Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Karna Again..

Saw the Tamil movie Karnan the other day. The movie is a heart wrenching rendition of Karna portrayed in a near perfect manner by the legendary Sivaji Ganesan. The movie is a treat for the people who are interested in Indian mythology or have a taste in tragedy. The exaggerated expressions so reminiscent of the cinema of yesteryears, the intricacy of the language and Sivaji, in all his magnanimity, make the movie a treat to watch.

The movie remains the same as my previous post with not many changes in the storyline. However what prompted me to write another post for Karna is the ending of the movie and of course, my fascination with the character. The death of Karna is portrayed differently in this movie when compared to the Mahabharata or to Mrityunjay. I would have to research more on it to check if it was just an artistic twist or the South Indian version of tragic hero. But then It again got me started upon my favorite mythological character.

Zoom into the great battle of Kurukshetra. The Supreme Commander-In-Chief of the Kaurava army, Bhishma, refuses to fight alongside Karna or to command him. Bhishma was serving the Kaurava army only because of his vow to serve the King of Hastinapura. Bhishma justifies his act as a necessary action to curb Karna’s undue hatred of the Pandavas. However, Karna is hurt more when his only friend, Durydhona does not intervene. Always the astute politician, Durydhona knows only too well to have the grand patriarch on his side and not annoy him. Karna would only enter the battle after Bhishma’s fall.

Vrishasena, Karna's son, enters the battle and fights fiercely. For a young kid, Vrishasena fights very bravely and almost brings down Nakula piercing him with arrows and Nakula calls out his brother, Arjuna for help. Seeing Arjuna enter the battle, Vrishasena rushes to fight his father's bitter rival. Little Vrishasena pierces Arjuna in the left arm pit with an arrow. Then, he even pierces Krishna with arrows. An enraged Arjuna then vows to slay the kid, Vrishasena. Arjuna, capable of slaying the Yama himself, laughs terribly and says to Karna, "Today, in this very battle, I will slay the fierce Vrishasena and send him to Yama's abode. You slew my son in my absence when he was alone and unarmed. I will slay Vrishasena in your very sight. Let all the Kaurava warriors protect him. After I slay Vrishasena, I will slay you who is at the root of this quarrel and have become so proud in Durydhona’s patronage. Bhima will slay Durydhona, the wretch among men, through whose evil this quarrel born of dice has arisen.”

Having said these, Arjuna proceeds to rain arrows over little Vrishasena. Cutting off Virshasena’s bow with his razor sharp arrows, Arjuna proceeds to sever his limbs and eventually kill the little child.

On the seventeenth day of the battle, Karna faces and defeats Bhima and Yudhishtira in the battle. Keeping his promise to Kunti, Karna doesn’t kill them. Enraged by the death of his young son, Karna defeats Nakula as well and spares his life too though fully aware of the fact that Nakula was instrumental in Vrishasena’s death. Karna finally comes face to face with his most intense rival, Arjuna in the battlefield. Deprived of his impregnable earrings (Kundal), armor (Kavach) and his most powerful weapon, Karna has to face the widely equipped Arjuna on the basis of his skills alone. Putting up a dazzling display of archery, Karna pins Arjuna to the chariot with a rain of arrows. Arjuna, too, lives up to his name and the intense fight continues with both the heroes, matched equally for skill and bravery, are unable to overcome each other.

During the course of the battle, the earth is pressed deep due to the weights of the chariots and the elephants. And Aswasena, a snake who was hostile to Arjuna for having killed its mother at Khandava, rises from the nether region. Recollecting the death of his mother and the enmity that he had harboured against Arjuna, the brave snake rises to the skies and thinking that it was the right time for gratifying his animosity towards the wicked Arjuna, enters Karna’s quiver assuming the form of an arrow, the Naga Astram. Karna, though, is unaware and when he shoots that arrow at Arjuna, Krishna recognizes the Naga-Astram and he plunges the chariot into the ground as a desperate measure. The arrow strikes Arjuna’s diadem instead, saving Arjuna from sure death.

