An Open Letter to Mahavir Karna
Dear Mahavir Karna,
What a life you had to live! An entire adult dream nourished only to destroy a worthy man, an inadvertent rival in glory notwithstanding. Your anger dates back to society’s refusal to let you think out of box. They wanted you to be a charioteer, and you will be nothing less than the greatest archer. Even the warrior brahmin would not take you as a disciple. You however went on to be trained by his guru Parshuram. There also he took away your freedom to use your knowledge. Undaunted, you challenged Arjun in the family testing grounds; but the by now familiar and overused ‘sutaputra’ adage denied you the chance, and seeing in you a firebrand rival of Arjun, Duryodhana befriended you. You were bought over with a paltry crown, like a Kalashnikov, lock stock and barrel. You now became a prisoner of your own ambition. The best years of your life you were in bondage created by yourself.
Fine, you were grateful to him. But was it a part of your gratefulness that you participated in the Draupadi undressing show? Far from stopping him from the barbarous behaviour, you suggested it to him! Did it fall in place of even the Sutaputra calling, which you hated? Would any other sutaputra have done what you did? Was it worthy of even a sutaputra? Yet you continued playing the grateful card! D gave you a little principality, and called you a king. And you thought that was a fair enough price for your archery by which you could have subdued the whole world. What a poor self-esteem! Would any fool agree to sell oneself so cheaply to a greater fool? And you were literally a Mahavir.
Then you participated in D’s stealing of cows! I cannot conceive how a Mahavir would feel worth it stealing cows, no matter they were a king’s cows, no matter how grateful he may be to a thief-friend. Why did you go to Panchala to win Draupadi? Your long experience with being a sutaputra taught you no lessons? Did you ever think the proud Drupada would accept you as a son in law? Or did you want to destroy the suta-kshatriya divide you hated since your birth? Did you want to establish a classless society where only the powerful will rule? Then why did you meekly submit to Draupadi when she quoted the divide? I am afraid even if you had won her you would not have a second thought in giving her away to D if he felt interested. And if a Brahmin won her, why didn’t you leave it at that? What was the need to show your ire to a rightful choice of the princess? Didn’t Arjuna show valour beyond even your dearest friend? Then why didn’t you allow the powerful take the prize? You fought all your life for adhikar of the deserving, didn’t you? Then why did you string your bow when a brahmin deserved the princess by his adhikar of power? If you didn’t accept that a sutaputra cannot wield arms, how did you accept a brahmin cannot win a kshatriya princess? Aha, you wanted to win her for your friend! Was that your grateful currency too to buy a bride for him after he failed to fulfill the very basic requirement, and you thought a princess born of fire would accept a marriage in proxy? Weren’t you divided against yourself? Dear Mahavir, you were sliding down your status, strangely blinded by the dark prince.
What an admirable piece of work is man! How infinite in faculty, yet how insufficient in reasoning! When it came to deciding right action you thought in your mind which was filled with anger, and had no place for your heart which was a very noble piece. Conversely, when it came to action grandfather Bheesma thought with his heart which was filled with love for his father, and put his mind away which could have reasoned out. He forgot the spirit of words in his devotion to the form of words. He remembered his affectionate father, but did not remember the king in him. The promise he made was meant for his father, but it also covered the king. He advised Dhritarastra later to be a king first, then a father. When he pronounced his own pledge, was he doing it for the father, or the king? Isn’t the dharma of a son to protect the dharma of the father, ensure the stability of the kingdom? Did he do that? He confused the king-father with the father-king, and caught in his own irrational words, was led to the Great War helplessly. He could not swallow his pride and allowed the whole country to be swallowed by the cataclysmic war. He was born to rule, but chose to serve, and what a master to serve! Surely that extension wasn’t necessary. Isn’t it what the Vedanta says as the greatest illusion man suffers? Amrutasya putra, a child of eternity, living as anrutasya putra, a child of lie, willingly. Tragedies are not scripted in heaven; they are written and enacted by the actors themselves.
