On “Maha·bhárata VIII: Karna (volume one of two).” and “Maha·bhárata VIII: Karna (volume two of two).” Adam Bowles

It was some years ago that I first came to be truly intrigued by Karna. Ensconced in a second class sleeper on the Rajdhani Express from Mumbai to Delhi, I became absorbed in one of those long conversations that seem to be a specialty of Indian trains. The conversation soon turned to the ‘Maha·bhárata’, and my fellow traveler asked me who I regarded as its most tragic character. As he had no doubt anticipated, my answer was Karna, the abandoned and cursed son fostered by low-born parents who would side against his unknown brothers in a war of devastating proportions. At the time it seemed remarkable to me that, in a chance encounter on a long train trip through a tropical Indian night, I might discuss the ‘Maha·bhárata’ at all with this man whose erudition belied his middle-class modesty. He was, after all, neither student nor scholar, merely a man returning home from work far afield, certainly well educated but with no particular training in literature or ‘the classics’. Yet his unbridled enthusiasm made me embarrassed for my copies of Homer remaining near untouched on my shelf. As I soon discovered, this was not to be an uncommon experience. For unlike the great epics of Western antiquity which, despite Hollywood’s sometime attempts to revive them as spectacles if not as stories, remain largely the preserve of fast-fading University classics departments, the great epics of India are still vividly alive to the popular imagination. Equally remarkable to me was that the character my fellow ‘Maha·bhárata’ enthusiast was most keen to discuss was Karna. For Karna is not on the side of the victors in the war. Indeed he is, at least nominally, one of the epic’s villains. Yet, as my conversation partner had so keenly grasped, Karna is both a deeply flawed hero and a likeable villain whose flaws are easy to forgive, the tragic trajectory of his life inviting an easy empathy. To a modern India reckoning with its traditions and pasts, Karna’s struggles to overcome a class status to which he is not so much born as abandoned seem to have a popular resonance. Many years later after a long period studying other aspects of this enormous and consuming work of literature, my fellow traveler’s fondness and endorsement of Karna returned to me as I undertook to translate the ‘Karna·parvan’.

The ‘Karna·parvan’ opens as it ends, with Karna’s death. In its opening chapters it reads as a dirge, with Dhrita·rashtra mourning Karna’s passing and bemoaning his own plight. But remorse soon gives way to the spectacle of battle, as heroes face off in chariots or astride elephants or horses, or resort to fighting on foot. Duels follow well established rhythms, with warriors taking turns to fire off arrows, or maybe hurl spears or strike their enemies with clubs or kill them with any other weapon from their arsenals. And battles always threaten to boil over into noisy infernos of massed warriors battling in fury:

King Dur·yódhana himself fearlessly opposed Yudhi·shthira, great king, who was releasing many arrows at him. The King of Law immediately wounded your son, as that mighty warrior abruptly attacked him, and yelled “Stand! Stand your ground!” But Dur·yódhana wounded him in return with nine sharp arrows and, in rage, brutally wounded Yudhi·shthira’s charioteer with a bhalla arrow. Then, king, Yudhi·shthira dispatched thirteen stone-sharpened arrows fletched with gold at Dur·yódhana. That mighty warrior slaughtered his four horses with four arrows and with a fifth cut the head from his driver’s body. With a sixth he dropped the king’s banner to the ground, with a seventh his bow and with an eighth his sword. What’s more, the King of Law brutally struck the king with five arrows. Its horses slain, your son leapt from his chariot and stood on the ground in a most dangerous predicament. But Karna, Drona’s son, Kripa and others, saw that he was in danger and suddenly attacked aiming to reach that ruler of men. All of Pandu’s sons then surrounded Yudhi·shthira and followed him into battle, king. Then the battle began!

Thousands of instruments were played in that great battle, lord of the earth, and sounds of battle cries then became audible where the Panchálas met with the Káuravas in battle. Men collided with men, elephants with fine elephants, chariots with chariot-warriors, and horses with horse-riders. Great king, there were various spectacular weapon duels in that battle that were inconceivable and of the highest quality. All those super-fast heroes fought brilliantly, nimbly and properly in combat as they tried to kill one another. They killed one another in combat observing the vow of the warrior, for never did they do battle from behind.

