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Karna – Masculine-Mask
Vulnerable Gender Identity
by Indrajit Bandyopadhyay Bookmark and Share

Continued from - Arjuna or Karna - Who was the Greatest?

As our ancient seers saw it (and modern ones try to echo), every human being, irrespective of one’s socially accepted or known or self-perceived identity of Gender and Sex, has both Masculine and Feminine dimensions in the Self; and depending on the deficit in Masculine or Feminine, every human being is trying to achieve the Balance – the Male-Female-Masculine-Feminine Balance, which is represented by the Ardhanaariishvara (Shiva) or Ardhanareshvarii (Vaac-Sarasvati) image. This Ardhanaariishvara/Ardhanareshvarii is the Ideal, and all human drama relating to and regarding Gender and Sex is owing to Disbalance, either of Masculine or Feminine. What is “Queer” to the academic world, rather the political academic world, particularly of the Western variety, is actually Naturalized Normative in Indian Tradition.

Identity and identity crisis is one recurrent theme in Krshnadvaipaayana Vyasa’s Mahabharata (Mbh.). In this article, taking Karna as one foremost example, I will argue and show that Karna’s identity and self-perceived identity is not just defined by his confusion of Purushaarthas, but more by a secret dimension relating to his Body and Location that lies in the Queerness in what he wants to Become and how he loses his Essence in the process. That secret dimension is actually how he wants to emulate and identify with his arch rival Arjuna, with an Arjuna-Ideal constantly in his consciousness and how he actually pursues that Ideal throughout his life and indeed wants to be subsumed in that Ideal to Become that Ideal.

Pursuing an Ideal is normal, however, what problematizes Karna’s pursuit is the perceived Queerness in Arjuna’s identity, if viewed through the filter of Teresa de Luretis’ “Queer Theory”, in that, Arjuna confuses and destabilizes conventional notion of sex, gender and desire in having a feminine and/or transgender side too as Brhannalaa, the Shandha [i], and even a Female form named Arjuni in Puranik narratives of Padma Purana.

As I will be discussing in this paper, in the context of Ancient Bhaaratavarsha, I accept Dowson’s definition of Queer Theory as “not restricted to homosexual men and women, but to anyone who feels their position (sexual, intellectual or cultural) to be marginalized” (Dowson 2000: 161).

“Marginalized” is our entry point in the present discussion, because Karna is popularly considered so. The popular notion of marginalized-Karna has of course its support in Mbh., for example in Narada’s words to Yudhishthira, “Even thus had thy brother been cursed and beguiled by many (evam shaptastavabhraataa bahubhishcaapi vancitah, 12.5.15a).” That makes Karna arguably the most popular archetype of Mbh. He is generally considered a Tragic Hero, also having its traditional base as in Bhaasa’s play Karnabhaaram, a one act play. It is a different matter and a matter of actually reading the Text that we get to see, Karna’s deprivation and victimization narrative comes to the fore only after his death and his acceptance as the eldest Pandava post-Kurukshetra War; in other words, after Karna is resurrected in favourable memory by the Pandavas. To be precise, Kunti and the Pandavas (Yudhishthira as foremost because other brothers are silent) and Vyasa of course (and Krshna) establish Karna in all his glory after his death.

Karna’s life is a rhythm of Dislocation and Relocation. His location is Divine because in Mythical Narrative, the Rgvedic God Suurya fathers him in Kshatriya Kunti’s womb as Kaaniina-Putra, a child born in mother’s maidenhood. However, though Kaaniina-Putra has legitimacy and social sanction, Kunti abandons him or gives him away in infancy to Adhiratha who is Dhrtaraashtra’s friend, an Suuta in Varna System and a member of the Anga royalty in order to protect the identity of Karna’s biological father (See - Karna's Father Found). She however, keeps track of Karna through spies.

Kunti’s abandonment or giving away of Karna is a parallel to the Rgvedic myth of Aditi’s abandonment of her eighth son Maartanda, another name of Suurya. Karna is thus dislocated from his mother’s lap and Varna Kshatriya berth. Though Dislocated, he is Relocated in Suuta royal family of Anga, and later even Relocated in status as King of parts of Anga, and cities of Champa and Malini. But before that, since his entry in Drona’s Gurukula, he nourishes an irrational envy for Arjuna, mythical son of Indra, since childhood seeing his excellence. He acknowledges Arjuna’s superiority with simultaneous impulse of Denial of Reality, and the negativity sees him (with Duryodhana, Duhshasana and Shakuni) plotting against life of Arjuna (and Pandavas) without success. The rivalry is fanned by Karna’s failure to string the bow in archery contest in Draupadi Svayamvara, which Arjuna succeeds. Karna now goes to the extent of Dislocating his own body by dismembering his innate Kavaca-Kundala to gain a Shakti weapon from Indra, the King of Gods, to kill Arjuna. Karna repeatedly defies his father Suurya and mother Kunti’s advice (and also Krshna’s) to return to the Pandava family fold and regain his place. He declares Honour as his ultimate goal, and even personifies honour as his Mother, and promises Kunti to spare the lives of Pandavas except Arjuna. However, in every encounter, Karna loses to Arjuna though never giving up hope, till his beheading by Arjuna in the climactic duel in Kurukshetra War.

