The Story of Karna

Music From a Relaxed Bowstring


He watched with interest as Kunti walked away into the darkness, leaving her footprints on the wet sand. He had never thought of her as Kunti before. All these days, even now as he got up from worshipping the Sun, he always called her ‘matha’ and thought of her as his own mother whom he had never seen. And now in a few moments she had become Kunti, mother of the Pandavas.

Her footprints on the bank of the Ganga lay in the direction of darkness which was thickening every minute.

Along with the fame Arjuna enjoyed as an archer, the motherly love that he enjoyed as Kunti’s son also had incited Karna’s jealousy. So by calling Kunti ‘matha’ every time he saw her, he had managed to taste a little of the motherly love which he had seen her lavishing on her five children. On those occasions the glitter in her eyes had reminded him of the first rays of the sun coming up from the sea.

The cold breeze from the Ganga continued to rush past him. In the distance lamps had begun to shine in tents temporarily made for the war, which was to begin the next day. Sounds of other preparations for the war could also be heard.

The naughty ripples in the Ganga hugged the ankles of the village maidens who came to fill their pots. It made soft jingles just like their anklets.

Staring into the darkness, which was engulfing him, he saw a chariot with neither charioteer nor bow man, moving with difficulty across the plains of his mind. Life turns upside down as the wheels move on.

Everything will be ready as the day breaks. The gambling boards of Pataliputra are assuming gigantic proportions. Everyone will be gambling for everyone else’s lifeblood and last breath. Warriors from provinces as far as Magadha have arrived. Kurukshetra will become a sea of dust with waves as high as mountains. Chariots as huge as leviathans will crisscross it making it look much like a gambling board for kings to advance and withdraw. Ganga will look like a stripped-away crimson chela.

The chariot wheels in his mind, looming larger than before, were quite upsetting now. Thoughts, like waves rose up, fought with each other and withdrew giving way to fresh ones.

Hasthinapuri’s new saga is going to be unveiled. The ups and downs of its royal lineage were no more a point of interest to him. He found it repetitive. Even the war is only the repeat of a farce which had been staged sometime back after so much preparations on a bygone summer day like this.

He still remembered the day. It was a much awaited afternoon. The day when all Drona’s disciples including Arjuna were going to perform for a select crowd. It began early in the morning with Nakula and Sahadeva displaying their equestrian skills. But the crowd was more anxious to see Arjuna’s performance which were to take place only in the afternoon. He had seen Arjuna before but it was only now that he had a chance to see his skills.

On a chariot pulled by seven white horses Arjuna entered the arena from the west. The sun had gone behind his chariot. The dust rose up in the air and in the glare effected a sudden twilight. Cheers broke out like a sea storm.

All eyes were on Arjuna but Arjuna’s eyes were set on the bird’s eyes drawn on the farthest walls, and pots swinging from poles. As he placed the arrow on the string and bend the bow everything would become very quiet. Even the breeze only tiptoed across the arena. As the arrow flew and the bowstring relaxed with a strumming sound, the cheering broke out. They didn’t have to wait for the arrow to reach its mark. It always did. It went on. The silence, the strumming sound and the cheers.

It was then that the unvoiced question in his mind became the loudest. It rose above the storm of cheers. And Arjuna’s bow, as if to answer it broke the silence intermittently. The eternal question of who one is. A clear answer from Arjuna’s bow followed it.

His foster parents had never forced him to become a charioteer though he was brought up as a Suta. Even the name they gave him, Vasusena, was one found only among the Kshatriyas.

But his mind disowned everything others stuck on him. Archery interested him more than the horses or the chariot. Since interest belongs to the heart and the heart belongs to the body and the body belongs to the progenitors, he thought he might be a Kshatriya and felt no qualms about telling his Master that he was a Kshatriya. He was sure.

The real reason became clear only now. Learning everything he wished to learn had not taken him anywhere near the answer to his real question.

Only a few of the footprints left by Kunti, only those which were closer to him, could be seen now. Leaving the whole world to darkness, the sun had gone beyond the hills.

