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Exploring Karna With S. Aruna – Author Of – Sons of Gods – The Mahabharata Retold

S. Aruna is the author of the book titled – Sons of Gods – The Mahabharata Retold. One of her favorite characters in the epic is Karna. Below is an interview with her to understand the complexities of the character of Karna.

Hindu Blog - Karna is often referred as the unsung hero of Mahabharata. Some call him antihero. There are many books glorifying his character, the main reason being his abandonment by his mother as a child. But am more concerned here is about a major character flaw in Karna. He is obsessed with Arjuna, the archer. How do you see this aspect of Karna? Is not Karna insecure throughout the Mahabharata that he might come second to Arjuna in the list of the greatest archers in the world? We see all around us people who are jealous of their colleagues, family members and neighbors. Don’t you think Karna is a representation of this jealousy and insecurity?

S. Aruna - Indeed, you are right: insecurity and jealousy are the source of Karna’s obsession with Arjuna. But let’s take a closer look at these obvious character defects; let’s view them separately, and the connection between them.

To me, insecurity is a forgivable flaw, especially in this case, as its source is the history of mistreatment Karna was subjected to all his life due to his status as a member of a lower caste. In a rigidly hierarchical society, being of low rank can be crippling to the psyche; the constant reminder that one is, in fact, inferior, menial, of little worth, of no prospects, can be debilitating. We see this effect up to this day, where people who have been raised to believe little of themselves due to race or poverty or family background find it hard to overcome that low self-belief in order to achieve their full potential. Insecurity, or low self-worth, is a universal psychological barrier to greatness.

In Karna’s case, I can admire the fact that in spite of the barriers and insults thrown his way, he has an inherent faith in his potential as a warrior, and seeks to achieve that. He knows that he is the greatest. Yet here is this one warrior, this Arjuna, this favourite of the monarchy, this privileged member of the greatest dynasty on earth, feted and praised and lifted to the skies while he, Karna, is still struggling for even the most basic recognition.

Thus, out of a justified insecurity is born jealousy. Unlike insecurity, jealousy is not a forgivable characteristic. It is ugly. It deforms the character; and in Karna’s case it leads to him making an enemy of Arjuna, challenging him, choosing the wrong side in the conflict, and to the entire disaster.

This is why I say that Karna is the key to the whole story; without this adharmic decision, born of jealousy, there would have been no war. Duryodhana knew that Karna is the greater warrior and only with Karna’s support was he able to challenge the Pandavas so persistently, so relentlessly.

Hindu Blog - Karna swears about his friendship with Duryodhana throughout the Mahabharata. But is it not the Dharma of a good friend to point out the mistakes of a friend? Karna keeps supporting all the Adharma of Duryodhana. Was Karna a good friend?

S. ArunaKarna’s friendship with Duryodhana was based on one overriding aim: defeating the Pandavas, specifically Arjuna. Karna and Duryodhana were aligned in this one aim. Both are motivated by jealousy, and both are therefore empowered by an adharmic force. Karna could not see beyond his jealousy. He was not interested in acting in accordance with dharma. He did not care about overcoming his own jealousy, much less that of his friend. He saw only the straight path ahead: defeat the Pandavas, destroy Arjuna. From Duryodhana’s viewpoint he was indeed a good friend, in that he gave his unwavering support. From the point of view of dharma, he acted wrongly, leading to his own ultimate defeat.

Hindu Blog - Why Karna did not stop Draupadi from being dragged into the Hastinapura court and at least he could have stopped the disrobing of Draupadi? Is it not the prime Dharma of Kshatriya to protect women and the weak?

S. ArunaAgain, I see here only Karna’s need to support Duryodhana’s wicked aims irrespective of dharma, irrespective of consequences. Disrobing Draupadi was part of the plan to bring down the Pandavas, and this plan blinded Karna to every other duty he should hold as a ksatriya. He was gripped by the powerful force that egged him on from within: destroy this enemy, by fair means or foul.

Hindu Blog - Karna played an important role in killing Abhimanyu. He had no remorse in joining a gang of warriors in killing a 17-year-old boy. Why are many flaws of Karna ignored by modern writers while categorizing him as an unsung hero or antihero?

S. ArunaThe answer here in my view is the same as the above. To kill Abhimanyu was not only to hurt Arjuna in the most primeval way possible; it was to curtail the power of the Pandava army. Dharma did not play into it; dharma was trodden underfoot in this one overriding goal: destroy the Pandava army, destroy Arjuna.

I personally would categorise Karna not as an antihero, but as an antivillain: yes, he was certainly a villain, but a villain with definite positive qualities, most of which he ignored in his quest to defeat Arjuna.

