Review : I Was Born for Valour, I Was Born to Achieve Glory
Book: The Mahabharata of Vyasa: The Complete Karna Parva
Transcreated from Sanskrit by Padma Shri Prof. P. Lal,
Writers Workshop, 2007,
Special edition of 50 copies each with an original hand-painted frontispiece Rs.2000/-
The Battle of Kurukshetra has a double climax: the Karna-Arjuna duel and the final confrontation between Bhima and Duryodhana. By the time we come to the third book of battle, the elder generations have fallen, and along with them their obsessions. Drupada’s craving for vengeance against Bhishma and Drona has been achieved through his two sons, each specifically engendered for that purpose. Before he is beheaded, Drona lays low the two major allies of the Pandavas: Drupada and Virata. Ancient Bahlika, Bhagadatta, Bhurishrava —all are gone. Nothing stands in the way of Duryodhana’s eagerness to have Karna command his forces, a desire that he has had to put off twice over. Despite Karna having fled the field at least thrice during Drona’s generalship, Duryodhana holds fast to a blind faith in his invincibility with a drowning man’s desperation.
Karna’s undying appeal as a heroic Aryan ideal is reflected in Tagore’s poem on Karna and Kunti composed in response to Jagadish Chandra Bose’s request to adopt Karna as a mythic paradigm for the modern Indian. Earlier, Bankimchandra had sought to do the same with Krishna in “Krishnacharitra”. The typology was carried onto the Bengali stage with famous plays like “Karnarjun”, “Nara-Narayan” and in many an Indian film, both mythological and modern. The trait for which Karna is celebrated is his unparalleled greatness as an undiscriminating donor, never refusing anything to anyone, even butchering his son to provide a Brahmin (Krishna disguised) with his chosen meal. Songs about Karna in Gujarat celebrate him as a hero who brings water and fertility to the community. The Western Indologist is understandably fascinated by Karna who, like Homer’s Achilles, has divine armour, a godly parent, initially sulks away from the battle and is ultimately struck down by an archer.
The reader will notice a unique feature about Prof. Lal’s style of transcreation: the use of doublets in proper nouns. Thereby, with masterly skill he interweaves explanations doing away with the need for annotations. Thus, “river-born Apageya-Bhishma” explains the original’s “Apageya”, simultaneously indicating that this is another name for Bhishma. In all cases where Vyasa does not use the usual name, Lal provides the doublet. He does so for technical terms too: “Aksha-axles”, “Kubara-poles”, “Isha-shafts”, “varutha-fenders”. Where explanations of weaponry are needed e.g. the fourfold science of weaponry, this is provided in the transcreation itself in rhythmic free verse [2.16]:
Those released by the hand
Those clutched by the hand
Those shot by machines
Those which return after released
Like Indra’s thunderbolt.
Doublets make abstruse weapons self-explanatory: prasa-barbed darts, risti-swords, parigha-spiked iron clubs, shakti-spears, tomara-javelins, pattisha-pointed spears, bhushundi-firearms tanutra-armour. So, too, for ornaments: angada-armlets, keyura-bracelets, hara-necklaces, nishka-gold coins,. However, “33-lord Indra” (p.237) is hardly mellifluous!
The images used in this book have a distinction of their own. With Arjuna’s arrow stuck in his forehead Ashvatthama looks “like the rising son/with its rays shooting upward” (17.3). Shikhandi, with three arrows in his forehead, is like a triple-peaked silvery mountain (61.18). An elephant struck with 100 arrows glows like a mountain with its trees and plants aflame in a forest-fire at dead of night (18.14). Like countless bulls attacking a single one to mount a cow in season, warriors target Arjuna (19.5). The battlefield blossoms like a lake lovely with white lily and blue lotus faces of beheaded warriors, glowing with splendour as if decorated with garlands of constellations in autumn. Bloodied faces are as lovely as split pomegranates, their teeth the seeds. Headless bodies stand erect in bloody uniforms and armour like crimson pieces of cloth dyed red and drying (28.43). Like a monsoon field with red shakragopa-beetles, or a young dark-skinned girl’s white dress dyed with red turmeric (52.9), or a free-roving courtesan flaunting a crimson dress, crimson garland and gold ornaments—such was the earth (94.26). Arrows pierce like snakes burrowing into an ant hill (59.54). Fallen soldiers look as lovely as pollen-filled kadamba blossoms (81.39). Karna’s snake-arrow blazes in the sky “like the centre parting/in a woman’s hair” (90.30).
