Readers Write In #220: The Greek hero

Posted on July 8, 2020

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(by G Waugh)

Sivaraman is a clerk in a chemical firm owned by the government who lives with a small family of two kids and a wife. His monthly compensation is modest and in an increasingly commodity-obsessed society he often struggles to make ends meet. But he is unlike many others in the society for he would skip a meal or two rather than opt for a loan or pounce upon an opportunity for graft. His colleagues and neighbors however, lead lives with diametrically opposite ideologies relying too little on hard-earned labor while sparing no opportunity to appropriate an extra cent even if it borders on illegality and exploitation.

Sivaraman is on a lot of occasions tempted to break his self-imposed bounds that might help him to lead a much less exacting life. But he remains steadfast to his principles and sometimes even derives secret pride from his dignified way of life.

One fine day, the inexorable forces of corrupting society somehow invent a way to trap him and the man finally falls. The prima-facie consequences for moral overstepping do not in any way appear to be threatening or life-altering as demonstrated by the exciting lives led by his peers and colleagues. He is in fact emboldened by the dormancy of justice dispensing systems built around him and even considers his unethical act as being the first step towards joining the ‘accepted’ fold of society from which all these days he has virtually been kept out of.

But things take a turn. Hell breaks loose. The laws and Gods have suddenly woken out of their slumber and Sivaraman is condemned to a punishment of magnitude that is too disproportionate to the extent of his crime. Even those near and dear ones who were complicit in forcing him to commit the crime have suddenly turned hostile and appear to be deeply injured by his greed and lack of probity. Sivaraman is once again ostracized in a world of overnight saints and altruists.

Sivaraman’s character arc in the early portions of V Sekar’s Varavu Ettana Selavu Paththana and those of Krishnaswamy’s in Kamal Haasan’s Mahanadhi and SP Chowdury’s in Mahendran’s Thangapadhakkam are minor rehashes of the legendary ‘Greek hero’ trope that appears in almost all of the world’s oldest stories and religious epics. In India, Karna in the Mahabharata symbolizes this unusual idea of a hero which probably explains why he remains the most popular character in spite of plenty of other deeply layered characters in the epic.

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Karna serves as a great example to illustrate the characteristics of the typical Greek hero. Ideally, a Greek hero must be one who possesses extraordinary powers as well as an extraordinary capacity for sympathy. He must have an unwavering commitment to keep his word under any circumstance even if something as precious as his life is at stake. Most importantly, the destiny of the Greek hero is always to serve several notches under much less proficient warriors or superiors as a result of which he is never allowed to emerge out of his oblivion and carve a place for himself in history, at least during his lifetime. I am sure you are getting minor flashes of the character of Maximus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator as you go through this paragraph.

Another defining characteristic of a Greek hero is his dubious relationship with Gods and the word of the written law. The Greek hero is often treated by Gods with excessive harshness who seem to have formulated a rigid code of conduct applicable exclusively for him alone. When our hero is surprised or even disenchanted by the fact that many of his peers are getting away easily with acts of moral corruption and degradation, an internal tug-of-war with his hyperactive conscience follows and on a majority of occasions, he chooses the path of righteousness and truth irrespective of the cost such an act entails.

Karna participates in the Swayamvara of Draupadi and is instantly smitten by her enchanting beauty and alluring grace. Even if he is the most eligible of men among her long list of suitors, he is rejected on spurious grounds of his ‘inferior’ birth. The crestfallen Karna walks away having been denied a chance to prove his formidable skills at archery. Karna’s attraction to Draupadi is a recurring theme in the Mahabharata and on a lot of occasions, she keeps indirectly influencing him. When the story nears the days of the great war, Karna’s biological mother springs out of the blue with an objective of persuading him to switch sides. Kunti, the mother of Karna as well as that of Pandavas is unmistakably painted as a shrewd woman who even offers him the hand of Draupadi, his secret sweetheart to lure him into her camp. It no doubt would have struck Karna as an immensely tempting proposition and to spurn it would have necessitated a Himalayan level of sacrifice and commitment to principles.  But Karna achieves it quite easily and turns down his mother’s offer.

