It was a hot, humid day and Krishna had taken him out of the capital of the Kuru Dynasty, Hastinapura into the forest to the north. They had not spoken much during the journey and the normally cheerful Krishna looked grave and solemn. And so Karna had decided to let the silence linger on, till Krishna broke the ice and stated what was on his mind. After all, it was Krishna who had requested the meeting. Karna at first was surprised when Krishna’s messenger came bearing a message that Krishna wanted to meet him and he, against his better judgment, decided to accept the offer. He was intrigued because it was a forgone conclusion that the Great War would be fought in the coming days between the Pandavas and Kauravas, to determine the fate of Bharatvarsha. So the very next day, they had both travelled up north in Krishna’s chariot, accompanied only by Krishna’s friend, the mighty warrior Satyaki.
As soon as they reached the foothills of the mountains, they left Satyaki at the chariot and walked deep into the forest where no one would spot them.
And finally, Krishna broke the silence. “Karna, you are a man who has studied and practiced Dharma all your life. The wise say that you are greatest of givers; greater than even Lord Parjanya (Indra). They say that your knowledge of the Vedas is second to none; greater than even Yudhisthira. So why do your side with the sinner Duryodhana? We both know that the war is going to be fought in the future and the blood of many Kshatriyas is going to be spilt on our divine Aryavarta all thanks to Duryodhana’s ego.”
Karna sat down under the shade of a large banyan tree and replied, “My Lord; I may be the greatest of givers. I may also be well read in the Vedas but if there is anyone to whom I owe my life, it is Duryodhana. When the world censured me for a sutaputra, it was Duryodhana alone, who stood by me and made me the king of Anga. When Bheema mocked me that day during the tournament, and when Arjuna’s words were filled with contempt, it was Duryodhana alone, who stood up for me and offered his friendship. You know very well that I swore my life to my friend that very day and in his happiness alone, lies mine.”
“But what about Dharma? The code that you are supposed to protect?”
Karna looked at Krishna with a calm gaze. He was crystal clear in his thinking even though Krishna was trying to sow the seeds of doubt in his mind. “My Dharma is to my king just like yours is to the Pandavas. I have promised him that I will slay the Pandavas and make him the king of Aryavarta. Nothing can steer me away from the path that I have chosen.”
Krishna looked away for a second, “What if your parents advised you against going to this war?”
“My father Adhiratha and my mother Radha both know that I am a karmayodha (warrior of Karma) and they will back me up in any decision I make.”
Krishna looked at him and said very slowly, “But what if your real parents advised you against going to this war?”
A strange fever gripped his body as he looked at Krishna and he felt faint. “Who is my father? My mother?” he shouted aloud, hoping against hope that he would finally get an answer to that question that had troubled him, his entire life; the enigma of his birth.
Krishna looked at him with utmost pity because the lord knew the circumstances of his divine birth. After a long pause, Krishna finally said, “The time has come for you to listen to the most jealously guarded secret ever. The Sun God; Lord Surya whom you worship daily at noon is your father. Your mother is also the mother of five other great warriors, the likes of whom the world has never seen till now.”
“Krishna! It cannot be,” Karna cried out in despair as he sprung up to his feet, tears flowed down his cheeks; “I am but the son of a humble charioteer.”
Krishna shook his head in infinite sadness and continued, “But her heart still longs for that baby whom she set floating on the Ganges with that bright armor and those beautiful earrings, praying to the Gods that someone would take care of her child. She did not have any other option back then.”
The blue eyes of Krishna crackled with an unknown energy and his expressions, poignant. “Karna, my dear cousin; you are not a Radheya (son of Radha) but the eldest Kaunteya (son of Kunti). It is time for you to know the story behind your divine birth.”
And Krishna proceeded to tell Karna about his birth. Karna stood in stunned silence as Krishna continued his narration. He heard all the words but his brain refused to process any of it. He did not know how to react; his sworn enemies were his brothers and this secret had been kept away from him all these years all because a woman chose to protect her honor.
