Karṇa and Yudhiṣṭhira in the Mahābhārata
Shrikant G Talageri
Recently there has been a spate of video interviews of a writer Ami Ganatra who has written a book "The Mahābhārata Unravelled": she has been featured in interviews on most prominent pro-Hindu sites on youtube, including Sattology, Bharatvaarta, Vaad, Centre for Indic Studies, The Cārvāka Podcast (which features many of my own talks), PGurus, Swarajya, The Jaipur Dialogues, etc.
I have very great respect for the writer and for the intentions of the writer, as I have for any and every Hindu who decides to take the trouble to study our texts in detail in order to counter the propaganda of anti-Hindu elements like leftists and Christian missionaries.
But this is not blind respect which swallows any and every bit of propaganda that pro-Hindu writers (I am one myself, and very strongly so, but an honest, rational and objective one) may choose to manufacture from their side, based on fundamentalist concepts, ideas and prejudices, which are not, and cannot be defended as, mere reactions to anti-Hindu propaganda. Much of this present spate of unraveling the Mahabharata seems to consist of just such an opposition to criticism of the "heroes" of our ancient texts, with all such criticism branded automatically as "leftist" propaganda. I do not deny that leftists indeed represent the most powerful, well-funded and media-omnipotent school of anti-Hindu propaganda, but I cannot support this swing to the opposite end of the spectrum either.
I will not bother to go deeply (at least not in this article) into all the aspects of such fundamentalist ("rightist" as opposed to "leftist") defenses of our ancient "heroes" and criticisms of our ancient "villains", but one particular aspect of this "Mahābhārata Unraveling" truly gets my goat, and I devote this article to this aspect: the demonization of Karṇa in sharp contrast to the glorification of Yudhiṣṭhira. I feel very strongly on this subject, and I find it as disgusting to insist that a true Hindu must consider Karṇa a villain and Yudhiṣṭhira a hero, as it is to insist that a true Hindu must defend, justify or glorify every anti-Hindu act of the BJP while condemning every neutral act of non-BJP parties. If finding Karṇa to be a better person than Yudhiṣṭhira is a sign of "leftism" and even "anti-Hinduism" according to anyone, so be it. I totally reject such a disgusting and indefensible classification but at the same time I would not bother to "defend" myself from anyone who chooses to brand me a "leftist" or "anti-Hindu" or anything else ("westernized" is an example of another such label) on this ground. It is on the basis of such branding on this very subject, and the consequent wave of sharp resentment and even vicious hatred stirred up against me in a very prominent pro-Hindu internet discussion group, that made me step out of active participation in discussions on that group last year.
Of all the videos on this subject, I will concentrate mainly on the following video, entitled "Debunking the myths around Karṇa", which makes it clear that one of the main aims of this "unraveling" seems to be to demonize or vilify the character of Karṇa; and in fact the pure and unrelenting hatred that many "pro-Hindus" have for Karṇa (demonstrated also in this video, and not justified by the fact that anti-Hindu leftists glorify Karṇa) is shocking:
And in choosing to criticize Karṇa for everything, and to brand him as the biggest villain in the Mahābhārata, it appears that these anti-Karṇa writers show a lack of knowledge of ancient Indian texts (or a willingness to ignore inconvenient parts) while apparently being experts on both the Epics. For example, in the video, one of the things that the writer cites as proof of Karṇa's unforgivable villainy is the following: "Karṇa is the one who tells Draupadi that now that your husbands are slaves, and you have also been lost, now select some other husband because now they are no more your husbands, so select some other husband or go to the palace of the Kauravas and serve them".