The parva begins with the Kauravas musing over how they dragged and demeaned Draupadi. Although, at different stages in the battle, Dhritarashtra, Bhima, Duhshasana, Krishna all recall the dragging and insulting of Draupadi, none refers to any attempt to strip her. That episode could be an interpolation to accentuate the wickedness of the Kauravas and exalt the divinity of Krishna.
An intriguing feature of the battle is that attacking and even killing weaponless charioteers draws no criticism. Even Krishna is wounded by Ashvatthama, Karna and Satyasena whose javelin pierces through his left arm making him drop the whip and reins. The charioteer’s role as advisor is well brought out where he advises Dhrishtadyumna who is bewildered by Kripa’s assault. Section 26 is a rare picture of Kripa in irresistible full flow.
In the beginning, in just five verses the death of Vrisha (Karna) is wrapped up. Janamejaya questions Vaishampayana about Dhritarashtra’s reaction on hearing of the deaths of Drona and Karna. In section 2 we learn that the night after Karna was killed, Sanjaya rushed to Dhritarashtra and related the aftermath of Drona’s death till the fall of Karna, his sons and brothers and how Bhima slew Duhshasana and drank his blood. Struck to his very marrow with horror, the blind king wants to know what is left of both armies. From the reply a pattern emerges: the inhabitants of regions where Krishna was born and brought up—Surasenis and Narayanas of Mathura and Gokul—chose to fight against him alongside the kings of the east and north-east (Kalingas, Bangas, Angas, Nishadas) who were anti-Pandava and led elephant armies. Satyaki killed the Banga ruler, Sahadeva the Pundra ruler, Nakula the Anga ruler. Those from the south, west and north-west suffer annihilation at Arjuna’s hands. Among southerners, Pandya alone is pro-Pandava and Sanjaya calls him world-renowned. Dhritarashtra asks him to justify this and we have a sudden description of his savage attack on the Kauravas in section 20 in 44 verses, till he is killed by Ashvatthama. This looks very much like a command performance. It is interesting that Chitrangada is a Pandya princess in the southern recension of the epic.
We are given new information in 2.13 that Parashurama had taught Drona from early childhood. Confirmation regarding the relative novelty of the Mahishamardini myth is found in 5.56 where, as in the Vana Parva, it is Skanda, not Durga, who is the buffalo-demon’s slayer. A typical epic exaggeration occurs in 5.4 where Sanjaya says that Bishma slew an “arbuda” (a crore) of soldiers in ten days. As he slew ten thousand daily, the total is a lakh and not “ten crores” as translated (p.24). In 5.14 Sanjaya says that Draupadi’s son (unnamed) slew Duhsasana’s son—possibly the nameless killer of Abhimanyu—but there is no other account of this. Paurava, a Kaurava ally whom Van Buitenen regards as a historical reference to Poros, had been defeated by Abhimanyu and now falls victim to Arjuna (5.35). We usually overlook the fact that Kunti too was a loser in the battle. All Kuntibhoja’s descendants were slain by Bhishma who also accounted for the Narayanas and Balabhadras (6.22). Drona slew both brothers of Kunti, Virata, Drupada and their sons and most of the notable kings in just five days. Bhishma in ten days mostly concentrated on reducing the Pandava army.
The Karna-Arjuna battle is obviously the high point since Sanjay compares its carnage as rivalling the mythical duels of Indra-Vritra, Rama-Ravana, Kartavirya-Parashurama, Mahisha-Skanda, Andhaka-Rudra, Indra-Bali, Indra-Namuchi, Vasava-Shambara, Mahendra-Jambha and Krishna-Naraka-Mura. Karna becomes infused with the Naraka following Duryodhana’s capture by the Gandharvas. In the Tullal songs of Kerala he is the demon Sashrakavacha (thousand-armoured) reincarnated. Underlying the Arjuna-Karna duel lies the Vedic myth of Indra routing Surya and taking his wheel (Rig Veda 1.175.4; 4.30.4; 10.43.5). Its epic reversal occurs in the Ramayana where Surya’s son Sugriva brings about the death of Indra’s son Vali. On both occasions, it is Vishnu’s avatara who plays the decisive role in ensuring the death.