The Karna-Arjuna war of brothers is regarded as mysterious even to the Gods (bhraatrnaam vigrahedevaguhye,  1.1.146c). The word “Guhya” should give us clue that there are other dimensions in Karna-Arjuna relation. Certain traits of Karna’s character manifesting through various events and narratives particularly involving Arjuna either directly or in very associated ways, indeed reveals Karna’s Queerness relating to his Body, Identity and Location. I would presently argue on such instances and show why I consider him Queer in pursuit of the Queer, the “Arjuna-Ideal.”

1. Surya-Putra Karna, Envy, Arjuna-Obsession

The Karna-Arjuna relation unfolds in social reality with an unreasonably emotive rancour and impulsive envy from Karna’s end. That Arjuna excels Drona’s other disciples including Karna in art of war through better dedication, concentration, talent, learning skill, Shraddhaa and Guru-Bhakti, and more favoured by Drona’s grace, despite being younger to Karna, are surely the reasons why Karna’s envy is so acidic. Karna can neither accept a younger boy excelling him in merit, nor can he fathom reasons why Arjuna should be more talented than him. And coupled with this is surely the perception that Karna appropriates and inculcates from Duryodhana in considering the Pandavas as Outsiders and threat to Duryodhana’s material interests.

During Gurukula days under Drona’s tutelage, Karna, clinging to and taking refuge in Duryodhana (upaashritya), is emulous, envious and inclined to rivalry with Arjuna (spardhamaanas), and quite out of temper (tyamarshanah), (1.122.47c-e).”

The Key word to understand Karna at this student phase is, I suggest, Spardha – to emulate. Emulation, since 1552, from Latin æmulationem, from æmulari connotes "to rival, strive to excel," and from æmulus "striving, rivaling," from the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) *aim-olo; however, the PIE base *aim- connotes "copy", and is related to Latin imitari "imitate," and to Latin imago "image." In short, Spardha suggests Karna’s desire to copy and imitate Arjuna, which has the psychological significance that Karna wants to Become like Arjuna or Become Arjuna.

Envy never allows one to realize the Deep Layer Reality; thus Karna engages in Denial of Reality through self-nourished web of negative energy, though in his subconscious is the acknowledgment that Arjuna is “superior to everyone in the science of weapons” and more knowledgeable and more skilled in archery (vidyaadhikam  athaalakshya dhanurvede dhanamjayam, 12.2.9a)”. Karna’s next step of leaving Drona and going to “Parashuraama” for arms, betrays that his whole existence pivots around Arjuna, his unknown and at least 10 years younger brother.

Ironically, such negativity and negation marks the birth of obsession; and indeed Karna becomes obsessed with Arjuna. We have no information in Mahabharata that there has been any provocation from Arjuna’s end except Arjuna’s self-competitive spirit and tremendous zeal to excel and out-excel himself. Karna’s negative energy imbibes the energy of Arjuna’s positivity too through Karna’s desire to emulate – Spardha.

Karna’s concentration scatters elsewhere in pursuit of an image. That image is his Ideal, and the more Karna realizes the prospect of Arjuna nearing that Ideal, envy distances Karna from that Ideal. The irony of the whole of such situation is: Karna’s Ideal and the Arjuna-image that he nourishes in his mind and self, gradually begins to merge into one. Arjuna, for Karna, becomes the Maayaa Mrga, who fascinates him, yet whom Karna pursues with desire to kill.

Karna is no Type Character, Mahaakaavya does not permit that. The Karna in infancy, adolescence, youth and mature age, cannot be the same Karna; and we find, the blindly jealous-Karna of childhood is not the same Karna of Viraata Parvan or the Karna of Karna Parvan. And the new dimension added to his Self-Evolution is through the gradually-gained Shraddhaa for Arjuna. His desire to prove himself superior to Arjuna and kill Arjuna remains, but his incurable Arjuna-Obsession is now tinged with Shraddhaa; however, in his urge to Become, the “Arjuna-Ideal” becomes subsuming.

During Draupadi Svayamvara, Karna believes Arjuna to be dead (because he plotted with Duryodhana to burn the Pandavas alive in Vaaranaavata and thought he had succeeded), yet, while he fails to fight with and win over the Braahmana-guised Arjuna, he claims, “No other person except Indra and Arjuna is capable of fighting with me when I am angry on the field of battle (1.181.18).” The only Human Being that Karna names is Arjuna. Mentioning Arjuna at par with Indra, and in same breath with Parashuraama, his “Guru”, and Vishnu (1.181.16-17), Karna has clearly set Arjuna as an Ideal. Besides, there has not been any duel between Karna and Arjuna till that date. So, how could Karna say that no human being except Arjuna is capable of fighting with him? Surely, Karna has been imagining duel with Arjuna, but what wonders is that, even in that fantasy, Karna could not prevail over Arjuna! This reveals his Shraddhaa for Arjuna which he refuses to recognize. More importantly, this reveals his obsession with Arjuna; that is, Arjuna is so alive to him and pervades his consciousness that he uses present tense about Arjuna, though to his knowledge, Arjuna is dead. Karna does not claim here that he is capable of vanquishing Arjuna. This is his Recognition and Acknowledgment against Will that Arjuna is superior to him.