And what you did? You too were born to rule, but delighted in serving the devil! Your heart knew D was in the wrong, but you too could not swallow your precious pride, and continued to support him. You even did something worse. You took care to see that the fire in D did not die down. Both of you lived half lives, driving a wedge between a thinking mind and a feeling heart. There was no balance in your lives. Therefore, though both of you were noble as angel, both of you turned out to be great threats to the stability of the world. You had to be eliminated for public good and justice, but of course at a huge price. Both of you stuck to your rights, and forgot your responsibilities. Both of you had acquired great powers, but both of you forgot that if power is not used for the protection of society, it will corrupt, and when absolute power corrupts, it can destroy absolutely.
I rate you greater than even Bheesma and Drona. The Grandfather had the protection of a boon. But you had deliberately relinquished your divine protection, yet remained unvanquished in a fair fight. Two or three times Krishna had to rescue Arjun from your deadly missiles. Arjun fought the war with revenge in his heart. Even that he wanted to relinquish for the good of the society, but Krishna convinced him he needed that revenge for the good of the society. Krishna tried to convince you about your misplaced loyalty, but you would not. Wasn’t Arjuna justified after what you did to his wife in public? What justification did you have to join hands with the evil prince? When you stood before him you knew that you were face to face with your little brother. Yet you fought to kill. You were a living contradiction, and you knew it. The Grandfather was a living regret, and he too knew it. His knowledge allowed him to be saddled with a promise that he would not kill the five brothers, and your knowledge saddled you with a promise that you will kill none of them except Arjun. You chose to destroy the ablest of them probably because you thought that two supremely capable persons couldn’t coexist. Professional jealousy? But wasn’t it mean for a Mahavir of your status? After the Grandfather’s fall the five brothers reconciled with him, and would have gladly done so with you, their bravest eldest, but you had no time to create that balance in your life, for you had lived too long with the venom of D.
And what about the homicide of Abhimanyu? By no stretch of imagination I am prepared to condone your participation in the barbarous hunt. That stripling of a genius wasn’t ever even the remotest part of your revenge. It was just like your participation in the Draupadi undressing performance. Both were wild hunts, unrestrained by any civilized values. And imagine you were an enthusiastic perpetrator at both sites! Dear Mahavir, what was the matter with you? Why did you stifle your noble heart? Your cruelty towards yourself was one of the greatest and saddest in the history of humanity. You are the tragic prince Hamlet in Mahabharata.
Let us suppose for a moment you had killed Arjun and won the war for the Kauravas, more than 90% of whom had already been killed. The other pandavas would be captured and executed by D, and your great friend would be the king. Now would that be a very salubrious situation for you? Would you have felt fulfilled? Till now you lived on the dream of killing Arjun, and be accepted as the greatest by the world. After Arjuna’s death you could relax on your ‘greatest’ throne. But that old warrior Drona will not accept you. Kunti, whom you have already recognised as your biological mother, would be dead. Krishna would have failed. Gandhari might force Dhritarastra to go on vanaprastha. D would be fully unrestrained in his evil adventures, and you would be a mute witness, or you would also join him? Could you count how many Draupadis would be undressed all over his kingdom? You would be a Mahavir living posthumously.
You believed in the dignity of the individual, didn’t you? They called you a sutaputra, and denied you chance to fight a kshatriya. Wasn’t it ironical that you were bought over by a kshatriya to fight another kshatriya as his instrument? It was your battle, but D hijacked it for his good, and you submitted meekly. Was it in keeping with your idea of dignity? You not only digested this insult, you upheld and defended it all your life as a great honour! What a Mahavir you were! You could have single handed won a kingdom, and created another Hastinapur to challenge Arjun. Even Bheesma and Drona would have been powerless against your divine protection. I always wonder why this didn’t occur to you.
