In his heart he knew what happened today was not good, not fair, and most importantly not right. “But its war and it has to be won” he justified to himself, “no matter what the cost”. They had come very close to losing after their audacious plan had backfired. After ten days of frictional fighting and two days of fierce battle in which many had lost their lives, today was a golden opportunity to annihilate the Pandava’s, “only if I knew before, only if I knew better” he said to himself. There had been one too many roll of the dice that had gone against them.
As Karna entered the council chamber and took his seat next to Duryodhan he could feel the icy cold stares of Kripacharya boring through him. Karna was no stranger to this and used to meet the cold stares of the Hastinapur royals with his own fiery gaze, but this time was different. As he looked at Kripacharya, he could also feel disgust and hatred that he had never felt before from the royals and averted his gaze. They may make fun of him as a lowly “sut putra” but he was always accorded a grudging respect that a warrior like him deserved. Even the great Bhishma who did not allow him to participate in the first ten days of the war never saw him with hatred, only contempt.
Looking around the chamber Karna saw Shalya sitting in the corner with his head bowed, Kripacharya sitting in front still staring at him angrily, even the blusterous Dushasan was unusually quiet. It was only Ashwathamma who seemed unaffected and had assumed his regular pose of staring blankly at the pillar at the back of the tent. This was the quietest war council meeting Karna had attended in the thirteen days of this war.
He had been a mute spectator for the first 10 days, when the council was presided by Bhishma. In those ten days the entire strategy was focused on not winning the war or inflicting most damage, but on how to capture Dharamraj, for Bhishma was of the firm belief that once he captures Dharamraj, the Pandavas would tamely give up their claim to the throne. Karna was vehemently opposed to the idea and even confided in his friend, Duryodhan, but was powerless to speak in front of the council when he was not participating in the war. It was only on Duryodhan’s stubborn insistence that he was allowed to be a part of the meeting. But things had changed drastically after Bhishma fell. Although Dronacharya was now the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army, Duryodhan had given himself veto powers and it was Karna’s suggestions that were usually implemented.
“You have brought a new energy to the battle, friend!” Duryodhana told him on day eleven in the nightly council, “This is how I wanted to fight. Not to capture one pandav, but to exterminate them and their armies completely”. That was the night when Karna suggested that Dronacharya uses his famous formation, “The Chakravyuh”
As they waited for their commander-in-chief, Kripacharya, who was still angrily staring at Karna, addressed him “How do you feel now, Angraj”, Karna thought better not to answer. “How does it feel, Angraj”, Kripacharya prodded further, “to be bested by a man-boy, the seed of your arch-enemy you claim to be better than”. Karna’s body was now shivering with rage; he controlled himself as he finally gathered the courage to look into Kripacharya’s eyes, “The boy is dead, and do not forget who killed him”. “So how does it feel Angraj, to kill an unarmed man-boy, the seed of your arch enemy, after he had bested you in a fair fight” Kripacharya responded.
“Enough Acharyaji” Duryodhana held up his hand to silence Kripacharya, “you are forgetting your duty is to win this war for your king, not make fun of his friends”. “I have full faith in Angraj, and it seems he is the only one who wants to see me on the throne of Hastinapur and my enemies vanquished. I won’t hear a word further”. Kripacharya said nothing but kept staring at Karna.
The chamber fell quite now, but for the occasional sobbing from the quivering Jaydrath. That his demise is imminent was very clear to Karna. He was unlikely to survive even the first few hours of next day’s battle. The pandava’s will hunt him down first thing tomorrow. Jaydrath was the lynchpin on which their entire strategy of that day had rested, and he had played his part to the perfect. He was to hold up the Pandava’s at the first gate of The Chakravyuh, once Arjun had been diverted far away from the main battlefield. Using a boon that allowed him to defeat all Pandavas except Arjun, Jaydrath was supposed to tire the Pandavas while the Kaurav army pressed ahead in the formation and trounce the enemy. All was going well, but for that stupid boy, that arrogant fool, Abhimanyu, son of Subhadra, who came in their way.
