Karna is a complicated character in Mahabharat.
Of all the male characters of this epic tale, he is one who has attracted the most sympathy from writers and readers across the ages.
Being a foundling child, his story pulls at the emotional strings of most of us and we all wish we could do something to "right the wrongs" of an abandoned baby. All his later misdemeanours are justified by many in the view of his early abandonment. Yet like all the characters of this historic tale, everyone had the chance to make good their shortcomings, Karna chose not to.
Karna, was born of Kunti when she was still an unwed princess in her foster father's palace. Born out of union with the Sun God, Karna was marked out as an "alien" by his strange skin, especially around his torso and ears. This skin was especially tough and shiny, giving it a uniqueness not easily concealed in any shape or form. Unable to take care of a child born out of wedlock in a society that strongly disapproved of such things, Kunti did what many a unwed mothers have done before and since - she abandoned the baby with as much love and care as she could. She set the baby afloat in the Ganges in a waterproof basket, praying it would be found by a loving couple who were desperate for children.
A charioteer called Adhirath found the child that seemed literally "out of this world" – and indeed, for all purposes, he was ! Along with his wife Radha, they raised him with all the love and attention they could and called him Vasushen. But, being of the Suta profession, they had limitations as to what they could teach him themselves. Karna was ambitious and talented. He wanted to be more than just a great charioteer. So, they gave him permission to learn the art of being a warrior. But, being a suta, this was going to be difficult.
Karna studied at the ashram of Shri Parashurama by lying about his lineage. His ability, his dedication and determination made him the favourite of his guru. However, truth will always out, it can't remain hidden for ever. One day, Shri Parashurama found out about his lie and expelled him from the ashram with a curse that his memory will fail him when he needs it the most ! Frustrated and upset, on the way home, he accidentally shot a cow belonging to a brahaman, who cursed him that he will die defenceless, just like his cow.
Karna wanted to show off his newly acquired skills and thought to gate-crash the
graduation ceremony for the Kuru princes.
It was a function designed to demonstrate the skill of Kuru princes to their
subjects. Karna was gate-crashing and thus an unwelcome guest. He
had no right to challenge the princes (or Arjun) at their graduation ceremony.
This was not an open competition.
Sadly, his past caught up with him.
When asked as to who he was, Karna was outed as a "suta", he was deemed unworthy of competing with royal
princes. Though Duryodhan gifted him
Strong and generous, Karna was an unwavering friend who gave his backing to Duryodhan with absolute loyalty. He could and would do anything, including compromise with his principles for his friend. After the failed "contest", Karna backed Duryodhan in all his plans against the Pandavas, including the despicable plan to burn the five brothers and queen Kunti in Varnavat. It was the sort of underhanded act no kashtirya, least of all a royal, would contemplate. But he was an accomplice in this, because of his unconditional love for Duryodhan.
When the Kauravas went to Panchal to win the hand of its beautiful princess, Draupadi, Karna wanted to win her for Duryodhan. Knowing this, Draupadi refused to be a "gift" of a suta to a prince. If Duryodhan had not the agility and strength required to win the goal himself, surely he would not have it in him to keep it either !! And indeed, Duryodhan did not keep the kingdom because he did not have the know-how of how to keep anything safe ! least of all a kingdom !! Whatever Duryodhan had, was due to the grace and favours of others around him – his father, uncle, brothers, relatives and Karna.
Karna’s life reaches its lowest depth when he encourage Duryodhan and Dushasan to strip Drupadi naked in the Gambling hall of the Kurus. Though not born a suta, Karna here behaves like an uncultured brute, encouraging an empress to be disrobed in public, in the presence of her elders. Hate, revenge, jealousy, avarice, all play a part in Karna’s desire to see Pandavas and Drupadi humiliated. He is willing to forego all sense of decency, moral worth and ethics to crush his foes. Little does he realises, in doing so, he is actually crushing the humanity within himself.
