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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Karna's metamorphosis

Yesterday, I read a whole bunch of poems by Indian authors via links on The Middle Stage, author Chandrahas Choudhury's excellent blog. One of them, "Moult" by Gieve Patel, really captured my imagination. Before you continue to read this article, here's the poem itself:


The sodden dripping weight which he moulted

and offered to the god who received it

in cupped hands—was it skin

really, or rather something amphibious,

half metallic scales, half mutely screaming

integument smelling of fish, while

flayed Karna shivered from a cold

he had never thought to endure, shivered

animal-like, a mere beast

prepared for the cooking pot;

and walked to the battlefield certain

to be pierced by the first lance

aimed at him. But the burden!

Amazingly it had lifted,

and might it not be one’s heart’s desire fulfilled

to die unrehearsed of lightness.

For the uninitiated, the incident from the Mahabharata being described here goes something like this: Before the battle of Kurukshetra started, Lord Indra, the king of the gods, and father of Arjuna, the mightiest of the Pandavas, started getting worried about the possible threat to his son's life, if he faced Karna. Now Karna, the son of the Sun-god, had been born with an armour (kavacha) and earrings (kundala) which were blessed by his father. These made him practically invincible. Indra, therefore planned to cash in on Karna's famed philanthropy (he had earned the epithet of daanveer, or the one who gave generously) by simply disguising himself as an old Brahmin and asking Karna for his armour. The Sun-god knew of Indra's intentions and was quick to warn Karna, but Karna, being the man that he was, obliged Indra, anyway, when the moment came. (Although not described in this particular poem, Indra was so impressed by Karna's gesture that he granted him a boon, upon which Karna asked for an amogh shakti, an unbeatable weapon.)

Now, the very first reason that this poem is fascinating is its basic premise: that what Karna gave away that day was quite literally, a part of his body. Note the use of words like "sodden" and "dripping" from the outset, to lend it an almost organic air. Every single edition of the Mahabharata I've ever read has coyly suggested this, cloaking it under various metaphorical blankets. The most common of these versions insists that the reason why Karna was so weakened and vulnerable after this act was that "the armour, on account of having been worn for so many years (Karna would never take it off) had stuck to his body, like a second skin."

What if it was literally a second skin?

Consider this: Karna and the five Pandavas were all born in the same way: Kunti would use a special mantra to summon any god she wanted to, and said God would then yield Kunti a son. The twins Nakula and Sahadeva were born when Kunti passed on the mantra to Madri. Why then, was Karna the only one abandoned? According to the Mahabharata, Kunti was terrified when the mantra worked for the first time, and plus, she was a maiden and not married. But the Karna-as-mutant theory would definitely explain this irregularity better: because Karna was the only one externally marked by the god's divinity, because he was the only one who you could look at and tell that this child was not a mere human; Kunti, afraid of social ostracism, and perhaps more than a little personal disgust, abandoned him. Was this another of the infamous "revisions" done to the Mahabharata done to make certain situations and characters look more "decent" or "human"? (The late Irawati Karve's magisterial book of essays on the Mahabharata, "Yuganta" abounds with examples of such possible "revisions")

The poem then continues to describe Karna as "flayed" while he "shivered with a cold/ he had never thought to endure" which clearly suggests that this is as unexpected and as brutal to Karna, as losing a limb would be to any of us. Patel, however, is not done yet, and he says that after this selfless act, Karna "shivered animal-like, a mere beast prepared for the cooking pot." The straightforward iterpretation of these lines is that the now-vulnerable Karna would be easily defeated and killed on the battefield. However, I think Patel has used both "animal" and "beast" to suggest that Karna, after shedding the elements which made him a mutant or a semi-divine entity, is now finally human, a "mere beast", so to speak. Referencing "Yuganta" once again, the author Irawati Karve argues that the central tragedy in Karna's life was his inner dilemma "Who am I?". According to the Mahabharata, Karna, a Kshatriya (the warrior-caste) by birth, was raised by a Suta (charioteer) family, and his foster parents had told him that they were not his biological parents, and that he had been found with a Kshatriya-like armour strapped on to his body.

It was because of this dilemma of Karna's that he found his judgement impaired, all-too often in crunch situations. Like Drauapdi's swayamvara, where he was berated for being lowborn, and he was not allowed to take part in the challenge. (This, by the way, is another one of the "revisions" I was talking about. This has been omitted in later versions of the Mahabharata.) "Yuganta" also says that this dilemma culminated in the final momets of Karna's life, when he was busy getting his chariot wheel out of the mud, and urged Arjuna to stop fighting until he had done so, calling upon the Kshatriya's code, a set of ethical war practices. But the omniscient Krishna, pointed out that Karna had not followed the same when he dishonoured Draupadi or when he took part in the unfair slaughter of Abhimanyu; and instigated Arjuna to kill the temporarily defenseless Karna. Karna died wondering "Who Am I?"

The caste-identity crisis which the Mahabharata wants us to believe, is an old one, and seems rather too simplistic for the otherwise complex and fascinating character of Karna. But if Karna was really confused about the infinitely more frightening and perplexing question of his humanity, I think it would make a lot more sense.

Patel acknowledges explicitly, towards the end of the poem that Karna is now destined to be killed swiftly in the battle. But then, he suggests something truly marvellous: consider the parting shot with which Patel leaves us

"But the burden!

Amazingly it had lifted,

and might it not be one’s heart’s desire fulfilled

to die unrehearsed of lightness."

Is he hinting that Karna deliberately cut off his "second skin" in order to settle, once and for all, the question of his humanity, or lack thereof? It would certainly seem so, as the last two lines suggest. I would definitely want Karna to finally take control of his identity and his destiny, even if his actions led to speedy and inevitable destruction. I think, if this were indeed the case, then Karna, after his metamorphosis, died what Albert Camus called "a happy death" .

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