Bad? Yes, certainly very bad. But if this dialogue is to be used to demonize Karṇa, what is to be said about the dialogue that, according to the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, is spoken by Rāma to Sītā when she is finally brought before him after he defeats Rāvaṇa and coronates Vibhīṣaṇa:
"A suspicion has arisen, however, with regard to thy conduct, and thy presence is as painful to me as a lamp to one whose eye is diseased! Henceforth go where it best pleaseth thee, I give thee leave, O Daughter of Janaka. O Lovely One, the ten regions are at thy disposal; I can have nothing more to do with thee! What man of honour would give rein to his passion so far as to permit himself to take back a woman who has dwelt in the house of another? Thou hast been taken into Ravana's lap and he has cast lustful glances on thee; how can I reclaim thee, I who boast of belonging to an illustrious House? The end which I sought in re-conquering thee has been gained; I no longer have any attachment for thee; go where thou desirest! Turn to Lakshmana or Bharata, Shatrughna, Sugriva or the Titan Bibishana, make thy choice, O Sita, as pleases thee best. Assuredly Ravana, beholding thy ravishing and celestial beauty, will not have respected thy person during the time that thou didst dwell in his abode."
It would be right to dismiss all the weird dialogues in both the Epics (which were actually put down in writing in Mauryan times, where the original data was submerged in a flood of latter-day data, and the incidents, morals and dialogues are motivated inventions of these very late writers who wanted to impose and sanctify their own views and prejudices by attributing them to the heroes and times of the Original Epics) as latter-day interpolations which can in no way reflect on the actual characters and events of the Epic events at the time those original events were actually taking place. However, you cannot be selective and accept only those quotations which suit your vilification campaign (which is exactly what leftists do in respect of Hindu texts).
Unfortunately, in the zeal to vilify Karṇa, all the many very real wrongs suffered by him are belittled or denied. And at the same time all the virtues assigned to him are rejected altogether or given a negative twist. Just one example: the incident where Karṇa gives up his divine kavaca-kuṇḍala (to Indra who comes in the disguise of a poor brahmin and asks him for this kavaca-kuṇḍala, which would otherwise have saved Karṇa from being killed in battle) in spite of having been warned beforehand about Indra's nefarious intentions. This is usually praised as a great deed of "dān-vīr" Karṇa who is so generous that he never refuses anything to anyone, whatever the consequences. I also do not consider this event as something to be praised (more on this presently), but the writer chooses to treat this as showing that to Karṇa his ego (in the form of his reputation as a "dān-vīr" — which is a bit dubious since the text nowhere says that this private incident is publicized by Karṇa) is more important than his commitment to help his friend Duryodhana to win the war (and also apparently his desire to remain alive). Also, he gets in return from Indra a divine weapon which he can use just once to kill anyone he wants.
However, the writer throughout insists that the central obsession of this maha-villain Karṇa is to kill Arjuna, impelled by his relentless hatred and jealousy of Arjuna, and it is this obsession which is the root cause of everything bad in the Mahābhārata. If so, it does not gel with the fact that, as per the story, Karṇa lays aside his over-riding obsession and gives up his chance to kill Arjuna by using that divine weapon, at the behest of Duryodhana, against Ghaṭotkaca.
I will not go deeply into the book or the interviews, but will deal only with the two following aspects:
I. Karṇa vs. Yudhiṣṭhira.
II. The "Virtues" Propagated in the Hindu Epics and Puranas.
I. Karṇa vs. Yudhiṣṭhira
Karṇa is indeed more sinned against than a sinner in the entire Epic. By which I do not deny that he is also a sinner: the fact is, if we go by the data in the Epic and Puranic stories, there is not a single person in these texts who can be painted as fully white or fully black: all of them have black deeds attributed to them as well as virtues.
The writer deals at length with the persistent way in which Karṇa vents his vindictive feelings towards Draupadi, and (even if we accept all the reasons he is supposed to have for feeling vindictive towards her or to the Pāṇḍavas in general, all of which are of course denied or belittled by the writer) nothing can justify this vindictive behavior so far as it involves the misogynistic verbal and physical humiliation, manhandling and disrobing of Draupadi. The fact is that even a prostitute who has slept with a thousand people has the right to refuse outright to sleep with the next (i.e. the 1001st) person if she does not want to, and therefore Karṇa's behavior (in referring to her five husbands as a proof of her being a prostitute and of justifying her being molested by anyone else) is indeed indefensible and unforgivable.
But does all this make him the prime villain in the whole Epic? My point is: does this make him more of a villain than Yudhiṣṭhira, who is referred to in the text (and by the writer as well) as a dharmarāja and praised as a model of virtue?
