When Karna was born, he carried on his body his father Sun god’s blessings in the form of armour and a pair of earrings. They protected him from harm. No arrow could break the armour and pierce into his body. No sword or mace could do so either. Not just ordinary arrows and weapons, the divine ones as well. He was safe. Everyone knew this. His enemies knew it very well that he had to be dispossessed of his divine protection if he had to be killed. But then this obviously could never be done by force. It could be done only by his consent. But why would he consent to lose his protection?
May be obtaining his consent was beyond the ability of the mortals, but perhaps gods might succeed where mortal fail. Arjuna must have thought so when he sought god Indra’s help. The king of gods was his biological father – this he knew as did everyone else in the celebrated narrative. Thus when he was leaving the abode of the gods to return to the mortal world to join his brothers and Draupadi, who were serving their term of exile in the forest, Indra wanted him to ask him for a boon. All he wanted as boon, said Arjuna, was for Karna to be dispossessed of his divine protection. While Arjuna knew that this was necessary for Karna to be killed, he also knew, as did everyone else in Sarala Mahabharata, namely that he, not Yudhisthira, was his eldest brother. But what meaning can relationships have for those who seek victory and glory?
Soon after Arjuna’s return, one day Krishna visited them all. Arjuna told Krishna about his time in gods’ loka, about Urvashi’s curse and her assurance that at the right time it would prove to be a blessing for him and then about what he had sought from Indra. Who all were there at that time, asked Krishna. All the gods were there, he told him; it was in an assembly of gods where it happened. He had committed a grave error, the avatara said; god Surya, who was present there, would surely inform his son about what had transpired between Indra and him and ask him never to part with his divine protection. Therefore the boon of the king of gods would not come about.
Yudhisthira did not think so. Karna was a virtuous person, a great dani(a giver of ritual gifts) and would not disappoint any supplicant, no matter what he asked as dana (ritual gift). Krishna said he would like to test him. He would ask for his son’s life as dana, and if Karna gave him the dana, then he would feel certain that he would not deny Indra his armour and earrings.
In the form of a brahmin he went to Karna. The dana time was over and Karna was left with nothing. With utmost reverence he appealed to him to stay with him for that day. On the following morning he would get many mounds of gold from goddess Earth and then he would be in a position to offer him a dana. Kanheia Panda, as the brahmin introduced himself to his royal host, agreed. Karna made arrangements for his food. He knew that his guest, being a brahmin, would not eat the food cooked by him, a non-brahmin. He gave him rice, vegetables, fruit, etc., but the guest said that he had no need for vegetarian food and wanted meat. Aghast, Karna asked him where he came from and what was his lineage. He had never heard of meat-eating brahmins, he told him. Kahneia Panda said that he belonged to a community of brahmins who consumed meat. Karna asked his son, Bishwakasena, to hunt a deer in the nearby forest. That he did but the guest was not pleased. He wanted human meat. Karna was shocked. How could he kill a human for food, Karna asked him. This would be a grievous sin, he told his guest. The guest said he was aware of that, so he wouldn’t ask him to kill just anyone. He wanted him to kill his son Bishwakasena and offer him his meat. Karna was dumbfounded. He decided that he was not going to satisfy his guest. He could rather live with his curse. His guest did not say anything and was leaving. Bishwakasena prostrated himself at his feet and clutching his feet in tearful eyes appealed to him not to leave. As the brahmin consented to stay for the meal, he went to his father and pleaded with him not to break his promise and deviate from dharma. Moha (attachment) must not come in the way of dharma, he told his father. As the father was killing his dear son, the Witness was telling Himself that for Karna, Vaikuntha was the only fit place.
The father chopped the meat for the brahmin’s meal, but the brahmin would not take the trouble of cooking his food. His community had no compunctions about eating cooked food from non-brahmins, he told Karna. His wife should cook the meat for him, he said. Karna was wondering what a terribly cruel person his guest was. But his dharma would not allow him to utter a word to express the agony he was going through.
So the mother cooked her dear son’s meat. When the dishes arrived and Karna invited his guest to have his meal, the guest said that he would not eat alone. His wife and he must join him – how could he be sure that they hadn’t poisoned his food? With tears flowing down her cheeks, his wife sat down to eat, as her husband did. But the guest would not accept the food. Not you, but your wife had cheated, he told Karna. She didn’t cook the whole body. She didn’t cook the head, the best part of the body. She had hidden it. Now Kanhei Panda wanted her to cook the head but he demanded that they break it and grind it in his presence. He would not trust them to do it out of his sight. So the parents ground the head and prepared dishes out of it.
Now the guest was prepared to eat. Queen Suktatamaschala, Karna’s wife, was wondering whether their guest was really that demonic or was some divine in disguise who had come to test them. She had heard about how in another yuga(aeon) Narayana had come as a dwarf to king Bali for dana. She told her husband to remain calm.
The guest laid four leaves on the floor. Who was the fourth leave for, asked Karna. It is for Bishwakasena, said the brahmin. How could I eat without him, asked the guest. Thoroughly nonplussed, Karna asked him how he could join them when they were going to eat his meat. Why was he pretending ignorance, he asked his guest. But the brahmin would not have food without Bishwakasena. He asked Karna’s wife to go out and call her son. When she did, her son came running to her. He was playing with his friends, he told her, and when he heard her calling out his name, he left his play and came rushing to her.
As the mother and the son entered, Karna could not believe his eyes. Bishwakasena’s meat was in front of him and so was Bishwakasena. What was real and what was illusion? He fell at the brahmin’s feet. Who was you, he asked him. The illusion disappeared and the truth was manifest; the brahmin had disappeared and in his place was Narayana Himself. Karna was overwhelmed and prayed to Him. I do not know in which birth I had served you, told Karna to the Supreme god, but in this birth I have done nothing for you. Why then did you give me so much pain, he asked Him. I go for dana to the virtuous among the virtuous alone, said Narayana. And this child of yours is mine from now, Narayana told Karna as He left.
Surely many must have heard about this dana of danas, but no one talked about it. Only Duryodhana did. Sitting by the dead body of Karna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he was weeping for his friend and he was recounting his numerous heroic and virtuous deeds. He recounted how his virtuous friend had pleased Krishna – you could never please Narayana with dana or bhakti, no matter how much, Sakuni had warned him once – with his dana and how Krishna had brought his son back to life and had called him the greatest of danis (the givers of dana).