The mighty Karna, Kunti’s eldest child and Duryodhana’s trusted lieutenant, once saw a child weeping because she had spilt her milk on the ground, where it was quickly being absorbed by the soil. Karna picked up that patch of soil, squeezed it in his fist, and restored the milk to child.
While most would see this as an unquestionable act of kindness, the earth took offense. It cursed the warrior his chariot would one day be jammed into the same mud he had assaulted, and sure enough, his stuck wheel resulted in Karna’s death in the epic Mahabharata.
“Did Karna do wrong by getting the spilt milk back for the tearful child? Should he have been rewarded in this manner [the curse] for his kindness?” asked Devdutt Pattanaik, author, mythologist and corporate trainer, addressing a packed audience at a literary event at the Hindustan Times Kala Ghoda Arts Festival.
Pattanaik, who is also a doctor by training, was chairing a Marathi panel on mythology — his books will soon be available in that language — and shattered a number of preconceived notions about mythology, also leaving the audience with a trove of stories and questions to ponder.
Stories such as Karna’s, Pattanaik said, make one reconsider one’s concepts of good and bad, which can be over-simplistic. “The single biggest problem I’ve noticed is that we as a people tend to comment, rather than study or research before speaking,” he said.
Discussing his upcoming works in Marathi,Pattanaik mentioned one titled Jay, based on the Hindu deity Krishna, which aroused considerable interest among the audience.
Pointing out that the words Vijay and Jay have similar meanings, but the former is a more powerful and emphatic word, one woman in the audience asked why the author had chosen the latter for his book.
“Vijay is when you defeat someone. In Vijay, one is victor and one is defeated, while Jay means conquering one’s own vices, anger, greed and selfishness,” Pattanaik replied.