Author’s note: The story doesn’t intend to disrespect anyone based on their parentage. It just speaks of a person who has been raised in the society that gives more credit to birth than ability.
Karna is a central character in Mahabharata, the longest and most revered epic in Sanskrit. He is the illegitimate son of the Sun God and Princess Kunti. He faces too many caste-based prejudices because he is raised by a low-caste Charioteer. Visit Wikipedia to know more about him. This story is set in the morning of the longest day of his life–when he joins the greatest war of ancient history.
Karna was fuming after his conversation with the Sun God–his real father. His entire life was a lie.
For nearly seventy years, he had believed he was the son of a lowly Charioteer. He had struggled with casteism for every privilege reserved for higher castes: education, power and rightful recognition as the world’s best warrior. But the world had jeered at him, declining him a single chance to show his true mettle, simply because he wasn’t born in a Kshatriya family. If it wasn’t for Prince Duryodhan who made him the king of Angadesh, he would be scrubbing horses and sleeping in stables.
And today, when Prince Duryodhan has given him the chance to lead his army in the greatest of all wars against his illegitimate cousins–the Pandavas, the war that may finally give him the recognition he had always craved for…
He had arrived at the river to pray to the Sun God as usual, and there he was, standing in all his glory, to tell him that he was a Prince, a Kshatriya, a demi-god…
And a bastard!
He couldn’t remember how many times in his life had he wished to have the royal blood, so that he could be an equal of his best friend. Now he did–as the eldest son of Rajmata Kunti, born while she was still unmarried. She still has a brood of five similar sons, the Pandavas, ‘blessings’ from five gods after her marriage to the impotent King Pandu. Her husband had approved of them. He, on the other hand, was born before marriage and she had cast him away in the river.
He had never hated Arjun so much before–his arch-enemy was now his step-brother. She had kept him and the other four sons, raised them as kind princes and capable warriors who were respected and loved by all, while he lived his life as Duryodhan’s lapdog. He might be a king, but his subjects clearly didn’t approve.
The number of times he had jeered at Pandavas because of their many fathers…it all came back to him. Now, he was one of them. What would his best friend think of him now? Will he still let him lead his army?
As he finished his daily prayers, he could see Kunti at a distance, hesitating from approaching him. He gave the customary bow and waited for her to speak.
“How are you, Son?” She had always addressed him as “Son”. But today, he could understand the true meaning of the word.
“My lady, how can I serve you today?”
“I came to see my son today.”
He could see her steeling herself for the onslaught. He had no pity for her. “There is none here. You should perhaps look a little further in the Pandavas’ camp.”
Undeterred, she continued, “I’ve come to see my first-born, the son of the Sun God, born with the fiery temper of his father–who will be the next King of Hastinapur (Delhi).”
“Hastinapur belongs to the true descendants of King Shantanu. It is not up to a woman to give it away to those who have the blood of several unknown men”, he dealt a low blow.
She stood strong though, “The true descendant of Shantanu do not deserve to be kings. They are vain and self-serving. They do not know justice and their subjects are mere means to fulfill their ends. They keep vile company that advises them to destroy their people and businesses. Their best men are hog-tied by oath to serve the king, incapable of stopping injustice, and they stand by watching women being raped in public.”
“And am I not one of the vile company? As far as I remember, I am Duryodhan’s best friend.”
“You are, but Pandavas–your brothers–are capable administrators and advisors. They had given 26 years of their lives to make Hastinapur a land of opportunity–converting arid lands to fertile farms, and dense forests infested by demons into fruit orchards. They had invited farmers, tradesmen and craftsmen from different kingdoms with a promise of a peaceful and luxurios life–a promise they had fullfilled as long as they ruled. They can do it again, with you on the throne.”
“Ah! Bribing me into changing sides. So that I won’t kill your precious sons…”
“I am not afraid of my sons dying. They are Kshatriyas–born to fight. They have lived a long life. A death in the battle field will only bring them further glory. It is you that I am afraid for. Will you be able to look yourself in the mirror, knowing that you killed able and just kings who were the best chance their subjects had? Knowing they were your younger brothers?”
“You speak as if you know me, as if you care for me…you let me deal with seventy years of humiliation. You knew who I was, and yet, you let your sons disrespect me by calling me a ‘Charioteer’s son’. You never spoke up for me, and yet, you dare to call me ‘Son’? You bribe me with throne and family, respect and metarnal love, and expect me to forget that all this has been denied to me for seventy years?”
“Son…disowning you was a mistake. But I was only fourteen and scared of society. I wanted to own you up later when I saw you at the Royal games fifty years back.”
“Then, why didn’t you?”
“Arjun had called you a Charioteer’s son, but you had held your head up. In return, Duryodhan had called Arjun a “Bastard”. The look of disgrace you gave Arjun at that moment…I realised that it was better for you to never share the fate of being my son.”
Illustrated by Ammpryt ART