After Krishna finished his narration, Karna sat down in disbelief; the weight of what he had heard was too heavy for his feet. And his mind scrambled to make sense of it all. Karma had come back again to kick him in the gut like it had always done in his life; but this was its cruelest trick.
After a good few minutes, watching the fine sand particles slip and pour out through his fingers, Karna finally said aloud, “Karma is the great law of unerring, never-failing justice; the mysterious workings of which stretches from the innermost atom to the outermost cosmic space; from the birth of a thought to that of the universe. And it had done me over again. All my life, I have taken the blows of Karma and continued to move forward but this time, I don’t think I can stand up again. Why me? Surely sage Parashurama must have known through his accumulated tapas that I was a Kshatriya and hence cursed me. The strange irony is that sage Drona refused to teach me and sent me away because he thought that I was not a Kshatriya.”
Krishna came over to him and placed an arm over his shoulder reassuringly. “It is still not too late. Why don’t you join the Pandavas? You will be made king and your brothers will worship the ground you walk upon.”
Karna replied, “Alas Krishna, don’t mistake my pain for weakness. My loyalty to my king is greater than everything else in the world. A man has got to keep trying in what he believes in. Your dharma is to the Pandavas and mine is to Duryodhana even though I know that it is a lost cause!”
And he continued, “Krishna, my lord. In your love of the Pandavas, you have disclosed this secret to me. I am good at reading the omens and I can see the future. In my heart, I already know the outcome of the Great War. My lord, when you decided to side with the Pandavas, I knew that we had already lost the war. But promise me one thing. Grant me a boon.”
With tears in his eyes, Krishna replied, “And what is that?”
“Promise me that you will keep the circumstances of my birth a secret till I die. Yes, I see that happening as well but I will surely die trying. I can already see a legion of warriors going towards Lord Yama. The war is going to be fought and only then, will I be assured a place in the heavens. Only then will Karma stop following me like a rabid dog.”
The night before the 17th Day of battle:
Memories were all that a man in his position could hope to hold on too. A refreshing cool breeze bearing the scent of roses wafted into the tent as the wounded man was lying down on his soft bed and the effects of which, were remedial to a certain degree. It was as if mother earth was doing her bit to bring some peace to the battlefield of Kurukshetra and the insanity of the last sixteen days of war.
It was close to midnight but the man could not go to sleep in spite of his weariness. The sixteenth day of the Great War had ended and it looked like the beginning for the end for his army; the great army which had started with 21 akshauhini. Thousands of warriors had fallen over the last 16 days!
Earlier in the evening, after his dinner, he had a taken a long bath, hoping that it would erase the pain, but it had not. Now as he lay still on his soft bed after consuming many cups of wine, he knew that the next day would bring about the battle that he had waited for his entire life and possibly, release from the wretched life that he had had to endure for so long.
His heart was heavy, full of pathos and he felt like he had a huge burden was on his shoulders. He was like a cobra, which in the last minute had been removed of its venomous fangs. The meeting that he had had with Krishna and his mother Kunti had not just dented his conviction to kill his own brothers, but it had also removed the hatred that he had harbored for the Pandavas. How could he hope to fight without hate?
His son Vrishasena walked into his tent at that moment; his son who was a splitting image of himself.
“Father, even I cannot sleep today. I am excited about tomorrow when you will meet the Pandavas and destroy them single handedly.”
“Oh, the sheer exuberance of youth is a like a delicate yet dangerous flower. What these kids lack in experience, they make up with passion,” Karna thought to himself. This was the first time that his son was in a major battle and Karna could see the same eagerness, fire and passion within him that he himself had had, many years ago.
“Yes, my dear son, we will win the war for our king tomorrow but that will happen only tomorrow. Time does not fasten for anyone; not even the Gods. Even Lord Indra cannot command Time. Go sleep now, you will need all your energy for the battle tomorrow.”
