Karna had a plan and a backup plan to take on Arjuna, his lifelong adversary. How the gods did not favour him, and why he failed
Failing to plan is planning to fail—so goes a much trite cliche. Karna however can certainly not be accused of failing to plan. He had a plan and a backup plan to take on Arjuna, his lifelong adversary.
That Karna and Arjuna were rivals is well known. That Karna got the chance to defeat four of the Pandavas in battle is also known. Only a promise made to Kunti, his mother, stopped him from finishing off these other Pandavas. “Other” as in all but Arjuna.
Karna was clear that in an encounter between the two, only one would come out alive. The hostility between the two half-brothers was mutual and implacable. That fateful encounter took place on the seventeenth day on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Karna had prepared and prepared well for that showdown.
The first ace up Karna’s sleeve, in a manner of speaking, was the weapon Shakti. However, there are some subtleties about how he got the missile. Karna had been born with earrings and armour—hence the name “Karna”.
While he wore these, he could not be killed in battle. Indra, Arjuna’s father, was aware of this protection. It weighed on his mind. He planned on tackling this by taking advantage of Karna’s legendary benevolence towards Brahmins.
Surya, Karna’s father, got to know of this and appeared in a dream the night before to warn Karna of Indra’s intentions. He advised Karna to refuse Indra by “citing many different kinds of reasons. Offer him riches.”
Karna, however, was a man of his word and would not stray from it: “Like a mother, fame ensures the life of a man in this world.” (Kundala-aharana Parva. Ch 284, Aranyaka Parva). Surya replied with a more practical counter-argument: “When the body has been reduced to ashes, what use does fame serve one who is dead?…The fame of a dead human is like a garland on one who has lost his life.” (Kundala-aharana Parva. Ch 285, Aranyaka Parva)
But Karna could only ask his father’s forgiveness: “Please pardon me. I am not frightened of death as much as I am of falsehood.” (Yes, this does resemble a line spoken by the Sonakshi Sinha character to Salman Khan about slaps and love, in the hit film Dabangg, but haven’t our movies always been inspired by our stories, our mythology?)
Surya then counselled Karna to ask Indra for Shakti, the invincible spear, that, “without killing hundreds and thousands of enemies”, did not return. So far so good.
The next morning, Indra, in the guise of a Brahmin, approached Karna with the words: “Give me.” “You are welcome,” replied Radheya.
Indra came straight to the point and asked Karna: “I desire your natural armour and earrings.” Expectedly, Karna first tried to cajole the Brahmin into accepting other gifts, like cows, rice, women, land, even the kingdom.
Expectedly, the Brahmin demurred. Karna told the Brahmin that he knew who he was—Indra, and that it was not befitting for a god to ask a mere mortal for something. Especially if handing that over was as good as signing a death warrant.
Karna gently rebuked Indra thus: “You are the lord of the gods himself and it is you should give me a boon…O god! If I give you my earrings and armour, I will be liable to be killed…You will become an object of ridicule.”
Karna was not averse to giving Indra what he had asked for. But not for nothing. He continued, “O Shakra! Therefore, take my earrings and supreme armour, if you so wish. But take them in exchange. Otherwise I will not give them.” Indra relented, but with a caveat, “(A)sk for what you want. With the exception of my vajra (thunder), you can ask for whatever else you wish.” The stage had been set for a memorable exchange.
Karna asked for Indra’s Shakti. Indra handed it over, but with the condition that it would, in Karna’s hands, “kill one powerful enemy who roars and blazes. Then, it will return to my hand.” That was what Karna wanted. To use it against one and only one person. Indra warned Karna that the person, who he had in mind was protected by Krishna.
Fast-forward to Day 17 of the battle. Shalya was the charioteer, Karna the warrior. Krishna and Arjuna facing him on the other side.
This single line captures the essence of this duel between the two as felt by Karna: “On seeing the two Krishnas (the dark ones) together on a single chariot, both fear and valour are generated in my heart.” (Ch 57, Karna-vadha Parva)
Karna faced Arjuna on the battlefield. but without Shakti. He had been forced to use it, much to his dismay and to Krishna’s unabated delight, against Ghatotakacha, Bhima’s giant son, who had gone on a rampage and was threatening to destroy the entire Kaurava army.
The night’s fight in itself has several stories that are striking in their own right. Thus used, Shakti had returned to Indra. Was Karna then without any unfailing weapon against Arjuna? No, not quite.
Karna had a second ace up his sleeve. This was an arrow. A special kind of arrow. But before that, we need to go back in time, some 14 years or more, to the Khandava forest. The same Khandava forest that was burned down by Krishna and Arjuna, at Agni’s request.
You can read the frisson-inducing account of the destruction of the forest in the Khandava-daha Parva (contained within the Adi Parva). Of essence here is the fact that “in that flaming forest, Agni did not burn down six beings—Ashvasena, Maya and the four Sharngakas.”
The stories of Maya and the four Sharngakas deserve their own re-telling. But who was Ashvasena? Ashvasena was the son of Takshaka, the king of snakes. Try as he did, Ashvasena could not escape the burning Khandava forest.
In desperation, Ashvasena’s mother rose to protect her son. As she did, Arjuna’s arrows sliced off her head. In the shower of rain that Indra thereafter produced, Arjuna was momentarily dazed, which allowed Ashvasena to escape.
Ashvasena had bided his time, and affixed himself at the head of an arrow in Karna’s quiver. “That terrible arrow had been carefully preserved, washed well, protected well for Partha’s destruction. It had been worshipped and laid down on a bed of sandalwood paste.” (Ch 66, Karna-vadha Parva)
Coming back to the battlefield, Karna prepared to shoot the arrow. Shalya advised Karna to prepare another arrow instead. Karna angrily rejected that suggestion and shot it at Arjuna’s head. Seeing this, “Madhava (Krishna)…used his strength to press down on the chariot with his feet. The chariot sank down on the ground and the horses sank down on their knees…The arrow stuck down the intelligent one’s diadem.”(Ch 66, Karna-vadha Parva) The crown was destroyed.
Arjuna thus lost his famed crown but saved his head, thanks to Krishna, who did some quick thinking on his feet, and in this case, with his feet.To summarize, Karna’s failsafe weapon, Shakti, was used up to counter an unstoppable Ghatotakacha on the fourteenth night of the battle. His back-up, an equally potent weapon in the form of Ashvasena, met its match through the direct intervention of Krishna.
When your failsafe plan A fails, and then plan B also comes a cropper, it may not be a stretch to believe that perhaps the gods don’t favour you. That Karna chose to fight this battle, knowing the odds stacked against him, makes him perhaps the one anti-hero that we identify with the most.
(Views expressed are personal. I have used Dr Bibek Debroy’s Mahabharata, Volumes 2, 3, and 8, an unabridged translation of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, published by Penguin India in 2010, 2011, and 2013 respectively, as my references.)