Karna’s speech at Viraata Parvan (4.43) is a wonderful exposure of his psyche. When he sees Arjuna entering the battlefield, he becomes poetic and his fantasy takes flight; he imagines himself as the banks that resist the swelling sea (Arjuna) (aham aavaarayishyaami veleva makaraalayam, 4.32.2c); he imagines “Strongly pressed by these winged arrows, the bow-string will cause these my leathern fences to produce sounds that will be heard to resemble those of a couple of kettle-drums (shruuyataam talayoh shabdo bheryor aahatayor iva, 5c).”

Later, for example, in Karna Parvan, Karna acknowledges Arjuna as the best - “Who is there on earth that is superior to him (Arjuna)? (ko naama tenaabhyadhikah prthivyaam, 8.57.43c).” Shraddhaa is evident, though he tags every praise for Arjuna with his desire to kill him. In his Shraddhaa and praise for Arjuna, Karna becomes poetic and composes poetry about himself. This is unique. In epic poetry, the poet sings the glory of the hero and infuses him with epic grandeur. Here, Karna sings his own paean comparing himself with the continent resisting the Ocean (Arjuna) (8.29.10), with a mass of clouds, completely shrouding with arrows the sun (Arjuna) (8.29.13), “Like Himavat bearing the mighty, all-crushing, fierce and smiting god of wind, I shall, without moving, bear the angry and vindictive Dhanamjaya (8.29.15).”

Karna’s comparison with infinite dimensions of nature evokes Epic Grandeur; however, being self-created, the Grandeur betrays engrossing fascination with objectified Self-Self, and points to problems with his Body and Identity. One easily notices, how Karna’s thought works in the future tense, and his ‘I’-ness or fascination with his own self is a constant refrain. Judged against the Nishkaama philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, Karna’s mind is pre-occupied with the Karma-Phala rather than focus on the Karma at hand. But is his poetic fantasy real poetry? As we shall see, Karna’s poetic fantasy is only an Escape-Route though it serves as a strong Defense-Mechanism for him, reminding of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. When Karna tells Krshna that there is no return for him, he in fact sounds like Macbeth: “I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, /  Returning were as tedious as go o'er.” (Act 3, Scene 4)

What surprises is how Karna has blended his own glory with Arjuna’s, and is in fact concerned with Arjuna’s glory too: “If I do not now engage in a single combat with Arjuna, this will, O Hrshiikesha, be inglorious for both myself and Paartha (5.139.18).” Karna has settled that either he or Arjuna would have to die physically, but the Ideal would remain alive surviving in either ways -by negation, or by assertion. Karna imagines the forthcoming Kurukshetra War as Sacrifice, and his poetry flows as usual – Arjuna would be the Hotr,  his bow Gaandiiva would be the sacrificial ladle, and Arjuna’s weapons would be the Mantras (of that sacrifice) (5.139.29-32).

Isn’t there Queerness in Karna in such a relation with and attitude to Arjuna?

2. Karna in pursuit of the Queer, the “Arjuna-Ideal

If Arjuna is the Queer with Balance, Karna is the Queer without that Balance. Mbh. offers us enough clues to understand the nature of Karna’s Queerness, Deficit of Feminine, and his pursuit of the Queer, the “Arjuna-Ideal”. Now, I would be examining the following narratives to understand, how Karna’s problem with Gender and his own Gender is the same with that of his Identity problem, and it manifests mostly in his relation to the Female and Feminine, Woman in general, Mother-Figure and Father-Figure, and “Queer” Arjuna.

First, Karna’s friendship with Duryodhana grows on unity of negative energy. Naarada ascribes many reasons of Karna’s early friendship with Duryodhana – constant hate for Pandavas (nityasamdvishto), work of Fate (daivaac) and his own nature (svabhaavatah) (12.2.8c). Dvishta means “hate, dislike, odious, hostile.” This emotion has again insecurity lurking at its heart. Karna thus shares Duryodhana’s insecurity too. Despite being elder to Duryodhana by at least six years if not more, he absolutely subordinates himself to Duryodhana, yet he remains a father-figure to Kurus. Vyasa describes Karna’s effort to rescue the Kurus after Bhiishma’s death as that of a father’s endeavor in relation to his sons (piteva putraams tvarito 'bhyayaat tatah, 7.2.3c). Yet this Father has absolute subservience to Duryodhana; for example, when Karna says “We are all servants of the king (Duryodhana) waiting upon him with joined palms! We should, therefore, do what is agreeable to him! (priyam  sarve cikiirshaamo raajnah kimkarapaanayah / na caasya shaknumah sarve priye sthaatum atandritaah, 3.8.16)”

On another occasion, to thwart Duryodhana’s committing suicide, Karna says, “If thou, O king, dost not act according to my words I shall stay here employed in reverentially serving thy feet” (sthaasyaamiiha bhavatpaadau shushruushann arimardana, 3.238.47c).