And after a warm embrace, his son left him alone. Karna could not bear to think of what would happen to his son in the coming days. He still could not sleep as his memories kept tormenting him. He knew that he would face the Pandavas the next day. He had promised his mother that he would spare the lives of Yudhisthira, Bheema, Sahadeva and Nakula but not Arjuna. The world would see the battle between the two great warriors. It was a fight, which they both had waited for. There was only space for one person in the world; one who could command the title of the greatest warrior!
He closed his eyes, desperate to get some sleep but yet again, his life; the memories flashed before his eyes!
For as long as he could remember, Karna had paid his respects to Lord Surya at noon without fail every day. Even before he realized that the Sun God was his father, he had instinctively shared an inexplicable bond with the Sun. At noon, he would perform the Surya Namaskara and pay his respects to his ista-deva.
One fine day in Hastinapura after Krishna had failed in his mission for peace even after disclosing to the world that he was an avatara of Narayana by showing his Vishwaroopa; Karna was performing his rituals on the banks of the river Ganga. The radiant Sun God blazed down upon the earth as if he was extremely angry. The air was stiflingly hot and dry and the Ganga seemed unusually sedate. When he opened his eyes, he suddenly spotted an old women standing under his angavastra which he had held out, shielding herself from the Sun, unable to bear the piercing rays of the Sun.
“Who are you?” he exclaimed, but then, suddenly when realization struck, he continued, “Wait, I have seen you before.”
“Where have you seen me before?” she asked, startled. That was not a response that she’d expected.
“You were the women who used to come in my dreams long back when I was a kid. It was the very same face, though you looked younger in the image that my mind conjured up. But then slowly, as time passed on, you rarely came to my dreams and then you stopped; maybe because you were busy with life.”
The old women started sobbing on hearing that. She covered her face with her hands unable to look at the handsome man standing before her. It had taken her many days of guilty contemplation to gather up the courage to finally meet the man; her own son.
He led out of the shallow waters and as they both sat down on the banks of the river, Kunti looked fragile, raked inside with internal conflict. Karna’s heart melted at the plight of his mother and he decided to let her know that he knew who she was. He had pictured this meeting in his head many times and thought of how he’d react, but one emotion which had never come to his mind until that day was pity!
“I know who you are,” he said. “You are Kunti devi; mother of the Pandavas and I will also put you out of misery. I also do know that I am your son!”
She exclaimed in surprise, “How long have you known this?” unable to believe her ears.
“I have known this for a few weeks now. Lord Krishna told me everything.” It was a painful moment and as he rested his head on her laps as he could not bear to look at her directly.
She said, “My dear son, why did you not come to me after learning the truth?’
“A woman knew this secret all her life and she did not once come and claim her son. What did you expect me to do? I am pretty sure that you would have recognized me many years back during the tournament when I announced my arrival by challenging Arjuna. Mother, I strode in like a lone lion, covered by my bright kavacha and kundala. You could have just stood up and claimed me back then and history would have taken a different course but you chose to remain a mute spectator that day. What do you want now mother?”
Kunti replied, “My son, I have come to reclaim you as the eldest rightful Pandava. Please come with me and join your brothers.”
There was a distant look on his eyes as he replied, “There was a time for that to happen but the woman kept mum as I was being insulted by her sons. Even then she did not speak and let the wounds fester till it burnt me from within. Surely, it is too late for that to happen.”
Had she come to reclaim him in this last hour or had she come to ensure the protection of her children? Was it truly love that brought his mother to him or was it all just fear wrapped in a cloth called love? He did not want to answer the difficult questions in his mind nor did he want his mother to answer them. He did not know and at that moment, he thought of his foster mother; Radha.
He could not bear to look at her as he knew that his words would further wound her. “Mother, I will give you a boonof my own accord in front of my chosen Lord Surya. At the end of this war; either way, you will still have five sons. I promise not kill any of my brothers except Arjuna. Our enmity is like the rivalry between the Devas and the Asuras during the churning of the cosmic ocean. Let the world know me as a Radheya and not as a Kaunteya.”
With that final remark, he got up and walked away from his mother; not once did he look back. He could not bear to look back at the past; only the unknown future lay before him.
