Aswathhama and Karna: The Silent Friendship

We have a reader question from Kaushik

How did Aswathhama and Karna became friends? We all know why Duryodhana and Karna be-friended each other but little is known to the world regarding the friendship of Karna and Aswathhama. What is the reason Aswathhama or Karna choose to be-friend each other? Is it because both were loyal towards Duryodhana and hence decided to be mutual friends? Or is it because both hated Pandavas? What lies in the core of their relationship?

Great question Kaushik. But there is one mistake in the question.

Aswaatthama and Karna became friends first before Karna and Duryodhana became friends. Their relationship is older compared to the relationship of Karna and Duryodhana.

Both the subjects had nothing to gain from this relationship but they connected on the basis of similar circumstances and how they were perceived in the society because of their “lineage” and not “skills”

  • Aswathhama was a Brahmin’s son and was not supposed to learn the art of warfare. So was Karna, he was a charioteers son and was not supposed to learn the art of warfare. Both were outcasts who went against the norm and choosed a profession that they liked, not what the society told them to do. This was a great similarity in how the two characters could relate to each other.
  • Both were loved dearly by their families but were not socially accepted for their prowess. Aswathhama was a loner and so was Karna. The former had no “Khatriya” friends since he was a Brahmin and the latter had no friends since he would spend all his time practicing the craft of Archery. They were merely known for who their father was.

    — “He is the son of our Guru Dronacharya” –

    this identification is actually an insult to Aswatthama since he wants to be known as an independant warrior and not the son of someone.

    —  “He is the son of Adirath and wants to become the greatest of archers, on the ranks of Arjuna and Bheesma”

    this is an insult to Karna’s identity who is referred to as the son of someone else.

  • Both the warriors were ignored by Dronacharya over Arjuna.

Dronacharya’s Ignorance towards his son

Dronacharya was a little ignorant towards his only son Aswathhama because of the following reasons

  • Dronacharya wanted to teach all his skills to only one student. Only ONE. He will only teach it to that student who is the most dedicated one and who deserves to protect and do justice towards his knowledge.
  • He tried to train his son but Aswathhama lacked exceptional skills that Arjuna had. On top of it, Arjuna was a dedicated and disciplined student. The day Dronacharya discovered Arjuna practicing archery in the middle of the night, that day itself Dronacharya had decided that this is the boy he needs for moulding. His own son lacks this dedication and skill and cannot do justice towards the knowledge which Dronacharya wants to deliver to ONLY one student.
  • The reason Dronacharya decided to give the knowledge to only one is this – he cannot risk teaching the same thing to two warriors then one may pacify the other. His sole objective is to capture Drupad and avenge the insult and he cannot teach all the skills to two warriors. This is the reason why he let go of Eklavya and Karna, because he wants Arjuna to be the best Archer. His own son lacks the skills and dedication, so he must let go of his own son as well. That is his Dharma as a teacher.
  • When Arjuna said – “I just see the eye of the bird”, Dronacharya called Aswathama and said –

    “Son, you are a great warrior but you can never be Arjuna. Arjuna sees only the eye of the bird, you see trees, mountains and my feet.”

  • Dronacharya knew Aswathama’s friendship with Duryodhana and that his son is an immortal. He cannot teach all the skills to his own son, because he knows that if his son sides with the wicked Duryodhana, all the weapons and mastery of warfare will be used in a wrong context. This is one of the reason why Dronacharya never taught Aswatthama how to take back the Bhramasthra. He taught him how to fire it but not how he can claim the weapon back, to ensure that he can fire it only once in his lifetime. Dronacharya did not teach him how to fire the Narayanaasthra twice. He taught aswathhama how to fire it only once (for self defence and in situations of extreme need)

This is one of the reason why Aswathhama was a little infuriated with his father. He loved him dearly but he could never understand why his father favors Arjuna over him. He became more jealous when Dronacharya taught Arjuna how to crack Chakravyuha, because the knowledge of Chakravyuha should be passed through lineage and not to anyone who is outside the lineage. Aswathhama and only Aswathhama alone holds the right to learn the secret of Chakravyuha from his father, but alas for Arjuna would somehow convince Dronacharya and learn every single thing from him.

How Aswathhama and Karna became friends

In the beginning of my answer, I told you that Aswathhama and Karna became friends first and Karna and Duryodhana became friends much later. Here is what happened.

One day bowing to his son’s demand, Adirath decides to take him to Dronacharya so he can learn the art of warfare.

Dronacharya –

What’s your name son?

Radheya –

My name is Radheya.

Dronacharya to Adirath –

This boy has the glory of Sun in his eyes. You should call him Karna.

Radheya –

Will you teach me the art of warfare?

Dronacharya –

This school is for royal prince and Khastriyas and you do not qualify in any of these categories. Hence, I cannot teach you the art of warfare. You should find another teacher.

Karna –

Does god ask for the name of the father before delivering knowledge to someone? I have a question for you – who is that young man? (pointing towards Aswathhama)

Dronacharya –

He is my son, Aswathhama.

Karna –

He is the son of a Brahmin, and neither a Prince, nor a warrior. But he is still in your school. It is fine that you don’t want to teach me. I will seek another mentor.

Karna departs but Aswathhama takes note of this incident and follows him. He observes Karna practicing and is impressed by his archery skills. That point onwards, Aswathhama realizes that this is not an ordinary boy and he could clearly see how partial his father is towards protecting and securing the future of his beloved student Arjuna. He tells Karna,

Don’t get disheartened my friend. Instead of teaching Arjuna humility, my father is pampering him and encouraging him to believe that he is the best and unbeatable. He is not here to train everybody equally, his only intention is to prepare Arjuna, his ace card. All he actually wants is to settle scores with his oldest enemy, Drupad. Our future is secondary to him.

Both Aswathhama and Karna burned in anger and could not get over Dronacharya’s rejection over them and the unconditional favoritism he showed towards Arjuna. Dronacharya was unfair and the duo connected with each other on this very ground, long before Duryodhana became friends with Karna.

Karna later proved his superiority by shooting both of the eyes of a parrot with one arrow which amazed Aswathhama. Aswathhama begins to believe that this guy has the potential to surpass Arjuna and the two begin practicing archery secretly in the ruins of the jungle.

Aswatthama and Duryodhana, two of Karna’s closest friends were different as individuals yet in harmony in their choice of Karna as a friend. Aswathhama was the only person, besides Duryodhana who openly acknowledged Karna’s greatness as the finest archer, far superior to the supposedly insurpassable Arjuna.

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