After the game of dice, Karna took a vow to be a great donor. He promised to gift whatever a person asked during his morning prayers. Many people see this as the greatest attribute of Karna and believe this shows him to be greater than all other characters in the Mahabharata. Fact is, others in Mahabharata were equally generous. For example, Yudhisthir used to feed and provide for all guests that came to his hut even during the exile. Fact is, Karna took the vow not to serve society, but to acquire great merit so as to be able to defeat Arjun. Surya knew Indra might take advantage of this vow and warned him accordingly. The most magnanimous point in Karna’s life comes when he gives up his impenetrable, armour like skin to Indra. Though Indra gave his weapon to Karna as a recompenses, Karna’s gift was greater than that of Indra.
Granted Karna was a great donor, but he was also equally wicked in his harassment of Pandavas. He was intimately involved in ever single plan to rob Pandavas of their peace and prosperity. Just because a bad person has one or two good qualities, it doesn't make him good overall. His couple of good actions can not redeem all his evil actions.
It pained Karna to hear Bhishma, Krushna, Surya and even Kunti acknowledge him as a royal prince on the eve of the battle. Why did these great people wait now, now of all times, to give him the acknowledgment he wanted all his life ? Why were they testing his friendship with Duryodhan ? Bhishma and Krushna may have kept this secret out of political consideration. Kunti kept her silence out fear for social and moral backlash or being ostracised from polite society. What stopped Surya, the God of all seeing Sun, from acknowledging his son ? Couldn't the divine father have claimed Karna as "his own" at an earlier point ? Could he not have helped sooth his pain by saying you are a Surya-putra and not a suta-putra ? But even his divine father kept his distance till the last moment.
The most painful point in Karna’s life comes when his own mother comes to plead for the lives of her other sons, his brothers. Aching to be acknowledged all his life, he now found himself in an impossible position on the eve of the most important battle of his life. If he allowed Kunti to declare him as her son, millions of lives could be saved as the battle would not happen ! Karna and Kunti acknowledged that Yudhisthir would immediately place Karna as the head of the Pandavas and that would end the battle. Being a loyal friend of Duryodhan, Karna would hand over the empire of Pandavas to Duryodhan. Karna would have access to Draupadi and would be acknowledged as a royal prince ! Karna could indeed have everything he wanted all his life. But, and it was a huge BUT, this was too late. To Kunti, his estranged mother, he gives a simple reason – good must win over evil and having supported evil for so long, it was probably best for him to die out with the entire kaurav army ! Real reason was, Karna was so consumed by hate for Arjun, and despised Drupadi’s airs, that he could not bring himself to be on the same side as them. He promised to spare all of Kunti’s sons in the batle, except Arjun. He promised that Kunti will always be known as the mother of five sons. Try as she might, this was the best offer Kunti could obtain from her first born. Either her first born, or her youngest would endure after the battle, but not both !!
Fired by hate, Karna was willing to do what ever he had to, to destroy the Pandavas and their haughty wife. Like the Kauravas, he thought a single strike would do the job and once crushed, they will never rise again. Time and again they try this. Time and again they fail. At times, Karna was so desperate, he was willing to sacrifice his life (eg - giving away his impenetrable skin) just to kill Arjun and humiliate Draupadi (game of dice). Little did he know how foolish that hope was.
Pride kept Karna from being on good terms with Vidur or Bhishma. Even on the eve of the battle, pride kept the Kaurav side bickering. Karna refused to battle under Bhishma generalship. Just think what the Kauravs could have achieved if their two greatest warriors fought alongside each other rather than fight each other !! Even when Karna had good advisors, like king Shalya, he could not make the best of the opportunity offered to him. His own pride got in the way and he kept ignoring good advise on how best to win. Time and again, in the celebrated courts of Kurus, advise of elders like Bhishma and Vidur had fallen on his deaf ears. What could Shalya achieve in the battlefield ?
Duryodhan had absolute faith in Karna's ability to defeat Arjun. It was solely on Karna's boasts that he could kill Arjun in a trice that Duryodhan had dared to defy all Kuru advisors and plan for the war. But when it came for fulfilling such boasts, he found it an impossible task. Even killing Arjun’s youngest son, Abhimanu, in a one-to-one battle proved impossible for him ! It took six mighty warriors, including Karna, to gang up on Abhimanu and disarm him, before they could kill him ! So what chance did Karna have against his father - Arjun ?
