The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Friday, January 29, 2016

How Karna was misinterpreted

Karna's conversation with Krishna - Udyoga Parva, Chapters 138-141

This group of chapters is titled कर्णोपनिवादपर्व (Karna Upanivada Parva), which means "The failed reconciliation with Karna".

In chapter 138, Krishna Vasudeva bluntly reveals Karna's parentage, tells him that the he is in fact a Pandava, the Pandava birthright is his, the other Pandavas, Draupadi, and their sons and kin were ready to do his bidding, and that he should switch sides pronto.

Here Karna's reply is misinterpreted.

Karna uses the word अभिजानामि (abhijanami) which KMG mistranslates as "I know". It actually means "I recognize". The context being that this is the first time Karna has learnt of his true parentage from any source. KMG's translation bungles that up - makes it look like Karna always knew his parentage. It also makes it sound like Karna is actually clairvoyant, which he is not.

So the rest of the conversation reads as follows:
  1. Karna realizes that Krishna is speaking in good faith, and accepts Vasudeva's words and interpretations as the truth
  2. He recognizes the logic behind his being a Pandava and regrets having humiliated his brothers (but says nothing of Draupadi), but does not recognize them as family
  3. He recognizes the Sutas and Dhartarashtras as his true family
  4. He recognizes Krishna's might as kingmaker (not as God) and realizes that his and the Kauravas' defeat and death is inevitable, but that does not faze him
  5. He says that he was born for the destruction of the earth, along with Shakuni and the sons of Dhritarashtra and he is dedicated to that purpose
  6. To that end, he likens the forthcoming civil war to a massive sacrifice for the cleansing of the earth, and sees Duryodhana as its yajamana (performer) and his own inevitable death as the beginning of the second round of said sacrifice
  7. If nothing else, he is dedicated to eradicating Arjuna
And here's where there's a difference of opinion. What is Karna saying? Is he
  1. an Omnicidal Maniac who is trying to destroy the world (Class 3a / Apocalypse How) out of pure envy OR
  2. a self-aware necessary villain who entreats Krishna Vasudeva to let him do his job OR
  3. an avatar of a destructive natural force which is Above Good and Evil OR
  4. combinations thereof
The text itself goes with options a and c, implying that Karna and Shakuni are manifestations of Time the destroyer. Everybody and the grandfather Himself (Prajapati) says this over and over again - only they use the words Destiny and Time directly.

It is important here to understand that Time's destructive nature is not necessary, it is natural. In the sense that one can't fight it, it's inevitable, but one is not expected to help its cause. Out of envy and other adharmic tendencies, Karna has willingly chosen to help this cause.

Contrast this with Rama of the Ramayana who realizes that destiny has sent grief his way, but as a man (human and male) it is his duty to fight fate (and time) anyway.

This is why choosing option b here leads to some interesting and erroneous conclusions regarding Karna being an anti-villain, noble demon, etc.

Karna's conversation with Kunti - Udyoga Parva, Chapters 142 - 144

Here we find some interesting facts
  1. Kunti recognizes that Karna is adharmic, and that he needs redemption
  2. Kunti asks him to make peace with his brothers and rescue their (combined) birthright from the clutches of Duryodhana et. al.
  3. Karna hears from his father Surya, but disregards him
  4. Karna flat-out declares Kunti as "the woman who never cared" and refuses to see her or her other children as family
  5. Nevertheless, Karna voluntarily promises that he would not hurt Yuddhishthira, Bhima or the twins. Kunti doesn't ask him to, he just does
Why? Is this generosity, arrogance or pragmatic focus?

Earlier in Chapter 108 of the Adiparva we are told that he never refuses supplicants who come to him during his morning prayers. Kunti arrives at exactly this dedicated time. Yet he refuses her actual request, in essence breaking his much-lauded habit and going against his alleged reputation as a danaveera.

So, options:
  1. this promise was an attempt to salvage his philanthropy cred without actually sacrificing his real interests
  2. he did regret humiliating the Pandavas (except Arjuna) as he said in Chapter 139 and this was his way of repenting
  3. he (correctly) realized that the 4 he was sparing were not a threat to him
  4. His main contention was with Arjuna alone and he did not want to waste his energies on the other 4
  5. combinations thereof
The text itself supports all of the above.

Regardless, many people do misinterpret this as genuine unselfish generosity, which is a trait that Karna never actually exhibits anywhere in the Mahabharata.

Yuddhishthira's grief for Karna - various

In Chapter 108 of the Adiparva, we the audience learn about Karna's real parentage.
But the Pandavas and Kauravas and even Karna did not know that. Because nobody told them.

In Chapter 119 of the Adiparva, the Pandavas and Kunti learn that Duryodhana poisoned Bhima. We the audience learn about Karna being one of its masterminds.
But the Pandavas and Kunti did not know that. Because nobody told them.

In the Ghoshayatra Parva, Chapter २३२, Yuddhishthira advised his brothers to join him in rescuing Duryodhana and his brothers (who were justly and soundly defeated and imprisoned by Gandharvas).

Reading the rest of this Parva, we the audience learnt that this episode actually brought the Kauravas very very close to giving up on their hostilities with the Pandavas. In fact, if it were not for Karna and Shakuni's actions at that precise point, the great and bloody civil war would not have happened.
But the Pandavas did not know that. Because nobody told them

When Krishna Vasudeva confronted Karna with his past crimes in Chapter 67 of the Karna Parva, he only talked about his atrocious behaviour during the game of dice, because even Krishna Vasudeva did not know the full extent of Karna's villainy - because he was not omniscient and nobody told him.

And then comes Chapter 27 of the Stri Parva, when Kunti finally breaks her silence, and whispers her secret to the Pandavas (and only them), asking them to perform Karna's funeral rites. After the reveal of Karna's parentage, Yuddhishthira alone grieves for Karna.