The snake returns to Karna and says, “You sped me, O Karna, without having seen me. It was for this that I could not strike off Arjuna's head. Please shoot me once again, after seeing me well. I shall then slay your foe and mine too."

To which Karna asked, “Who are you to have possessed such fierce form?”

The snake answered, saying, "Know me as one the one who has been wronged by Arjuna. My enmity towards him is due to his having slain my mother. Do not disregard me. Do my bidding. I will slay thy foe. Shoot me without delay."

Hearing those words, Karna said, "Karna never desires to have victory in battle today by relying on another's might. Even if I have to slay a hundred Arjunas, I will not still shoot the same shaft twice."

Aswasen implores Karna, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Krishna exhorts Arjuna to slay the snake. Deprived of Karna’s mighty bow, the brave snake perishes.

The fierce combat continues until Karna’s chariot wheels get stuck in the ground. Karna tries to remove the wheel from the ground. Krishna exhorts Arjuna to attack Karna. Arjuna lets out a powerful volley of arrows at Karna.

Struck by the arrows, Karna falls down to the ground. Wounded, but not dead. Arjuna continues to fire arrows at Karna but the arrows don’t pierce Karna’s body. Instead, they become a garland of flowers and fall on him. Puzzled, Arjuna seeks to Krishna for help. Krishna smiles and shows Arjuna that it is the Goddess of Righteousness who is protecting Karna. Krishna says that Karna has been so righteous throughout his life that the Goddess herself seeks to protect him. Krishna concludes that the only way to slay Karna would be to deprive Karna of all his righteousness.

Assuming the form of a poor Brahmin, Krishna walks up to the fallen warrior and says that he came all the way to meet Karna to ask for a favour. Karna, the ever generous says, “The only thing I have now is my life. If you want, I’ll happily give it to you.”

Krishna laughs and says “I do not seek your life.What good will it do?“

Karna implores the Brahmin, “Ask for anything you want. “

Waiting for this moment, Krishna says, “I have sinned greatly and I need the fruits of your good deeds to save myself from hell. I want all the righteousness that you have in yourselves. All the Dharma you have.”

Without thinking Karna slices his navel and spills his righteous blood on the poor Brahman’s hands remarking that the Brahman has given the lowly born Karna an opportunity to redeem himself. Karna finally is deprived of the one last thing that set him apart from mortals. Krishna, touched by his generosity grants him vision of his Viswaroopa. Krishna asks him to ask for a boon.

Karna replies,” Please make my pyre on the most barren place on earth, so no man may suffer the pain I did in case it's reborn.”

Having done that, Krishna walks back to Arjuna and tells him to kill Karna. Dutifully, Arjuna fires a volley of arrows upon Karna and the Great Warrior finally dies.

Upon his death, Karna’s wife Vrushali, his Mother Kunti and the Goddess of Righteousness mourn his death. Arjuna asks Krishna “Why is the Goddess mourning Karna’s fall?”

To which the Goddess replies, “In this World of greed, power and betrayal, Only Karna has followed the path of righteousness. And I am mourning the death of my only son in all the three worlds.”

Kunti then, in her grief reveals that Karna was her eldest son and the true heir to the throne.

Arjuna realizing the gravity of his action laments that he killed his own brother. To which Krishna replies that Karna was not killed by one man alone. Six other people were involved in killing Karna.

Krishna explains to an inconsolable Arjuna, “Parushuram’s curse ensured that Karna would forget the incantation of the most powerful Brahmastra when he would require it the most. A poor Brahman, whose son he had killed mistaking it for a deer, had cursed Karna saying that the wheels of his chariot would get stuck in the ground during battle. Your father, Indra disguised himself as a Brahmin and asked for Karna’s invincible Kavach (Armor) and Kundal (Earrings) thereby rendering him vulnerable to death. Your mother Kunti, extracted a promise out of him that he would not kill any of your brothers except you. And that he would use a divine weapon only once against you. Shalya, Karna’s charioteer refused to help him when his Chariot wheels get stuck into the ground. And finally when all this failed to kill the Great Man, I myself, robbed Karna of all his righteousness left him to the dead. You have killed a man already killed six times by his own people.”

