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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Karna: The Mondern Man (Mahabharata Notes #10)



The first part of Karna's life story --- being born to a princess and the sun god but abandoned and raised by a charioteer and his wife, thus not recognized for his right to be a kshatriya warrior --- is more modern than any other character in Mahabharata. Rising above his caste, based almost entirely on his talent and skills rather than birth, his success in life is singular in his time and society, but eerily similar to the Horatio Alger, hero of the modern American mythology. Nevertheless, the story also has some typical folklore elements: A hero with a hidden identity and mystery of his birth; he is separated from his real family from an early age and his nobility is revealed only later in life. 

Yet, during the prolonged climax of Mahabharata, ie, the 18-day battle of Kurukshetra, Karna's story takes a turn into the realm of modern fiction. No other character in this story --- perhaps none in any story of the ancient times --- is portrayed with the level of psychological complexity seen only in modern novels.

Karna's psychological struggles are two fold. First, his internal thoughts and external behaviors are incongruous. Before the war, Karna found out that his sworn enemies, the Pandava brothers, are his biological brothers. He promised their mother --- also his mother --- that he would spare four of the five brothers' lives. Throughout his involvement in the war, his heart is not in it. His hands slay the Pandava army and Arjuna's son, but his thoughts are in conflict with his action and he no longer hates his oblivious brothers. He is only motivated by honor and duty. Second, his mind is battling itself throughout the war. On the one hand, he yearns to belong to his biological family and their noble status, which could end his lifelong loneliness and misplacement. On the other hand, to do that means betraying his only friend Duryodhan, the Kaurava prince who leads the war against the Pandavas. The two urges are mutually exclusive. Karna cannot have it both ways. So his struggle is purely internal and directed at the self.

This never happens in ancient literature. The earliest psychological novels are generally considered to emerge in French literature in the 17th century. Madame de la Fayette's The Princess of Cleves is often cited as the earliest sample in this genre. From then on, the psychological turmoil of an individual has become the mainstream of European and modern literature, as novelists delve ever deeper into the dark, contradictory crevices of the human psyche.

This psychological focus is a bit like the (re-)discovery perspective in European art in the Renaissance, before which older paintings were "flat." Old literature, derived from folktales, mythology, and epic poems, is full of characters who are consistent in their internal and external presentations. Even when a character is lying, he is described as being fully aware of his intention to lie and its untruth. There is no hint of self deception or internal conflicts. He or she struggles with other characters, with society, with fate, but never with himself. The only internally conflicted character that predates Madame de la Fayette's novel that I can think of is Hamlet. Even Hamlet's internal conflicts (his reluctance to kill Uncle Claudius) are not as well defined as modern literature, and the tension between his thoughts and actions is not as taut as any 19th century Russian novel. Shakespeare still relied mostly on external rather than internal forces to steer him from the revenge he has to carry out.

Therefore it is astounding that Karna seems like a character written by a modern novelist who somehow managed to time-travel to the past and stick it into Mahabharata. There is nothing like it -- that I know of -- in Greek, Roman, or Nordic mythology. For some reason (unknown to me), Indian mythology and philosophy reached a level of psychological insight at a very early time that was absent in other ancient civilizations. It is no surprise that Buddhism seeped into modern psychology rapidly in the 20th century, much more so than the more popular Judeo-Christian religions.

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