Let us start out with the fact of Draupadi having five husbands. Popular perception (which the writer is supposed to be intending to correct as a whole in her book) attributes this to the fact that this is because their mother Kunti, when they bring Draupadi back with them and tell their mother (who is inside the house and does not see them) that Arjuna has won a prize, she (without ascertaining what the prize is) tells them to share it among them.
This itself is rather weird: the natural thing would have been that when she saw what the prize was she would take back her words and the whole thing would be forgotten. The principle that once their mother has said something in ignorance of the situation, they have to follow it to the t, whether they want to (and their mother herself wants them to) or not, and whether it is ethical or not, is something beyond logic, common sense and even precedence.
But rational discussion rarely forms any part of these incidents. Once someone says something, it cannot be changed! Human beings seem to be just mechanical robots rather than rational thinking human beings with a capacity to salvage situations and correct mistakes. Kunti, without seeing what prize Arjuna has won, tells him "Share it with your brothers" so they are all forced to marry Draupadi! When Kunti sees her mistake, she immediately takes it back, but apparently once she has said it, she has said it, and there can be no change! But, she hadn't said "All of you, marry her". I wonder what they would have done if her words had been "Divide the prize equally into five parts": would they have cut Draupadi into five pieces?
[Actually, this whole myth, and all the incidents in the text which follow from this myth, are based on the hazy understanding, by later story-tellers who made additions and interpolations in the Epics and Puranas, of the original meanings of certain words. Draupadi is also called Pāñcālī because she is the daughter of the king of Pāñcāla, but later redactors interpreted the name as pertaining to the number pañca ("five"), and, from the fact that there were five Pāṇḍavas, this somehow led to the myth of her being the wife of all five, and to the manufacturing of stories based on this myth.
There is a parallel to this in the name of Datta-Ātreya (Datta, son of Atri) being interpreted in the context of the number tri/treya ("three") and the manufacturing of the myth treating him as a combination of the Three Great Gods of Hinduism].
But the fact is that this popular perception is actually based on only half the story given in the Mahābhārata: according to this story, Kunti immediately realizes her mistake when she sees Draupadi, and she then appeals to her dharmarāja son, Yudhiṣṭhira, to suggest a solution to the "problem". Yudhiṣṭhira initially declares that since Arjuna has won her, he alone should marry her.
But then, as per the Mahābhārata text: "the Pandavas all cast their eyes upon the princess of Panchala. And the princess of Panchala also looked at them all. And casting their glances on the illustrious Draupadi, those princes looked at one another. And, taking their seats, they began to think of Draupadi alone. Indeed, after those princes of immeasurable energy had looked at Draupadi, the god of Desire invaded their hearts and continued to crush all their senses. As the ravishing beauty of Panchali who had been modeled by the creator himself was superior to that of all other women on earth, it could captivate the heart of every creature. And Yudhishthira, the son of Kunti, beholding his younger brothers, understood what was passing in their minds. And that bull among men, from fear of a division among the brothers, addressing all of them, said: 'The auspicious Draupadi shall be the common wife of us all'".
What kind of picture, if one accepts this story as fact, does this show of the character and principles of the Pāṇḍavas in general and of Yudhiṣṭhira in particular?
But there is this tendency among Hindu writers to try, even as they accept these stories as facts, to whitewash or even to glorify such indefensible stories. There was recently an article by a prominent Hindu writer in one of the pro-Hindu online internet journals (I cannot recall the name of the writer, article or journal at the moment) which actually cited this whole incident from the Mahābhārata as a glowing example of the wisdom and pragmatism of Yudhiṣṭhira. The total mindlessness and insincerity behind such writing (a conscious attempt, as I pointed out earlier, to go the other or "rightist" extreme to counter the bile and venom of anti-Hindu Leftists) is beyond my comprehension at least: would people who find "wisdom" in this act of Yudhiṣṭhira consider the eldest brother of their own son-in-law equally "wise" if he decided to promote harmony among all his brothers by suggesting just such a solution vis-à-vis their daughter? Or is it that the Pāṇḍavas alone, in the whole world, were so sexually obsessed, or vulnerable and susceptible (to put it mildly), that this special and unique solution, meant only for them, became necessary in order to maintain their fraternal unity?