Hindu Blog - Karna cheats Duryodhana in the Mahabharata war, he gets the opportunity to kill all the Pandavas except Arjuna but he does not do it. He could have easily imprisoned Yudhishtira. Was it not betrayal of his best friend?

S. ArunaIn this one instance, we see Karna putting his own personal ethics above his friendship to Duryodhana. His nemesis was Arjuna;he did not really care about the other Pandavas. And he had promised his biological mother, Kunti, to kill only one of her sons, Arjuna. In that promise we see the spark of generosity that is his main redeeming virtue. Yes, he could have killed them all, and yes, killing them all would have aided Duryodhana.

But Karna had his own individual morality. Having witnessed Kunti’s pain, and perhaps even understanding her predicament, he chose to spare her yet more pain by keeping his promise to her. There again we see the inherent spark of the great generosity that defines him – as in when he gives away his protective earrings to keep his vow, earning him the title of greatest giver of all time.

Hindu Blog - Karna was abandoned by his mother no denying this fact. But he was brought up by loving foster parents. He was protected by Surya throughout his childhood and young age. The Pandavas on the other hand suffered throughout their childhood. Attempts were made to kill them. They had to live in exile. Their kingdom was taken away from them. Karna on other hand got everything readymade. He became a king overnight. He never suffered physical difficulties. His wife was not dragged and forcibly undressed. Even after having a mother, don’t you think Pandavas suffered more than Karna?

S. Aruna Having left the care of his foster parents, Karna was on his own, and dogged by misfortune every step of the way. In spite of his prowess, he found only rejection. His most valuable skills as a warrior were curtailed by curses which would render them useless at pivotal moments; what could be worse for a great warrior? I think deep inside he knew that, inevitably, he would lose against Arjuna.

He knew that dharma was not with him; he knew who Krishna was, and he knew that without Krishna’s Grace he could, finally never win. I don’t think kingship, wealth, status mattered much to him: what mattered was respect, to be recognised as the greatest warrior;but he never received this status.

And even though he could have gained respect once he knew his true identity as Kunti’s eldest son, he actually chose not to act upon it. Had he revealed himself as the eldest Pandava, everything he desired would have fallen into his lap. Yet he chose to support Duryodhana to the end even though with one stroke he could have achieved all he ever dreamed of. This is the one act which, in my eyes, redeems him as an antivillain – a villain with hidden qualities of nobility. He sacrificed his greatest ambition on the altar of loyalty. If only he had banked on his highest strengths from the start – how great could he have been! But then we would not have had the Mahabharata!

Hindu Blog - Mahabharata is all about Dharma. Do you think Karna followed his Dharma?

S. Aruna I think Karna followed the call of jealousy. He could have looked beyond that to find a higher calling, the call of dharma, but chose to ignore it.

Hindu Blog - As per Hindu scriptures, in Kali Yuga Dharma has lost three legs and stands on one leg. We are in an age where books glorifying Ravana and Duryodhana are published. Why is there today so much enthusiasm in trying to justify the sins of popular negative characters in epics?

S. Aruna Luckily, I have not read such books and doubt I ever will; I don’t like books that glorify evil or degenerate behaviour. Nevertheless, I have noticed a general enthusiasm for darkness and violence today, not only in books but in film and theatre. It’s as if modern readers, film and theatre lovers are inexorably drawn to exploring the depths of human depravity and decadence, instead of the heights we could raise ourselves to, if only we had the will.

It’s nevertheless important, I feel, not to ignore darkness through literature and film, but to show how to lift ourselves out of it. We must go through it and come out the other side, through the struggles of multifaceted characters who are not just black and white, good or evil. Karna is just such a character. I feel there is so much depth and complexity to him; that if only he had eyes to see, he could have chosen a better, nobler path, the path of dharma. But life is not straightforward, and as I said before: then we would not have had the Mahabharata, truly, in my eyes, the greatest story ever told! We could learn so much from it.

Hindu Blog - Karna is a very complex character with multiple layers of personality. Even after thousands of years, the character continues to baffle and inspire readers and writers. Each era is able to discover a new Karna. Karna keeps growing. As a writer how do you look at Sage Vyasa who was able to create such wonderful characters? Why are modern writers not able to create powerful characters like Karna?

S. Aruna All I can say is that I wish I had such wisdom and the ability to create such powerful characters. It is a rare gift indeed.

Sons of Gods – The Mahabharata Retold is currently available in e-book format in Amazon.

You can find out more about the book and also articles by the author here at the blog of S. Aruna.