Karna, the enigmatic character in Mahabharata, was in news again recently. The reasons are not difficult to judge.
There always has been a debate in terms of whether he was the right person in the wrong place. Many try to sympathise with him because of the notion that he was wronged all the times in the epic.
Is it correct? Was he a noble person who was misunderstood simply because of the circumstances?
The original Vyasa Bharatha is quite clear and unambiguous in treatment of Karna as an individual. He was a Dhana Veera for sure. An epitome of philanthropy. But his noble deeds stop with that.
In all other circumstances he was portrayed as a wicked person like his friends Duryodhana, Dussasan and that’s the reason they are all called as ‘Dushta Chatushtaya’.
It is not as if he had enmity with Pandavas just because of his friendship with Duryodhana. During the tutelage under Dronacharya, Karna approaches him in private and says, “I want to be acquainted with the Brahmastra, with all its mantras and the power of withdrawing it, for I desire to fight Arjuna”.
So his intentions are clear right from the word go, which is to fight and kill Arjuna. Similarly his antics during Draupadi’s disrobing episode is also well known.
Thus, Karna is an evil character as per the original version of Mahabharata. So where did all his good ‘deeds’ come about ?
An epic with no parallel, Mahabharata, was translated, written in different perspectives, abridged and changed by several authors according to their viewpoint and ‘creative freedom’. This has distorted the character of Karna to a greater extent and gave him a bit of respect.
One such text is the Tamil version of Villi Bharatha, written by the poet Villiputhurar.
Born in North Arcot district of Tamil Nadu, he was named after the Vaishavite Saint Periyazhvar who was also known as Villiputhurar. While the Mahabharata was translated earlier in Tamil by few poets, none of those versions are available now. So the translation by Villiputhurar is considered as the best Tamil translation of the epic.
He lived during the reign of the Vijayanagara kings which was known for revival of Hindu religion in Tamilagam after few decades of cruel rule under the Madurai sultanate. Hence his text became quite popular.
Like the author of Ramayana in Tamil, Kamban, Villiputhurar also made few changes from the original Mahabharata while writing it in Tamil. Interesting to note that both of them took specific characters, embellished them and raised their stature.
While Kamban took Kumbhakarna to greater heights in Kambaramayana, deviating quite a bit from the original Valmiki Ramayana, Villiputhurar did the same with Karna and made him a man of virtues.
The first of such change comes when Kunti meets Karna before the war and tells him that she is his mother. Here Villiputhurar gives some examples of why Karna considers Duryodhana as his best friends.
Once Karna and Bhanumathi, wife of Duryodhana were playing dice. Bhanumathi was about to lose the game. At that time Duryodhana enters the palace. Seeing him, Bhanumathi gets up.
Unaware of his friend’s entry, Karna tries to pull her saying, ‘Don’t run in the midst of the game’. That time, all the gems in her dress fall. Only then, Karna is aware of the presence of Duryodhana and was embarrassed. However, Duryodhana diffuses the awkward situation by asking ‘can I take all these and put them together in string?’
Aram tikaḻum ēkānta iṭamtaṉil purintē nāṉ ayarntu iruppa,
"eṭukkavō? Kōkkavō?" Eṉṟāṉ
Seeing that Karna wouldnt come to Pandava’s side, Kunti asks him two boons which is also not there in Vyasa Bharatha. She asks him not to kill the other brothers apart from Arjuna.
Further, Kunti tells Karna not to use Nagaastra more than once.
Pārttaṉ veñ camaril niṉṉuṭaṉ malaintāl,
pakaip perum pāntaḷ am pakazhi kōttalum,
piḻaittāl, maṟittum, nī viṭuttuk kōṟal
These two boons constrained Karna during the great war and Villiputhurar reasons that the reason why he didn’t use the Nagaastra second time was due to the boon given to Kunti.
Karna also asks two boons in return. He asks Kunti not to tell the Pandavas about his birth. During the war if he is killed by Arjuna, he requests Kunti to tell everyone that Karna is her son. This is also not found in Vyasa Bharatha.
In Karna Parva, during the final battle between Karna and Arjuna, Villiputhurar makes Karna a symbol of Dharma due to which Arjuna couldn’t defeat him despite a fierce war.
Muttarukku ellām mūlamāy,
vēda mutal kozhuntu ākiya mukuntaṉ,
cittirac cilaik kai vijayaṉai, 'ceru nī oḻika!'
Eṉat thērmisai niṟutti,
Mey tavap paṭiva vēdiyaṉ āki,
veyilavaṉ putalvaṉai adaintāṉ
Seeing Arjuna getting tired in the war, Krishna asks him to stop the fight. Krishna changes himself as a brahmin and reaches Karna. He asks Karna for a Dhana. Karna tells him he is in the middle of a war and hence requests him to ask for something which he can give. Krishna requests him to give him all the 'Punya' obtained by his good deeds
Iratamēl viḻuvōṉ, 'naṉṟu!' Eṉa nakaittu,
'tarat taku poruḷ nī navilka!' Eṉa, nāṉ maṟaiyavaṉum,
'oṉṟiyapaṭi niṉ puṇṇiyam aṉaittum utavuka!' Eṉṟalum, uḷam makizhntāṉ
Itayattu ampiṉvāy ampāl aḷittalum,
aṅkaiyāl ēṟṟāṉ- muṉṉam ōr avuṇaṉ ceṅ kai nīr ēṟṟu
mū'ulakamum uṭaṉ kavarntōṉ
Karna pulls an arrow from his body, uses the blood oozing from the wound to give the Pala, all the Punya he had obtained. Krishna was quite pleased with this and grants him the boon of Moksha after showing his Viswaroopa.
This is a marked difference from the original as Karna gets moksha from the Lord himself.
So it is no surprise that when B R Panthulu decided to make a movie of Karna, portraying him as a hero, he chose Villi Bharatha as the reference. Most of the scenes in the movie are, in fact, taken from the Tamil version of the epic.
While Mahabharatha as a great epic allows for such variations and deviations, it is important to understand the portrayal of the characters as per the original epic before celebrating or degrading someone.
It is all the more important in this age where the new age mythologists and media gurus try to give their own version of the epics.
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