Lord Krishna, remembering Karna’s dying request and being the Lord himself, made Karna’s pyre on his palm.

This is beautifully depicted in the song Ullathil Nalla Ullam written by the poet Kannadasan. It’s shown that Krishna sings the song while he walks towards Karna in the end to ask for his righteousness. I’ll  translate the last stanza of the song. It manages to capture Karna’s whole life in just four lines.


Senjotru Kadan Theerka,

Seradha idam sendhu,

Vanjhathil vizhnthiyada, Karna

Vanjhagan Kannanda!


To repay a debt,

You sided with people you shouldn’t have

And got caught in the web of deception, Karna

But Krishna is the real deceiver!


His acts of generosity are unmatched. One goes that a Brahmin, who required sandalwood to cremate his departed wife approached Karna for the same. It was raining heavily and the Brahmin needed dry sandalwood (An alternate version is that there was a shortage of sandalwood in the city)Karna, unable to procure sandalwood from the market, noticed that the pillars of his palace were of sandalwood, and calling for an axe, cut them down to give the Brahmin his wood. His palace collapsed, much to the dismay of the Brahmin, but he told him that as a King, He could rebuild it easily.

Some little known facts about Karna would be that he was the most handsome person in the Mahabharata. All the ladies of Hastinapura used to stare at him when he used to go to the Ganges for a bath. Being the son of the Sun-God himself, the radiance on his face was irresistible. He had defeated Arjuna in the battle once but spares his life pulling back his arrow realizing that they would not reach Arjuna before sunset (End of the day’s battle). Later when Durydhona asks Karna about it, he replies that as the commander of the Kaurava army, he would adhere to the rules of combat so that the future generations cannot complain that the Sutaputra Karna killed the Kshatriya Arjuna by cheating.

Two moments that test and define Karna’s unwavering loyalty and strong character would be when Krishna comes to Hastinapura at the end of the Pandavas thirteen years of exile and to negotiate a peace settlement as Duryodhana refuses to give the Pandavas their kingdom. Instead of negotiating, Durydhona tries to capture Krishna. Before leaving, Krishna tries to win Karna over to the Pandava’s side by reasoning with him. Though Krishna is aware of the kindness that Duryodhana had shown Karna, he argued that Karna had a higher duty, to follow him on the path of righteousness.

It is here that the depth of his character is seen. Apologizing for his role in Draupadi's attempted molestation, Karna tells Krishna he knows that Duryodhana is wrong, and in supporting him he is doing the wrong thing and moreover, that he will certainly face death and defeat for it. But he resolves nevertheless to stick with him.

He tells Krishna “All my life, I have been a Sutaputra first and a warrior and King later to the world. Duryodhana alone has seen me, not just as a warrior and king, but as his equal and friend first. Never has he seen me as a Sutaputra. Now that this one friend of mine is in need of a friend, do you expect me to desert him?" Krishna then reveals to him the secret of his birth - that he is Kunti's eldest son. Upon Krishna's exhorting him to join his brothers, Karna is steadfast in his refusal to join the Pandavas.

He replies with bitterness in his voice "Kunti may have given birth to me, but her first act was to cast me into the river. Why should I consider her a mother, when I grew under the love of another? The Pandavas may be my brothers by blood, but they have shown me envy and hatred alone throughout. Why should I join them and desert Duryodhana, who has shown me the love of a brother?"

Karna requests Krishna to keep his identity a secret. If Yudhishtira were to know, he would renounce the kingdom rather than fight an elder brother for it, and Karna does not want him to give up.

The second time is when Kunti, fearing the war, approaches Karna and reveals her identity to him. In one of the most touching scenes in the Mahabharata, she tells him to drop the name ‘Radheya’ (Radha’s firstborn) and call himself ‘Kaunteya’ to which Karna replies that it was what he always wanted and craved for. Upon her requesting him to come over to their side, a request Surya himself reinforces from the skies, Karna refuses.

The scene between Karna and Kunti is brilliantly captured by Rabindranath Tagore which I came across while researching for this post. It is very touching, though it loses a bit of it’s flair having been translated from Bengali, it still deserves a separate post.

