The Over – glamorized Son of the Sun
Where does Karna fall on the Spectrum of black to white ?
The Mahabharata is a fascinating book with many of its characters not clearly black or clearly white, but multiple shades of grey.
Karna is an intriguing character: virtuous, yet choosing the side of the vicious Kauravas; born as a warrior, but treated lifelong as charioteer’s son; great archer, but defeated and killed in a fight with another great archer.
Let’s see where he falls on the spectrum of black to white through a series of question-answers.
Was Arjuna’s killing Karna when he was chariot-less not unfair, being against the ksatriya codes ?
The unfairness had begun from the Kaurava side decades earlier when they tried to poison Bhima and burn the Pandavas alive.
In the Kurukshetra war, at its start the commanders of the two sides had agreed upon the codes to be followed in the war.
Dhrishtadyumna, the Pandava commander, had declared that their side would not break the war codes first, but if the Kauravas broke those codes first, then the Pandavas would not let themselves be held back by the war codes.
In the ensuing battles, the ksatriya code that a chariot-less warrior should not be attacked was violated first by the Kauravas’ side. On the thirteenth day, six of their maha – rathas including Karna ganged together to kill the chariot-less Abhimanyu. So, Karna simply reaped what he had sown – he violated the code first by attacking the chariotless Abhimanyu and was paid back in kind, as had been agreed at the start of the war.
And the unfair attack on Abhimanyu was not a one-off incident on the part of the Kauravas. On the fourteenth day when Arjuna was striving to fulfill his vow to kill Jayadratha by sunset, his horses got exhausted, and needed rest and water. While Krishna decided to lead the horses away, Arjuna had to get off the chariot. Even on seeing him chariot-less, the Kaurava forces did not stop attacking him. To the contrary, they attacked him with greater ferocity, hoping to fell him in his dangerously disadvantaged condition. Still Arjuna held them back with his expert archery while simultaneously using mystical weapons to arrange for shade and water for his horses. In an all-out war, quarters are rarely given and Arjuna didn’t ask for them – neither should Karna have asked.
Karna himself violated that specific code on the seventeenth day during his confrontation with Arjuna. When Karna sent an unstoppable mystical weapon at Arjuna’s head, Krishna forcefully pushed the chariot into the ground so that the arrow hit Arjuna’s crown instead of his head. Arjuna’s life was saved, but his chariot got stuck in the ground. While Krishna jumped off the chariot to get it out of the ground, Arjuna was disadvantaged with an immobile chariot. Karna still attacked him and Arjuna didn’t ask to be spared, but fought back and defended himself.
So in the final confrontation, Karna’s reminding Arjuna of the ksatriya code was hypocritical. When Karna tried to take the high moral ground, Krishna exposed him thoroughly by listing all the times when Karna had paid scant regard to morality. Krishna ’s fitting riposte silenced Karna whose head fell in an admission of his guilt.
Deciding to illustrate the principle of Satho Sathyam , which means “with the cunning, one can be cunning,” Krishna asked Arjuna to shoot Karna . By countering Karna's arguments, Krishna had signaled to Karna that Arjuna would not desist from attacking. Karna could have taken that as a warning, re-mounted his stationary chariot and resumed fighting – or he could have fought from the ground itself, as had Arjuna on the fourteenth day. His neglecting Krishna ’s warning was a monumental blunder that cost him his life.
Was Karna a better archer than Arjuna?
Let us look at the relevant incidents in the Mahabharata .
1. The first Karna -Arjuna encounter was in the martial exhibition organized by Drona to showcase the skills of his students, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, for the pleasure of Hastinäpura’s leaders and citizens. In that exhibition, Arjuna excelled all till Karna gatecrashed and demanded a chance to exhibit his skills. When granted that chance, Karna equaled the performance of Arjuna, though he had initially claimed that he would surpass Arjuna. Then, Karna asked for a chance to duel with Arjuna, but while the logistics were being worked out, the sun set and the duel couldn’t take place.
