Karna's Choice

A tragic figure of the Mahabharata had to decide between Krsna's pleasure and his own prestige.

WHY DID MY FATHER have me serve sage Durvasa?" Princess Kunti wondered as she prepared to put her firstborn son into a basket in the river.

Durvasa had been a difficult guest to host. He would ask for a meal to be ready at 2:00, but then he wouldn't arrive until midnight. Or he'd ask for something and then refuse it. Always unpredictable and irritable, he had stayed with Kunti's family for a year. He had great powers, and if even slightly displeased, he might curse his host. The stories of his curses were legendary. But Princess Kunti, her heart full of love for the Supreme Lord, Krsna, was able to peacefully tolerate the sage's moods and earned his gratitude.

"What gift would you like?" asked Durvasa, who had extraordinary powers to bless.

"I am content," Kunti replied, "but maybe in the future I'll need something. Please give me something that will benefit me."

The sage gave her a mantra and told her, "The celestial controllers will be forced to come to you when you chant this."

Sometime later, as she sat alone, Princess Kunti thought, "Let's see."

She recited the mantra while thinking of the sun. To her surprise its deity appeared, his radiance filling the room. To her greater surprise he told her that the mantra obliged him to have a child with her.

Now, remembering all this as her baby floated down the river, the young Kunti cried.

The sun-god had transformed her back into a maiden and arranged for the child to be born with mystical armor and earrings as part of his body. He would be known as Karna.

After her marriage to Emperor Pandu, Kunti used her mantra again. Pandu was cursed to die if he attempted to have a child. So he requested Kunti to have children by devas (demigods) on his behalf, and she agreed.

When King Pandu died, Kunti lived with their five young sons under the care of Dhrtarastra, Pandu's older brother, who was blind. Dhrtarastra was acting regent until Pandu's oldest son, Yudhisthira, would come of age. But Dhrtarastra had his own sons, and the oldest, Duryodhana, felt that he, not Yudhisthira, should get the throne.

The cousins Pandu's and Dhrtarastra's sons had as their graduation exercise a public display of their skill with weapons, including mystic, subtle ones unknown to our modern, supposedly more advanced, technology. Kunti's son Arjuna showed such extraordinary skill that the people were entranced.

Then Karna, his bodily luster noticeable even in the bright sunlight, sauntered into the arena, proclaiming that he could show skill greater than Arjuna's.

"Who are you?" the teachers asked. "Who is your family?"

Karna looked down. He would not be permitted to show his skills unless he was royalty, but he had been raised as the son of a charioteer.

Karna's distinctive natural armor and earrings shocked his mother, who had been watching her other five sons in their glory.

"My son!" she thought. "Oh, he is alive a young man asking to be recognized as royalty!"

But out of shame, she couldn't bring herself to say, "He is my son, conceived by the deity of the sun before my marriage."

Then Karna's fortunes changed.

Duryodhana came into the arena and declared, "As the acting king's oldest son, I award this son of a charioteer kingship over the province Anga."

Kunti ached to know the story of her son, now a king. He didn't know how much she pined for him. But, then, he didn't know her at all. The parents he knew lived by the Ganges and had found him floating in a basket. His natural armor, earrings, and luster were unusual. Yet the childless couple raised him as their own with affection. His adoptive father was a servant to warriors, a chariot driver. But Karna wanted to be more than that. He wanted to be a warrior, or even a king.

But a chariot driver couldn't dream of governing. Although the sacred Vedas and their corollaries state that inclination and training, not birth and family, should determine one's occupation and social status, the cycle of ages was shifting into our present time of materialism and ignorance, and superficial bodily considerations were replacing knowledge of the inner self. Society would dictate that Karna, like the man everyone thought was his father, was to be a servant, at best a warrior's servant.

But Karna's nature was stronger than circumstances, and his adoptive father had found a teacher to impart military and political skills to the boy. Karna had learned those arts well. But he often thought of those born into royalty. How lucky they were! How the public adored them! When Karna had finished his training, he had heard of the graduation of the famous Pandava princes.