I killed him, and they are blaming me now, Karna thought, conveniently forgetting they were all pissing in their pants when he entered the last gate, and had no problems cutting him down after I stabbed him. Fuck them, the Hastinapur hypocrites.
Karna’s thoughts were interrupted as Dronacharya now walked in the council chamber and occupied the chair in the centre that was reserved for the commander-in-chief. It was unusual for the commander-in-chief to walk in unannounced, but it wasn’t a usual day. Dronacharya had a regal military-like walk and if he was shaken by the events of the day, he did well not to show them. Without looking up at anyone, he addressed the council in a terse business like tone- “The priority tomorrow is to protect Jaydrath, he did well for us today. We can’t let him down”, Jaydrath was still shivering and he looked up to Dronacharya as a dog would look up to his master expecting a piece of meat in return. As Dronacharya continued detailing the military formations for the next day, Karna heaved a sigh of relief. At least no one was talking about Abhimanyu anymore.
As the council ended and the Kaurava maharathi’s made their way to their tents Karna hung back at the chambers while Drona was still peering over the charts of the battle formations. “Im sorry” he mumbled as he approached Drona, “I thought Chakravyuh would end the battle faster”, “Oh no Angraj”, Drona replied without looking up from the charts, “don’t be sorry about the Chakravyuh. Just hope that the gods show more mercy to us than history will”. Karna walked out without saying anything.
As he lay on his bed that night, Karna could not sleep. The images from the morning kept flashing in front of his eyes- a young bashful boy, his niece, taunting him, beating him, his arrows breaking Karna’s bow, striking his arms and chest, but it was his words that stung Karna more than his arrows. “So you are the famed Karna who claims to be better than my father”, “You don’t belong to the battle field, you sut-putra, go back to your village and graze cows, you idiot”, that obnoxious, arrogant son of Arjun. And suddenly it wasn’t Abhimanyu anymore; it was Arjun himself, taunting him, humiliating him, beating him. Karna’s blood was boiling; he had to take that foolish kid down, or was it Arjun himself, Karna can’t tell the difference. “Let’s attack him together” he shouted to Duryodhan as Abhimanyu broke down the last gate and turned back to exit.
Karna now got up from his bed, he could not take any more of these images. He dressed himself and walked out of his tent to the banks of the nearby Saraswati. His golden kawach was shining underneath the white cotton angvastra he had covered himself in. He found a secluded spot near the river bank underneath a tree and had just sat there looking for some peace when a voice disturbed him. “Are you the famous warrior Angraj?” he looked up and found the voice belonging to an old water carrier who was washing his leather water bag at the river.
“Yes, it is me, and it would be wise not to disturb me old man” Karna replied. The old man now stood up with water now filled in his leather bag, “you want some water, Angraj?” Karna was bemused, typically the sight of a maharathi would be enough to unnerve a commoner and here was this old water carrier who casually disregarded his warning.
“Did you not hear what I said, old man” Karna was firm this time, “But you look thirsty Angraj, have some water”, the old man was now approaching Karna and as he neared him he lowered his bag to offer some water. Such insolence would normally see the offender’s head being looped off, but Karna silently bent and drank some water, his eyes still fixated on the old man.
“Do you mind if I sit down here? This is where I spend my nights usually, away from the sight and stench of the battlefield”, the old water carrier said and without even waiting for an answer sat down at a distance from the tree where Karna was sitting. Karna did not appreciate the company but was too bothered to reply, and after all the water carrier was an old man. He couldn’t possibly ask him to walk away.
“They were talking about a great battle today. All of the Kaurav army was talking about your bravery and how you stopped the marauder” the water carrier now addressed Karna.
“Whom do you serve” Karna curtly stopped him. He wanted to be sure that the old man is not a spy or part of an ambush, although his instincts told him it was neither. “None, sir, I just provide water for a fee to both the armies”, the old man replied.
“So where did you hear all of this”
“The soldiers, they tell me their stories, I listen to them. They tell me about all brave deeds of the warriors, they told me how the great Bhishma was felled, about how Krishna himself joined the battle once, about how an army of elephants was routed by the mighty Bhima..”