Ironically, Dhritarashtra’s lament (9.21):
“You plan something
Fate plans differently.
Fate is all-powerful.
cannot be questioned.”
– is no different from what Krishna had told Yudhishthira before the peace embassy: “What is possible for man, I can exert to the utmost; but over fate I have no control.” Dhritarashtra makes the telling point (9.39) that both Bhishma and Drona were killed by exceptional deceit: Shikhandi shot down Bhishma who was not fighting him and Drona was beheaded when in yoga, weaponless. Significantly, Dhritarashtra points to the Panchalas as responsible for both heinous deeds, exposing what underlies the Pandava-Dhartarashtra rivalry. Often he mentions the awe in which the Pandavas held Karna, especially Yudhishthira who went sleepless for 13 years, reminiscent of Lakshmana in the Ramayana (for a different reason). Fear of Karna haunts Yudhishthira wherever he goes. Even Bhishma, Kripa, Drona have never shamed him in battle like Karna (66.22). Twice Dhritarashtra recalls Karna taunting Draupadi that she is husbandless in the very presence of the Pandavas—such was his self-confidence. He calls Karna “the never-retreating hero”, overlooking how he was routed from the field several times.
Arjuna’s laxity is a recurring phenomenon here, lending support to the argument that the Gita is a later addition. In section 16 Ashvatthama’s feats wax, Pinaki-like, while Arjuna’s wane, enraging Krishna who berates Arjuna for being sentimental about fighting his guru’s son. Arjuna flares up only after Krishna, with blood streaming from his body, asks him not to spare Ashvatthama. In section 19 Krishna has to exhort him to stop playing games with the suicide squad of Samsaptakas and to proceed to fight Karna. The suicide squad even catches hold of them. Susharma succeeds in making Arjuna slump down (53.15, 36). Keshava fells them bare-handed while Arjuna displays his unique skill in repulsing the enemy with arrows at extreme close quarters. In section 56 Ashvatthama nonplusses Arjuna again, infuriating Krishna who exhorts:
“very strange, Partha-Arjuna
Very strange—what I am seeing now.
Seems to be the better man today….
Is your fist
a little flabby or what?” (56. 135-138).
The carnage after Arjuna has been tongue-lashed becomes the occasion for a survey of the field by Krishna (19.28-53), repeated in 58.10-41, as after Jayadratha’s death in the Drona Parva (section 148). This anticipates Gandhari’s heart-wrenching lament in the Stri Parva and ends with Krishna praising Arjuna’s performance as worthy of the king of the gods. The field becomes such a morass that even Arjuna’s chariot-wheels get stuck (27.40-41)—a doublet of Karna’s plight later. In 90.57 Krishna lifts the embedded chariot wheels out of ground with both hands, which Shalya later fails to replicate. Indeed, he does not even make the attempt and leaves it to Karna to fight and extricate the wheel. Karna is also called Bibhatsu (49.25) after he recovers having been knocked unconscious by Yudhishthira’s arrow, deliberately equating him with Arjuna.
Section 29 has a rare duel between the rivals for the throne. The normally diffident eldest Pandava knocks Duryodhana unconscious but, surprisingly, Bhima stops him from administering the coup de grace because that would nullify his vow. Similarly, when Bhima knocks Karna unconscious in section 50 and rushes to slice his tongue for his insults, Shalya stops him, reminding him of Arjuna’s vow. Shalya does a fine job as a double-agent by saving Yudhishthira from being captured twice (sections 49, 63): once by warning Karna not to touch him as he may be reduced to ashes and then exhorting him not to be diverted from the goal of slaying Arjuna who is the main danger. Strangely enough, Dhritarashtra does not ask Sanjaya why, despite defeating Yudhishthira, Karna did not take him captive, which would have ended the war as Drona had realised. To comprehend Karna’s complicated psyche we have to recall what he told Krishna in the Udyoga Parva. Karna is a man at war with himself, so memorably portrayed in Shivaji Sawant’s epic novel Mrityunjaya. One part of him knows that the victor has to be Yudhishthira, the righteous ruler; the other’s very life is bound by gratitude to Duryodhana. Every Kaurava general suffers from the same dilemma, but in Karna it has been portrayed in extremis.