When do we last remember Karna ever touching Bhiishma, Drona, Dhrtaraashtra, or even his “Guru” Parashuraama’s feet? And here is a flatterer who would serve younger Duryodhana’s feet!

The subservience is again doubtful because Karna’s whole obsession is killing Arjuna only, and for that he promises Kunti to spare the lives of other four brothers, and to making peace with Yudhishthira having vanquished Arjuna (12.1.30). This would suggest, Karna abandoning Duryodhana’s desire of becoming sole Kuru Empire. Earlier, Karna even tells Krshna that he expects Pandava victory. Yet this Karna has said to Krshna, “For the sake of death, or the ties of blood, or fear, or temptation, I cannot venture to behave falsely towards the intelligent son of Dhritarashtra (5.139.17c).”

There is clear problem in Karna-Duryodhana Male-Male friendly relation. Duryodhana himself is a figure of hyped Masculinity with prominent Deficit in Feminine. (See- Dharma-Yuddha, Duryodhana's Raajadharma and deficit of the 'Feminine') Despite the façade of friendship and love, there has to be ‘disturbance’ in Karna-Duryodhana relation. I would say this is owing to Karna’s perceived gender identity of Duryodhana, as also the crisis in his own gender identity undetected to himself.

The first stepping stone to spirituality is the courage of transparent self-perception. Karna lacks that – another characteristic that makes Shakespeare’s Macbeth somewhat akin to him.

Secondly, we find Karna’s defying his biological mother Kunti and father (Mythical) Suurya and refusing to return to the family despite their repeated efforts. When Kunti meets Karna on the eve of war, Suurya too advises Karna to act according to his mother’s words (maatrvacah kuru) because Karna’s great good is in his following her words (shreyas te syaan naravyaaghra sarvam aacaratas tathaa, 5.144.2). But Karna pays no heed to his words, blames Kunti for abandoning him in infancy and causing him injury, risking his life that has destroyed his achievements and fame (yashahkiirtinaashanam, 5.144.5).

On a relative plain, Karna is not entirely wrong even if he lacks understanding of and compassion for a Kanyaa mother’s predicament and dilemma; however, the complexity lies in Karna’s substituting the Mother for Fame itself. “Fame” is an abstract. However, how easily Karna can say that his fame is like Mother who keeps alive people (kiirtir hi purusham loke samjiivayati maatrvat, 3.284.32a), and to him, Fame is to be protected even at the sacrifice of his life (jiivitenaapi me rakshyaa kiirtis tad viddhi me vratam, 38c).

Defiance of the Mother, yet substituting the Mother in an Abstract (Fame) is tragic (Karunya Rasa) no doubt, but also symptomatic of problem in terms of Identity because here is confusion of the Abstract and Real. More significantly, though Karna blames Kunti here, while speaking with Krshna before, he has blamed Suurya too – “And at the command of Surya himself, she abandoned me as soon as I was born (aadityavacanaac caiva  jaatam maamsaa vyasarjayat, 5.139.3c).” This implies a troubled relation with the Father too, confirming the complexity of being Father-Figure to Duryodhana. Despite defying his mother, Karna allows her embrace (aashlishya, 5.144.23c), and pleased, Karna salutes her (taam karno 'bhyavadat priitas); finally both go separate ways (jagmatuh prthak, 26c). And here Karna does not touch Kunti’s feet, the same Karna who is willing to serve Duryodhana’s feet.

Thirdly, that Karna’s problem with Identity relates to Gender is evident in his occasional misogynic outbursts, typical patriarchal frame of mind and orthodoxy. He considers woman as husband’s property, and with that logic he considers Draupadi as won in the infamous Dice Game: “Since Yudhishthira has committed his ALL in this assembly… Draupadi is included in that ALL (2.61.31c-32a)”; and further justifies that SHakuni has won all treasure by Dharma (sarvam dharmena vijitam vasu, 37c), thereby including Draupadi as inanimate treasure – “Vasu”. (The irony cannot be missed, Karna’s original name being Vasushena). Not only that, it is Karna who proposes Draupadi-Disrobing, and justifies it by calling her bandhakii (unchaste woman) because of her polyandrous marriage:

“The gods have ordained only one husband for one woman (ekobhartaastriyaadevairvihitah, 35a). However, Draupadi being obedient wife of many (anekavashagaa) is certainly an unchaste woman  (bandhakiitivinishcitaa, 35c). To bring her, therefore, into this assembly attired though she be in one piece of cloth - even to uncover her (vivastrataa) should not appear (to all) as a strange or surprising act in my opinion (nacitramiti me matih, 36). Duhshasana, Take off the robes of the Pandavas as also the attire of Draupadi (draupadyaashcaapyupaahara, 2.61.38c).”

And after this command, Duhshasana forcibly seizing Draupadi's attire (vasanambalaat) began to take away and pile it (samaakshipya) by dragging and pulling it off her person in the midst of the Sabhaa (sabhaamadhye  vyapakrashtum pracakrame, 2.61.40).

