Most of the children in India grow up listening to stories in Ramayan and Mahabharat, if not in school then from their parents and grandparents. At least in Maharashtra, usually the first book they read (or should read) about Mahabharat when they grow up is “Mrityunjaya” by Shivaji Sawant.
For those who don’t Mahabharat story, I would recommend reading this wikipedia article on Karna (and I think whoever has made the updates has been really influenced by “Mrityunjaya”).
Each and every section, indeed page of the book bears evidence to the huge amounts of efforts and scholarship gone into writing it. Among other places, Shivaji Sawant visited Kurukshetra (the site of Mahabharat war) and Karna Ka Tila (the place Karna is supposed to have used to lead the army when he was the general of Kaurava armies). Thus, “Mrityunjaya” is filled with small details, like lyrical descriptions and contemporary terms which make it a real classic.
The book, which is in 9 separate sections, takes a semi-autobiographical form. Starting with Karna “wanting to tell his story”, the story is narrated by Karna and various people around him in each section. The other narrators include Kunti (Karna’s natural mother), Vrushali (Karna’s first wife), Duryodhan, Shon (the son of his foster parents) and Krishna. The beauty of this form is that, while telling the story of life of Karna, his relations with each of these characters come to life, not just because of narratives, but because we are reading about their feelings in first person.
“Mrityunjaya” describes beautifully the life of perhaps the most complex character of Mahabharat. Karna’s life is filled with bravery, insults because of his low-caste background (or rather, his foster parents’) and difficult choices. The book brings out the emotional turmoil Karna faces all his life, and his remorse at his actions during dyoota. Despite of being a highly accomplished archer and a champion warrior, Karna was often looked down upon because of his humble background. This led to Karna not being allowed to challenge Arjun and later Draupadi insulting him in her marriage by not allowing Karna to compete, which ultimately led to his behaviour during Dyoot and Draupadi Vastraharan (perhaps the only blemish on his life), which haunted him for rest of his life.
Karna had a choice on the eve of Mahabharat war to join Pandavas as their eldest brother, and thus the rightful owner of the kingdom they were sure to get after winning the war. Despite this, Karna refused to joined the Pandavas, and the side of truth and justice they represented in the war, with Krishna as their guide. Given the choice, he chose to ride beside Duryodhana, the friend who had helped him and stood beside him the whole life. Despite being made to give up his armoured-skin, he defeated all the Pandavas and other warriors several time. But the vow he made to Kunti that he will not kill any of her sons except Arjuna, made him leave them on the battlefield.
Perhaps the most beautifully narrated sections are the one by Shon and the last one by Krishna. Shon talks about the time he standing on the side of his brother Karna, led the kaurava army around the Aryawarta for digvijay. The section really brings out the hero-worshipping nature of Shon, the pride he feels at leading the Kaurava army despite being the son of a lowly charioteer, as well as the bravery and greatness of Karna the General in the strategies and ideas he uses to conquer the countries. The lyrical descriptions of the battles (now, are you surprised why I like this?) and various countries they visit and conquer on their way makes this section really superb.
The last section, narrated by Krishna talks about the Great War. His narration of the war, and Karna’s role in it leads to the true climax, which reinforces Krishna’s realisation of true worth of the Karna, and the path he is taking. Karna’s death and the circumstances leading to it show how sometimes even righteous have to die for Truth to win the war.
Karna the generous, Karna the brave, Karna the Leader, Karna the Warrior, Karna the archer, Karna the friend… the subject matter, and the author’s prowess make “Mrityunjaya” a really great book, as can be seen from the numerous accolades it won, apart from being translated in 9 languages including Hindi and English, in the 20 years after its’ publication.
Quote of The Day:
I told Arjuna about the Dharma of a Kshatriya warrior in Geeta, but I cannot help but realise that Karna is the one walking that path.
– Krishna (loosely translated from Mrityunjaya)
Cross-posted on Desicritics.