We will now look at your life from a different angle. It was a struggle between society and individual. Can the selfish dividing caste lines be permitted to undermine a genius, stop a worthy achiever from manifesting his potential? You were born with divine grace, and the blind social conventions tried to contravene grace itself! So you were up in arms against it. Your anger was not misplaced, your desire to rewrite the conventions was not undesirable, but you practised deceit to achieve that. You made your guru Parshuram believe that you were from a brahmin family. And when he discovered the lie he put a permanent bind on your ability to use your full potential. You wanted to acquire ultimate power from a Brahmin to use against the kshatriyas to remedy the injustice done to a sutaputra. If it was right for you, practising a little adharma to punish another adharma, why did you cry foul when Arjun killed the Grandfather with his consent? You probably wanted a society where power is the ultimate language. Wasn’t it a greater and more dangerous divide? If wild power is allowed to rule, it will turn the whole world into a wilderness. All three of you, the Grandfather, the Guru, and you were the ultimate warriors of your times. Did any good accrue to the society from any one of you? You wanted to remove the flaw in the society, didn’t you? But you were flawed yourself! Physician, heal thyself. If you come back, you will notice that Hitler of our times tried to execute the same principle, rewriting history by gathering the powers of history into his hands. He wanted to destroy the Jews because they didn’t fit into his plan.
I can’t of course forget Kunti’s role in all that happened to you. The poor princess paid the price for her undue curiosity to test the power of mantra, and for being part of a rigid aristocracy. She was gentle as a flower, a lonely melody in a wild jungle; could she fight the all powerful aristocracy? The rest of her life was a living hell. A moment’s lapse cost her her entire life. She was the saddest and noblest of all women in the epic story. But you never forgave her. Her loving heart always yearned to hug you, feel proud to call you her eldest son, and cursed herself every day for abandoning you. She was a sacrifice in the altar of the convention of society. If you thought you were a sacrifice at the altar of a blind society, Kunti too was. You were a man, a warrior, so you could rebel against it. But Kunti? She was a woman, a gentle creature, obedient to the convention. And when you participated in the Draupadi drama, didn’t you support what you said you hated, the irrationality of a male-dominated society? At an earlier era the daughter of Janaka had been another. She at least knew that Sri Rama intensely shared her agony, but Kunti had no one to share. She suffered alone, and heroically. She was another tragic character, intensely human, but a prey to human predicament.
Tragic heroes, critics say, are men and women who live with intensity, are endowed with great abilities, but are basically flawed. They occupy very high positions in the society; are very sensitive, sometimes forbiddingly sensitive; are passionate about their actions; are very honest and incapable of double dealing, but all these gifts are mismanaged. They are often impulsive, self-contradictory, imbalanced, or intolerant. One will love them, admire them, but pity them too. You were no doubt a rare piece of humanity with great valour, charity, courage, excellence in your chosen field, respect for values, transparent in your actions, passionate about what you thought was your dharma, but you had a single overriding objective of destroying Arjun, though he personally had done no wrong to you. Given a choice, he would probably have accepted your challenge to him in the family test, but he too was the prisoner of a powerful tradition. The difference was he had accepted it because he was a part of it, but you did not because you were outside of it. However, you had no reasons to pick up that noble man to avenge the social norms. The Pandavas would have accepted you as their eldest, and fallen at your feet at any stage of the war, had Kunti revealed the truth, but you would not accept them even if you knew it before the battle plans were drawn! Your expensive pride as the greatest, and your unreasonable rejection of mother Kunti got the better of you, and led you to unite with the devil himself! That was your nemesis. You burned your boat behind you, and signed your own undoing with Mephistopheles! You are a tragic hero in a cosmic play. The likes of you always strike awe, but rarely light up the stage. I love you, respect you, but feel sorry for you too, dear Mahavir Karna. Forgive me for saying a few hard words about you, but you shall always stand tall as an emblem of the human predicament in this great story of life, stuffed with endless variety.
a fan of yours