The last book I read is a novel, The Palace of Illusions, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Like the Mahabharata, which is retold from the point of view of Draupadi, this novel has the potential to spark infinite thoughts in the reader. Karna comes across in the novel as a man of nobility, loyalty, pride and, above all, uncomplaining acceptance of the injustices of his life. Anger seethes within him and yet he is capable of great forgiveness.
Destiny was particularly harsh towards Karna. He was born of a frivolous experiment carried out by Kunti who had not yet grown out of her childhood but was given a boon by the irascible sage Durvasa. The boon was a mantra with which she could invoke any god and have a son by that god. Kunti plays with the mantra even as a child might play with her new toy. It is none other than the sun god whom she invokes. Karna is the offshoot. Terrified by the disgrace that might visit her for giving birth to a fatherless child, Kunti abandons the infant.
The son of a god floats down a river as a helpless bastard. His destiny is to be found and brought up by a charioteer. Eventually he becomes the best archer around, having taken the lessons from none less than Balaram, a god-incarnate and the teacher of Drona. Drona, the prototype of the Bharatiya guru, had not only refused to teach Karna but also ridiculed him for being a low caste person. Karna circumvented the problem of caste by using mendacity when he approached Balaram and inherits a terrible curse for that mendacity: that the Brahamastra would be of no use to him when it would be required.
Curses were an integral part of Karna’s destiny. A Brahmin to whom Karna confesses honestly his error of killing a cow unwittingly bestows on him the curse of death in the moment of his helplessness. One curse for mendacity and another curse for honesty. Such is Karna’s tragic destiny.
“I am not afraid of suffering,” Karna tells Bheeshma in the novel. “Hasn’t my entire life been one suffering after another?” From the time his mother rejected him as an infant to the time he was shot dead treacherously by Arjun with the moral support from Krishna, the god, Karna’s life was a protracted suffering. Rejection, ridicule, and treachery – they were his lots.
Yet he remained noble. To the last breath. Karna emerges a greater person than even Krishna, the god. But the bards have their own ways of creating heroes. Of creating gods too.
Such is destiny. “The fates are curel,” Bheeshma tells Karna in the novel, “and they’ve been crueller than usual to you.”
But why? Why has life to be thus? Why is life particularly cruel to some?
Because there really is no divine order or anything of the sort. We are all as much accidental creatures as was Karna. Thrown into life as the offshoot of a game. It’s a game. Jawaharlal Nehru compared it to a game of cards. “The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.” A lot of it is destiny, in other words.
The people who come and go in your life are often part of that destiny. Kunti’s frivolousness was part of Karna’s destiny. So was Drona’s snobbery. So was Balaram the god’s love for the upper classes. The villainous Duroyadhana turned out to be a soothing balm in that agonising destiny. Especially when Draupadi, the flame that had begun to run like an intoxication in his veins, had questioned his parentage. Being called a bastard in the public even when you have proved yourself to be the best archer, the greatest hero, the noblest human being, was also part of his destiny. Karna accepted the soothing balm given by Duryodhana.
Kunti, his mother, proves herself to be worse than Duryodhana when she blackmails him emotionally as the war is about to begin. “You are my son,” she tells him. “Don’t commit the sin of fratricide.” She extracts some promise from him; he will not kill her sons other than Arjun, his rival.
Kunti demeans herself by offering Draupadi as wife to Karna. “Being my eldest son, you can take her as your wife too.” It must have been a terrible temptation for the man through whose veins ran the passionate love for Draupadi for years. “... worst still is this: ... I (still) desire her! I can’t forget her shining, haughty face at the swayamvar – ah, how many years has it been?” Karna tells Bheeshma in the novel.
But Karna knows self-restraint. Karna knows more than that. He knows honour. He is the noblest of them all.
Yet he will die helplessly deceived by a god.
Such is destiny. It follows no rules. The cosmos has its own rules. Gravitation, for example. Relativity, for example. But nothing like goodness being rewarded with goodness. Those are beliefs with which we delude ourselves.
When it comes to man, the best can meet with the worst experiences. The worst may ascend to the highest positions. The true patriot may be labelled as antinational by scoundrels and hoodlums. The rogue sits on the holy chair and preaches morality to the gullible. Reserved forest lands are fenced off as holy ashrams with the help of democratically elected leaders and their goons. The goons paste posters in the guarded VIP alleys announcing gift for killing people professing different ideologies. The concerned minister sheds crocodile tears in the Parliament: ah! Kunti, you are eternal.
O, Duryodhana, the Kurukshetra is still on. We shall rename our capital as Hastinapur. Such is our destiny. But give us Karna as our god. Erect temples for him. Let us learn the lesson of endless suffering from him.