For a brief period the battle had seemed amiable. Then, as if through madness, king, it turned lawless! A chariot-warrior assailed an elephant and, tearing it apart with sharp arrows, sent it to Death with smooth-jointed arrows. Elephants attacked horses, throwing many aside in the battle, and time and again fiercely tore them to shreds all over the place. And many horsemen surrounding the most superb horses yelled and clapped their hands as they rushed at them from every direction. As those horses fled and huge elephants ran off as well, horsemen slaughtered them from the side and from behind. And ruttish elephants dispersed many horses, king; some slaughtered them with their tusks and others brutally trampled them. Some elephants furiously pierced horses and horsemen with their tusks, and then other very powerful elephants seized them and wildly threw them about. Struck by foot-soldiers where they were exposed on all sides, elephants trumpeted horrific bellows of pain and fled to the ten directions.

But the poetry of battle is not without humor and, in a momentary concession to the absurdity of the deeds of heroes in combat, darkly comic images unexpectedly cut through the rhythmic balancing of attack and counter-attack:

After repelling those arrows with his arrows in that fight, Drona’s son sneered and struck the Pándava on the forehead with an iron arrow. The Pándava then bore that arrow protruding from his forehead, king, as a proud rhinoceros bears his horn in the forest. A little flummoxed, Bhima showed courage in that battle and pierced Drona’s persistent son in the forehead with three arrows. With arrows protruding from his forehead, that brahmin was beautiful, like the highest triple peaked mountain when rained on in the wet season.

Yet for all their devotion to the spectacle of heroes facing off in battle, the poets of the ‘Maha·bhárata’ are keenly aware of the gruesome consequence of war. In the ‘Karna·parvan’, the blind Káurava king Dhrita·rashtra, the audience’s proxy as his charioteer narrates to him the events of the war, represents the emotional price paid when heroes die and kingdoms are lost. But another less elegiac but more viscerally arresting consequence of war is represented by the bloody tableaus of smashed bone, flesh and gore left behind in the warriors’ wake. A repetition of diction that matches the swelling rivers of body parts, bodies and blood accentuates the stupendous volume of destruction and verbally figures the whirling confusion of battle:

…a river of blood flowing with the bodies of men, horses and elephants carried away the many fallen bodies of elephants, horses and men. In that mob of men, horses and elephants, that flowing river of the bodies of men, horses and elephants was horrifying, its water the blood of men and horses, elephants and their riders, and its utterly horrendous mud their flesh and blood. Those eager for victory proceeded to its far shore; but others, after sinking and bobbing up again and emerging by its shallows, their limbs smeared with blood and their clothes, weapons and armor reddened, wallowed in it, swallowed it and died in it, bull of Bharatas. We could only stare as chariots, horses, men, elephants, weapons and ornaments, clothes, armor, those being killed and those killed already too, the earth, the atmosphere, the sky and the directions, became almost completely blood-red. With the smell, touch and taste of blood, with its intense red color and its gliding sound, a heavy despair infected almost all the troops, Bhárata!

And just as we as readers have consumed battle after battle and bathed in the glories of heroes and warriors, carrion birds and beasts repair to the battle-field to consume a macabre smorgasbord of the remnants of war, reflecting again a poetry that does not shy away from excess:

With carrion-eaters shrieking here and there, tiger of a man, that hideous battlefield became like the city of the king of the dead. Well satisfied with flesh and blood, herds of beasts danced about the incalculable headless torsos that had surfaced everywhere. After drinking blood and consuming fat there, Bhárata, crows, vultures and cranes could be seen scuttling about, intoxicated by lymph, marrow and fat and sated with flesh.

But though there are countless battles in the ‘Karna·parvan’ involving many heroes and warriors, the book is essentially about Karna. The events and intrigues that ensure the tragic unfolding of a destiny which Karna himself has predicted will converge in his brutal and callous demise in the Karna·parvan’s second volume. Karna’s death, however, hangs over the entire ‘Karna·parvan’, since it is the very frame of its telling. Within twenty verses of the book’s opening, we are informed of the Káuravas’ parlous state on the eve of the battle’s sixteenth day, of Karna’s anointment as general in the wake of first Bhishma and then Drona, and finally — in only the briefest terms — of Karna’s death. It will take the entire book for us to discover the complete circumstances that led to his demise, and in the process Karna is revealed at his most resolute and heroic as he is cast as the Káuravas’ saviour:

Once they saw that mighty archer Karna, the best of chariot-warriors, standing in his chariot as irresistible as the rising sun overwhelming the dark, no Káurava there worried about Bhishma’s disaster, or Drona’s, or anyone else’s, dear friend.