The 17th day of the Great War:
They were both caught in a circle of death as their charioteers expertly commanded their horses to move in what had become a circle with both of them stuck at the ends of an invisible diameter. It was going to be a fight to the finish and neither warrior was ready to back down. His armor felt heavy and wet as both blood and sweat poured down his brow. His bow was in a full arc as he released arrow after arrow. The space between them was full of arrows as Arjuna countered Karna’s arrows and vice versa. Karna was full of admiration for his younger brother, Arjuna who fought so valiantly. Even the armies on either side had stopped fighting to watch this epic battle. It almost looked like a battle between the gods.
The tempo of the battle was slowly picking up and both the warriors were totally in it. Karna was injured in numerous places where the armor was weak and so was Arjuna. In such battles, the trajectory of human emotions always remained the same; aggressive intent, anger, rage beyond care. The tempo of their battle was slowly reaching the second stage.
Karna suddenly decided to invoke the Agni-astra to change the balance of the fight. As his arrow spitting fire descended upon his enemy, Arjuna dispatched the Varuna-astra to counter it. A great wall of water smashed into a wall of fire and the echo of which was heard all around Aryavarta and the shockwave injured many of the spectators standing around them. Even the Gods had come out to the sky to watch the battle between the two greatest warriors in the world. And they kept fighting; sending astras, counter astras, javelins, and mighty arrows till the tempo of the battle had risen to the third stage. It was also time for fate to make its own move.
Karna caught in this sea of emotions, decided to invoke the Suryastra but suddenly realized that he had forgotten the incantations to the missile. Fate had dealt its cruel hand again and Karna was reminded of his guru Parashurama’s curse. He did not have time to think about it as he had to continue fighting. His charioteer Shalya too, was attacked by Arjuna and Karna felt the rage burst out from within him. His eyes glowed red; much like the color of the setting Sun and he attacked Arjuna and Krishna with renewed vigor. His mind was weak with the efforts of remembering the divine incantations but his body kept releasing arrow after arrow like a machine.
Karna then realized that he still had the Nagastra with him. His sights were set upon the target as he steadied the powerful Nagastra with his mighty bow. He knew that it was going to be his final chance and if he missed now, everything would be lost!
As his charioteer steered the chariot around for another pass, Shalya shouted out aloud. “Aim for the chest; aim for the chest, not for the head!”
It was after all his younger brother Arjuna. Did he have it in him to slay his own brother? He had to make a painful choice.
Invoking the mantra, harnessing the divine powers of the astra, he shot the arrow and watched the projectile knife through the atmosphere at tremendous velocity, through tear drenched eyes………
He was standing on the battlefield covered in mud, holding his dazzling bow in his mighty left arm. He bit his tongue in despair as he tried his best to remove the right wheel which had sunk into the mud. The pyrrhic war was coming to a close and he knew that his death would signify the beginning of the end. The curses that he had to endure early on in his life were coming back to haunt him and he knew that he was just another cog in the mysterious plan of the universe. As he kept watching, a spotless white chariot came into his view from the right side and the archer atop, readied to loosen another volley of arrows taking aim. He knew that it was the end; the writing was on the wall and he heaved a sigh of disappointment as he took one final look at his magnificent bow. He could not bear to part with it; the majestic bow given to him by his guru.
At that moment, he turned to Shalya and said, “Tell Duryodhana that I am sorry.” And with that, he closed his eyes, and dedicated all this thoughts to his chosen Lord Surya…………
PS: In the final epic battle between Karna and Arjuna in the Kurukshetra war; Karna almost kills Arjuna with the Nagastra. As the story goes, Karna aims for the head but thanks to Krishna who lowers the chariot by a few inches, the powerful missile strikes Arjuna’s crown and the man survives. But what if Karna aimed a little too high intentionally as he could not bring himself to kill his younger brother? An interesting thought! We can talk about it, write stories about it but we will never know the “real anguish” of the greatest hero in the Mahabharata: Karna!