This started with an epiphany. I suddenly realized that two important characters of The Mahabharata, Bhishma Pitamah (called Devavrat at birth) and Karna had so much in common. But surprisingly, I never thought of it all these years and more importantly, no one else seemed to have noticed either.
The similarities start at birth. Both of them were abandoned by their mothers at birth. Both of them had a whole bunch of siblings. But unfortunately, they grew up all alone and never spent a single moment with their brothers.
The parallels continued into adulthood. They could have easily made king of Hastinapur but passed on that opportunity. They are remembered most for the great sacrifices they made. Bhishma gave up the throne, so that his dad could marry a younger girl and spent his entire life protecting the throne, always putting the kingdom’s interests above his own. Karna was known as “danveer”. He gave away his impregnable armour– the “kavach kundal”- to his most bitter rival despite knowing that it could lead to his own downfall.
They both showed admirable loyalty and fought on the side of the Kauravas in the epic war, despite knowing that they were wrong and doomed to be defeated. Bhishma‘s loyalty was to the throne and he went to battle against his favourite grand-nephew – Arjuna. Karna was made a king by Duryodhana and he repaid this generosity with his life. He was offered the chance to switch sides and fight alongside his own brothers – the Pandavas,(would have also made king if the Pandavas won) but he stood by Duryodhana and went to war against his brothers instead.
Arjuna is remembered as the greatest archer in the Mahabharata. But both Bhishma and Karna could legitimately claim to be his equal, if not better than him. It took all of Krishna’s cunning- including getting Karna to literally hand over his “kavach kundal” to Arjuna, Parshurama’s curse in denying Karna the use of his most powerful weapons, the limited use of the “Naga Astram” at the behest of Kunti (Karna’s and Arjuna’s mother) – Arjuna had no answer to this weapon and finally Arjuna breaking the rules of war, to bring Karna down.
Bhishma Pitmah at the age of probably a 150 years old was also more than a match for Arjuna in the war. Arjuna and Krishna had to break another rule of war to get rid of him.
Just like their birth, the two noble warriors were united in death. They were apostles of the highest moral standards who were brought down by unscrupulous methods hatched in the brain of a devious Krishna – who invoked dharma and karma every time the Pandavas were faced with a moral dilemma.
And the worst part for these tragic heroes? They are both largely forgotten and never get their fair due in history. Every kid who watches the epic wants to be Krishna, Arjuna or Bheem. I wonder if they hang out together in heaven and talk about their lives. They have so much in common.
This post is dedicated to my late grandfather who taught me everything I know about mythology and history.