I cannot help but wonder if only we people possessed a little bit of the goodness that Karna has the world would have been a much better place to live in.


kallu said...

Wonderful wonderful post Ayyapan. You've related the story so fascinatingly. Enough to make me a fan of Karna's and yes, even to rethink the way I live my life.
You've taken a lot of trouble with the research and the way you've rewritten it all.
I do want to see the movie now:-)))
Seen it long ago, and I do remember Shivaji as a wonderful Karnan. But now i have to see it with new eyes.

ayyo.... said...

See the movie, Sivaji's acting is a treat.

meerasworld said...

wonderful post.i was always a fan of karnan.i have 2 you know if there is an english translation for -parthiban kanav?is there a good shop to buy old tamil movies in chennai?
thank you.

ayyo.... said...

Thanks!! And sorry for the delay in my reply.
Yes, there is an English translation for Partiban Kanavu. Old Tamil movies in Chennai? Well, you can get then anywhere in one of those malls now a days..!

For Partiban Kanavu :-

meerasworld said...

thank you so much:)next time when we visit chennai,will certainly try to get a few old tamil movies.

Madhse said...

the 2 bad things karna did was in slaying of Abhimanyu (in addition to insulting draupadi). I think Karna channelled all his frustations and anger of being abandoned by making pandavas his enemy.. in that sense he was egotical.. but in terms of 'dhaanveer' there is no match to him

ram said...

interesting one buddy - but another side of the analysis coming from the conclusion of the Gita is the highest motivation for action is to please the supreme consciosuness Sri Krishna. Gita 18.56 says that sarva dharmaan parityajya. maam ekam saranam vraja - the Pandavas adhered to this - they gave up so called worldly morality and surrendered to the design of Sri Krishna and hence came out victorious whereas Karna even after Sri Krishna pleading him sticks to worldly morality - benefit for the soul is in complete surrender and alignment to Sri Krishna - Who ever is unaligned faces death as Karna's end depicts - The characters in Mahabharatha are complex and one needs the philosophy of the gita to understand them - Our role models are the Pandavas

Kumble2904 said...

Amazing post man. You should write a book on Karna too. I am a fan of Lord Krishna as well as Karna.

ayyo.... said...

Hey! Thanks a lot.. but there are far better researchers than I. And Krishna's character fascinates me too..

Raj d ruler said...

Please can anyone give the reference of this fact from Mahabharat or any other epic. I must need it. Please reply or you can also contact me on

Thanks in advance.

"His acts of generosity are unmatched. One goes that a Brahmin, who required sandalwood to cremate his departed wife approached Karna for the same. It was raining heavily and the Brahmin needed dry sandalwood (An alternate version is that there was a shortage of sandalwood in the city)Karna, unable to procure sandalwood from the market, noticed that the pillars of his palace were of sandalwood, and calling for an axe, cut them down to give the Brahmin his wood. His palace collapsed, much to the dismay of the Brahmin, but he told him that as a King, He could rebuild it easily."

rsureshnair said...

nice it teach me alot in my heart

Aboli said...

Have you read Mrityunjaya a book written by shivaji sawant? it gives a very brilliant portrait of his character and life. It is available in english. Karna was a great character whose glory can never end! He is the most self sacrificing and rigid with his principles.
Jayatu Karna!!

Anonymous said...

very nice interpretation of karna's story. You can find some details on mahabharat on

shanu moorthy said...

hey nice post..karna is undoubtedly the best warrior..when everyone saw dhuryodhan as a bad person he was the only one who saw the good in him..its easy to stick by dharma because you know that will win,but its very hard to be in the side of adharma and to know that you are going to loose,that to not for your sake but for the sake of your friend..even in the last moment when he knew his mother was selfishly taking a promise from him he was more than happy to give it...there is a saying that mahabaratham is a very practical epic and you can identify the charecters with ppl around..i can connect with most of the characters in the modern world..but the character whom I could not connect in this world was karnars...out of all the love tracks in mahabharatha I like karnas and vrishalis the the end LORD KRISHNA himself would have said the karna is the best pandava..:-)