February 05, 2010

KARNA AND THE THREE CURSES




The Mahabharat which is the longest epic in the world, speaks of a time in ancient India when the rulers of the sub continent's innumerable kingdoms allied themselves with the two warring factions that laid their claim over the throne of Hastinapur. The finest warriors of the day, namely, Arjuna - contemporary India's foremost archer, Bhima - the man with supreme physical prowess, Yudhistir - the defender of Dharma, Duryodhana - the adversary of Pandavas and Bhishma - the protector of the king of Hastinapur fought in a fierce battle that is said to have lasted for 18 days. However among the galaxy of stars that fought on the dusty grounds of Kurukshetra, there was one who shone more brighter than the rest on the horizon of Indian mythology. Although he ended up dying on the battlefield at the hands of his own brother Arjuna, Karna is widely considered by many, including Krishna and Bhishma as per Valmiki's Mahabharat, as a noble spirit who rarely appears in the human race. Inspite of devoting his services to evil Duryodhana, Karna remains an adulated figure for millions of Hindus and Indians. He is specially adored for his generosity and always considered as a formidable warrior, perhaps the greatest warrior of all time, a courageous spirit who braved impossible odds in his life, and died with unique courage, valour and honour.

While Karna remains to be one of the most celebrated personalities of Hindu mythology, very few people are aware of the fact that he had learnt the art of warfare and mastered deadly weapons under the able tutelage of Parashuram. Karna who was brought up by Adhirata, a charioteer of the king Dhritarashtra of Hastinapur, after being abandoned by his mother, Kunti, aimed to be a skillful fighter. As such he went to Dhronacharya, who was in-charge of training the princes of Hastinapur, both Kauravas and Pandavas, in the art of warfare and diplomacy. However, Dhrona refused to accept him as his disciple citing his low caste as the reason. Karna like he did so many times throughout his life, fought all odds and decided to be self-taught with his brother, Shrona's help. In accordance with the ancient tradition that one must learn any art form only under a guru, Karna decided to make Surya his teacher. Such was the dedication of this man that he gathered information about various ayudhas (weapons) during the day and then after sundown, he exercised them. Although he achieved expertize in handling many weapons, Karna became more interested in learning all the advanced skills of archery including the use of divine weapons.

In a bid to fulfill his dream of being among the best fighters of his generation, Karna decided to approach Parashuram. However, Parashuram was only known to accept Brahmins as his students. Disciples like Gangaputra Bhishma and Dhronacharya had made Parashuram proud earlier and Karna longed to make this great saint, his tutor. As such, he was not going to make his low social status the reason for being turned down by Parashuram. Karna appeared before the sage as a Brahmin. Parashuram accepted him and trained him to such a point, that he declared Karna to be equal to himself in the art of warfare and archery. Thus, Karna became a diligent student of Parashuram.

 Legend has it that one day while his techer was resting on his lap, Karna was stung by a giant bee on his thigh. Despite the excruciating pain, Karna did not move so as not to disturb his guru's sleep. As the bee bored deeper into Karna's thigh, the wound began to bleed. Parashuram was woken up by the blood from Karna's thigh. He soon realized that Karna was a not a Brahmin as no one in the priestly class could bear the gruesome pain for such a long time. Thus, Parashuram, who had sworn vengeance against all Kshatriyas, concluded that Karna lied about being a in order to learn from him. So, he cursed Karna that his martial skills including the use of Brahmastra would desert him when he needed them most. This in turn meant that Karna would forget all that he had learnt from Parashuram during his hour of crisis. Karna, who was unaware of his royal lineage, pleaded with his master that any student in his place would have acted the same way.

While he regretted cursing Karna in a moment of anger, Parashuram's curse was irrevocable. He, gifted Karna with a celestial weapon called Bhargavastra along with Parashuram's personal bow called Vijaya and blessed him that in the end, Karna would achieve what every mortal aspires the most - everlasting glory and immortal fame. In fact mythological sources say that it was the king of Gods - Indra who had stung Karna in the form of the bee so that he would be cursed by the great sage. The same Indra later exploited Karna's generosity and took away the the Kavacha (body armour) and Kundana (ear rings) that virtually made Karna invincible. It is beyond any doubt that had Indra, father of Karna's sworn enemy, Arjuna, not interfered in the matter, Arjuna would have never been able to beat Karna.