In reality, for all his boasts of being able to defeat Arjun in the twinkle of
an eye, Karna was unable to fight Arjun on any given occasion.
1) After Drupadi's Swayamvar, Karna could not outwit or defeat Arjun - and this is when Arjun was poorly armed.
2) During the Ghosh Yatra, Karna ran away as Duryodhan was captured by the gandharvas. Arjun and Bhima had to rescue Duryodhan him to save his life.
3) Outside Virata's capital, Karna and the entire Kaurav army was defeated by Arjun. So total was Arjun's victory, he took away the clothes of great Kuru warriors, including Karna and they could do nothing about it !
In the Mahabharat war itself, Bhishma fought for 10 days. Drona fought for 15 days. Arjun fought for 18 days. Karna fought for only 7 days before being killed.
Karna’s death was painful. Not because of the arrows that pierced his body, but because with him died so much potential for good. With him died Duryodhan’s hopes of beating Pandavas. With him died a great warrior.
If only his life had been different.
If only he hadn’t been abandoned.
If only he hadn’t been mocked by Pandavas and Drupadi.
If only he hadn’t sided with the Kauravas.
If only he hadn’t been so deep in all Kaurav plots against the Pandavas.
If only !
Too many “if onlys” !!
Protected and advised by Vidur and Shri Krushna, Pandavas were saved from their own folly time and again. Time and again Kaurav plots came to naught and Pandavas not only escaped, but came out in a better position than before. For example, the plot to burn the Pandavas at Varnavat back fired when they came back as in-laws of Drupad, exposing the family rift for all to see. Kauravs hand was forced and they had to partition the kingdom against their wish.
Sadly, like a mirror, hate and competitiveness between Karna and the Pandavas bounced off each other again and again and with equal vigour. Everytime Karna did something to annoy and insult Pandavas, they retaliated, usually by reminding him of his “Suta” status, feeding the fire of hate ever further.
It is interesting to note that being born as a Yadava, and brought up as an Ahir, Shri Krushna was also of an inferior caste. Being sons of Yadu, the Yadavas were of mixed caste birth and were either Vaishya or Suta. Yet, that never stopped Shri Krushna from achieving what he wanted to achieve. Even when Kauravas insulted him for his low birth, Shri Krushna took it calmly as a matter of fact and not let it disturb his peace of mind. As the son of a slave / maid, Vidur was equally insulted by his enemies for being born in a low caste, and yet, Vidur never let that cloud his judgement.
Karna, though intelligent, strong, generous and able, lost all his great potential by being in the company of Shakuni, Duryodhan and Dushashan. Like a flower at dawn, there was a lot of hope for him, hope in him, by him. Yet, like a flower that fails to fruit, by the end of the epic, he crumples away as a shadow of a man he could have been. Hate for the Pandavas and Drupadi was the cause of his down fall.
It could have been all so different.
Karma could have changed the ending.
He did not have to be the villain of the piece.
Its not like others in the epic had a perfect life and Karna was the only
one to be short changed. Karna
wasn’t the only child to be abandoned at birth.
* Bhishma was raised by a single parent - first his child-killer-mother and than his sad-romantic father.
Kunti - complained constantly about being abandoned by her parents,
widowed at an early age and burdened with five incompetent sons.
* Shri Krushna was also sent away at birth, but he never complained about it. Rather, he revelled in the joy of having two sets of parents !
Shri Krushna did not fight his past as Karna, or complain about it like Kunti. Shri Krushna used his life experiences to help guide his future course. His motto in life seems to be have been so very different to that of Karna. Shri Krushna never cried about the cards he was dealt with by life. Life sucks - accepts it and enjoy what you can.
There-in-lies the difference between Karna and Krushna.
Result, Krushna is still worshiped by millions and Karna is universally pitied by all.
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