"Let me go there," he had thought, "and I will show the public that I am as qualified as these much-praised princes."

Now Karna was royalty by decree!

His voice quavering and his eyes moist, Karna turned to Duryodhana, confident that now all his desires would be fulfilled. He placed his massive, muscular arms around his benefactor and swore lifelong devotion.

Unfortunately, Duryodhana wasn't a benefactor in the true sense. He gave to get in return. He wanted Kunti's sons to have no chance to rule, and he thought that Karna could help him win a military coup if necessary. Karna had promised loyalty without knowing the nature of his new friend.

Meanwhile, Kunti felt trapped. If she had revealed Karna's identity, he'd not have sworn allegiance to Duryodhana. What kind of a man would Duryodhana be when even as a child he had attempted to poison her children to secure his own position? What joy to see her lost child, now a king! But what sorrow to have him in such company.

"Why was my son so eager for a kingdom that he would make friends with whoever would give it to him? A noble person cares more for pleasing Lord Krsna than for personal reputation."

Seeking Krsna's guidance and protection, and wishing the best for Karna, Kunti returned with her other sons to the palace.

Duryodhana's Treachery

As the many years passed, Duryodhana tried to kill his cousins and Kunti. He had a flammable palace built for them, and arranged to burn it when they slept. But they escaped, and with the help of a powerful king, they returned for the kingdom.

Karna stood by his friend Duryodhana and suggested that the returning princes be given some useless land to rule. But Kunti's sons turned that land into a place like heaven, because they were friends of the Supreme Lord, Sri Krsna, who had incarnated to establish governments of righteous people. Duryodhana could burn a palace and give the pious, rightful rulers a desert to govern, because the Lord does not interfere with our freedom. Yet Krsna's desire always triumphs, regardless of our actions. Yudhisthira not only became king of a paradise, but later received the recognition of all kings as world emperor.

 Karna's Choice

Then Duryodhana, Karna beside him, challenged Yudhisthira to gamble. The warriors' code forbade refusing a challenge. And because Yudhisthira's uncle Dhrtarastra invited him, playing meant obeying an elder. Duryodhana was obviously cheating, and Yudhisthira gambled away all his empire, his brothers, and his wife, Draupadi. Gloating, Duryodhana and Karna mocked Draupadi as their slave. Yudhisthira then won back his family, but they were obliged to go into exile for thirteen years.

Karna and Duryodhana took over Yudhisthira's palaces, including the famous hall of illusions. They usurped his kingdom and wealth. Kunti, who stayed at the palace, would hear how they would laugh and tell each other, "When they finish their exile, let's arrange to send them back to the forest for thirteen more years!"

Lord Krsna helped Kunti's sons many times during their exile, and then Yudhisthira and his brothers returned, asking for their kingdom. Krsna was their messenger for peace, humbly begging Duryodhana for at least five villages, one for each of the brothers to rule.

"Not enough land for them to stick a pin into!" Duryodhana replied. "Let them fight for it if they want it! With fighters such as Karna on my side, who can defeat me?"

If Karna could be induced to break his bond with Duryodhana, then perhaps the usurper's confidence would be eroded. So Krsna showed Duryodhana and his court, including Karna, His form as the universe, encompassing all time and space and blazing with searing light. But Duryodhana remained unmoved. Let the Lord of all give support to his enemies! He would conquer through strength and cleverness.

Then Krsna privately approached Karna.

"Do you know who you are?"

Karna stood straight and looked at the Lord.

"A chariot driver's son," he replied. "The king of Anga, and the friend of Duryodhana."

"Do you know your real family?" Krsna asked.

Karna shifted and looked down.

"You are the elder brother of Yudhisthira and his brothers, whom Duryodhana has envied and cheated. You were born to their mother before her marriage."