Score: Arjuna – 0, Karna – 0
2. When Drona asked that as his guru-daksina his students defeat and arrest Drupada, the Kauravas sped off accompanied by Karna . But Drupada at the head of his forces defeated them. Then the Pandavas led by Arjuna attacked Drupada’s forces, and Arjuna defeated and arrested Drupada, doing what Karna couldn’t do.
Result: Arjuna demonstrated his superiority.
Score: Arjuna – 1, Karna – 0
3. During Draupadi ’s svayamvara, when Arjuna, dressed as a brahmana , won the princess’ hand, the kings felt that Drupada had insulted them by giving his daughter to a brahmana instead of a ksatriya . So they attacked Drupada. To defend their father-in-law, Arjuna and Bhima intervened and held the kings back till it became a face-off: Karna vs. Arjuna and Salva vs. Bhima . While Bhima bested Salva , Arjuna more than matched Karna , who thereafter decided to desist from the fight, saying that he would not fight with a brahmana .
Score: Arjuna – 1, Karna – 0
4. When the Pandavas were living in exile, Duryodhana, at the instigation of Karna , decided to rub salt into their wounds by flaunting his wealth in front of them. But some Gandharvas who were sporting in that area blocked Duryodhana. In the resulting confrontation, the Gandharvas defeated the Kaurava forces, wounding Karna and causing him to flee, and then arresting Duryodhana. Later, when some Kaurava soldiers appealed to the Pandavas for help, Arjuna routed the same Gandharvas who had routed Karna , and released Duryodhana.
Result: Arjuna again demonstrated his superiority
Score: Arjuna – 2, Karna – 0
5. During the Virata battle, Arjuna fought single-handedly against the entire Kaurava army and defeated all the Kaurava generals including Karna . This was the greatest solo performance in the entire epic.
Some people argue that this contest did not accurately reflect their skills because Karna had not carried his Sakti weapon. But who is responsible for Karna's not carrying the weapon? Isn’t a warrior expected to carry his best weapons when going for war? (Imagine a batsman after getting clean bowled for a duck in a World Cup final rationalizing his cheap dismissal: “I got out because I forgot to carry my best bat to the crease.”) And Arjuna did not get his formidable array of weapons for free – he performed severe austerities in the Himalayas to appease the gods and painstakingly add each powerful weapon to his formidable arsenal.
Result: Arjuna won fair and square
Score: Arjuna – 3, Karna – 0
So, even before their final decisive confrontation on the seventeenth day of the Kurukshetra war, Arjuna had unambiguously established his superiority.
Was Karna superior to Arjuna because he alone conquered the world for Duryodhana, whereas the four Pandavas together conquered the world for Yudhisthira ?
Let’s first look at the incidents in question. When the Pandavas were in exile, Karna conquered all the kings of the world and with the tributes from them helped Duryodhana perform a great sacrifice called the Vaishnava sacrifice, somewhat similar to the Rajasuya sacrifice that Yudhisthira had performed earlier. For that sacrifice, Yudhisthira had sent four brothers to conquer the four directions.
Do these two incidents demonstrate Karna's superiority? No, because Bhima during his eastward conquest had come to Anga and defeated its ruler. Guess who? Karna , no less. So if Bhima whose archery skills were not as good as Arjuna’s defeated Karna , how can Karna be considered better than Arjuna?
Was Arjuna alone capable of the world conquest that Karna had done? Actually, Arjuna was capable of much more than that, as can be inferred from two incidents.
1. What to speak of the world’s kings, Arjuna had defeated the gods combined at Khandava – something which Karna had come nowhere close to doing, having been defeated by just one relatively minor set of gods, the Gandharvas.
2. Arjuna had also singlehandedly defeated a whole army of deadly demons, the Nivatakavacas , whom the gods had not been able to defeat for a long time. This feat was also something that Karna had come nowhere close to equaling, for he had been hard-pressed by just one demon, Ghatotkaca .
If Arjuna was capable of singlehandedly conquering the world on Yudhisthira ’s behalf, then why didn’t he do so? Because all four younger brothers wanted to assist their eldest brother, and Arjuna didn’t want to deprive them of that opportunity.
Was Karna the second best archer, after Arjuna?
No, because at least two other archers defeated him.
