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Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

How perfect heroes can emerge from imperfect human beings

Karna was a hero for his commitments but a perfect one because he knew he was an imperfect man

After reading my tribute to John Lewis and Rachel Carson, my brother asked me, “What triggered you to read so much at that age?" He is three years younger than me, so he knows my childhood even more closely than my mother, having shared all of it.

That we lived in a house full of books, our conversations with parents suffused by them, is an insufficient answer to that question—when he asks it. Because at the end of our childhoods, as we left Bhopal, his circle of friends seemed to include every human being in that beautiful city, and a few books. While mine seemed to comprise all the books in the city, and a few human beings. So, what he was asking was, “Can you explain this inexplicable difference?"

I cannot. All I can say is that over the past 35 years, our circles of friends have become more alike. Even as my realization has grown of how much those years of frantic reading have shaped me and my commitments. Not because of the little that I understood or absorbed from what I read. But because whatever I absorbed mediated my life experience. Lewis, Rachel, King and Gandhi were all living in my head. Dharasana and Selma were holy places. It was a long list of haphazard reels from much that I read. All alive for me. So, when a friend laughed after reading the same tribute, “Come on, how silly, you didn’t even try to meet Lewis because you thought you would start crying?", I knew I would have. Meeting such a one as that, in flesh and blood, would have been too much.

But a shrine to one of them is a different matter. Those are flames I get drawn to. Every time I am in Dun, I want to steal an evening to go to Kalsi. Devanampiya speaks directly across 2,500 thousand years through the edict on that massive rock. So, it was wistfully that I left Mori a few years ago, not having been able to visit Karna’s temple up the Tons valley. A pilgrimage remained unfulfilled. He had been in my pantheon since I read Shivaji Sawant’s stirring Mrityunjay, probably in 1980.

Abandonment and injustice from his divine and royal family at birth. Growing up nurtured by the love of ordinary folk. Mastering on his own all that was to master. Valour that was unmatched. Generosity that made his name the touchstone for generosity across millennia. And yet the butt of innuendo, derision and insult, only because of the ordinariness of his foster family—the very family that saved him and made him. Finding a friend in the prince emperor who saw in him a complete counter to his own mortal enemy. Anointed a king by the prince, but unable to escape the silent contempt of the times for his bonds with ordinariness. How can Karna not be in anyone’s pantheon? He was amongst the very top in mine.

The torrent of injustices in his life swelled with three curses. Cursed by the almighty earth for feeding a hungry child milk. Cursed to die when he, the mighty warrior, would be most helpless—for the honesty of admitting to the accidental death of a cow at his hands. Cursed by his guru Parashurama, for his martial knowledge to slip away when he needed it most. Because of his unhesitating loyalty to ordinariness—a crime for which there was no redemption.

Sawant’s literary technique of each chapter as a soliloquy by a key character, while remaining more or less true to the Critical Edition (of the Mahabharata), inserts you into the internal torments of Karna. Most of all in the feverish 20 pages of the disrobing of Draupadi. Every step of his life, despite every torment and conflict, swallowing all ridicule and insult, he is ever righteous. Why then, at that moment of epochal blight, does he choose what is wrong, the only time he does so?

Pain and incomprehension haunted me over that failure of Karna. Even after reading and rereading, inspired and aflame by his final choice. That which must surely be one of the most incandescent moral actions in human literature and mythology, perhaps history.

Krishna holds his hands and reveals to him the mystery of his life. In a moment elevating him from ordinariness to divinity. And in the next, offering him the empire of all lands. If only he would side with his blood line in the war ahead. To the master of the universe, Karna refuses all three—divinity, the empire, and an end to the bane of his origin. Instead, he embraces ordinariness, and allegiance to those who stood by him against the age and its norms. He says, “What matters most in life are bonds of love, and not power over the world." Yugandhar himself is brought to tears, blessing and validating him, “Victory to Karna, Radha’s son."

A few years later, glancing through a literal translation of the Critical Edition, I noticed the passage of the night before he takes over as commander of the Kaurava army. He confides in his friend Duryodhana, the perpetrator, that he is tortured by the wrong he did. Then I also discovered how that poignant encounter between Krishna and Karna ends. He confesses to being haunted by his actions and inaction on that fateful day. Apologizes and says that only his death would be sufficient atonement. And with that, I found my peace.

Karna was a hero because of the commitments he tried to live up to, but he was a perfect hero because he knew that he was an imperfect man. We are all flawed and imperfect, what matters are not the tattoos of commitment on the skin, but the tattoos on the heart.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd.

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