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Chapter 91: The Death Of Karna

WHEN Drona died, the princes of the Kaurava army installed Karna as Generalissimo. Karna stood up in his gorgeous war chariot driven by Salya. The dauntless confidence of his bearing and his great renown as a warrior heartened the Kauravas. The battle again began.

Readers of the stars were consulted and the Pandavas chose the propitious hour for grim battle. Arjuna led the attack on Karna, supported by Bhimasena immediately behind his chariot.

Duhsasana made a concentrated attack on Bhima and sent a shower of arrows at him. Bhima chuckled and said to himself.

"I have this wretch now safe in my hands.

I shall today redeem my promise to Draupadi. Too long has my oath waited for performance."

As Bhima thus bethought himself of what Duhsasana had done to Draupadi, the anger within him blazed up uncontrollably and throwing down all his weapons, he jumped from his chariot and leapt upon Duhsasana like a tiger on its prey, hurled him down and broke his limbs.

"Wicked beast, is this the wretched hand that held Draupadi by the hair? Here, I tear out the root from your body. If there be any here wishing to help you, let him come forward and try!"

Glaring hatefully at Duryodhana as he roared this challenge, Bhimasena tore Duhsasana's arm out and threw the bleeding limb on the battlefield.

And then he fulfilled the terrible oath he had taken thirteen years before. He sucked and drank the blood from his enemy's body like a beast of prey and danced on the bloody field, mad with passion. "I have done it!" he roared. "The oath I swore against this great sinner has been redeemed. It only remains to redeem my oath as regards Duryodhana. The sacrificial fire is ready. Let that victim also prepare."

The scene made everyone shudder. Even great Karna was shaken as he saw Bhima in this ecstasy of wrath. "Do not flinch,"

said Salya to Karna. "It does not befit you to show any sign that may be mistaken for fear. When Duryodhana stands quivering in despair; it is not right that you also should lose heart. After the great Duhsasana's death, the army's hope rests solely on you. You must now bear the full burden. Like the gallant warrior you are, seek single combat with Arjuna, and win eternal glory on earth or the soldier's heaven!" At these words, Karna recovered his courageous spirit. With eyes red with wrath and unshed tears, he bade Salya drive the chariot towards Arjuna.

"Enough of fighting," said Aswatthama addressing Duryodhana earnestly. "Let us terminate this disastrous enmity. Beloved friend, make peace with the Pandavas.

Stop the battle."

"What? Did you not hear the words that the stubborn Bhima uttered when like a ravening beast, he drank human blood and danced over my brother's mangled body? What talk can there be now of peace? Why do you speak vain words!" said Duryodhana. Saying thus, he ordered a fresh disposition of the forces, and gave the command for attack.

Then followed a great battle. The son of Surya sent a dazzling arrow, which spat fire and made for Arjuna, like a serpent with its flaming double-tongue out. Then Krishna, Arjuna's charioteer, at the nick of time, pressed the vehicle down five fingers deep in the mud, so that the serpent shaft just missed Partha's head but struck off his helmet! Arjuna was red with shame and anger and he fixed a dart on his bow to make an end of Karna.

And Karna's fated hour was come, and as had been foretold, the left wheel of his chariot suddenly sank in the bloody mire.

He jumped down on the ground to lift the wheel up from the mud.

"Wait a minute!" he cried. "My chariot has sunk in the ground. Great warrior as you are, and knowing dharma as you do, you would certainly not take unfair advantage of this accident. I shall presently set my car right and give you all the battle you want."

Arjuna hesitated. Karna was now somewhat perturbed on account of the mishap. He remembered the curse that had been pronounced on him, and again appealed to Arjuna's sense of honor.

Krishna intervened. "Ha, Karna!" be exclaimed, "it is well that you too remember that there are things like fairplay and chivalry! Now that you are in difficulty, you remember them indeed.

But when you and Duryodhana and Duhsasana and Sakuni dragged Draupadi to the Hall of Assembly and insulted her, how was it you forgot them utterly? You helped to inveigle Dharmaputra, who was fond of play but was unskilled at it, to gamble, and you cheated him. Where had your fairplay hidden itself then? Was it fairplay to refuse to give to Yudhishthira his kingdom when according to the pledge the twelve years of forest life and the thirteenth year incognito were duly completed? What had happened to the dharma you appeal for now? You conspired with the wicked men who sought to poison and kill Bhima. You acquiesced in the plot to burn the Pandavas alive when sleeping in the palace of wax into which they had been lured. What had happened to dharma all that time? What did dharma tell you when violent hands were laid on Draupadi and you were looking on enjoying the sight? Did you not then mock at her saying: 'Your husbands have left you unprotected, go and marry another husband'? The tongue that was not ashamed to utter those words now talks of chivalry. Chivalry indeed! When a mob of you surrounded the young Abhimanyu and shamelessly slew him, was that chivalry? Wicked man, do not talk now of chivalry and fairplay, for you have never honored them!"

When Krishna was denouncing him in this manner in order to urge Arjuna to prompt action, Karna bent his head in shame and uttered not a word. Karna silently ascended the chariot leaving the wheel still stuck in the mud and took his bow and sent an arrow at Arjuna with unerring aim and such power that it stunned him for a moment.

Karna utilised the respite won, to jump down again and hurriedly tried to lift the chariot wheel up. But the curse was too strong for him and fortune had deserted the great warrior.

The wheel would not budge, though he strove with all his great strength. Then he tried to recall the mantras of mighty astras he had learnt from Parasurama, but his memory failed in the hour of his need, even as Parasurama had foretold.

"Waste no more time, Arjuna," cried Madhava. "Send your shaft and slay your wicked enemy."

Arjuna's mind was wavering. His hand hesitated to do what was not chivalrous.

But when Krishna said this, the poet says:

"Arjuna accepted this command of the Lord and sent an arrow which cut and severed the head of the Radheya."

The poet had not the heart to impute this act to Arjuna who was the embodiment of nobility. It was the Lord Krishna that incited Arjuna to kill Karna when he was vainly trying to raise his chariot out of the mud in which it had stuck. According to the code of honor and laws of war prevailing then, it was wholly wrong.

Who could bear the responsibility for breaches of dharma except the Lord Himself? The lesson is that it is vanity to hope, through physical violence and war, to put down wrong. The battle for right, conducted through physical force leads to numerous wrongs and, in the net result, adharma increases.