In venting his spleen on Draupadi and proposing exposure of her body to public gaze, Karna uses a word that deserves special mention – vashagaa - obedient. Draupadi's polyandrous marriage troubles him as much as her Obedience to her husbands. Karna’s disrespect for Draupadi and woman in general is however, not without significant complexity. First, Draupadi loves Arjuna the most. Secondly, after Draupadi takes a Proactive role in salvaging the Pandavas from that humiliating situation, Karna is the first to openly express admiration for her:

“We have never heard of such an act (as this one of Draupadi), performed by any of the women noted in this world for their beauty. When the sons of both Pandu and Dhrtaraashtra were excited with wrath, this Draupadi became unto the sons of Pandu as their salvation. Indeed the princess of Paancaala, becoming as a boat unto the sons of Pandu who were sinking in a boatless ocean of distress, hath brought them in safety to the shore” (2.64.1-3).

This fascinating remark brings out the goodness in fascinated Karna, and we remember how he was Kaama-struck at Draupadi during her Svayamvara and how he felt jealousy for other kings present there (that should include Duryodhana too) (1.178.5), and how he vented his frustrated Kaama through aggressiveness by heading the attack of kings against Arjuna (in Braahmana guise) (1.181.7a) who had won the archery contest.

If Karna’s indecent proposal to disrobe Draupadi betrays frustrated Kaama, his subsequent eulogizing her rings a genuine note and redeems him to some extent as much bringing him at par in identification with Arjuna, because Arjuna too loves Draupadi (e,g. Priyaa, 3.161.26e). Again, this is complex because though later Karna repents his action in Dice-Game Sabhaa, and his harsh words to Pandavas (15.139.45), he does not explicitly mention Draupadi.

We have seen Karna substituting the real mother with an abstract mother – “Fame” – and here is Karna substituting real Draupadi with “object” Draupadi, and subsequently elevating her to an almost abstract level. Karna’s masculinity is definitely not in touch with his own feminine side.

Fourthly, why Karna’s misogyny further points to problem with his Gender identity is that, such misogynic outbursts occur at unexpected places quite abruptly. For example, while thinking all about Arjuna and boasting that he can kill thousand Vaasudeva-Krshnas and hundreds of Arjuna (8.27.70a), Karna disparages Shalya’s country Madra as sinful one, charges the people of Madra for promiscuity, incest (8.27.74-76a), mingling sexually with even male and female slaves (daasiidaasam ca samgatam, 76a), and then suddenly in a generalization-spree starts castigating women for sexually mingling, at their own will, with men known and unknown (pumbhir vimishraa naaryash ca jnaataajnaataah svayecchayaa, 76c), for laughing and crying having drunk spirits and eaten beef (piitvaa siidhum sagomaamsam nardanti ca hasanti ca, 77c) in their home (grheshu, 77a), for singing incoherent songs and mingle lustfully with one another (pravartante ca kaamatah, 78a), indulging the while in the freest and lustful speeches (kaamapralaapino, 78c).

Further, “Those women that, intoxicated by spirits, cast off their robes and dance, those women that are not attached (to particular individuals) in the matter of intercourse and that they do as they please without owning any restrictions (vaasaamsy utsrjya nrtyanti striyo yaa madyamohitaah/mithune 'samyataash caapi yathaa kaamacaraash ca taah, 8.27.85).” Karna even generalizes how these women answer call of nature – “Those women that live and answer calls of nature like camels and asses (86a).” Karna’s anger and disgust does not end here; he goes on: “The young Madraka maidens, we hear, are generally very shameless and hairy (89a) and gluttonous and impure (89c).”

Karna then says that he recalls his Guru Bhaargava Raama’s narrating him of Kshatriyas laying down their lives in battle (98), and adds that he is prepared for rescuing his side (99a) and slaying their foes, he is now determined to imitate the excellent behaviour of Puruuravaa (99c).

Two things are to be noted here: Karna’s criticizing women of Madra at inappropriate time, particularly Brhatii women (naaryo brhatyo, 89a), and his identifying with Pururava. First, Draupadi is hailed as Brhatii (5.88.85a, 135.17-18; 15.23.9a; 17.3.36), the significance of which I have discussed elsewhere as having Vaak significance (See - Draupadi, the Brhati Shyaamaa, the Lost Sarasvati); and secondly, Pururava is not only ancestor of Kuru-Pandavas, but is specially remembered for his love affair with Urvashi (RgVeda - 10.95.1-18; SHatapatha  Braahmana 11.5.1). And if Urvashii comes to mind via Pururava, can Arjuna be far behind?

Fifthly, Karna’s generalizing spree and misogyny is evident in several occasions too. No one is shocked at Draupadi's polyandrous marriage, not even Dhrtaraashtra or Duryodhana. Duryodhana suggests creating dissension among Pandavas by manipulating their love for Draupadi and by other means. Karna’s reaction to Duryodhana’s speech is even revealing in that he comments - “women always like to have many husbands (bahubhartrtaa, 8a), Krshnaa hath obtained her wish. She can never be estranged from the Pandavas (1.194.8c).”