His lifelong enemies enemies because they were Duryodhana's rivals were his younger brothers? His mother was a queen? No. But Krsna is God; He's all-knowing . . .

"And my father?" Karna finally asked.

"Your father is the celestial being who rules the sun. You may know that the devas fathered Yudhisthira and his brothers on Pandu's behalf. Out of curiosity, when Kunti was still quite young she called for the sun's deity. Your luster and natural armor are signs of your celestial origin."

"They abandoned me," said Karna, "and now that they are threatened they want my allegiance? I will stick to Duryodhana, who gave me wealth and power."

"Your considerations are selfish, Karna," Krsna said. "You think you deserve acclaim and honor, and whoever gives you those is your friend. Don't you see that Yudhisthira has always been truthful, wise, and concerned for the people's welfare, whereas Duryodhana has cared only for his own position? Disregard your own pleasure and go to the side of truth."

"Duryodhana gave me a kingdom," Karna replied. "Pandu's sons have given me nothing but scorn. They consider me a servant's son only. Why should I now embrace them as brothers?"

Krsna wanted to give Karna spiritual life, the highest pleasure, but He doesn't interfere with our will. He then offered Karna a lower reward.

"Karna, as the oldest of Pandu's sons you will have the first right to world rule if Yudhisthira regains his empire. As soon as he knows your true identity, he will give you the world and serve you obediently."

"I will honor my pledge of loyalty to my friend Duryodhana," Karna said, "even if it means I die in battle and fight against the true emperor and against Your wishes."

Krsna lets us get the results of our choices. He left Karna to his thoughts and returned to Yudhisthira and his brothers.

A Mother's Request

Meanwhile, Kunti also thought, like Krsna, to bring Karna to his blood family. Karna had vowed that anyone who came with a request during his worship would get their desire granted if it was within his power. Kunti came at that time, without fanfare or royal dress.

"Beggar," he asked her, "what do you want?"

"I am your mother," she said, telling him her story and taking his head in her lap.

How Kunti cried to hold her son for the first time since his birth!

"Come," she said, making the same offer as had Krsna. "Your brothers will recognize you as the elder and give you the empire of the earth."

"Ask for something else, mother who abandoned me at birth," said Karna. "You cannot ask me to join you now."

"Then do not kill your younger brothers in the upcoming war," she pleaded.

"I cannot agree to that, either," Karna replied. "I have pledged to fight for Duryodhana. But I promise that I won't kill more than one of my brothers. If I live and one of my brothers dies, you'll still have five sons. It is as the mother of five sons that the world knows you."

The war came, a great war that involved most of the world's armies.

Karna came before Arjuna on the battlefield. Facing Arjuna meant also facing his chariot driver, the Supreme Lord. Krsna had asked Karna to join the side of truth, and now Krsna was opposing him directly. Even now, if Karna accepted Krsna's will the Lord would give him all protection. But Karna stuck to his vow of loyalty.

"Stand and fight!" Arjuna called.

The two opponents were so evenly matched that neither could gain the advantage. Karna, however, was burdened. Before the battle, the celestial king Indra, Arjuna's father, had asked Karna for his armor during the time of Karna's worship. Cutting it off his body, Karna deprived himself of protection. Earlier in life, to gain an education as a warrior, he had deceived his teacher about his parentage. When his teacher discovered the lie, he cursed Karna to forget his military knowledge at the most crucial moment.

When Karna's chariot ran into a rut and he got down to free it, Krsna told Arjuna to kill his foe.

"But when he's not fighting, the code forbids it," Arjuna countered.

"Didn't Karna support Duryodhana when he burned your house, insulted your wife, and cheated you of your kingdom?" Krsna replied. "Didn't he break the code to kill your son? A cheater should be cheated. Kill him!"

Seeing Arjuna reach for his weapons, Karna left aside the wheel and tried to invoke divine missiles, but he couldn't remember the method. A moment later, he lay dead.