In the very next chapters (1-6), which fall in the Shanti Parva, Yuddhisthira learned the secret of Karna's life story from Narada. Narada explained how Karna hated the Pandavas from day one, and how he used his childhood friends, the sons of Dhritarashtra, to further his own agenda of envy.

Narada explained how every single effort on Karna's part was born from his hatred of the Pandavas, especially Arjuna, and his greed for fame and greatness. Because of the gross impurity and baseness of his motives, he naturally encountered curses and other obstacles. Narada advised Yuddhishthira to not grieve for this brother, because despite all wickedness he was a great kshatriya and died in fair battle.

Kunti too reiterated how she and Surya had on multiple occasions tried to bring Karna back to the path of dharma, but had failed and given him up for a lost cause.

KMG's sources were on point in these chapters, and Narada's and Kunti's narration can be read in English here: Santi Parva: Rajadharmanusasana Parva: Section I to VI

In these and further chapters of the Shanti Parva, Yuddhishthira expressed the following sentiments:
  1. He marvelled at the sheer magnitude of trouble Karna had caused them, and grieved for the lost opportunity of having Karna on his side, in addition to Arjuna

    तेन मे दूयतेऽतीव हृदयं भ्रातृघातिनः |कर्णार्जुनसहायोऽहं जयेयमपि वासवम् ||३८||
    My heart is sorely wounded by that act of fratricide. If I had both Karna and Arjuna by my side I could have conquered even Indra.
  2. He revealed that despite witnessing Karna's atrocities at the game of dice, he was mysteriously pacified by the sight of Karna. Further:

     यदा ह्यस्य गिरो रूक्षाः शृणोमि कटुकोदयाः | सभायां गदतो द्यूते दुर्योधनहितैषिणः ||४०||
     तदा नश्यति मे क्रोधः पादौ तस्य निरीक्ष्य ह | कुन्त्या हि सदृशौ पादौ कर्णस्य इति मतिर्मम ||४१|| सादृश्यहेतुमन्विच्छन्पृथायास्तव चैव ह | कारणं नाधिगच्छामि कथञ्चिदपि चिन्तयन् ||४२||
    Even as I heard the harshness and fury born of bitterness in his voice as he spoke in favour of Duryodhana in that gathering, having stared at his feet my anger abated instantly. It seemed to me like Karna's feet resembled Kunti's feet. I tried to enquire about the cause of this resemblance to Kunti by various means, but was never able to obtain an answer.
  3. He regretted that he had caused the slaughter of many of his kin, including Karna, in order to obtain sovereignty. To that end, he was horrified by his actions, and fully prepared to renounce the world and starve to death. Everybody else (correctly) opposed this line of thinking
Further, by the time we reach the Swargarohana Parva, we see that the extremely patient and forgiving Yuddhishthira has nothing but bitterness left for Duryodhana, whereas he now saw Karna as his wayward (and prodigal) brother, and was extremely pained when he saw Karna in hell.

But what does this mean?

We can see that Yuddhishthira was ignorant/dismissive of Karna's crimes, so he wouldn't have expected to see him in hell. Also, we can see that he was more concerned about having killed a
brother rather than just another opponent. That said, is Yuddhishthira's grief a consequence of his own gentle nature or an indication that Karna deserved redemption?

Vyasa confirms the former hypothesis. He says:
एकं हत्वा यदि कुले शिष्टानां स्यादनामयम् | कुलं हत्वाथ राष्ट्रं वा न तद्वृत्तोपघातकम् ||१९|| अधर्मरूपो धर्मो हि कश्चिदस्ति नराधिप | धर्मश्चाधर्मरूपोऽस्ति तच्च ज्ञेयं विपश्चिता ||२०|| तस्मात्संस्तम्भयात्मानं श्रुतवानसि पाण्डव | ... त्वं तु शुक्लाभिजातीयः परदोषेण कारितः | अनिच्छमानः कर्मेदं कृत्वा च परितप्यसे ||२५||
If a clan can be saved by the slaughter of an individual, or a country saved by slaughtering a family, then such slaughter is not a sin. O king, sometimes dharma appears as adharma and vice versa, but the knowledgable can distinguish between them. O learned one, be you consoled by such knowledge... O noble one, your hand was forced by the mistakes of others, you did (wage war etc.) unwillingly and even having done it you torment yourself [as befits your nobility].
Every learned person in the Mahabharata speaks of Karna's sins, but not one of them speaks about his redemption. The rest of the Pandavas don't even waste a single breath mourning for Karna. The fact that Karna is found seated/merged with Surya at the end also draws no comment.

So any sane person would logically conclude that Karna was a garden variety bad guy who was mourned by the overly noble hero. Right?

And yet it is here that we find the greatest example of Alternative Character Interpretation, namely that Yuddhishthira's "love" for his brother would have redeemed Karna, and Yuddhishthira's grief is the result of guilt at his inability to do so.

(full disclosure: I usually subscribe to this kind of thinking)

Does this sound familiar? It should, because it is the exact same attitude that Thor of Marvel Cinematic Universe apparently harbours for his (adopted) brother Loki.

(disclaimer: MCU Thor, Loki, etc. are not to be confused with the actual Norse deities)

The argument here is that Thor has great and nearly unwavering love for Loki as a person (which is true and heartwarming), Loki himself loved his (adopted) mother Freya and therefore Loki is worthy of redemption.

The problem is that we cannot readily extend this argument to Yuddhishthira, because he is not shown as feeling such warmth towards Karna as a person, and Karna clearly felt nothing but hate for the whole Pandava/Vrishni consortium.

Also, the argument itself may not be logical.