Here is Karna destroying the Panchálas after defeating Nákula, their destruction as brutal as it is inevitable:

After defeating him, Karna then quickly advanced on the Panchálas, with his chariot proudly flying its standard and its horses the color of the moon. There was a great cry there among the Pándavas, lord of the people, as they saw that general advancing on squadrons of Panchála warriors. Careering like a wheel, great king, the powerful son of the charioteer created carnage there by the time the sun had reached the middle of its course. We saw squadrons of Panchála warriors being carried away by chariots that had busted wheels, shredded banners and standards, slaughtered horses and charioteers and busted axles, dear friend. And their elephants then went astray, whirling about here and there, as if their limbs were scorched by a forest-fire in a great wood. Some elephants had split foreheads wet with blood, others had severed trunks, some had sliced open fore and hindquarters, others had severed tails. Like clouds broken up they collapsed as they were slaughtered by that great man. Other elephants terrorized by lances, arrows and iron arrows, moved closer to him like moths to a flame. And other massive elephants, trumpeting and oozing blood from their limbs, looked like mountains streaming with water.

But remarkably, in this first of two ‘Karna·parvan’ volumes, it is not Karna’s prowess on the battlefield that leaves the most indelible mark on the memory, but rather his long and bitter verbal dispute with Shalya, the king of the Madras. Reluctantly recruited to be Karna’s charioteer as he sets out to fight Árjuna, a battle much anticipated since their earliest encounter in the first book of the ‘Maha·bhárata’, Shalya has already been contracted by Yudhi·shthira to betray his allies. Shalya’s barbed comments directed at Karna prod him to give full vent to the bellicose and vituperative talents of his tongue, as he stays true to the hero’s course:

Árjuna’s Gándiva bow, Krishna’s discus and their banners bearing the monkey and Tarkshya inspire fear among the timid but excite me, Shalya. But you are evil by nature; you’re stupid and know nothing of great battles. Torn apart by fear, you blabber on so much because you’re terrified. You’re from an evil country! For some reason you praise those two. Once I’ve killed them in battle, I’ll kill you today along with your relatives! You’re from an evil country! You’re dumb! You’re mean and you disgrace the kshátriya ethos! Why do you — a friend who’s become an enemy — menace me with the two Krishnas? Either they will kill me today, or I’ll kill them. I know my own strength and do not fear the two Krishnas. Alone I could kill a thousand Vasu·devas and hundreds of Phálgunas. Shut up! You’re from an evil country!

It’s common for people amusing themselves — women, children and the aged — to sing these verses as if they were commencing study. Hear from me these verses about the wretched Madras! In times past brahmins fittingly related these in the presence of kings. Listen with your mind focused, fool, and suffer it or voice a response!

A Madra is always treacherous to friends; whoever hates us is a Madra. There’s no friendship with a Madra, he’s a callous speaking wretch. A Madra is always wicked and always untruthful and crooked, for wickedness among the Madras lasts their entire lives. That’s what we’ve been taught! … In the houses of the uncouth Madras — who eat fish mixed with meal — people indulge in rum and beef, and then shriek, laugh and sing senseless songs. They behave however they want and babble to one another about their lusts. How could law exist among these arrogant Madras, famous for their wicked deeds? … So, smart-arse, shut up and listen to this next revelation! When drunk, Madra women strip off their clothes and dance about. Uninhibited in sex, they choose whoever they lust after. How can a Madra son of theirs speak about morality? Like camels and asses they piss while standing; their laws have vanished and they’re everywhere shameless. You, the son of women such as these, want to speak here about morality!

Whether indulging in slander, or depicting the ferocity of battle or attending almost cinematically to the gruesomeness of the battle-field, the epic poets refuse to adopt half-measures. The language is forthright and the images memorable. But there is humor and sarcasm too, and a not irregular attention is paid to subtle gestures and glances, or the minute vigor of a warrior’s kinetics. Translating the ‘Karna·parvan’ has therefore been a validating experience, reminding me of the aesthetic and narrative delights that attracted me to it so many years ago and promise to grip me for some time to come.