Such generalized comment is problematic because Karna’s charge against women applies to his own wives too. In that case, Karna’s relation with his wives becomes questionable. In any case, we get a picture of Karna’s mind that is not in comfort zone with woman, either mother, wives or the third woman – Draupadi.

Sixthly, coupled with this misogyny is Karna’s fascination with Arjuna’s Body and simultaneous desire to kill that Body. He imagines touching Arjuna’s body which is like Ashani of Indra to Touch (Indra ashani saama sparsham, 4.43.12a), impliedly ‘hard’ (as Kisari Mohan Ganguli translates) and then wants to “make agitated, torment, hurt, kill” (ardayishyaamy, 12c) that body like burning brands afflicting elephants (ulkaabhir iva kunjaram, 12c), or like Garuda seizing a snake. To him, Arjuna is irresistible like fire (tam agnim iva durdharsham), and fed by the fuel of swords, darts, and arrows (asishaktisharendhanam, 13a), the blazing Pandava-fire (Pandavaagnim);however, Karna would extinguish the fire by becoming a mighty cloud incessantly dropping an arrowy shower (sharadhaaro mahaameghah shamayishyaami Pandavam, 14c). In same breath Karna imagines Arjuna’s hard Ashani-like body as soft as ant-hill and his arrows penetrating through it (valmiikam iva pannagaah, 15c), and yet immediately imagines Arjuna’s arrow-pierced blood-drenched Body as a hill covered with Karnikara flowers (15d*826_2).”

Imagination of a warrior as elephant and snake, and arrows as snakes penetrating that body are common imagery and epic tropes of Vyasa when he narrates war or describes prowess of characters; however, what makes this situation unique is Karna’ self-imaginations, objectifying himself, and his himself becoming a poet to describe futuristic exploits of Object-Subject. Therefore, phallic dimensions of the imagery, from a Freudian Point of View, cannot be overlooked. Karna is Vedajnaa (knowledgeable in Vedas); so his comparing Arjuna with the foremost Gods of the Vedas – Indra and Agni – almost sounds like a Vedic hymn. His tremendous admiration and reverence for Arjuna reveals. But here comes the joint. Karna’s fantasy carries him far; he dramatizes his own heroic role in fantasizing arrow-pierced Arjuna’s body but never losing the poetic strain. Karna enjoys the fantasy of a mangled Body of Arjuna still retaining its beauty. His imagination of Arjuna’s Body hints at sado-masochistic dimensions as also discontent with his own Body and Identity.

In exchange of his Kavaca-Kundala, from Indra, Karna seeks a SHakti that would be “a dart incapable of being baffled, and competent to destroy hosts of enemies when arrayed in order of battle (amoghaamshatrusamghaana  -  amghaataniimprtanaamukhe, 21c)”, but on Indra’s insistence, he modifies the prayer in favour of a Shakti, an unfailing killer (amoghaahanti, 3.294.24a) of one enemy (ekamripum, 26a) who roars and rumbles like cloud (garjantam, 26c) and is hot like the sun or fire (pratapantam, 26c), and of whom Karna is in fear (yato mama bhayambhavet, 26c). Karna thus admits he is frightened of Arjuna.

We understand how deeply Karna is entangled with Arjuna-image. He fears Arjuna, he admires Arjuna, he wants to be like Arjuna, he wants to be “Arjuna”, he fantasizes Arjuna’s body, and he wants to touch Arjuna’s body! These reactions in one’s mind relating to Arjuna (and his Image and Body) would give us the impression that we are speaking of a female-lover to Arjuna, unless we are suddenly jolted that we are speaking of Karna!

Seventhly, the obsession with Arjuna and his Body come with sado-masochistic touch, because Karna’s desire to dismember or kill Arjuna, leads Karna to dislocate his own body in giving away his innate Kavaca-Kundala to Indra despite pre-advice of his Father Suurya to the contrary. Karna cuts off (utkrtya, 3.294.30a) the Kavaca-Kundala, but does not want his body to be cut up (nikrtteshucagaatreshu, 30c) and appear Biibhatsa (connoting “loathsome, disgusting, revolting, and hideous”) (na me biibhatsataabhavet, 30c). Significantly, Biibhatsu is one name of Arjuna, because of his never having committed a detestable deed on the battle-field (nakuryaam karma biibhatsam yudhyamaanah kathamcana, 4.39.16a). This reveals how Karna’s decision to dismember himself is propelled not only by his Arjuna-Consciousness, but also a queer desire to Become Biibhatsu in the same sense of the word of not doing anything cruel to the Body; towards Other’s Body in case of Arjuna, and towards Self-Body in case of Karna.

