In a significant sense his mother Kunti had killed him before the Kurukshetra War started. Indra had done so even before. In the guise of a brahmin. Responding to the pleadings of his son, Arjuna, he had taken away from him his divine protections, which were part of his body. He had to tear open parts of his body to give them to him, as dana (ritual gift), which made Indra’s asking an act of mean robbery. Impressed with Karna’s sacrifice (hopefully ashamed of himself too), he had given him an infallible weapon with which to target whosoever he liked. But this was hardly compensation.
Now, on the eve of the War she was sent by Krishna and the Pandavas to get two infallible divine arrows from him: Neela bana (arrow named Neela) and Bhuja bana (arrow named Bhuja). These were given to him by Krishna himself in a certain situation, details of which do not concern us here. He would remain invincible as long as he had those arrows. Kunti had joined Krishna and her sons who were discussing matters about the impending War and she asked Krishna who would fight who in the War. He told her. How could her sons, Arjuna and Karna, fight against each other, she asked him. Besides, Arjuna was a mere child with respect to Karna, who was an accomplished and experienced warrior, so how could he fight Karna, she asked Krishna. The mother’s anxiety for her younger child’s safety was exploited by Krishna to disempower Karna.
She should go to Karna at once and ask for those divine arrows, Krishna told her. He told her that those two arrows tilted the scales heavily against Arjuna. Karna had hidden them inside his body and as long as they were with him, he simply could not be killed. Besides, those were the arrows made of a piece of bone of the bodies of Krishna (Neela) and of Shiva (Bhuja) and they could not be neutralized or destroyed by any weapon. Yudhisthira told his mother to tell Karna that as the eldest of the Pandava family, he should join the war on behalf of his brothers and after the victory was won, become the king, which was his right. Sahadeva added that in case Karna decided not to leave Duryodhana, he should not kill Yudhisthira, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva in the War. She must ask for this too as dana from Karna, he told her. A celebrated dani (giver of dana), Karna would never disappoint anyone asking for a dana. He had once pleased Krishna himself with his dana – he had pleased the one, Narayana, who could never be pleased, be it with dana or gnana or bhakti, as Sakuni often said.
Kunti went to Karna. She requested her brother-in-law, Vidura, to accompany her. The wise man told her that Karna would never fight against Duryodhana, his close friend from childhood, but she was determined to meet her son and persuade him to join his brothers, and Vidura went with her. Karna prostrated himself at her feet. Soon they started talking about the War and realizing that her son would never leave the Kauravas, she asked a dana from him, in accordance with the plan. He would give her whatever she asked of him, he assured her. She wanted his word that he would not kill Yudhisthira, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva. As for Arjuna, she said that she would accept whatever be the result of their engagement. Whether Arjuna died or he died, she would be left with five children.
Dana is incomplete without dakshina. Therefore Karna asked her to name her dakshina. Kunti asked for Neela bana and Bhuja bana. Karna asked her how she knew about these arrows. Nothing was a secret for Sahadeva, said the mother. Why she told him a lie – recall that it was Krishna who had told her about these arrows – the narrative does not tell us. The one who had once killed his son to appease the hunger of the guest who had asked for food – the guest, Krishna in disguise, was so pleased that he not just restored his son to life, but hailed him as the greatest dani – was disappointed. Says Sarala: karna boila mata go tu jugate garvadhari mohari/ kincita chatripana thila ailu taha mari (Mother, said Karna, you bore me in your womb / Now you deprived me of whatever little power I had). She wanted nothing of all that she had asked for, she told him; all she wanted was for him to join his own brothers in the War and rule the kingdom afterwards. Why was she saying all that, he told his mother, he would rather die for the sake of his friend than desert him at the time of his greatest need: maitra karjyare thile prana pache jau. He then tore open his right thigh and took out Neela bansa and then he tore out his left thigh and took out Bhuja bana. He gave them to his mother. Kunti gave them to Krishna. He gave them to Arjuna. Arjuna was happy. Karna’s loss was Arjuna’s gain; the former’s disempowerment was the latter’s empowerment.
During the War, Krishna saved Arjuna from Karna’s infallible weapon given him by Indra. Krishna had anticipated – rather “knew”, what did he not know! – that he would attack Arjuna with that weapon. So he asked Ghatotkacha to stand behind Arjuna’s chariot. The young warrior did what he was asked to do. He couldn’t think of asking the avatara why he was asking him to do such a strange thing. As that divine weapon despatched by Karna to kill Arjuna was about to hit its target, Krishna swiftly moved his chariot sidewise a little, exposing Ghatotkacha to the fast advancing weapon. It hit the young warrior and that was the end of Ghatotkacha. Indra’s weapon could not be used twice. The avatara destroyed yet another of Karna’s protections. Doesn’t it amount to the third killing of Karna?
It was then the snake Shoshaka’s turn to harm, in fact, kill, Karna. The snake had escaped the fire during the burning of Khandava forest, in which he had lost his parents and relatives. The snake hated Arjuna intensely. Revenge was always in his mind. He sought protection from Karna and requested him to keep him in his quiver as a weapon and promised him that he would kill Arjuna when he would use him against him. His years of waiting were over when Karna used him unwillingly against Arjuna, yielding to pressure from his charioteer, king Salya. As the terrible snake arrow came hissing, Krishna asked Hanuman on Arjuna’s chariot to help and Hanuman, the one without an equal, pushed the chariot down into the nether world. Thinking that the snake had swallowed Arjuna and Krishna, as he had all the arrows that Arjuna had sent to destroy him, the Kauravas were jubilant. After a while when the chariot reappeared in all its glory, the snake realized that he had missed his target. He prayed to Karna to use him again but the great archer wouldn’t use the same arrow twice. So he refused to oblige and silenced his insistent pleadings by abusing him and condemning himself for using a mean snake, always considered inauspicious, in the War. Greatly disappointed, hurt and angry, Shoshaka cursed him as he left the battlefield: his chariot would sink into the ground for two dandas (danda is a small unit of measurement of time) at midday on that very day, but for some inexplicable reason added that if somehow he survived those two dandas, he would be invincible.