But, to return to the point at hand, the following are the relevant acts of Yudhiṣṭhira:
1. He makes Draupadi marry all the five brothers (and for the above reason!).
2. He stakes his brothers one by one, and finally his wife Draupadi, in a game of dice which he could have easily avoided, against all advice, and then loses the wager.
3. He remains quiet and sits silently with downcast eyes as she is insulted, reviled and physically manhandled and abused by the maha-villain Karṇa and the other lesser villains in a public darbar.
4. But when his brothers, whom he had already lost in dice and therefore had no power over any more, want to intervene, he comes to life and firmly uses his "authority" to restrain them and to allow Draupadi's continued humiliation.
And yet, Yudhiṣṭhira is a dharmarāja, and Karṇa is a maha-villain? Sorry, but I strongly disagree with this: according to me, Yudhiṣṭhira is one of the maha-villains of the Mahābhārata. Karṇa's sins, with or without the "attenuating circumstances", are much less.
II. The "Virtues" Propagated in the Hindu Epics and Puranas
And now back to the incident of Karṇa and his "dān-vīr" act in giving up his magical kavaca-kuṇḍala to Indra (appearing before him in the form of a poor brahmin), in spite of knowing Indra's nefarious intentions and being fully aware of the future consequences and repercussions of his action.
While this act is generally praised by analysts of the Mahābhārata, and in all traditional accounts of the story, I do not find it all worthy of praise for a very fundamental reason: it is because this story is part of a huge repertoire of stories in our Epics, Puranas and other popular lore, which are unique only to Hindu texts, literature and lore, among all the major religions of the world, and which, in my opinion, have been the root cause of the continuing downfall of Hinduism vis-à-vis its enemies by inculcating in the Hindu psyche the idea of self-destructivism and compulsive defeatism, and capitulation to the machinations of its enemies and ill-wishers, as a positive and praiseworthy virtue.
There are three kinds of teachings in the religious texts in the matter of justice/injustice in behaviour towards others:
1. The texts of all religions preach that one should fight against injustice towards oneself. The Abrahamic evangelist religions, Christianity and Islam, as well as Hinduism and almost all other religions and sects in this world preach this. We find quotations expressing such sentiments, and stories illustrating such principles, in most religious texts. The exceptions, in all religions, are the cases where the perpetrators of such injustice are the authorities (including the Gods, priests, prophets and holy men, and rulers and leaders) of these religions, or certain special categories (such as the males in the family or clan), who are supposed to be given special rights to perpetrate injustice which must be borne quietly by the other believers or practitioners of the religion.
2. Likewise, the texts of all religions, strange though this may sound, teach followers to commit injustice on others (on women, animals, slaves or lower classes of people, enemies or conquered people, etc., etc.), or at least illustrate, through stories, great acts of injustice which are perpetrated by the heroes (religious or otherwise) of the texts on others, which are glorified or at the very least not treated as in any way condemnable.
The Bible and Qoran (and other Christian-Muslim religious texts) are overflowing with such preachings, teachings and stories. Likewise our Hindu texts, and the texts of other religions, also abound in such preachings, teachings and stories.
There are however two big differences between the two expansionist Abrahamic religions on the one hand, and Hinduism in particular (as well as all other religions) on the other:
2a) These preachings, teachings and stories are fundamental to the former two religions but only peripheral and incidental to Hinduism (where the centrality and finality of religious texts is not as sacrosanct as in Christianity and Islam).
Nevertheless, they are there in Hinduism, and have been presented by many Hindu researchers, including for example Dr. Ambedkar, as well as of course by anti-Hindu leftists (who find the molehills of injustice in Hinduism more massive than the mountains of injustice in the Christian and Muslim religions — if, that is, they are even willing to accept that there is injustice at all in Christianity and Islam). The first section of this article above shows one such example (in the acts of Yudhiṣṭhira): there are countless more.
But these (whether in Christianity or Islam or Hinduism) are not the subject of this section. Nevertheless I will only say at this point that Hindus who think they are showing their Hindutva by denying, whitewashing or glorifying these wrong aspects in Hinduism are like the woman whose small daughter is being repeatedly raped by her husband, and who keeps quiet or tries to hide or play down the facts and thinks that by doing so she is showing her concern for family integrity and loyalty and for the reputation of her family.