Further to note, Karna seeks compensation of the dislocation/ dismembering of his Body with desire to have a skin and appearance akin to a typical Female’s desire of a feminine Body in comparison to Arjuna’s bowstring scarred Body. Indra accepts Karna’s prayer and blesses him that his person shall not be unsightly nor shall any scar remain on it (natebiibhatsataakarnabhavishyatikathamcana / vranashcaapinagaatreshu, 3.294.31), and that his complexion would be bright like his father (yaadrshastepiturvarnas, 32a). Ironically thus, Karna’s Body assumes a feminine appearance in contrast to Arjuna’s masculine and bowstring wound marked Body. Vyasa, in describing Arjuna says that Arjuna’s symmetrical and long arms have the skin hardened by constant strokes of the bowstring and cicatrices which resemble those on the shoulder of Cows [ii] (yasyabaahuusamaudiirghaujyaaghaatakathinatvacau
dakshinecaivasavyecagavaamivavahahkrtah, 4.2.18). I focus on the word “gavaam” (cows). Vyasa thus describe Arjuna as muscular and masculine, yet feminine too. Indeed without such unique physique, Arjuna certainly could not have been a great Shilpii. And needless to explain, Vyasa thus hints at Arjuna’s Ardhanaariishvara dimension (Masculine-Feminine Balance).

Now, if Karna is obsessed with Arjuna, Arjuna’s Image and Body, Karna is then in actual pursuit of the Ardhanaariishvara-dimension. And with his projected hyper masculinity, his Self has actually Deficit in Feminine, striving to attain the Masculine-Feminine Balance through regaining the Feminine-dimension.

Kavaca protects, but the Kavaca also hides. Karna’s severing his innate Kavaca-Kundala gains the symbolic and literal dimension of baring his chest vis-à-vis Arjuna.

Eighthly, Karna makes a strange vow of not to allow his feet washed (by anyone) so long Arjuna is not dead (paadau na dhaavaye taavad yaavan na nihato 'rjunah, 3.243.15c) or that he would not wash his feet as long as Arjuna lives (Yudhishthira: naaham paadau dhaavayishye kadaacid; yaavat sthitah paartha, 8.46.38a) (also remembered by Arjuna at 8.52.13d*791_6).

Why this strange vow? What is the significance? Karna’s vow seems to have no meaning because later he would stand in Gangaa to pray for Suurya, which would wash his feet anyway. Even apparently, the vow is unhygienic, and even by common sense such conduct renders one misfit to get on bed. In the light of Yajurveda 5.6 Mantra connected with wife of the sacrifice, in which foot-washing water is revered for sacrifice by the wife, Karna’s refusal to wash foot is indeed a vow of abstention from Sex, as also his refusal to Sacrifice. Significantly, Sacrifice is also metaphor for Sexual Intercourse (Brhadaaranyaka Upanishad 6.4.3). In Vashishtha Dharmasuutra (1.3.26), washing feet is a Kshatriya ritual for protecting the people; Karna’s vow may thus be taken as a fall from Kshatriya Ideology.

In other words, forcing himself into forced-Brahmacarya that has no spiritual merit, Karna, in his Arjuna-obsession, actually suppresses Kaama and deprives himself and his wives of Kaama, though, as he admits to Krshna, his heart has become tied to his wives (and sons and grandsons) by the bond of Kaama (taasu me hrdayam krshna samjaatam kaamabandhanam, 5.139.11). Again, the sado-masochistic dimension is unmistakable. If Arjuna-obsession interrupts Karna’s love for his wives and his wives’ right to be loved, then indeed Karna has problems with his Gender-identity further complicated by the Ambiguity and uniqueness of Arjuna’s Gender-Identity.

Karna’s Deficit in Feminine (that is, denying the Feminine-Self) is not just a matter of imagination; but Vyasa, at least once, endows Karna with an explicit Feminine physical aspect that would bolster our argument that Karna’s hyper masculinity (which is actually Deficit in Feminine) manifested through his oft vain boastings, is actually a denial of his own Feminine-Self.

Karna’s Feet is Feminine. Yudhishthira says that while his wrath was provoked by the harassment in Dice-Game Sabhaa, it became cooled at Karna’s sight (karnamdrshtvaaprashaamyati, 39c), particularly at the sight of his feet (paadautasyaniriikshyaa, 41a) because his feet resembled Kunti’s feet (kuntyaa hi sadrshaupaadau, 12.1.41c). The calmness he gained by finding that resemblance, enabled Yudhishthira to assume defiance to not place himself under Karna’s orders (drshtvaivatamnaanugatahKarnam, 18.2.8a). In other words, Yudhishthira finds Mother-image through Karna and gains strength of mind; however, ironically, Karna himself remains unaware of the Mother in him. He is thus the Queer.

The denial is at the Surface Layer of his consciousness; however, human Self and nature cannot be suppressed by conscious self alone. Karna’s nature striving under the oppression of his conscious self, thus manifests through Arjuna-obsession, which is actually his nature’s desire to be the Ardhanaariishvara, the “Arjuna-Ideal.”

Ninthly, a rationalistic reading of the text suggests, Karna engages in series of lies and fantasies to inflate his prowess in Duryodhana’s eyes, and even self-deludes in believing himself at par or superior to Arjuna. For example, problematic is Karna’s claim of possessing the foremost of bows named Vijaya Bow (vijayam naama tad dhanuh 36a) which he claims Vishvakarman, desirous of doing what was agreeable to Indra made for Indra (indraartham abhikaamena nirmitam vishvakarmanaa, 36c); and later Indra gave to Bhaargava Parashuraama (37e), and Parashuraama has given it to him (38a). Karna claims Vijaya is superior to Arjuna’s bow named Gaandiiva (dhanur 8.22.39a). However, nowhere before Karna Parvan do we ever find any mention of this bow.