Dejected at being cursed by his own Guru, Karna is said to have wandered in the forests. While he was practising the 'Shabdavedi Vidhya' (art of hitting the target by detecting the source of sound), he mistook a Brahmin's cow for a wild animal and shot it. Enraged, the Brahmin cursed Karna that as he had killed a helpless animal, he too would be killed when he was the most helpless, when his concentration was diverted from his enemy.
However putting these things behind him, Karna went on to become the King of Ambha (modern Bhagalpur) after he impressed Duryodhana when he surpassed Arjuna's feat in a tournament held by Dhrona in Hastinapur to display the skills that he had given to the Kuru princes. This event established key relationships in the Mahabharat, namely, the strong bond between Duryodhana and Karna, the intense rivalry between Karna and Arjuna, and the enmity in general between the Pandavas as a whole and Karna.

Sometime later, when he was on a tour of his new kingdom, Karna is said to have encountered a girl who was crying out of fear of her step mother since her ghee had fallen to the ground. Being generous enough Karna told her that he would give her new ghee. But, the child insisted that she wanted only the ghee that was mixed with the soil and refused to take the new ghee. Taking pity on the girl, Karna took the soil mixed with ghee in his fist and squeezed it with all his might to extract the ghee and pour it back into the pot. However, Bhoomi Devi (Mother Earth) was furious at him for hurting her for the sake of a mere child. So, the Earth goddess cursed him that in a very crucial battle of his life, she would trap his chariot wheel in the same way that he held the fistful of soil, thereby making him vulnerable to his enemy.

Thus, Karna was cursed on three separate and independent occasions. Unfortunately, each of these curses became operational at the same crucial moment in the Kurukshetra war, later making him weaponless, left without a chariot and helpless.

On the sixteenth day of the great battle of Kurukshetra, Karna led the Kaurava army. He first defeated the might Bhima but spared his life saying that he was elder to Bhima. Later he went on to beat Yudhistir but left him alive saying that "It seems that you have forgotten all the teachings which your guru has taught you, so first go and practice those and then come to fight". Also he defeated the twins, Nakul and Sahadev but didn't kill them as he had promised Kunti that he would not kill any of the Pandavas except for Arjuna. Then Karna proceeded towards Arjuna and unleashed the deadly weapon, Nagastra at him. But Krishna, like he had done so many times in the past, saved him from what would have been sure death.


On the seventeenth day, the much anticipated contest between Arjuna and Karna took place. Though the duel was initially held at a stalemate, Karna was hampered when his chariot wheel sank into the ground in loose wet soil (Bhoomi Devi's curse thus came into effect). He also found himself unable to remember the incantations for divine weapons, as his teacher Parashuram had foretold. Descending from his chariot to remove the wheel, he requested Arjuna to wait until it is set right as per the rules of battle. Krishna told Arjuna that Karna has no right to refer to the rules at this point, after having violated the same himself while killing Abhimanyu. He urged Arjuna to kill Karna while he was helpless (Brahman's curse came into effect here). Lord Krishna told Arjuna that if he did not kill Karna at this critical juncture of the war, he might never be able to kill him and the Pandavas may never win the war. Thus, Arjuna fatally injured Karna using a divine arrow.

It is believed that on the night before his death, Karna's guru, Parashuram appeared to him in his dreams. He is said to have told Karna that he was well aware of Karna's caste when he had approached him to become his disciple. Yet, inspite of his vow, he agreed to teach Karna, a Kshatriya, as he was fully aware of Karna's capability and impeccable character. Besides, Parashuram went on further to explain the reasons for him cursing his own disciple. Parashuram said that if Karna would not die then the Kauravas would have won the battle and the Earth would be ruled by Duryodhana. As such, Adharma would prevail and people would have suffered in his reign.

Though the three curses and interventions from Indra and Kunti led to his death on the battlefield, Karna achieved the feat of immortality as foretold by his guru, Parashuram. His generosity and the manner in which he carried himself throughout his life is praised several times in mythology and literature. Thus though he allied with evil out of gratitude towards his friend Duryodhana, he is even today, revered to as one of the greatest mn to have participated in the Great War. In fact, Karna, more than anyone else, is the true hero of the Mahabharat.


Special Thanks to : Mr. Ambarish Kulkarni


SOURCES :
www.wikipedia.org/karna