His Life and Death on the Battlefield
Karna is one of the great heroes of the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. He is known for his generosity, which makes it impossible for him to deny people a gift or request. The tragic circumstances of Karna’s life and defeat on the battlefield are the subject of the all-night play Karna’s Death (Karna Moksham). It tells Karna’s story as interpreted by performers of the Kattaikkuttu theatre tradition.
Karna’s birth and adoption
Karna is the son of Princess Kunti and the Sun God. He was born before Kunti’s marriage. Five years old, Kunti served the notoriously difficult to please sage Durvasa for an entire year. At the end of that year Durvasa, pleased, awarded her five boons. These boons allowed her to have a child with five deities of her choice.
Some years went by and Kunti grew into a teenager. One day, alone at the bank of a river in the early morning hours, a curious Kunti decides to test the power of one of the boons. She invokes Surya. Instantly the Sun God appears before her. Alarmed by his radiant appearance and his demand to have intercourse with her, she protests that she is not ready. Surya replies that he has no choice as he cannot go against the wishes of Durvasa, fearing the fury of the short-tempered sage. Kunti and Surya meet and straightaway a baby son is born wearing an irremovable armor and a pair of earrings. These ornaments earn the child the name “Karna” or “Ear”. They are the remnants of Karna’s previous life as a demon who had one thousand heads with one thousand pairs of earrings and one thousand armors to protect his body.
Afraid of the stigma of being an unwed mother, Kunti puts the baby in a basket and sets it afloat on the river. Karna is found by Adhiratha, a charioteer in the service of the blind king of Hastinapura, Dhritarashtra, who is the father of the Kauravas. Adhiratha and his wife Radha are childless. They raise Karna as their own son. After a while, King Dhritarashtra hears that Adhiratha is bringing up a child. As the King at that time has no children of his own, he asks the charioteer to hand over the child Karna to him. Thus Karna grows up at the court of Hastinapura where the Kauravas and Pandavas receive their training in the military arts.
His exclusion from the tournament and his friendship with Duryodhana
At the end of their training the martial art teachers of the Kauravas and Pandavas organize a tournament where they can show their martial skills. Hearing Arjuna boast of his talents, Karna — the (adopted) child of a charioteer — challenges him to a duel. However, the teachers of the princes deny him excess to the tournament, which is reserved for royalty only, citing Karna’s unknown descend. Karna is a talented archer. Therefore, an unexpressed reason for the refusal of the teachers to let Karna participate is is their fear that he may defeat their favorite pupil, the Pandava Arjuna. Denied participation Karna feels thoroughly humiliated. Observing this Duryodhana there and then decides to crown Karna King of the country of Anga. A grateful Karna becomes Duryodhana’s friend for life.
Arjuna refuses to engage with Karna in a dual saying that he does not want to defile the arena with Karna’s blood. This signals the beginning of a life-long enmity between Arjuna and Karna. The enmity ends when Arjuna kills Karna on the battlefield on the 17th day of the Mahabharata war unaware of the fact that he has slain his older half-brother.
In the Sanskrit version of the Mahabharata, it is said that Karna’s sons die on the battlefield. This version never mentions Karna’s wife.
In the Kattaikkuttu performance of Karna Moksham, Karna’s wife Ponnuruvi is one of principal characters. The pre-war part of this all-night play focuses on the relationship between Karna and Ponnuruvi. Their relationship is problematic because of Karna’s unknown decent. In the Kattaikkuttu tradition the fact that Karna’s parentage is unknown, is interpreted as him being of a low caste. Ponnuruvi — a princes and the daughter of the King of Kalinga — feels that she has married below her station. Therefore, she refuses to speak with Karna and, when a son is born, to let him hold or even touch the baby.
