Around 26-27 years back when I was living in Kolkata (then Calcutta), I happened to read a small news-shaped article in the English newspaper – The Statesman which was titled as – ‘Ardh-Rathi Karna Died, The Caste-System Still Survives’. The article was regarding the discriminatory caste-system prevailing in India for centuries and the title indicated to the same discrimination meted out to the great warrior as well as the great donor – Karna of the Indian epic – Mahabharat. More than two decades have passed but I have not been able to forget that assertion that made the title of that article. While evaluating the warriors of the side of Kauravas, the grandfather of both the warring sides – Bheeshma termed Karna as Ardh-Rathi (half-warrior) while comparing him to his peers most of whom were termed as Maharathi or great warriors. Karna felt so humiliated by that assessment that he vowed to abstain from participating in the war until Bheeshma fell in the same. Why was Karna humiliated that way ? Simply because he belonged to a lower caste in the social strata. Has the situation changed ? No. Despite the society-breaking reservation system and the political might and muscular might of certain such castes, the situation is more or less the same even today.
Around one year after reading that article, in February 1991, I happened to visit Kalline Tea Estate in the Lower Assam region (Cachar district of Assam) as a member of the audit team (such audits form a part of the curriculum in the Chartered Accountancy course). Since the company (Jayshree Tea & Industries Ltd.) had not made any guest-houses in certain of such tea-gardens, the auditors were stationed in the residences of the officers of the company. I was made to stay in the house of Mr. Arun Chaturvedi. Since Mr. Chaturvedi’s wife was fond of literature, she had developed something like a library in the house. Being a book worm, I started reading the different Hindi books available there. Among them, I happened to read a very good book – Karna Ki Aatmakatha (the autobiography of Karna) penned by Manu Sharma. The book engrossed me right from the word ‘go’ and when I finished with that, I could visualize the personality, the frustration, the loneliness, the long-life misfortune and the painful destiny of the great warrior of Mahabharat while feeling sorry for him in my heart.Karna Ki Aatmakatha, true to its title, is the life-story of Karna narrated in an autobiographical way to explain how he perceived and analyzed his life and the approach of the world towards him. Misfortune was another name for his life. Just after being born, his mother (Kunti) put him in a box and passed the same in a river. Why ? Because he was not born out of wedlock. Got by a couple of lower caste (charioteer), he grew up like a commoner but he could not get formal education because of the Braahminic system prevailing, no guru was ready to accept him as his student. His abilities in the field of using weapons were also not counted because everybody seemed to be looking at him by wearing the goggles of the caste system in which the caste and the class counted more than the genius of the individual. He was mocked and taunted by Bheem even when he had saved his life. The height of ungratefulness ! Gradually he came to know that he’s not the son of his fostering parents but whose son he was then ? A big mystery it was for him.
He got some education from Guru Kaushik as the ‘leftover’ of his formal students (the children of the royal families and the Braahmins) and he learnt the art of using different weapons from Parashuraam by lying to him that he had royal blood in his veins. Continuous scoffs, taunts and humiliations kept on accumulating within him as he passed his time under the affection of his fostering parents and the innocent love of a girl – Maala.
And one day, someone of royal lineage gave him the treatment of equal status. Something he had always starved for. This person was Duryodhana, the son of the blind ruler of the kingdom of Hastinapur who wanted to be the king but was getting stiff competition from his cousins called Paandavas. Karna got involved in the politics of the palace out of his gratitude for Duryodhana who made him the ruler of the state of Ang. This gratitude led him to stand by Duryodhana through thick and thin irrespective of whether he was right or wrong at a particular point of time. But the caste factor did not leave him. He was humiliated on this ground in the Swayamvara (a ceremony in which a princess chose her groom out of the available candidates on the basis of her liking or some condition or contest attached to that) of Draupadi. He was all set to win the Swayamvara when Draupadi referred to his lower caste and refused to marry him even if he would meet the condition of the Swayamvara.
And Karna’s misfortune did not leave him till his dying moment when in the war of Mahabharat, Arjun killed him when he was weaponless and busy in drawing the wheel of his chariot stuck in the ground. In between he promised his real mother Kunti not to kill any son of hers except Arjun and donated his divine armour and ear-rings to Indra knowing very well that this donation had been asked for only to snatch his invincibility against Arjun in the forthcoming war. A highly capable person got the birth as well as the death of a forlorn only, never getting his due from life. He was such a man of principles that he refused to switch sides and support the Paandavas in the war when apprised of his true origins and lured with the throne of Hastinapur because for him, the friendship of Duryodhana and his gratitude towards him was much superior to the throne. He was not greedy. If something he really wanted, it’s respect and equal status only.
Manu Sharma has written many novels based on the life-stories of various characters of the epic – Mahabharat in autobiographical style, i.e., presenting the things and events from the character’s perspective. Karna Ki Aatmakatha is one of them which has been written in the refined Sanskritized Hindi reading which is a treat for any literature lover. Karna’s anguish, restlessness and a fire against his degradation on the basis of his caste has been portrayed very well by the author (using a lot of imagination from his side). Taking various events from the epic, this thick novel has been written quite extensively on a pretty large canvas. The narrative flows freely and keeps the reader hooked.
This novel also underscores one fact that despite apparently giving equal status to Karna, Duryodhana could not make him a part of his blood relations. His sister – Dusshala (perhaps her real name was Susheela) was in love with Karna and Karna too liked her but their marriage could not materialize again because Karna belonged to a lower caste and did not have any royal lineage behind him.
The novel portrays Krishna in poor light who has been shown as completely partisan in his approach while being involved in the dynamics of the ruling dynasty of Hastinapur. He’s not shown as taking the side of truth and justice but always trying to win the things and situations for his beloved Paandavas through his tricky moves.
Karna is criticized by many as standing by Duryodhana who is the villain of Mahabharat. But my point is whether we consider gratitude a virtue or not. In my view, gratitude is a great virtue and being ungrateful is perhaps the biggest sin. When the whole world has discarded you, degraded you and showered injustices on you, somebody embraces you and gives you your well-deserved recognition and respect; then will you stand by him in all the conditions or not ? Karna was greatly indebted to Duryodhana and that’s why his standing by him was quite natural (and desirable too) on his part.
Despite presenting Karna in good light, the novel (and the epic itself) is not able to get the rid of the Braahminical mindset because it is established at many places that Karna’s valour, genius and capabilities were inherent in the fact of his actually being the son of god Sun. Indirectly it means that had he actually been the son of the charioteer, he would not have been that meritorious. Unfortunately, this mindset has still not changed.
While feeling sorry for Karna, the perennial unfortunate one from Mahabharat who always got a raw deal right from his moment of birth to his moment of death, I recommend this novel to those who take interest in the Indian mythology and also to those who are interested in understanding the roots of the caste system in India. Karna died but the discriminatory caste system in our country still survives.
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