Athirathan, his foster father, the royal charioteer, had told him stories of the Sun who with stern determination and punctuality, sending his rays like arrows from an inexhaustible quiver, drove his chariot across the sky everyday, in rain and shine, giving light to everyone and everything alike, expecting nothing in return. An epitome of uninvolved and detached commitment to karma. Those were the same values that he cherished in his young heart from a very early age.

But on that hot afternoon, listening to the relaxed bowstring and the cheering crowd his mind wavered once, just once, when he found his answer in Arjuna’s bowstring. He saw himself on Arjuna’s chariot, sending arrows in all directions like the Sun. The slanting rays of the Sun lighted up Arjuna’s face as never before.

The cords of his heart were strung like that of a bent bow. The true spirit of a warrior, whose unwavering attention sees only the thing his mind is set on, blinded him to everything around him. It was a moment beyond questions and answers. Like rivulets in a sea, all his past, his sense of self and his sense of propriety, all dissolved into that one moment. His body felt like an arrow from a bent bow just relaxed.

Even when his body had reached the arena, he stayed rooted among the onlookers in the pavilion. He watched anxiously as his body, having found the moment it had been looking for, followed its own way. He watched with pain, as his body that shot into the arena like an arrow soon became a pawn in the royal hands. After a shadow play in which relationships took new roles, when the sun went beyond the western hills drowning the shadows in all pervading darkness, his foster father came searching for him and hugged him making it clear to everyone whom he belonged to. A loving damage beyond repair. His foster parents became his real parents thereby getting themselves distanced from him all the more. Bhima commented that a Suta’s weapon was his whip. It was repeated by the crowd. New relationships and friendships only helped to alienate him more from himself.

The real answer to the question within him vanished like a mirage. It was then that his inability to convince himself that he was nothing beyond a Suta pained him the most.

Now that he was known as a Suta, the Kshatriya spirit that he had secretly fostered in his mind, like a maiden’s illicit relationship, felt like an ugly mask. He felt like tearing away his armour and his ear studs. Later when it was offered to a poor Brahman, he only felt unburdened of them.

The whole world has no doubt about his identity now. They are all repeating it. You are a Suta. Now learn to live like one.

It was from that moment that he considered Arjuna his enemy. The idol of worship became a lamb to slaughter. He was not interested to live like a Kshatriya anymore. But Arjuna as an icon of all that he himself had lost was deep in him now. A Kshatriya prince on a silver chariot drawn by white horses from whose hoofs dust rises up and besmears the sun. It came back to him every time he heard Arjuna’s name or had a glance of him.

Having been crowned by Duryodhana it was possible to take a wife from the Kshatriyas. But he chose not to and tried to suppress his desires and instincts even though he was being cankered by them from within.

As the bowstring of Arjuna continued to strum, desires, like snakes from dark crevices, slithered across his dreams, raised their hoods and hissed loudly at his subdued thoughts. Their poison cataracted over his eyes hazing the Sun. Values in his mind gave way to self-pity.

When the Pandavas gambled away everything they had, the image of Arjuna in his mind turned murky. Against the advice of Vikarna, he instigated Dussasana to denude Draupadi just to see Arjuna, the facsimile of his own Kshatriya self he romanced, grow paler and paler. It was a relief to see a helpless Kshatriya in agony. The flipside of the ferocious Kshatriya spirit looked disgusting. A deplorable picture of ups and downs as the chariot wheel of life took turns.

When the Pandavas went into self-exile, his thoughts about Arjuna also left him. News from the forest of how the Pandavas were trudging through life would have moved anyone’s heart. He now pitied the warrior in himself. His bow and quiver lay neglected somewhere in his chamber like the remains of a huge dead vulture turning to dust.

Later, when the Gandharvas made Duryodhana a captive, as he and Karna went picnicking near their territory, Karna took shelter among the Yadavas in their hut. Bhishma was furious to hear about it and commented on the hollowness of his devotion to Duryodhana. He himself had never suspected it. The Grandsire’s words were as pointed and unerring as his arrows.