2b) Further, the main distinguishing factor between Christianity and Islam on the one hand and Hinduism (and other religions) on the other, is that the two former religions divide humanity into two classes: the believers (in the particular religion, Christianity or Islam) and the unbelievers (among whom the two religions incidentally also include, each, the followers of the other religion of the two). So these texts blatantly teach, preach, and illustrate through stories, that it is perfectly all right, and even in many cases desirable and even compulsory, to commit gross injustice on the followers of other religions, and on co-religionists who break religious dictates, rules and taboos. Voice of India books, and any number of researchers within those religions themselves, have studied and presented all this in very great detail. So such perpetration of injustice against people who follow different beliefs is not a part of Hindu texts (although some individual ancient writers did make occasional, and completely unfruitful, attempts to introduce such intolerance in the texts: e.g. in the Rāmāyaṇa, Ayodhyā Kāṇḍa, 109).
3. But then we come to this third aspect found only in Hinduism and in no other religion — at least, certainly not in Christianity and Islam, which are the two religions which matter in our discussion as they are the ones which constantly place themselves in a strongly adversarial position towards Hinduism.
Hinduism is the only religion in the world which has a massive repertoire of stories which preach, or illustrate as great virtues, abject submission to the machinations of openly or very obviously hostile and ill-intentioned people or enemy forces, or which preach foolish morals or inhibitions which lead to defeat and self-destruction. Christian and Islamic narratives and illustrative stories, either in their texts or in their history, never preach or illustrate such self-destructive "morals" or "principles" as "saintly virtues".
It is only Hindu texts which teach its followers to glorify people who submit to gross injustice from inimical and ill-intentioned people in the name of "dharma". The example of Karṇa giving up his kavaca-kuṇḍala to Indra in spite of having been warned beforehand about Indra's nefarious intentions is not an isolated one: the list is a long one, from the heroes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata to countless holy men in the Epics and Puranas (Paraśurāma who kills his mother to follow his father's command, Cilaya who is cooked and given to guests who demand him as their lunch, Ekalavya who cuts his finger as "guru-dakṣiṇā" on Droṇa's demand, Anusūyā who disrobes herself because her rishi guests demand it — the list is endless). Modern Hindus have learnt this lesson so well that they are willing to accept any principle as "dharma" which teaches them to submit to injustice. This lesson has been learnt so well that it is today the prime principle of Indian virtue and saintliness propagated in traditionalistic films and serials: see my blog article "Justice in Sohrab Modi's 1939 film 'Pukar'":
And so it is very easy for Hindu-haters to convince Hindus that the Bhagavadgitā, whose very context is that Krishna is telling Arjuna not to submit to injustice and to war even against his blood-relatives for the sake of justice, actually preaches ahimsa, non-action and submission to injustice. And to teach us the "difference" and even the opposition between Hinduism and Hindutva!
For this, see my blog article "Hinduism vs. Hindutva: Oxism vs. Oxatva":
There was a wave of sharp resentment against me in the Hindu discussion site when I made all these points: anyone who holds anything in our texts and traditions as responsible for any bad behavior in our present Hindu society is "anti-Hindu", "leftist", or "westernized", and even "influenced by Protestant ideology", or else a prey to "simplistic understanding"!
But this is a self-destructive attitude: if we do not accept that there are many things in our own texts and traditions which are responsible for the very bad condition of Hindu society today, we will never be able to correct those faults and win our way to victory or even to security. I find it incomprehensible that people (pro-Hindu people) can believe that to be true Hindus we should hold that recognizing Justice is something that only Left Liberals (or people steeped in western education) are capable of and that to be truly Hindu we must support Injustice!
It is time we learnt to enjoy the rich and unparalleled lore present in our ancient texts in the right way: be proud of this rich lore and rich literature which has absolutely no parallel anywhere else in the world. But don't adopt the self-destructive "morals" of the characters glorified in these texts as the ideal way for us to behave.
