Rashmirathi – I
“Chakit, bheet chahchaha uthe kunjon me vihag bichare,
disha sann rah gayi dekh yah drishya bheeti ke mare!
Sah na sake aaghaat, surya chhip gaye sarak kar ghan me,
‘sadhu, sadhu!’ ki gira mandra goonji gambhir gagan me”
(The amazed birds chirruped in fear, even the directions were stunned; even the sun went behind the clouds unable to bear the strength of this blow; the skies chorused with the words of well-done, well done!)
This unforgettable description of Karna’s ultimate sacrifice and the world’s reaction to it, along with the last few questions that I answered in my AskHimanshurai column, was what prompted me to choose Dinkar’s ‘Rashmirathi’, for a write-up.
The book celebrates the heroism of Karna, a warrior no less than, if not better than, Arjun, but who is always at the receiving end of the hand of fate. The lines reproduced above talk of Karna’s sacrifice, when on the battlefield, Indra approaches him, asks him for his magical, protective armour that would make it impossible for anyone to inflict a fatal blow to our protagonist. Karna gives it away as duty calls him to do so, an act that overwhelms even the Gods.
Rashmirathi is a collection of verses penned by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar (1908 – 1974), the national poet of India, famous as just ‘Dinkar’. He was born in Simiriya, in the Munger district of Bihar. His verses inspired thousands during the freedom struggle of the country. As a poet, he belongs to the generation immediately following the Chhayavadi (romantic) poets, and is renowned for his personal lyrics, apart from some historical and nationalist compositions. He received the Jnanpith Award in 1972.
The book’s first chapter takes a look at Karna, a man of conviction and courage, who challenges Arjun in archery, while the royal princes Pandavas and Kauravas are displaying their skills in public soon after completing their training under Guru Dronacharya. His challenge to Arjuna earns him instant notice, as do his skills, intimidating even Arjun’s teacher, Guru Drona, but it also earns him instant derision, for his low birth and lack of royal lineage.
It is this irony that the poem laments. The irony that Karna was the Pandavas eldest brother, born to their mother following her invocation to Surya, the Sun God, while she was still an unmarried maiden. Afraid of the shame and embarrassment that would befall her, Kunti set her first-born afloat in a basket, into the river Yamuna. The child fell into the hands of Adhirath (a charioteer) and his wife Radha, a childless couple, who then raised him. And thus, Karna is known to be of a low-birth.
At the said contest, his mastery with the bow and arrow intimidates one and all, a scene Dinkar described thus:
“Fira Karna, tyon sadhu sadhu kah uthe sakal nar nari
rajvansh ke netaon par padi vipad ati bhari
Drona, Bhishma, Arjun, sab feeke, sab ho rahe udas,
Ek Suyodhan badha bolte huye, ‘Veer! Shabash!”
(The entire crowd uttered words of lavish praise as Karna displayed his skills; Dronacharya, Bheeshma and Arjun, stood sad while Duryodhana alone stepped up and said, ‘Well done brave man’)
This event also marks the beginning of the unparalleled friendship between Duryodhana and Karna. Duryodhana, heir to the throne his father occupied, and arch-rival of Bheem, was awed by Karna’s prowess and courage. He immediately gifted him the kingdom of Anga, and Karna was a low-birth no longer, well-positioned to challenge the royal prince Arjun.
Duryodhan’s act of faith is a gesture Karna never forgot, not even when the woman who gave him birth pleaded with him to withdraw support to Duryodhana.
Dinkar gives a fitting description of the mother’s pain, seeing a brother rooted against his own…
“Aur haay, raniwas chala vapas jab raajbhavan ko,
sabke peeche chali ek vikla masosti man ko!
Ujad gaye ho swapna ki jaise haar gayi ho daanv,
Nahin uthaye bhi uth paate the Kunti ke paanv!”
(When the Ranis started moving towards their palaces, Kunti walked slowly with a leaden heart. It looked as if all her dreams had come crashing down and despite her attempts she couldn’t raise her legs to move!)
The second chapter looks at Karna, the devoted student. In his quest to search for a Guru who can help him hone his skills, he goes to Parashurama, the warrior Brahmin, who, as a matter of principle, taught the art of war only to Brahmins, not even to the Kshatriyas, traditionally the warrior class.
Karna’s thirst for excellence leads him to hide the facts regarding his origins as he knew them, until one day, Parashuram discovers it accidentally that his favourite student is not a Brahmin.
Karna is banished from his Guru’s ashram. And, Parashuram, while granting him his life, takes away his knowledge to use the ultimate weapon, the Brahmastra. Dinkar’s sentimental verse brings out the love that the Guru and his disciple share:
“Lipat gaya guru ke charnon se vikal Karna itna kahkar,
do kanikaayen giri ashru ki guru ki aankhon se bahkar!
Bole- haay, Karna, too hi pratibhat Arjun ka nami hai?
Nishchhal sakha dharttrashtron ka, vishva vijay ka kaami hai”
(As Karna embraced his Guru’s feet, tears flowed from Parashu’s eyes; he said, ‘Oh Karna, you are the only one who can match Arjuna in bravery and win this world’)
The third chapter is perhaps the most powerful one. The Pandavas back from their exile, are refused even five villages by Duryodhana. Talking of the successes the Pandavas achieve even during their exile, Dinkar writes these immortal lines:
“Hai kaun vighna aisa jag me tik sake veer nar ke mag me?
Kham thonk thelta hai jab nar, parvat ke jaate paanv ukhad!
Manav jab jor lagata hai
Pathar paani ban jaata hai!”
(When a man strives, even rocks turn into water. There is no obstacle strong enough to stop the brave from achieving what they have set themselves to achieve.)
Describing Krishna’s attempt to broker peace between the two sides, fast moving towards war, and Duryodhana’s the constant refusal to pay heed, while attempting to insult him, Dinkar writes:
“Duryodhan wah bhi de na saka, ashish samaaj ki le na saka,
ulte, hari ko bandhne chala, jo tha asadhya, sadhne chala!
Jab naash manuj par chhaata hai,Pahle vivek mar jaata hai!”
(When a man is destined to doom, his sense of judgment dies first. Duryodhana, tried to do what was impossible for him; he tried to restrain God himself with a chain)
These immortal words are as good a lesson in philosophy as one could think of. It is this sense of judgment that separates men from animals, the very quality that the wise look to cultivate.
Talking of Krishna’s rage at Duryodhana’s audacity, Dinkar writes:
“yah dekh, gagan mujhme lai hai, yah dekh pawan mujhme lay hai,
mujh me vileen jhankaar sakal, mujhme lai hai sansaar sakal!
Amratva phoolta hai mujhme, Sanghaar jhoolta hai mujhme!”
(Look at the skies inside me; look at these winds inside me; this earth and this destruction are all a part of me)
Thereafter, Krishna tries to reason with Karna and offers him the kingdom in exchange for his support for the Pandavas. And, it is here that Karna refuses this lure for the sake of his friendship with Duryodhana. Not just that, he also requests Krishna not to reveal the story of his birth to Yudhisthira since, being the kindred soul that he was, he might have renounced the kingdom for him. This was the first great act of sacrifice that Karna displays. Dinkar writes:
“Hai rini Karna ka rom-rom, jaante satya yah surya som,
tan, man, dhan, Duryodhan ka hai, yah jeevan Duryodhan ka hai!
Surpur se bhi mukh modoonga, Keshav! Mai use na chhodoonga!”
(I am ever indebted to Duryodhana; I can leave all the pleasures of this world, but not him!)