Before leaving for the battlefiled, Karna discloses his royal descend to his wife. Her behavior changes radically. She asks him forgiveness for her “ignorance”. She refuses to let him go to the battlefield arguing that it is not proper to kill the Pandavas out of loyalty to Duryodhana. Ponnuruvi’s and Karna’s difference of opinion ensues in a battle of words that provides us, as spectators, with different perspectives on Duryodhana. Ponnuruvi states that Duryodhana is a man of bad character, who was jealous seeing that the Pandavas lived happily. She argues that his villainous temperament shows in his public disrobement of Draupadi. Karna maintains that Duryodhana is a good man and a loyal friend, who has given him his status and prestige. Everything they possess now — the clothes they wear, the food they eat and his title of King of Anga — they owe to Duryodhana. He goes on quoting Duryodhana’s impartiality and insight.
Even though Karna foresees his own death on the battlefield at the hands of Arjuna, he is determined to go to war. He knows that he can never win, because the God Krishna protects Arjuna. As part of an emotional farewell, Karna tells Ponnuruvi that she should join the Pandavas after his death. When they come to know that Karna was their older half-brother, they will take care of her and her son.
Arjuna and Karna oppose each other on the battlefield. Karna shoots his snake-missile. The arrow misses because Krishna, who is Arjuna’s charioteer, makes Arjuna’s chariot sink eleven inches into the ground. Arjuna releases the Pasupata-weapon which strikes Karna fatally in the breast.
Krishna takes the form of an aged Brahmin. He meets the mortally wounded Karna on the battlefield and asks him to donate his merit, which is the result of the collective good deeds Karna has carried out during his life. Unable to refuse, Karna consents. Because no water is available on the battlefield, he uses his own blood by shaking the arrow in his chest, to transfer the gift.
Moved by Karna’s extreme generosity, Krishna grants Karna the vision of himself seated on the mythical bird Garuda, accompanied by his wives Radha and Rukmini. He promises Karna to grant him whatever favors he wishes. A dying Karna tells Krishna that he now could ask Krsihna to give victory to Duryodhana and bring his armies back to life. However, he does not want to do so. Instead he asks that, as soon as he has died, his mother Kunti should be informed. She will rush to the battlefield and proclaim publicly that he is her son and that he is not of low caste. As a second favor, Karna requests to be able to fulfil the deed of feeding others in his next life. He has been unable to do so during his life time, because nobody wanted to accept food from the hands of a low caste person. Granting Karna these two wishes, Krishna tells him that he will be reborn as the Saivite saint Siruttontanayanar or the Little Devotee in his next life and that he will sacrifice his own son as food to the God Siva and reach moksham. Karna dies and therewith the play reaches its conclusion.
Karna can never say “no” when asked for a gift. He agrees to part with his protective armor and the results of all his good deeds when Indra and Krishna, bent on influencing the outcome of the war in their favor, ask for these. Perhaps Karna tries to ascertain the noble identity that is his by birth through these incredible acts of generosity. Ultimately, his generosity and his loyalty towards his friend Duryodhana compel him to sacrifice his own life on the battlefield.
During his life time Karna is confronted with the fact that he is an illegitimate child and the adopted son of a low caste charioteer. Apart from the traumatic rejection by his own mother, Karna has to endure constant slurs on account of his perceived low caste from his own wife, the Pandavas, their teachers in the military arts and from the common people of Hastinapura. He is unable to defend himself against these accusations, because he himself is unaware of this true descent. When he comes to know of it through his mother Kunti’s revelations, he does not make his descent public because he refuses to sacrifice his friendship with Duryodhana for it.
Rural audience members sympathize with Karna. They recognize the references to caste, humiliation and the lack of access to, for instance, education or training, as part of their own real-life experiences. The story of Karna’s Death is often performed as part of the funeral rites accompanying the death of a real person. It is a way in which family members are allowed to mourn the loss of a beloved person, in particular a spouse. By putting on the all-night performance of Karna Moksham, they hope that the person who has passed away will attain moksham or liberation from future births, just like Karna in the play.