We discover that following Jarasandha’s death, Girivraja and Magadha have separate rulers. Arjuna kills Dandadhara of Girivraja. Jayatsena, king of Magadha, was killed by Abhimanyu. There is an interesting exchange of roles: in section 18 Arjuna emerges as elephant-killer while elsewhere Bhima shows off mastery of archery. Just as six had surrounded Abhimanyu, so Dhristadymna, Draupadi’s 5 sons, the twins and Satyaki attack Karna jointly. He successively routs them, looping his bow round the Pandavas’ necks and, to their profound chagrin, letting them go, as he had promised Kunti. Dhrishtadyumna berates Ashvatthama who is routing Pandava forces as Bhima had done Drona: “You have no love, no gratitude, you are a fake Brahmin” (55.33). Not only does Ashvatthama make Yudhishthira turn tail but, when Arjuna topples his charioteer, he continues fighting while holding the reins (64.30).
Prof. Lal succeeds admirably in conveying the variety in battle descriptions as in 28.36-40—an excursion into vigorous vivid description of fist-fights compellingly Englished:
Hands raised high
Brought crashing down
On the foe!
A battle of tugged
And ripped hair-tufts!
A battle of bodies
grappling and wrestling!
Smell, touch, rasa-taste—
Stench of blood!
Feel of blood
sight of blood,
gush of blood,
Everywhere crimson blood (49.104).
Like Valkyries, Apsaras take the dead soldiers in chariots to heaven (49.93). Alongside this, Vyasa repeatedly stresses the horrific meaninglessness of war: the soldiers who died, killing friend and foe, did not know who and what weapons killed them (28.41).
The greatest challenge Duryodhana faces is Karna’s request for a charioteer who will equal Krishna, for he finds that he cannot equal Arjuna without this. Duryodhana lays flattery on with a trowel to persuade Shalya, extolling him as superior to Karna and comparing him to Brahma whom the gods considered Shiva’s superior and therefore chose as his charioteer in the Tripura war. In his lengthy exhortation we find a mini-myth in section 34 of Shiva engaging Parashurama to annihilate the Daityas. Shalya finally succumbs when Duryodhana declares that he considers Shalya Krishna’s superior and that, should Karna die, the Kaurava army will be in his hands.
Sections 40-45 contain Karna’s lengthy diatribe against Shalya’s people, the Madras, for being wicked like the mlecchas, promiscuous, utterly untrustworthy. He particularly condemns the women (tall, fair, dressed in soft blankets and deer skin) for urinating while standing like camels and donkeys and being indiscriminately lustful, gluttonous and drunk. He tars the people of Gandhara and Aratta/Bahika (those in the land of five rivers) with the same brush. It is curious that Bhishma should have paid heavy bride-price for a Madra princess for Pandu and a Gandhara one for Dhritarashtra! Karna voices the prevailing prejudices: the Kauravas, Panchalas, Shalvas, Matsyas, Naimishas, Koshalas, Kashis, Angas, Kalingas, Magadhas and Chedis are the civilized peoples, while the Bahikas/Madras are the filth of the earth, located along Vipasa (Beas) and Sakala (Sialkot); the easterners are servants, the southerners bastards, the Saurashtrans miscegenous. Shalya’s retort is far less violent and throws into relief the bitter gall spewing from Karna. No wonder his sword is said to be his tongue.
It is in the course of the exchange of abuse with Shalya that Karna recalls the two curses that alone trouble him and is confident that unless his chariot wheel gets stuck, Arjuna’s death is assured (42.35). In this context he voices the sentiment that sums up his goal:
“I was born for valour, I was born
to achieve glory” (43.6).