“What did they tell you about me, old man”
“Well, they told me how you saved the day and defended your formation by defeating and killing the mighty Pandava warrior…”
“Really” Karna felt bemused at the sight of an old man trying to flatter him. “Do you know how old that mighty Pandava warrior was? He was 16. Possibly still a virgin and I stabbed him when he was unarmed, attacked by many warriors at once”.
“But why did you do this, Angraj”, the old man asked so calmly that it unnerved Karna.
“Because its war and it’s fought to win. The boy was a brave warrior, but he was too foolish and too arrogant. Did he think that we will just allow him to enter the formation, beat us, and get out of it? Once he entered he was a dead man.”
“He was squealing like a pig when we cut him down, screaming about dharma. Ridiculous! Had he not seen how Bhishma was felled? He was also unarmed and Arjun put him down on a bed of arrows. Wars are not about dharma. Dharma is for times of peace, war is about killing and winning.”
“You are not the first one to ask me today why I did this, old man”, Karna continued, “It’s easy to talk about Dharma sitting in a council, but on the battlefield, none of the Hastinapur royals dared stopped me. Dronacharya was there, Kripacharya was there, but they very well knew that the insolent boy had to be stopped. They were just too scared to do anything about it, so it fell to a sut-putra again to do the dirty job, to lead their royal ass to attack the boy, to stab him when he was unarmed and came to me asking for a sword so that he can fight to death. He should have ran away, but there is arrogance in that blood”.
“You are a wiser man than me, Angraj. I don’t know about anything about Dharma and War. The only purpose of my life is to fetch water, but you have a higher calling in life than me.” The old man stood up as he said this, “I wish you all the best for the war. Now if you could please go back to your tent, so I could get some sleep here”. The old man was curt and to the point.
Karna almost chortled when he heard this, not many would have the audacity to speak to Karna like this. Still not wishing to offend the old man, he got up.
“But if you have another story to tell me tomorrow, I will be here”. The man waved off the king of Anga.
It was almost early dawn when the battle ended on the fourteenth day. Karna was being cheered loudly by his army as the giant Ghatothkatch’s body lay sprawled on the battlefield. Bhim’s half-giant son had teared into the Kaurava army and the fight had continued late into the night.
The cheering Kaurava army lifted Karna on their shoulders and a beaming Durodhana proclaimed “He is going to win me this war, my friend Karna, the greatest warrior in this universe. Hail Angraj!” and the entire Kaurava army cheered again after him. But Karna was absolutely devastated, “it was for Arjun only, only for him, and now it’s gone”. He had to use a divyaastra to take the giant down, a divyaastra he had carefully cultivated to be used at the right time at the right enemy, Arjun! And now it’s gone.
Karna’s kawach was entirely covered in ash, soot and blood and once he got down from the shoulders of his soldiers, he quickly excused himself to go to his tent to clean himself up. He paused as he reached the entrance of his tent, kept his bow and arrow on the ground and instructed his servant to carry them inside. He was going to the banks of Saraswati again.
He dipped into the river to cleanse his body of the blood and soot. As he came out and lay down under the same tree, the old man appeared again, “Here to meet me, Angraj”.
Karna chortled, “Ofcourse, old man! What else is there in my day to look forward to except meeting an old water carrier and telling him stories”.
“So you are going to tell me another story?” the old man sat in front of him like a child expecting candies from his grandfather. “There was a Pandava demon today, right? His roar could be heard till right here. Who killed him?” The old man shot a volley of questions.
“I did” Karna said in a dejected tone. “How did you slay him?” the old man asked excitedly, “did you pump your arrows in his heart or hacked away at him with your sword”.
“No. The half-giant was impervious to arrows and swords; we lost a large number of soldiers trying to kill him. Finally, I had to use my divyaastra to put him away”.
“So you had to go and find the divyaastra, Angraj?” the old man asked curiously.