Actually, Karna’s claim of having Vijaya bow given by Parashuraama is a clear fantasy or sort of Political Propaganda, if we are polite not to call it lie. Even sometime after speaking of Vijaya Bow in Karna Parvan, Karna speaks of “multiple bows” (dhanuumshi, 8.26.57a) to Shalya, and here he claims that Parashurama had gifted him the foremost of chariots with foremost of steeds (8.26.56), but not mentioning Vijaya bow this time. In Shaanti-Parvan (12.3) in Naarada’s words we learn that Karna procured many weapons from Parashurama, but there is no mention of Vijaya Bow. Further, in Drona Parvan when Karna joins the war after Bhishma’s fall, Karna mentions his bows and arrows that resemble fire, poison, or snakes (dhanuh sharaamsh caapi vishaahikalpaan, 23c); then he orders his attendants to equip his chariot with a number of excellent bows (7.2.24a) and “a number of excellent bows of great toughness (7.2.28).”What we find here: Karna wants to equip his chariot with multiple bows, and he does not mention Vijaya.

How Karna is Arjuna-obsessed is evident from the fact that Vijaya is actually Arjuna’s name (4.39.12) that he gained because he never returns from battle without vanquishing foes; and if that Fantasy Bow originally belongs to Indra, Indra is Arjuna’s mythical father too. This fantasy about or obsession with Arjuna, when read in the light of Rshi Payu Bharadvaaja’s RgVeda 6.75, reveals even a deeper dimension. At Rk 3 of this Sukta, the bowstring, drawn tight upon the bow, in repeatedly approaching the Karna (ear), is imagined as one (with gender and sex may be both masculine and feminine or male and female) embracing his/her friend (Sakhaa), the Arrow, to say something agreeable, and next imagined as a woman whispering to her man-lover or husband. In Rk 6.75.4, the Rshi imagines the Bow itself as Woman in both her lover and mother role. The Rk 2, mentions the word Jaya like a refrain - dhanvanaa gaa dhanvanaajim jayema dhanvanaa tiivraah samado jayema … sarvaah pradisho jayema (with the bow may we be victorious in battle may we overcome our fierce exulting enemies with the bow, or may we be victors with Bow in our hot encounters; may we subdue with the bow all hostile countries), and Jaya is also Arjuna’s name (e.g. 3.155.2c) as also the original name of Mahabharata.

Vijaya is a rare word in RgVeda. The word Vijaya is found in a Rk to Indra (RV- 2.12.9) and in another Rk to Manyu (who is ex-Indra RV- 10.83.2), we find the word Vijaya (RV- 10.84.4). Now, in Mahabharata, Duryodhana is identified with Manyu (1.1.65). Thus Karna’s fantasy bow named Vijaya may also be for evoking Manyu or Duryodhana’s name. The Suukta 6.75 composed by a Bharadvaaja Rshi is of interest, because Drona, the common Guru of Karna and Arjuna, is Bharadvaaja Rshi’s son (Drona’s father is of course a late Bharadvaaja, and indicates Drona’s Gotra identity). Now, Karna as Vedajnaa must be knowing this Suukta too.

Karna’s Vijaya Bow, or rather his fantasy to possess a Vijaya Bow is actually the expression of his innermost desire to possess both Manyu-Vijaya-Duryodhana and Vijaya-Arjuna, that is, both the Masculine (of Duryodhana), Masculine-Feminine (of Brhannalaa, Arjuna), Feminine (of artistic Arjuna) and Female-feminine (Bow). Karna’s nature, the Inner-Self, locked in Male-masculine gender seeks freedom thus.

Tenthly, there is more to Vijaya; Shiva’s terrible, sharp-pointed, well-decorated trident is also called Vijaya (vijayo naama rudrasya yaati shuulah svalamkrtah, 3.221.10c).” Shiva Ardhanaariishvara plays a central role in Mbh. In a unique way, Shiva is again connected with Arjuna because armed with Shiva-gifted Paashupata, he is Shiva-like, other than sharing the Ardhanaariishvara aspect. Indeed, Karna himself compares Arjuna with Shiva on the eve of his climactic battle with Arjuna. Karna urges Shalya to be his charioteer just as Shiva’s is Brahmaa (iishaanasya yathaa brahmaa) and Arjuna’s is Krshna (8.25.7). In fantasizing Vijaya Bow, Karna thus seeks the Queer, the “Arjuna-Ideal.”
To be continued

[i] Generally connoting Eunuch or Hermaphrodite, but what complicates is that, according to Lexicographers, Shandha is also Shiva’s one name
[ii] KMG translates ‘hump of Bull’, but I think he misses the Subtlety of the Shloka thus

More by :  Indrajit Bandyopadhyay
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