Very soon when Duryodhana stole the herds of Virata, Karna found that a dependent’s opinion was a counterfeit coin. He tried to be reticent and passive and refused to put up a good fight when Arjuna came to claim the herds. He was sick of the delusion which had brought him this far.

Still the question remained. Who am I? The answer would have been in the Sastras and Sutras he learned from his Master along with the lessons in archery. He found that the lessons he might forget in times of need because of his Master’s curse might not be just the lessons in archery.

He found that this question was going to bother him as long as he was Karna. There was only one way out. It was thus that he decided to be Duryodhana’s shadow. It wasn’t hard since he only had to acknowledge the fact that this was how Duryodhana had always seen him.

But he saw some signs and read some cryptic messages in Krishna’s glances and smiles when he came to the Kaurava court as a mediator. As he had expected Krishna came again to see him in person. It was well known that there was nothing that Krishna didn’t know and he talked as if he had read Karna’s mind. He expected Krishna to answer the question he had in his mind even if he didn’t ask him. Seeing an opportunity to avert disclosure, as the question was not articulated, Krishna said nothing about it.

However, the promises Krishna put forth gave it all away. He would be made a king in his own right, given all the privileges of a Kshatriya and would be considered superior even to Arjuna.

But he was not to be placated. He had taken over the reins of his mind from his adolescent instincts. He also saw Duryodhana and himself as Krishna and Arjuna.

Live like a shadow. A soulless being, the other side of light, an enemy of the Sun, a drop of the power that reigns over the world from dusk to dawn.

He knew that Duryodhana wasn’t as unselfish a patron to him as Krishna was to Arjuna. It wasn’t his existence as a shadow that held Duryodhana close to him, but it was the soot-covered smoulders of bitterness deep in his mind that made him dear to Duryodhana. And Duryodhana never let slip a chance to ignite them.

However it was his strong resolve that he should not be driven by anything other than the sliver of gratitude he felt for Duryodhana. He also doubted whether he still possessed the skill or the will of a warrior anymore. If he stayed away from the war till the North Solstice, when death is more desirable, he could go into the battlefield wholeheartedly. By not enlisting him among the ‘maharathis’, Bhishma had already given him cause enough to stay away for some time.

It was with such thoughts in his mind that he came to this deserted part of the Ganga’s banks to meditate on the Sun and saw Kunti as he opened his eyes. She had just taken a plunge, and water drops were still dripping from her hair. She looked as enchanting as a river goddess. He didn’t know that those were tears and not water drops that lingered on her eyelashes.

By the time she finished telling him everything she had on her mind (or did she?) the sun was about to set. As he stood looking at the setting sun, she also turned around to look at it. He saw the sun hidden by the clouds and his mother hidden behind the veil of propriety with the same eyes.

His history has caught up with him right on the banks of the Ganga. Holding more stories close to her heart, with whirlpools and undercurrents, she continued to flow. Uninvolved. Uninterested. Detached.

He remembered a young Suta who had dashed into the arena from the pavilion. He saw the same young man, seeing a graceful pristine lady, going back to the pavilion of onlookers. He saw his Kshatriya lineage, which had come within his very reach starting to fade away like the last rays of the setting sun. He saw the woman whom he always addressed as ‘matha’ and always considered as his own mother becoming Kunti, mother of the Pandavas.

A smile came on his lips.

Years ago the same smile had come on the face of a young maiden, when she beheld her offspring for the first time. An offspring she was punished with when she slaked her curiosity at the cost of her chastity.

Days later on the battleground of Kurukshetra, which was wet with blood and gore mixed with mud and the ever-rotting flesh, as he was pushing a chariot wheel out of a ditch and demanding fair play, as Krishna asked him who was he to demand fair play, the same smile came on his face.

Months later, sitting on a high branch of a peepal tree, expecting the long awaited arrow, Krishna also had the same smile on his face.

Only the Ganga had seen it all.

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