Krishna, wanting Karna to tire himself out fighting before he meets Arjuna, drives to meet the demoralised Yudhishthira, leading to Arjuna’s peculiar attack on Yudhishthira reprimanding him for insulting him from the comfort of Draupadi’s bed. Do we notice suppressed jealousy peeking out here? The clash also reveals the high-pitched tension that war has brought about. It is not only in the Kaurava camp that Kripa, Bhishma, Drona and Ashvatthama revile Karna and Duryodhana insults them. In the Drona Parva the crackling tension in the Pandava camp was first exposed in the clash between Satyaki and Dhrishtadyumna after the killing of Drona. Now the tension has bored deeper, wearing thin the unity between the brothers. Bhima’s sudden loss of morale on finding himself all alone facing the enemy army is another indication of this. In resolving the issue between Arjuna—who won Draupadi—and Yudhishthira—who appropriated her—Krishna makes a signal pronouncement that is quite distinct from the philosophy of the Gita: to lie (anrita) is better than to kill (69.23) because ahimsa is the supreme virtue (69.57). It is a childish vow that is taken without going into the subtleties of dharma and prompts the killing of the elder brother. The secret of dharma, he says, is known to very few such as Bhishma, Yudhishthira, Vidura and, most unexpectedly and significantly, Kunti. He enumerates the occasions on which lying is permissible: marriage, love making, to save life, when all one’s wealth is being stolen, to benefit a Brahmin or when joking (69.33, 62). It is childish to think that truth should be spoken no matter what:
“He knows dharma who knows
when to speak the truth
and when to lie” (69.35).
This is no Kantian categorical imperative. To illustrate, he narrates the stories of the hunter Balaka and of the learned hermit Kaushika, vowed to truth-speaking, but lacking knowledge of practical dharma:
“shruti is not everything.
The precepts of dharma
are meant for the welfare
of all creatures” (69.56).
Dharma is so called because it supports and protects—this is incontestable (69.58) hence lying to protect dharma is not a lie (69.65).
Section 72 is a long harangue by Krishna to lift Arjuna out of the morass of depression following this encounter. Krishna provides a fascinating reason why Karna must be killed: because his hatred of Pandavas is not motivated by self-interest (72.34). Krishna tells Arjuna that Karna is possibly his superior, has all the qualities of a warrior, is 168 finger-lengths tall, long armed, broad-chested, proud, very strong. Like a wall of water shivering into rivulets when striking a mountain, the Pandava army disperses before Karna’s might. His sword is his tongue, his mouth the bow, arrows his teeth (72.38). Dhritarashtra too mentions his acid tongue. It is his profound sense of injured merit that fuels this vomiting of poisonous speech.
In section 73 Krishna states that the massive massacre had continued for 17 days now. He burns with fury recalling that Karna—so mangled and dazed by Abhimanyu’s arrows that he wanted to flee—caused the boy’s death by slicing his bow on Drona’s advice so that 5 others could kill him (there is no mention of Duhshasana’s son smashing his head). Krishna has frequently to provoke Arjuna by reminding him how Karna abused Draupadi and the Pandavas vilely. He bids him kill Karna’s son to demoralise him. Arjuna now abandons his self-flagellation saying, as in the Gita: “Govinda, you are my lord and master” (74.1-3). When Karna’s Bhargava missile counters Arjuna’s Indra missile and decimates the Panchalas, Arjuna needs to be enthused first by Bhima and then by Krishna who reminds him that in every era he has killed demons specially Dambodhbhava (whose overweening pride Krishna narrated in the Kuru court). The Arthashastra VI.3 also cites him as one of those monarchs who perished due to arrogance. Krishna even bids Arjuna use the razor-edged Sudarshana discus. Again, as in the Gita, Arjuna awakens to his life’s mission and uses the Brahma missile—which Karna promptly neutralises! In disgust, Bhima advises him to try some other weapon. Never have we seen Arjuna thus foiled.
Characteristically, Arjuna is the true hero who always admires his opponent, as in 79.9,11: how splendid raja Duryodhana looks beside Karna with Shalya urging the horses! Shalya encourages Karna repeatedly to kill Arjuna who is alone with no protectors, reminding him of his great feats. Karna acknowledges that Shalya seems finally to have found himself (79.51). After Duhshasana’s death, Shalya encourages Karna in true heroic style: “Win and gain glory, lose and gain heaven” (84.16).
