Monday, August 15, 2016

Tales from the Mahabharata - 19 - Karna and the fear of abandonment

Kunti abandoning Karna
(image credit:
I will stay with Karna for this post also (the previous post was also about Karna and how his life can also be viewed as a cautionary tale against distractions).

Karna was abandoned almost immediately after his birth. His mother, Kunti, "flung" (ch 104, Adi Parva) him into the river, where he was found by Adhiratha, adopted by his wife Radha, and grew up the son of a charioteer. He later became the lifelong friend of Duryodhana, the king of Anga, and a mortal enemy of Arjuna.

A question comes to mind - why did Kunti need to fling her first-born son into the water? It was because of a boon granted by the "fearsome" sage, Durvasa. His boon to Kunti was thus - "Whichever gods you summon through the use of this mantra, will grant you sons through their grace." Durvasa had granted this boon to Kunti because "he knew that she would face the dharma that is indicated for times of distress." Once Kunti had this boon, she became "curious." Curiosity led her to invoke the boon, summon Arka (the sun god), who placed an embryo in her womb. Thus Karna was born, and almost immediately thereafter, abandoned by his mother.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Tales from the Mahabharata - 18 - First Things First, A Lesson Karna Forgot

It is not without reason that the character of Karna has attracted so much fascination and attention from readers of the Mahabharata. People have seen and identified in him an ideal friend, an ideal giver, and above all - the fatally wronged son who never got his due from either his brothers or his mother. The right warrior who fought on the the wrong side.

But among all that has been written in the Mahabharata, is there an underlying narrative, hiding between the pages, that that may tell us something more about Karna, and therefore, about human nature itself? To do that, it is instructional to revisit some of the pivotal moments in Karna's life.

Parashurama sleeping on Karna's lap
[image credit: Wikipedia]
A young Karna had convinced Parashurama to train him in the use of weapons. So desperate had Karna been to receive this knowledge that he had described himself as a brahmana, and not as the kshatriya he was (a suta perhaps, but certainly a brahmana he wasn't). Parashurama would teach no kshatriya. One day, as Parashurama slept on Karna's lap, a bee stung Karna. Not wanting to disturb his guru, Karna bore the pain. When Parashurama woke up and saw the blood, he accused Karna of having deceived him. No brahmana - or so Parashurama believed - could have withstood so much pain. Parashurama cursed Karna that he would forget the knowledge of his weapons when he would need them most. This is well known. The question is - why did Karna not get up or otherwise take some step to swat the bee away? Why was it so important to show that he could withstand huge amounts of pain, if only to not displease his guru?

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Tales from the Mahabharata 17 - Charity

When trying to opine on an epic like the Mahabharata, perhaps the most appropriate way to keep one’s ego in check to be reminded of a verse from Ch 279 of the Shanti Parva, Moksha Dharma, that describes among the reasons for grief being "a foolish person who is eloquent." I pray that I avoid the curse that otherwise may befall the eloquent but foolish person!

Yudhishthira, Bhisma
[credit: Mahabharata, Gita Press]
The festival of lights is with us. There is talk of giving and charity and receiving and wanting and wishing in this time of Diwali. It is only appropriate that we take a look at a story about Lakshmi, found in Ch 218 of Shanti Parva, Moksha Dharma. Indra saw Shri emerge from Bali. Bali had seen better days; he now roamed the earth in the form of an ass, bereft of all his riches, his power, his glory. Indra, never one to let go of an opportunity to gloat, approached Bali, taunting him. In-between their dialogue, Indra saw Shri emerge from Bali. Intrigued, he approached her. She replied, "I am known as Duhsaha and also known as Shri, Lakshmi. … Dhata and Vidhata cannot control me. Time determines my movement." Shri then asked Indra to bear her; i.e. she had left Bali because he had left the path of dharma, had become intoxicated with power. She wanted to reside elsewhere. Much as Indra was a jealous god, even he knew his limitations. And by the way, we know that Indra is to blame (or should take at least substantial credit) for the start of the Bharata dynasty, for wasn’t it on his bidding that Menaka, the celestial apsara, descended down on earth to tempt Viswamitra from his tapasya. Wasn’t the union of that distraction the birth of Shakuntala, who would become the mother of Sarvadamana. Sarvadamana - who would go on to be known better as Bharata? Indra replied to Shri’s request, "There is no single man amongst gods, humans, or amongst all beings, who is capable of bearing you forever." Shri then asked Indra to divide her into four equal parts. And thus Shri was vested one quarter on earth, one quarter in clear water, one quarter in the fire, and one quarter in the virtuous.