The Mahabharata describes several close friendships: the friendship between Krishna and Arjuna, those between Krishna and Draupadi, the sages Nara and Narayana, Ashwatthama and Duryodhana, Drona and Drupada and so on, each uniquely fascinating in its own way. One of the friendships that get a lot attention in the epic is that between Karna and Duryodhana – between a man considered an ideal for high ethical principles, who is willing to give up his life itself for his principles and a man for whom power is the ultimate thing, for which he would sacrifice all ethics. This friendship is of central importance to the story of the epic – because Karna is Duryodhana’s greatest strength, the one man he can count on unconditionally, based on whose strength he does all kinds of atrocities throughout his life and finally goes to war with the Pandavas refusing to give them back as much land as the tip of a needle. In this study we are going to take a look at the journey of that friendship, the ups and downs it takes and many other fascinating aspects that are not widely understood. This will also be the study of a hero’s fascinating journey from darkness to light – ironically, the journey of the son of the sun god from darkness to light.
Karna with Duryodhana in Poisoning Child Bhima
To begin with, let’s get rid of a common misunderstanding. It is generally believed that the friendship of Karna, the son of the sun god and Kunti, and Duryodhana began in the arena where Duryodhana, his brothers, his cousins and other princes, all students of Guru Drona, were displaying their prowess in the martial arts they had learned under him. Towards the end of this display Karna enters the place and challenges Arjuna, but he is pronounced disqualified to make that challenge and ridiculed since he is not royalty. At this stage Duryodhana steps in heroically and says one should not look at the origin of rivers, saints and heroes, and hugging Karna and declaring him his friend, crowns him king of Anga. This is how the lifelong friendship begins – in popular perception.
But in reality, the friendship of the two is much older. They were childhood friends. After all, Karna was the son of Duryodhana’s father’s charioteer and it would be no wonder if Duryodhana had made friends with this amazing youth, older than him by a couple of years, who showed such great promise and great ambition.
An incident discussed in detail by the Adi Parva of the epic is the poisoning of Bhima by Duryodhana at Pramanakoti.
Duryodhana is only a young boy when the Pramanakoti episode takes place. The incident happens soon after Satyavati left Hastinapura along with her two daughters-in-law, Ambika and Ambalika, on the advice of her son Sage Vyasa, the author of the epic, who forewarned her of the terrible times ahead that would result from the actions of her great-grandsons and suggested that she should spend the rest of her life in the jungle in austerities and meditation, as was the practice in ancient India.
Duryodhana never liked the arrival of his cousins, the Pandavas, at Hastinapura following the death of their father Pandu. Without a doubt they were a threat to his authority and succession – after all, his own father Dhritarashtra was no more than a caretaker of the kingdom, a regent, and their father Pandu was the last officially crowned king of the Kurus. By traditional right the kingdom should pass down to Pandu’s eldest son Yudhishthira and Duryodhana was keenly aware of this.
To add to his pains, the second of the Pandavas, Bhima, was already emerging as more powerful than anyone of them and smarter than him and all his brothers. While there was no doubt that he ate more than any of them, he also had the best aim when they targeted objects, was the fastest of them all when they chased something or just raced, and when they played games like scattering dust, something very useful in combat, he outdid them all. Perhaps what Duryodhana found even more difficult to tolerate was that Bhima loved bullying them, laughing all the while, like by shaking trees and making them fall down when they were on trees and by doing other naughty things children with irrepressible energy do.
Considering all this, in the words of the Mahabharata, Duryodhana readies himself for what the epic calls ‘an act of sin’. His thoughts at this stage are made clear by the epic: he would eliminate Bhima and then “reign on his own as the sole king without being troubled by him.” The Mahabharata says what Bhima did to his cousins were the innocent acts of a child who had too much energy – they were not acts born of malevolence. Whereas what Duryodhana had in mind was not an impulsive act of a child, but a well thought out malevolent plan with a clear long time selfish goal. And he goes about the execution of his plan with thoroughness that would be admirable even in an adult, had it not been such a wicked act.
The first thing he does is to give orders for a beautiful mansion surrounded by rich gardens to be built at Pramanakoti on the banks of the Ganga. Then, when it is all ready, he invites the Pandava brothers for a picnic there – they shall have exquisite food and lots of fun there, he tells them. Duryodhana, the young boy, has made special arrangements to see that the food for Bhima is poisoned.
Duryodhana takes them all on a tour of the gardens and pleasure groves, and then, to use once again the words of the epic, “the wicked boy with honey on his tongue and a dagger in his heart” invites all the brothers to enjoy the rich food that has been cooked and while they do so, serves the3 unsuspecting Bhima the poisoned food. Following this, they all sport in water – Bhima as always more active than anyone else, constantly encouraging all to give themselves totally to the sport, as he himself did. Eventually they all lie down on the bank of the river to rest and relax – and Bhima easily goes into deep slumber, fatigued as he was with all the swimming and encouraging others, the poison at work in his body all the while.
That is precisely what Duryodhana has been waiting for. While all the brothers were taking a nap, Duryodhana ties the sleeping Bhima up with thick forest vines and then casts him into the river. Bhima floats down the river and then slowly sinks to the bottom of the Ganga.
What we see here is Duryodhana’s evil genius at work even at a very young age. Bhima is miraculously saved from certain death by a combination of events and comes back days later from the land of the Nagas where he reached, his strength multiplied many times.
But Duryodhana’s evil genius does not rest. Once again Duryodhana plots to kill Bhima with poison more deadly than before. Bhima is informed of this by Yuyutsu, Duryodhana’s half-brother who had become friendly with the Pandavas realizing their goodness, and Bhima in spite of knowing the food is poisoned, swallows it all without being harmed in the least by it because of the medicinal treatments he had received in the land of the Nagas. Attempt after attempt to end the life of the Pandavas – all of them, not just Bhima – continues for long.
We are told by the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata that Karna, along with Shakuni, was a part of all these evil acts.
evaṁ duryodhanaḥ karṇaḥ śakuniś cāpi saubalaḥ
anekair abhyupāyais tāñ jighāṁsanti sma pāṇḍavān
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Thus through numerous means Duryodhana, Karna and Shakuni the son of Subala repeatedly kept trying to kill the Pandavas.”
These incidents happen long before the princes become students of Guru Drona – even before they become students of Guru Kripa. Since the education of princes usually began at a young age, they must have been really young.
Karna was with Duryodhana from the beginning and he was part of the numerous wicked acts of the young boy whose ambitions were thwarted by the arrival of the Pandavas at Hastinapura. He planned these acts with Duryodhana and his uncle Shakuni and if he did so, in all likelihood he must also have been part of their execution. The fierce enmity that Karna displays in the arena does not begin with Drona’s announcement of Arjuna as the best warrior among the princes – it has a long history behind it. Along with Duryodhana, he hated the Pandavas right from the beginning.
To be continued....