Soon his curse materialized. Karna jumped down from his chariot and tried to lift it. Salya asked him to counter Arjuna’s shower of arrows, instead of working on the chariot, which he did, but from a static position, on the ground, he was ineffective against the arrows from Arjuna’s bow coming downward from all directions, as his chariot, at a considerable height, moved swiftly from one position to another. He needed to lift his chariot from the ground. In the name of judhdha dharma (right action in the context of fight) Karna asked Arjuna to wait for a while as he was not in a position to fight. Arjuna stopped attacking him. He would not attack one who was helpless and without weapons and bring disgrace to himself and the ksatriya dharma. Krishna insisted that he must take advantage of Karna’s plight and kill Karna, but Arjuna flatly refused to do such a heinous thing. He said he would wait. Krishna mocked at Karna’s invoking dharma. He listed many evil doings of the Kauravas against the Pandavas and told Karna that by keeping quiet, he had been complicit in all those adharmik acts. Krishna’s outburst was as much to provoke Arjuna as to dishearten Karna. He reminded Karna of the vicious and entirely unethical killing of Abhimanyu. Arjuna was greatly provoked.
Then Krishna said something that proved decisive. He told Arjuna about Shoshaka’s curse and that one danda had already passed and if he did not kill Karna in the remaining danda, Karna would never be defeated. That was when Arjuna decided to choose victory over judhdha dharma. But Karna could not be killed so easily. As Arjuna’s arrow cut off his head, a new head appeared in its place. He used the infallible pasupata, but the same thing happened. Krishna asked Sahadeva about that strange happening. He told Krishna about the depositories of amrita (nectar) in three different parts of his body. That was god Sun’s blessing for his son, he said. Those repositories of amrita would have to be dried up so that there would be no flow of amrit in his body. He advised Arjuna that he must attack him, at the same time, with three powerful divine arrows, babala, pasupata and neelachakra, aiming at his heart, navel and shoulders respectively. This was what Arjuna did, as Karna stood unarmed and defenceless. Those three arrows tore him into three pieces. The greatest hurdle on the Pandavas’ victory path was removed. But it was a victory that brought the celebrated archer disgrace that nothing could ever wipe out.
As Karna died, his father, god Sun, wept piteously. His brave son had been killed unjustly, in a manner that was entirely unworthy of him – without a fight. The fond father recounted the doings of his pious and illustrious son. His friend, Duryodhana, was inconsolable. He remembered with great gratitude the doings of his friend, lying dead in front of him. No loss till then had pained him as much as this.
The Pandavas were celebrating. Including the son of Dharma, known as the very embodiment of virtue on earth, who had gone to Karna for his blessings on the Kurukshetra battlefield and had received his blessings for victory, and who had always said that as Kunti’s eldest, Karna would be the king and they would all serve him. Had seventeen days of bloody, merciless killing deadened his sensitivities and made him see Karna only as a formidable enemy? As Karna lay dead, that was the moment for him to remember his elder brother and pay tribute to him with his tears. But he was celebrating. As for Arjuna, there is nothing in Sarala Mahabharata that he was ashamed of his adharmik act. Krishna had told him that just one danda stood between Pandavas’ victory and their defeat. Arjuna chose victory, as Yudhisthira had done earlier by consenting to tell a lie to his guru. But why couldn’t Arjuna shed a few tears to honour his eldest brother now that he was no more?
Incidentally, for the respective choices that Arjuna and Yudhisthira had made, there is no point in implicating Krishna. That would be against the spirit of Sarala Mahabharata – the avatara’s doings, leela, cannot be judged from the human perspective. From another point of view, which is not in dissonance with the spirit of Sarala’s narrative, Krishna persuaded, provoked, counselled Arjuna to act in a certain way, but he did not take away from him the choice to reject it. Destiny tempts humans with alluring alternatives but it is for the human to choose from among them. That choice both is and becomes his karma.
Where were the mother’s tears? There weren’t any. The mother, her mind firmly fixed on revenge and comprehensive victory in the War, which alone could quench that wild fire, seemed to have gotten distanced from Karna. She seemed to have forgotten that he was her son. In her eyes he seemed to have become nothing other than an enemy of her sons, a hindrance to her aspirations. Even his death did not seem to change her perspective. If it had, she would have rushed to the battlefield to see her dead first born. She did not.
The Great War was over and her son, Yudhisthira, had become the king. This was what Kunti had always wanted to happen. She had worked for it in many ways. But the Queen mother was no more at peace. The mother in her had asserted herself. What she had lost stole her sleep. She remembered her grandchildren: Abhimanyu, Ghatotkacha, and her relatives. And she remembered Karna. He was in her mind when she was awake and he was in her dreams when she was asleep. When she decided to join her brother-in-law Dhritarastra and sister-in-law Gandhari for vanaprastha, she condemned Arjuna, called him papistha(sinner) who had killed her virtuous (satyavanta) son. The mother seemed to have been redeemed through suffering. As for the son, Sarala restored his mother to him in death.