“No, of course not, that would be stupid”, Karna was embarrassed. “So why didn’t you use it earlier?” pat came the question.
Karna was not prepared for this; he had assumed the old man would go ga-ga over him like the Kaurava army did. “You see” he began to explain “the divyaastra could be used only once, so I had to be careful to use it only on the strongest foe”.
“But wasn’t that giant monster marauding your army for almost all day, you could have saved so many lives, Angraj”.
Karna was now ashamed of himself. He had been so immersed in self-loathing about losing that divyaastra and not getting a chance to use it on Arjuna that he hadn’t given a thought to the lives he could have saved.
“But then you are a wiser man than me, Angraj. You have a higher calling than me.” The old man told Karna wistfully, “now it’s time for me to sleep, I could not sleep all night because of your demon. Chop-chop now.”
As Karna was going back to his tent to catch up on some sleep before the battle begins again, he started thinking about what the old man said, “higher calling”, what is his higher calling.
Was his higher calling winning the war for his friend, so Duryodhan can be Hastinapur Naresh, if so, then Karna wasn’t doing a good enough job of it. Earlier in the day he had failed to protect Jaydrath as Arjuna loped his head off, he had been selfish and let his army die and hesitated in killing that monster, and a day earlier he had lead a group assault on a young boy and killed him when he was unarmed.
What happens even if I win the war for Duryodhan? Karna knew that although he had vowed not to kill any Pandava other than Arjun, a victory for Duryodhan would mean that they will all have to die. How will Kunti react to him being the only living son she has left, the son that she had abandoned when he was not even a day old, the son born with impervious Kawach and Kundal, the son who despite all his handicap grew up to be a fierce and famed warrior. Winning the war was not his higher calling.
Surely his higher calling couldn’t be to settle down with the person he loved the most and have a family. Draupadi had publically turned him down and chosen Arjun instead. Arjun, the arrogant Arjun, Arjun born of a royal family, Arjun taught by the best teacher, Arjun known as the best archer. There isn’t much difference between us, Karna thought, I’m born of a royal family, I was taught by the best teacher, Parushuram, I’m also known as the best archer. So then, why is Arjun the victor, and Karan the sut-putra, why doesn’t he inspire pride and love as Arjun does. Arjun!
“I can’t let the ramblings of an old man distract me” Karna brushed off his thoughts as he entered his tent and started preparing for the battle.
Things fell apart very quickly for the Kauravas on the fifteenth day. Pandava’s, the paragon of virtue and dharma had once again tricked another veteran. Having killed an elephant named Ashwathhama, they led Dronacharya to believe that his son Ashwathhama has been killed, as Drona collapsed on hearing this news, the commander-in-chief of the Pandava army, Dhrushtdhyumn beheaded him.
In the war council meeting that day, Karna was appointed the new commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. Duryodhan was inconsolable, everyday some of his brothers were killed by the mighty Bhim. It was a testament to his family’s loyalty and bravery that none of them had forsaken him yet.
“Karna, I don’t want to win the war now, I only wish that the Pandava’s suffer the same pain of losing their family that I’m suffering” Duryodhan broke down in Karna’s tent, “They used deceit to kill three of my best warriors, Bhishma taat is worse than dead, Acharya Drona died with a broken heart, Jaydrath was conned out in exposing himself. Yet there are people who claim that Pandavas are fighting for their dharma. What about my dharma? I’m the son of the rightful king of Hastinapur, I have the first right on the throne, and after me my brothers have the right to rule Hastinapur. What am I supposed to do when Dharamraj asks for his share- divide my country or give up my rightful claim? What am I supposed to do when he bids his own wife in a game – am I not supposed to enjoy my rightful win? And yet, when history is written I will be held as epitome of Adharma, you know why, friend, because I will lose, and a loser has no dharma, a loser has no country. Now I don’t wish to win this war, Karna, I don’t, I just wish for the head of a single Pandava. I don’t care what history writes about me, I will die trying to kill at least one Pandava brother or I will win Hastinapur for my brothers. There is no higher calling than this for me. None.”