Section 76 paints a unique picture of a demoralised Bhima. “I am troubled”, he says, being all alone, surrounded by enemies. He seeks encouragement from his charioteer Vishoka, who re-inspires him and is gifted 14 villages, 100 slave girls, 20 chariots. Bhima creates a river of blood. Shakuni suddenly emerges as a mighty warrior who kills Bhima’s charioteer, destroys his flag and umbrella, catches Bhima’s lance in mid-flight and flings it back, piercing his left arm. Bhima knocks him down but does not kill him, because he is Sahadeva’s portion.
However, in section 82 all Karna’s prowess cannot prevent Duhshasana’s horrific death, or that of his son Vrishasena whom Arjuna kills at the behest of Nakula who has been humiliated by him. Unrepentant Duhshasana mocks Bhima, reminding him how the Pandavas fearfully lived in the lac house, scrounged for food in the forest obsessed with fear, hiding in caves and deceived Draupadi “to choose as husband Phalguna” (82.39). Then he hits hard:
“Then you scoundrels
did something similar
to what your mother did.
Draupadi chose only one,
but all five of you
shamelessly enjoyed her.” (39-40).
It is another matter that Draupadi did not even murmur a protest. Her silence, like her origin and her unanswered question in the Kuru assembly, remains an unresolved enigma. Duhshasana even fells Bhima, who is temporarily unable to hit back. Finally, Bhima strikes him down and invites Karna, Duryodhana, Kripa, Ashvatthama, Kritavarma to try to stop him from killing Duhshasana. Though laid low, Duhshasana smiles with fury and proudly displays the hand by which he dragged Draupadi by her hair in public. Bhima rips out that arm, pummels Duhshasana with it, rips open his chest, drinks the blood, beheads him and roars that nothing is as sweet—not mother’s milk, honey, ghee, flower-wine, sweet curd, butter, nectar. Sipping the blood he dances, terrifying onlookers who flee. One vow fulfilled, he looks forward to offering the yajna-beast Duryodhana as sacrifice, crushing his head with his foot before all Kauravas (83.50). This image of war as a sacrifice, repeated at critical intervals, is rooted in the panchagni vidya celebrated in the Brahmanas as a symbol of Prajapati the Creator’s self-devouring to create the cosmos, another symbol of which is the serpent biting its tail.
Krishna paints a lovely picture of Karna advancing (86.6-10) and encourages Arjuna by reminding him that he has Shiva’s blessings. As in the Gita Arjuna says that he will win “Because you, the guru of all the worlds are pleased with me” (86.17). Karna and Arjuna are both like Kartavirya Ajruna, Dasharathi Rama, Vishnu, Shiva, with the finest chariots and best charioteers driving white horses. While warriors watch,
“the two heroes
played the dice-game of war,
for victory/or defeat.” (87.36).
The sky goddess Dyau and the Adityas favour Karna, born of Surya, while the earth Bhumi (symbolised in Pritha the wide one), Agni, Indra, Soma and Pavana favour Arjuna—a curious split among the Adityas indeed. Karna, the hero of “the other”, is backed by Asuras, Yatudhanas, Guhyakas, Pishacas, Rakshasas, minor serpents, Vaishyas, Shudras, Sutas and the mixed castes. Brahma and Shiva jointly foretell Arjuna’s victory. The line-up of celestial beings shows clear evidence of repetitive interpolation from shlokas 39 to 63 and again from verses 64 to 99 in section 87. Shalya boasts that if Karna falls, he will alone slay Krishna-Arjuna. Krishna-Janardana (transcreated appropriately as “punisher of the people” in 87.119) announces that if Arjuna falls, which is impossible, he will crush them barehanded. When Arjuna routs the finest of Shaka, Tushara, Yavana and Kamboja cavalry Ashvatthama pleads with Duryodhana to make peace and rule jointly, undertaking to persuade Arjuna, as the whole world will benefit from renewed friendship. Duryodhana refuses as the Pandavas will never trust him, for he has heaped too many insults on them. He believes that Arjuna is tired and Karna can kill him.