1. Abhimanyu: On the thirteenth day of the Kurukshetra war, when Abhimanyu penetrated into the cakravyüha and wreaked havoc among the Kaurava forces, he overcame Karna twice, causing him to swoon and retreat. Karna realized that he couldn’t even match Abhimanyu, leave alone overcome him. So he prompted Duryodhana to ask Drona how the prince could be defeated.
2. Bhima : The second Pandava more than matched Karna . As mentioned earlier, Bhima defeated Karna during his eastward conquest before the Rajasuya yajna.
During the Kurukshetra war, Bhima and Karna fought several times. On the fourteenth day, when Arjuna had taken a vow to kill Jayadratha before sunset, Karna tried to check Arjuna. To help Arjuna progress undistracted, Bhima challenged Karna and kept him engaged while Arjuna closed in on Jayadratha, Bhima matched Karna .
On the sixteenth day, Bhima held back Karna , who had been appointed the Kauravas’ commander, and then attacked Duhsasana . In front of Karna's eyes, Bhima killed Duhsasana . Seeing Bhima ’s power and anger, the horrified Karna dropped his bow. Similarly, in front of Karna's eyes, Bhima also killed several other Kaurava brothers as well as Karna's son and brother, and Karna could do nothing to stop him.
Karna did overcome Bhima once in a battle with bows and arrows, and mocked him by touching him with his bow and calling him a fat glutton. At that time, Bhima challenged Karna to a wrestling match, but Karna refused. Bhima had the power to pound Karna to death with his bare fists, but remembering Arjuna’s vow to kill Karna , Bhima desisted and left the arena. So the same event that is often seen as Karna honoring his promise to Kunti to not kill any of her sons other than Arjuna could be seen as Bhima honoring Arjuna’s vow. Overall, the results of the Bhima -Karna confrontation remain in Bhima ’s favor.
So, Karna was no doubt a great archer, but he was one among many, not one above many, as was Arjuna.
Was Karna not unfairly weakened by Indra, Arjuna’s father, who schemed to take away his kavaca and kundala by coming in the guise of a brahmana asking for charity?
1. Even with that impenetrable armor, Karna had been wounded and defeated several times (as discussed earlier) by Drupada, by the Gandharvas and by Arjuna at Virata . So the kavaca was not a winning advantage.
2. When Indra came disguised as a brahmana to ask for it, eventually, at Karna's insistent request, the god gave him the formidable Sakti in return. So, what was supposed to be a charity became a swap.
And how did this swap affect Karna's fortune? His kavaca had not saved him from defeat earlier. And it may well not have saved him on the fourteenth night when Ghatotkaca was on a rampage, threatening to kill him and destroy the Kaurava forces. The Sakti weapon killed Ghatotkaca and saved Karna's life. So in the swap Karna lost something that hadn’t saved him from defeat and got something that actually saved him from death.
Was the swap such a big loss for Karna ? You decide.
Was Karna not a great hero, powerful, virtuous and charitable?
Yes, he had his good qualities. He was not a black character, but he doesn’t have to be made whiter than what he was.
After all, it was Karna who suggested that Draupadi be dragged into the assembly, who came up with the obnoxious idea of disrobing her publically, who called her a prostitute. It was Karna who suggested to Duryodhana the ill-advised plan of flaunting their wealth in front of the exiled Pandavas – the plan that came to grief due to the Gandharvas. Karna's repeated bragging of his prowess made Duryodhana foolhardy enough to challenge the Pandavas to an open war. It was Karna who killed Abhimanyu ruthlessly along with five other warriors, having been the first to instigate Duryodhana that some such extreme measure was necessary to bring down the young prince. It was Karna who, in response to Salva ’s sledging, foul-mouthed the women of Madras (Salva ’s kingdom), calling them unspeakable names.
So though he had his virtues, but he doesn’t need to be unnecessarily romanticized.
Adapted from the author’s upcoming book on Mahabharata controversies.
Caitanya Carana Dasa is the associate-editor of Back to Godhead (US and Indian editions). To subscribe for his daily Bhagavad-gita reflections, please subscribe for Gitadaily on his website, thespiritualscientist.com.