Remember, no other religious text of any other religion teaches its followers to suffer injustice from their enemies.
Either treat these stories merely as a rich repertoire of our traditional lore and a great part of our matchless culture, or, if we want to learn lessons from them, then learn the right lessons: for example, instead of defending or whitewashing Droṇācārya or treating Ekalavya as a saint or a model of virtue, we should recognize that Droṇācārya's act was the act of an establishment villain and Ekalavya's response that of a sentimental fool.
We will ultimately be destroyed because of some of these very "Dharmic" "principles" embodied in our texts, which are enforcing the slave/masochist mentality in Hindus today and which are making us the spittoon and punching-bag of the world.
But Hindus like to clutch at the very chains which bind them, and to lose battles and wars by following and glorifying wrong principles rather than to win the battles and wars by following the right principles which are also very much there in our texts and philosophies.
[I know I will alienate more readers by pointing out that it is this numbing of our intelligence and viveka-buddhi which is also responsible for the way in which political parties playing the "Hindu card" before elections, and being more anti-Hindu after elections than those playing the "secular card", still continue to be treated as our bulwark against anti-Hindu forces. Hindus have learnt to apply labels and then stick to those labels forever regardless of whether or not the labels prove to be justified. Frankly, I am really not too keen on forcing the truth down anyone's unwilling throat. And now, after long and bitter experiences in seeing the futility of trying to make people see sense, I am not even interested in trying to do it. Hindus are deliberately and knowingly hurtling to their destruction, and I now realize that I can do nothing about it.
However, I can and will continue to speak the truth, and if Hindus are determined to be destroyed, then nothing can save us].
APPENDIX added 14-100-2021:
As I pointed out, there is a massive fund of such stories in the Hindu texts, which teach us to treat submission to injustice or adherence to foolish morals or slogans as virtuousness to be treated as ideal and to be emulated.
But then it depends upon how we look at these stories. Do the stories actually teach us to treat the foolish actions and slogans as virtuous? Or were they originally intended to teach us how not to behave, but misinterpretation of such stories became a tradition and led to the wrong attitude of treating them as virtues?
One such slogan will illustrate the correct way to interpret these foolish actions and slogans: the slogan "Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam": "the world is one family". This is found in the Mahopaniṣad VI.71-73: "For those who live magnanimously, the whole world is a family" (udāracaritānāṁ tu vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam).
This is regularly cited as a sign of the broad-mindedness of Hinduism — at least when it comes to telling Hindus what their texts tell them to believe and therefore how they should behave: although in evaluating Hinduism as a religion, it is the "divisiveness" of the caste-system that is cited!
The wikipedia entry on "Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam" tells us that this "is considered the most important value in the Indian society", and even informs us that "Dr N. Radhakrishnan, former director of the Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, believes that the Gandhian vision of holistic development and respect for all forms of life; nonviolent conflict resolution embedded in the acceptance of nonviolence both as a creed and strategy; were an extension of the ancient Indian concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.[" and "India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi used this phrase in a speech at World Culture Festival, organized by Art of Living, adding that 'Indian culture is very rich and has inculcated each one of us with great values, we are the people who have come from Aham Brahmasmi to Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam'". In 2007, Pranab Mukherji, then Union Minister for External Affairs (and later President of India), informed the Rajya Sabha on 5th December that "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is our foreign policy".
But there are ancient Indian texts which tells us how to behave wisely, and incidentally also how to interpret "saintly" slogans (and therefore I would say also "saintly" actions) in our texts, or rather how not to misinterpret them as models in practical life: the Hitopadeśa and the Pancatantra. Both these texts contain stories illustrating the foolishness of the slogan "Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam" if applied in practical affairs although it is perfectly all right as a principle of abstract philosophy. The stories in both these texts illustrate the foolishness and suicidal, self-destructive result of taking such slogans as models to be followed.
I will not bother to repeat these stories here: they are easily available in the original and in translations of the two texts: in the Hitopadeśa (the story of Kṣudrabuddhī the foolish jackal and Subuddhī the wise crow) and in the Pancatantra (the story of the four brahmin friends, three of whom were well-versed in all the texts, but extremely foolish, and the fourth one who was wise).