Suddenly, Arjuna’s bowstring snaps and Karna pierces him and Krishna. The Pandavas are ripped apart like a pack of dogs by a lion: “invulnerable the bow/of Karna and tremendously/strong its bowstring” whereby he pulverises all of Arjuna’s missiles (90.3). Arjuna slices off Shalya’s armour, wounds him and Karna severely. Bathed in blood, resembling Rudra dancing in a cremation ground, Karna pierces Krishna’s armour with arrows that are the five sons of Takshaka’s son Ashvasena whose mother Arjuna killed at Khandava. Infuriated, Arjuna riddles Karna’s vulnerable parts so that he is in agony, yet he stands straight. Unable to excel Arjuna, he uses the snake-mouthed arrow which Ashvasena enters by yogic powers. Shalya tries to disturb Karna at the critical moment by urging him to re-aim the arrow. Krishna saves Arjuna from being beheaded by pressing down the chariot so that only his diadem is knocked off. Karna arrogantly refuses to re-shoot the same arrow even if it could kill a hundred Arjunas. His armour shredded with arrows, Karna faints, glowing like a hill “covered with a wealth of blossoming ashoka, palasha,/shalmali and sandalwood”, dazzling like a mountain “bursting with the beauty/of entire forests/of blossoming karnikaras” (90.77-78). As Arjuna does not press the advantage despite Krishna’s repeated urging, Karna recovers. Suddenly his morale plummets as fails to recall Parashurama’s missile. Simultaneously his chariot wheel gets stuck. Raising his arms, he laments repeatedly that though dharma-knowers proclaim that dharma protects its cherishers and he has always cherished dharma, it is not protecting him—it protects none (90.88). This is a remarkable echo of Vyasa’s Bharata-Savitri at the end of the epic: “I raise my arms and I shout/but no one listens! From Dharma flows wealth and pleasure–/ why is Dharma not practised?” Vyasa urges not giving up dharma up for the sake of pleasure, out of fear, for greed, or to save one’s life—which is precisely what Karna is doing.
Arjuna’s arrows had bewildered Karna and Shalya; his mutilated body refused his bidding. Here an interpolation occurs. In verse 90.82 Arjuna readies the Raudra missile and Karna’s wheel sinks in the next shloka. This happens again in verse 106. In-between is a passage in which Karna succeeds in wounding Krishna and Arjuna, cutting Arjuna’s bowstring 11 times. Failing to extricate the wheel (Shalya does nothing), Karna weeps in frustration and begs for time from Arjuna appealing to his heroic code. It is Krishna who responds, knowing Arjuna’s weakness where the heroic code is concerned. Thrice he recalls the insult to Draupadi and other un-dharmic deeds of Karna, who is shamed into silence. Krishna’s words arouse Arjuna’s fury, but Karna successfully continues countering whatever he shoots and simultaneously tries to free the wheel. Hit hard, Arjuna lets slip the Gandiva and Karna tries with both hands to free wheel. This is exactly what Krishna had done earlier successfully. Krishna commands Arjuna to behead Karna before he climbs back into his chariot. Here shlokas 34-40 are interpolated because, instead of beheading Karna, Arjuna shatters his flag. The death-dealing dart is described as charged with Atharva-angiras energy. From Karna’s body a radiance shoots into the solar orb and his headless corpse blazes like the sun. Vyasa specifically identifies Karna with Surya, saying,
“The arrow-rayed Karna-sun,
after scorching its enemies,
was forced to set
by valiant Arjuna-Kala.” (91.62)
In a later parva Kunti celebrates Karna as “A hero, ear-ringed, armoured, splendid like the Sun”, a solar hero whom Yudhishthira sees attended by twelve suns. Karna lies headless, hundreds of arrows sticking in him like Bhishma:
“He was all adazzle,
like molten gold,
like fire, like the sun.” (94.34)
Spectators wonderingly exclaim, as for Shakespeare’s Cleopatra,
“But he is alive!…
To whoever asked,
he never said no …
always the giver” (94.34, 36, 45, 47).
Yudhishthira feels reborn and able to sleep in peace that night.
Like the Indo-European hero, Karna is the eternal solitary who can make the Senecan tragic hero’s motto his own: “I am myself, alone!”
After Karna’s death Shalya, who had boasted he would slaughter Krishna and Arjuna should this happen, flees. Duryodhana takes a stand behind an army of 25000 which Bhima decimates. Failing to rally his troops, Duryodhana all alone faces the Pandavas and Dhrishtadyumna. Shalya paints a dismal picture of the battlefield for Duryodhana in section 94 in 20 shlokas. The end is impending.