The conversation with Duryodhan had left Karna feeling very queasy, he was suddenly not sure of himself. What was his primary duty as commander-in-chief of the Kaurav army? He knew that the war was lost, so what was he fighting for? Duryodhan was fighting for his dead brothers; he was fighting for an off-chance of an upset, but what was there for Karna in all of this. A victory will make him the only alive son of a mother who will hate him for the death of her other sons, a loss will mean losing his only friend, the only person who stood by him. The Pandavas will get Hastinapur, Duryodhan will get martyrdom fighting for something he believed in. What will a poor sut-putra get? What does he even want?
And that’s when he knew. He put on a white angvastra over his shoulders and started walking to the banks of Saraswati. He didn’t knew why, but it seemed important to find the old man. I need to tell him. As he walked through the trees and the bushes, his heart felt lighter, even joyous, possibly for the first time he knew very clearly what he wanted and how he was going to get it.
As he approached the usual spot below the tree, he saw the old man leaning on the tree trunk and playing his flute. Karna had never noticed the flute in his hands, but he stayed out of the sight and allowed the old man to finish his piece. Maybe it was his clear headedness that allowed him to appreciate music for the first time in his life, or maybe the old man was a master musician. He stood out of sight for a long time, till the old man put his flute down and called out to him, “here to meet me, Angraj”.
“How did you know I was here?” Karna was a little startled.
“It’s a full moon night, and your golden kawach is reflecting in the water. So anyways, you have another story for me?” the old man asked.
“No. No story today”
The old man seemed disappointed. “I heard how Dronacharya was killed today, I was angry just like I was when poor Abhimanyu was killed. But then I recalled what you said, this is war and war requires blood to be shed. I thought you would tell me more about it”
“No. I won’t tell you about the war. I want to tell you the reason for which I exist, the reason that got muddled with politics, gambling, dharma and adharma. The only higher calling that I have, the only desire that has kept the fire in me alive.”
“and what is that Angraj?” The old man now sat down with his legs crossed, and put his hands below his chin. Clearly this was a story for him.
“Im the best archer in the world, I was born to be the best archer in the world” Karna was now smiling, his face was glowing with confidence and certainty. “and I will prove it, by killing Arjun. This is what I wanted at the games decades back when Vidur stopped me for competing against Arjun by calling me a sut-putra, this is what I wanted when I went to Draupadi’s swayamwar hoping to pierce the eye of the fish, but nobody gave me a chance. I was pushed back, declared a loser without even allowed to fight, and Arjun walked away with all the laurels, he won the games, and he won Draupadi, whereas, they both belonged to me. But war is a leveler, old man. Tomorrow we shall fight, I shall seek him out and engage him. There will be no one to stop me now, and once I kill him in an open fair fight there shall be no more debate. This is my only calling, to kill Arjun. Because there can’t be two best archers in the world, one of us has to die.”
“You will win Angraj, you know that” the old man spoke contemplatively. “But your victory wouldn’t make you the best archer”.
“And why do you think so, old man”.
“Because of your golden kawach. No matter what Arjun tries, your kawach will stop his arrows. You will have to succeed only once, whereas even if he finds your heart with every arrow, he will not be able to pierce it.”
Karna stood there aghast for a moment. He was born with his kawach, it was a part of him, part of his identity. The old man continued “you will kill Arjun, not because you are the best archer, but because you have the best kawach. But you are much wiser than I’m, Angraj, you will know better”.
In that very moment Karna removed his angavastra and in a smooth movement of hands took out his kawach and put it on the ground. Next he removed the golden kundals and placed them next to the kawach. “I will not let anything get in the way of my being proclaimed the best archer, not even my father’s boon. Make sure you find a soldier tomorrow night who can tell you the story of my battle with Arjun, old man”
“You maybe a sut-putra, but your ego is that of a kshatriya” the old man remarked. Karna just smiled and walked away. He stopped and paused after taking a few steps. “I never asked your name. What is your name, old man?”
The old man paused for a bit, smiled and said “Keshav”.