Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Why Karna, Bheeshma and Ashwathama are villains and not “anti-heroes”

Reetika Choudhury 

Bhishma, Karna, Ashwathama, are some of the main characters of the Mahabharata epic. Although seen by many with sympathy for their struggles, they had committed big acts of Adharma. Despite this, very often we seem them tagged as anti-heroes by many who are ignorant of their actions. The release of the movie Kalki 2898 has escalated this debate even further.

Here, we shall do an analysis of their personalities, to understand their roles as villains.

Bheeshma: The Dutiful Grandfather 

Bhishma, a key figure in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, was the son of King Shantanu and the goddess Ganga. Bhishma was also known as Bhishma Pitamaha, as he was a central figure in the Kuru dynasty and was highly respected by all. Known for his vow of celibacy and his ability to choose the time of his death, Bhishma dedicated his life to serving the kingdom of Hastinapura and his family.

Now why is Bhishma is more of a villain than an anti-hero? Firstly, he sided with the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra War, even though he loved and respected the Pandavas, his grand nephews. This choice meant he fought against his own family, who were on the Dharmic side, despite knowing what he was doing. For him, his vow of celibacy he made to his father was more important than siding with Dharma.

Secondly, his failure to protect Draupadi during her disrobing in the Royal court is one of his biggest failures. When Draupadi was humiliated and she attempted to seek help from Bhishma and other elders present, he remained silent. His inaction in such a crucial moment, where a woman was being dishonoured and treated unjustly, reflects his serious moral failing. A hero or even an anti-hero might have intervened to uphold justice and protect the innocent, but Bhishma’s silence contributed to Draupadi’s suffering and it further shows his alignment with the unjust actions of the Kauravas. The least he could have done was walk away from the court, but he couldn’t even do that.

Lastly, during the war, Bhishma’s actions helped the Kauravas, even though deep down he knew the Pandavas were right. Bhishma had good qualities like loyalty and bravery, but his choices often caused harm and showed a lack of flexibility in doing what’s right.

Karna: The Tragic Hero or The Tragic Villain?

Karna, from the Mahabharata, is often portrayed as a complex character with both noble qualities and significant flaws. He was born to Kunti and Suryadev, the Sun God, but was abandoned later on. He grew up with resentment, which fueled his ambition to prove himself. Despite his prowess and loyalty to Duryodhana, he was never a true friend. A true friend would point out your wrongdoings when you are walking the path of Adharma. However, Karna never pointed Duryodhana in the right direction but in fact, he would rather advise Duryodhana to do the opposite.

Karna’s actions were often guided by ego and a thirst for validation. He manipulated his way into gaining divine weapons by lying about his caste, betraying the trust of his teacher which invoked upon him a curse that hindered him in critical moments.

Karna’s allegiance to Duryodhana led him to participate in dishonorable acts, such as his role in Draupadi’s humiliation at the Royal court. Despite opportunities to choose the righteous path, he remained steadfast in his loyalty to Duryodhana, and he rejected offers of peace and reconciliation from Sri Krishna. His deep hatred for Arjuna is also unjustified, as the latter had not caused him any harm.

He may have been a generous ruler who did acts of charity, but his stubbornness and misplaced pride ultimately led to his downfall in the Kurukshetra War, where his ego and ambition blinded him to the suffering he caused.  Despite his talents, he became a villain due to his moral failings and misguided loyalties.

Ashwathama: The Tormented Warrior 

Ashwathama, the son of the legendary warrior Guru Drona, is one of the most fascinating yet often overlooked characters in the Mahabharata. His birth was unique- Drona prayed for a powerful son, and Ashwathama was born, crying like a horse, which is how he got his name.

Ashwathama’s prowess in battle was unmatched, and even his father, Drona, was nearly invincible. To defeat Drona, Krishna devised a clever plan. The Pandavas killed an elephant named Ashwathama and spread the news that Ashwathama had died. When Drona asked Yudhishthira for confirmation, Yudhishthira, who never lied, confirmed “Ashwathama is dead”. Heartbroken, Drona laid down his weapons and was killed by Dhrishtadyumna, who had vowed to avenge his father, Drupad.

Furious at the “deceitful” death of his father, Ashwathama vowed to destroy the Pandavas. He attacked their camp at night, killing nearly everyone, including Draupadi’s children. He strangled Dhrishtadyumna, ensuring he died a dishonorable death. Fortunately for him, the Pandavas and Krishna were not present during the attack.

When the Pandavas returned and saw the devastation, they chased after Ashwathama. In the fierce battle that followed, both Ashwathama and Arjuna released the powerful Brahmastra weapon. Rishi Ved Vyasa intervened, asking Arjuna to retract his weapon, which he did. But Ashwathama, instead of retracting his Brahmastra, directed it towards Uttara, Abhimanyu’s pregnant wife, killing her unborn child. Krishna, enraged at this extremely dishonorable act, cursed Ashwathama to wander the earth forever, suffering and unable to die.

Ashwathama’s anger and desire for revenge which led him to brutally attack the Pandavas camp at night, lead to several deaths, causing great sorrow. Although if we excuse his other actions, he killed an unborn child, which makes him a clear villain in the Mahabharata story.

People often relate to characters like Bhishma, Karna, and Ashwathama, particularly Karna, because they embody deep human emotions and experiences. Characters like Karna often remind them of the struggles that they face in their own lives. They like to think of themselves as “fallen heroes who walked the wrong path because they faced injustice”.

However, if we think deeply about it, Sri Krishna faced a lot more challenges in his life, and despite this, he always fought for Dharma, and always stood for the needy when they needed his help. The fights in Sri Krishna’s life were always fought to protect dharma, and for the betterment of others.

In conclusion, while Karna’s struggles and qualities might make him a relatable and sympathetic character, but he was someone who was always driven by ego, which is why he can never be a true inspiration. True inspirational figures should embody righteousness, moral integrity, and the courage to make the right choices, regardless of the situation, or the suffering that they endured in their lives.


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