But Kunti doesn’t take no for an answer quite easily and somehow manages to strike a deal with him. He as a result, promises to kill none of the Pandavas other than his arch-rival Arjuna and sends a satisfied Kunti home. But this deal raises a lot of complex questions even casting a long shadow on the so-called ‘unflinching’ commitment of Karna to his illustrious friendship with King Duryodhan. When Karna is initially anointed King of Anga by Duryodhan at the end of the archery contest, he promises to defend Duryodhan at all costs. It is a commitment of the most unconditional kind and Karna on account of this is naturally expected to remain ruthless on anyone who could potentially harm the life of his friend. If Karna is expected to stick to what he promised Duryodhan, he cannot fulfil what he has granted to his mother. But this is not an easy choice or a simple dilemma that befalls mortals and ordinary men. Karna, the greatest hero ever, is blessed not only with other-worldly powers but also with an extraordinarily twisted fate. He is literally stunned by the sudden emergence of a ‘long-forgotten’ mother and is also overjoyed by the secret of his birth.  But as it happens with singular men like him, any amount of joy or gratification always comes at a terrible price. Karna, the son of a poor charioteer has suddenly been anointed as the son of the Sun-God and as the eldest of the famous Pandavas (though only secretly) only on exchange of something as great as his ‘life’. Also for having availed of the opportunity to unfetter himself from the straitjacket of his ‘low-birth’, he must without a second thought, go back substantially on the promise given to his dearest friend. It must have been great fun for Gods to have let Karna get entangled in a mess like this and to see for themselves how the hapless man climbs out of it with difficulty and pain.

Karna later, at the height of the war is given a plum opportunity to ensnare his Pandava brothers and fulfil his word to Duryodhan. He manages to capture King Yudhishtra, the mighty Bheema and both the Ashwini twins. It would have taken too little time for Karna to kill all of them and set the balance of the war strongly in favour of the Kauravas. Killing Arjuna alone would have simply been a cakewalk for Duryodhan’s side had Karna proceeded to destroy the other Pandavas. But our hero sets them free.

At the end of the war, Duryodhan is killed by the second Pandava brother Bheema at the end of a dirty mace duel.

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Karna on one occasion commits the un-Kshatriyanic crime of speaking falsehood at the goading of his friend Duryodhan. He meets Sage Parasurama and impersonates himself as a Brahmin to learn the art of using Nagastra. After learning the art, unfortunately the ‘mask’ falls off and Karna is caught by his seething teacher. He ordains as a punishment that Karna would somehow forget the trick to conjure up the Nagastra at a later point of time, especially when his life is at stake.

This is a curse of the most unfortunate kind and Karna the man he was, would never have indulged in such a shameful act of deceit had he not given his word to Duryodhan. A small mistake as this one towards the end of the war costs Karna’s life when he forgets the trick to conjure the Nagastra during his battle against Arjuna. On another occasion, he is cursed by the Mother-Earth for a very innocent mistake as a result of which his chariot gets caught inside a minor crevice on the battleground. It is at this opportune moment just when the influence of Karna’s misfortune is at its peak, that the Gods conspire to deal the final blow to him. Krishna goads Arjuna to aim at Karna when he is trying to lift the chariot out of the crevice and finish him off. Arjuna abides and our hero is finally relieved of his earthly life of disaster and insurmountable misfortune.

But Karna’s story does not end there. When Yudhishtra, at the end of the story enters heaven is surprised to meet his rival Duryodhan there. It is revealed that for all his sins Duryodhan has already paid in full through his death at the battlefield and hence has been granted a place in heaven. But Yudhishtra is in for another rude shock. Karna is found languishing in the dungeons of hell for having gone back on the promise of saving the life of his friend. Given the circumstances Karna was put into during his lifetime, do you think he could have done any better? Did a man of such benevolence and unquestionable integrity really deserve to rot in hell?

Such is the terrible fate of Greek heroes whose other-worldly capacity for greatness always came at a colossal price.

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