Narach Philosophy

KUNTI AND KARNA: AN ILLUSTRATION


It would perhaps be of interest to illustrate this method of interpretation of the sacred text by means of an example. We have observed that the Mahabharata is really an account of the different systems of philosophy and religion, but it is commonly believed to be a great store-house of wonderful and fascinating stories of various kinds; and one of them is that of Kunti and Karna. Kunti was the "mother" of the Pandava brothers, who figure so prominently in the Epic; but, before her "marriage" with Pandu she had a "son", named Karna, by the heavenly Sun. The story, as given in the Epic, reads as follows:

The birth and upbringing of Kunti: There was a chief among the Yadus, named Sura, who was the father of Vasudeva. He had a daughter, named Prtha; but he gave her to his childless cousin Kuntibhoja, who brought her up, and so she was called Kunti.

The birth of Karna: While living in her adoptive father's house, she had been taught a Mantra by a Brahmana, by reciting which she could call any of the celestials to have children by him. Kunti, curious to know the efficacy of the Mantra, invoked, while yet a maiden, the god Arka or the Sun; and of her union with him was born a hero, encased in a natural armour, and with a face brightened by ear-rings, known all over the world by the name of Karna. Then the Sun, after restoring her maidenhood to Kunti, went away to heaven, and she threw her powerful son into water.

Karna was picked up by Adhiratha, the illustrious husband of Radha and was brought up by them as their own son. He grew in strength, and became expert in the use of arms. He used to worship the Sun, until his back was scorched with its rays; and while he was engaged in his worship, there was nothing on earth that he would not give to the Brahmanas.

Observations on the story: This, in brief, is the story of the birth of Karna, one of the great heroes of the Epic, and a sworn enemy of his half-brothers, the Pandavas; and, like many other narratives of its kind, it is full of extraordinary incidents, strange, unnatural, and fantastic. There is indeed nothing extraordinary in the birth and parentage of Kunti, as the daughter of Sura and sister of Vasudeva, the father of Krshna, the great "incarnation" of Vishnu; but it is not a little uncommon for a childless Hindu to adopt a daughter rather than a son. But it is impossible to think of any rational manner in which a woman can call a celestial to have children by him; nor is it easy to believe that the Sun can come down at the call of a maiden, even by means of a Mantra, however powerful, in this way. It is equally extraordinary that the child born should be encased in a natural armour and have a face brightened by ear-rings; nor is it easy to imagine how the state of virginit3 can be restored to a mother. Again, it is only a most unnatural mother who can, without any compunction, throw her new-born babe into water; and there is not a word of disapproval in the text to show that the author regarded her action as wicked or inhuman.

With regard to Karna, while a cast-away child may be picked and brought up in the manner described, and he may grow up into a great hero too, and also worship the Sun, it would be a little difficult to understand how when he had worshipped that deity and his back had been scorched with its rays, he was able to give to the Brahmanas all that they demanded of him.

Thus we see that the story of Kunti and Karna, as given in the Epic, raises a number of questions which cannot be answered in a rational way. The modern scholar has accordingly contented himself with the belief that the age itself, to which the Epic belongs, was most extraordinary; that the people, great in their own way, were made up of extremes, primitive and poetic, heroic and elemental, crude and refined, philosophic and unconventional, religious and superstitious at the same time; and so they could mix up the actions of gods and great men, demons and the wicked ones; and, with their exuberant imagination, resort to any description, or give way to any conceit, however fantastic. He is, accordingly, not surprised at the extraordinary incidents in this or any other story in the Mahabharata, for he finds similar accounts in other works of the same kind in India and elsewhere. These works have little more than antiquarian interest for him; and, though they may serve to inspire a poet and provide material for romantic tales, he finds nothing spiritual in them, or anything that can be construed into a systematic scheme of thought. Indeed, all attempts at finding a rational meaning in these stories, made from time to time, for the mind of man cannot reconcile itself to believe that they can be so fantastic have yielded but little result, and been given up in despair.

Application of the new method: But the Mimansa tells us that, whenever in our study of the Vedas, we find ourselves faced with such a difficulty, we should take it that the text needs to be interpreted in a different way; and the method of interpretation, as explained by the author, is said to apply to all sacred books, sruti as well as smrti. We are told that there are three ways of understanding the meanings of words used in the text: we may accept their dictionary meanings, wherever suitable; or, if the meaning of certain expressions has been expressly defined, we should accept it in that form; or, in the absence of both these courses, we may divide words into their parts, and, assigning suitable dictionary meanings to the latter, construe the whole.

As the Mahabharata is one of the smrtis, and the story of Kunti and Kara appears to be unnatural, it should be a fit case for the application of the method of interpretation explained in the Mimansa. But we must remember, even as the Mimansa itself is careful to remind us that we have, by means of this method, to transform it completely into an account of the laws of Nature or systems of thought bearing on them, without omitting any important detail or part. The new explanation would need to be as full and continuous as the original story, and, at the same time, more simple and rational. Let us see what can be done.

Before, however, we can transform a story in this manner, it is necessary to understand that the different characters who take part in it can only be personifications of ideas and objects; and this is what the Mimansa tells us too. This personification can be effected in many ways, and there are a number of references to it in the Upanishads and other sacred books. There may also be a personification of an idea, an object, a system of thought, or of Nature or God. For instance, a Woman or the Vegetable Kingdom refers to Nature, as the Mimansa tells us, and it also gives us a number of similes and metaphors by means of which ideas and objects can be described.

As a story postulates different kinds of relationship between individuals, animals, men, demons, or gods, they too can be used to personify ideas and objects in the same way. For instance, origin and end, cause and effect, action and. its result, an idea and its logical conclusion, may be represented in terms of father and son, or other forms of relationship according to the degree of their affinity. Similarly, a variety of objects, making for a common or combined result, may be represented as friends; while those in opposition as foes; and the same terminology may be used in connection with the forces of attraction and repulsion, and the relation of the strong as against the weak.

The sacred books contain a number of references to terms of battle and weapons of war; and these have their own bearing on the idea of action, for a battle is a form of acute conflict of thought, expressing itself in terms of powerful action, and success lies on the side of those who can make the greatest sacrifice. A battle in the story of the sacred books is, accordingly, an expression of an eternal conflict between knowledge and action, and the systems of thought corresponding to them; and as "sacrifice" is conceived to be good, intelligent and selfless action, making for joy of life, and so ending in the idea of God in the universe it is sacrifice that succeeds in their battles too.

Again, as the Mimansa tells us, this method of interpretation requires knowledge, of the laws of Nature, as well as the systems of philosophy and religion based on them; for it is only then that we can transform these stories into accounts of these systems.

Finally, the Mimansa tells us of the many different ways in which a word may be divided into parts, parts containing syllables, syllables and letters, or letters only. We are required to follow the rules of grammar and to accept the authority of the best grammarians; and in arriving at the meaning of a word divided into parts, we may commence from the beginning and go on to the end, or from the end and go back to the beginning, as may suit the case.