivities with reinforced vigor. Is this behavior befitting a hero to be idolized?

According to the Udyoga Parva of Vyasa Mahabharata, when Indra seeks Karna’s Kavacha and Kundala as alms, he donates them without thinking twice, berates Indra and Arjuna, and then asks for a boon in return for his charity!

Now coming to his biggest defense, that he was a low born who became a king on his merit and decides to dedicate his life to his friend; Vyasa himself and the entire Kaurava lineage is born of a fisher woman. Krishna is called a cowherd his entire life – he embraces this name instead of getting offended by it. Which important character exactly is not low-born in the Mahabharata? There was no merit involved when Duryodhana names him the king of Anga. Karna is made king simply because Duryodhana sees an opportunity to gain an ally who he thought would be his answer to Arjuna.

After becoming the king, Karna does not fulfill any duties of kingship and spends most of his time in Hastinapura, co-conspiring against the Pandavas. He is an active and equal participant in the Lakshagriha conspiracy and in all conspiracies to cheat or kill the Pandavas thereafter. He does not even pay lip service to the poor and downtrodden at any of the court proceedings. He does nothing to change the Daasa (servitude) system and instead contributes to the system by proclaiming himself Duryodhana’s slave, and playing the part even in public. He uses his Vidya to further his friend’s cause at all costs just because he was made king. Isn’t it eerily similar to a politician who does the bidding of his benefactors just to stay in power? Karna basically sold his soul and his knowledge to Duryodhana so that he could remain Angaraja.

I see the phenomenon of eulogising Karna in continuum with eulogizing Ekalavya. Ekalavya learns archery by hearing Drona’s instructions from afar. In today’s terms, it is a breach of intellectual property rights. Ekalavya’s Nishada kingdom was allied with Magadha – an enemy to Hastinapura under whose employ Drona is teaching. It is natural for Drona to cut his losses. According to my study of the original Sanskrit Itihasa, which I have presented above, I see not a single characteristic of Karna that is worth idolizing and eulogizing.

If jealousy, deceit, treating a woman like an object to be won, holding a grudge against that woman and cachinnating at her disrobing, exhibiting cowardice and killing a mere boy in collusion with 10 others and rejoicing at his death are not signs of weakness, I don’t know what is! And if eulogizing a man possessing these qualities is not eulogizing weakness, I don’t know what is! And this celebration of weakness extends to other fields too – for instance, poverty is treated as a virtue and moneyed people are painted as evil. Making money on one’s own effort is a thing to be celebrated, but the Marxists treat such people as the enemy! People holding the Marxist ideology have produced an extensive list of translations and annotations of Hindu texts and have misinterpreted them in a way that justifies their flawed world view. And the average Hindu has predictably fallen prey.

The Smritis including the much hated Manusmriti and the Bhagavadgita state clearly that the Varna is decided by deeds and qualities of a person and not by birth. There are various examples which exemplify this and show Varna was always fluid. Valmiki was an Avarna (outcast) person who became a Maharshi. Vyasa’s example I have already quoted above. Alina was a Shudra who became a Kshatriya. There are many more examples, but quoting them is only superfluous.

The distortions in the epic retold such that it appears as though Karna, Ekalavya and even Duryodhana are the aggrieved party; and the distorted translation of the Smritis to show Vedic sanction to Jaati (caste) rather than Varna suits the Marxists. They can peddle their lies about Hinduism using such a narrative. The Aryan invasion theory which was an attempt by Max Muller to provide a basis for legitimizing the Nazi pogrom against non Germans, was latched on to by the British as a means of diving Indians and converting them to Christianity. Today, despite being disproved by genetics and anthropology, it continues to be taught in schools as history (not as a theory but as a fact) on the insistence of people like Romila Thapar who have meted out gross injustice to this country by propagating these distortions.

Hindus would do well to read their own Itihasas, Puranas, Smritis and Shrutis or at least make an attempt to hear about them from traditional scholars before forming their opinions on them. Marxists thrive on the laziness of the common man and his propensity for linear and oversimplified information. This is why imposters like Devdutt Pattanaik who admittedly cannot even read basic Sanskrit but has written his own Gita is so popular among the masses. Those who point a finger at the Smritis and Shrutis should at least have the decency to actually read the same. Once they have done that, if they can point fingers, traditional scholars are more than willing to debate. Until then, debating with ignorant haters is counter productive and a colossal waste of time.

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Public Health Scientist, Hindustani Singer, Kuchipudi Dancer, Ardent Traveller, Polyglot. Badly needs a break!
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