Commenting on the post “Why did Karna Want to Kill Arjuna?”, Mr. Confusedclarity observes that friendship with Duryodhana alone couldn’t be a strong enough motive for Karna to be so determined to kill his brother Arjuna. What he says is eminently reasonable, but Sarala’s narrative seems to suggest that for Karna, friendship was indeed an overwhelming consideration. In Sarala Mahabharata Karna clearly tells his mother Kunti that he would not betray his friend. Why was she persuading him to abandon Duryodhana, he pleaded with her: karna boila maye go emana kimpe kahu/ maitra karjyare thile prana pache jau(Why are you saying such things, mother, said Karna / Let my life end while working for my friend) (Udyoga Parva).
But could there be something more to it, which Sarala might not say so explicitly, but which would be in consonance with the spirit of Sarala’ narrative? Karna had blessed Yudhisthira for victory. Was it merely a formality? But in Sarala Mahabharata a blessing articulated in such specific terms is not a formality; I suppose the same would hold for Vyasa Mahabharata too. When one blesses the enemy for victory, at least one meaning of it is clear, namely, that one thinks that the enemy’s stand is morally correct. If that is the case, then why did a virtuous person like him choose to fight for a side that was morally wrong? Couldn’t he have decided not to participate in that War, as had Balarama done.
Consider in this context the case of Aswasthama. Although he was close to Duryodhana and was one of his advisers, he had no role in the exile of the Pandavas. He was in no way a party to Draupadi’s humiliation and did not play any role in Duryodhana’s decision to choose the option of war against the Pandavas. He had no ill feelings towards the Pandavas and he too had blessed Yudhisthira for victory when he sought his blessings, as the son of his guru. True, he was jealous of Arjuna when they were learning weaponry from his father, Drona, but there is no evidence that he continued to be jealous of him in later life. At that time he had not liked that his father had given Arjuna, but not him, the knowledge of brahmashira, the special divine weapon. Subsequently he had forced his reluctant father to impart the same knowledge to him. However for him, it was not merely a matter of Arjuna. Aspiring to be the most powerful in the world, and knowing that the most powerful weapon was Krishna’s sudrshana chakra, he requested Krishna to give it to him in exchange for brahmashira astra. Krishna said that he could take his chakrawithout any exchange, but Aswasthama could not even lift it and left the matter at that. This said, he didn’t participate in the Kurukshetra War to prove that he was the greatest warrior. He was fighting for Duryodhana because his father was fighting for him. It was not his war until the killing of his father by the Pandavas through mean deceit.
Now could one raise the same kind of question in Aswasthama’s case, as in the case of Karna? That is, could one say that his decision to fight on behalf of the Kauravas was not determined solely by his father’s decision to fight against the Pandavas?
As far as I am concerned, one important reason for them both and for even Bhishma, Drona, Kripacharya and Bhurishrava was that they were fighting for their king, Duryodhana, and fighting for the king was an act of dharma for the subjects, even when the king was in the wrong. Responding to Yudhisthira’s call to the warriors on the Kaurava side to join him if they wanted to support the cause of justice, the virtuous Durdasa did abandon his king and brother, Duryodhana, and joined the Pandavas, but he was only an exception, and there is no evidence in Sarala Mahabharata that his act was held up as an example of virtue. In terms of Sarala Mahabharata, the succession issue was quite complex (see my IntroducingSaaralaa Mahaabhaarata for some detailed discussion) and the claims of neither Yudhisthira nor Duryodhana could be dismissed as untenable. In any case, Duryodhana had become the king of Hastinapura when people in that kingdom got to know that the Pandavas were alive and had escaped the fire of the lac(wax) palace.
The tragedy of the unfortunate Karna was that he fought with his hands and feet bound, as it were, by the word he had given to his mother and could not do what he could have done for Duryodhana and for the great Kaurava forces that he commanded. Just imagine what would have happened had he killed Yudhisthira or Bhima or for that matter Nakula or Sahadeva, each of whom he had defeated and could have killed or imprisoned!