Krsna teaches that one who dies re-membering Him attains his own original, divine nature. Karna, dying while seeing the face of God, got such a benediction. Still, he had caused much suffering to himself and society by blindly following a promise of faithfulness to an evil man for the sake of his own prestige. As Kunti openly mourned him at the end of the day, her other sons lamented that their brother had unnecessarily become their enemy.

Urmila Devi Dasi and her family run a school in North Carolina. She is a frequent contributor to BTG and the major author and compiler of Vaikuntha Children, a guide to Krsna conscious education for children.

To Lord Krsna

(during the fight between Karna and Arjuna)

The bowstrings twang
Flash! Arrows sang
Your glory as the fight's begun
Arjuna fights the sun-god's son.
The weapons blaze upon the sky
As soldiers, stunned, are standing by
And cowards flee away from fear
While You, Krsna, are sitting near.
No one's plans can conquer You
Or anyone who serves You true
For what You want will come to pass
While plans of demons cannot last.
Your face far brighter than the moon
Shines benediction on Arjuna
But also graces Kunti's son
Who is not known to anyone.
As wheels rumble the dusty ground
Hardly anyone is found
Who cannot help but stop and stare
As divine weapons clash in air.
Who will You save and who defeat?
Both conquer fear with no retreat.
Then! Ground bites Karna's chariot wheel,
Knowledge of war his guru does steal.
Arjuna remembers the death of his son
For dharma another battle is won.

Urmila Devi Dasi

Mysteries of Karna's Life and Death

KARNA IS AN enigmatic figure in the Mahabharata, the ancient world history. An illegitimate child abandoned at birth and scorned for his supposed lower-caste status, he seems an innocent victim. He is sometimes praised for his loyalty to Duryodhana, which continued even after he understood that his mentor was an envious, ruthless murderer who would lose everything. Karna's spiritually glorious death in Krsna's presence seems a vindication of his life's choices, but it is a further mystery: Why would Krsna grant salvation to such an evil man?

First, no one is truly a victim. Our birth and circumstances result from our own actions in previous lives. If one commits a crime and is put in jail, the bad atmosphere there is no excuse to continue or worsen one's behavior. Yes, it is harder to be virtuous in jail, but the hardship is self-imposed.

Next, no praiseworthy quality can be judged independently of circumstances. Karna pledged fealty to Duryodhana not because he thought he had found a worthy master, but because Duryodhana granted him the honor and respect he craved. Here is a lesson to those throughout history who have blindly sworn allegiance to a leader for personal gain, or perhaps thinking they would benefit their society. "I was following orders" or "I swore to obey" are not proper defenses against criminal charges. Better to break one's vow than to continue to serve evil in the name of truthfulness.

Finally, Krsna's liberation of Karna operates on a platform of spiritual logic. Salvation is not the result of having done good or evil deeds. Rather, both good and evil deeds lead to further rebirth, not freedom. Freedom from rebirth and attainment of one's original spiritual form result from having Krsna as the focus of one's attention and love. Generally, only one who gives up evil can have such a focus. In fact, we could define evil as that which turns one away from Krsna. But in rare cases a person concentrates on the Lord in spite of his or her demonic actions. Absorption in Krsna is so powerfully purifying especially at death that it can turn to love of God in a moment and nullify all previous evil. One must not intentionally live a bad life with the hope of remembering Krsna at the end; such a plan is an offense to the Lord and will be unsuccessful. But Krsna's greatness is revealed by the examples of those who became perfect in their last moments when their ill-motivated attention on Him suddenly turned to devotion.

In Karna's case, the pure devotee Kunti always wanted his spiritual welfare. Krsna reciprocates with the love of His devotees by giving mercy to those for whom they pray. While some may interpret such actions as partiality, they are in fact simply reciprocation: to those who give all to Krsna, He gives all in return. Krsna also showed His impartiality by giving salvation to all who died seeing Him, whether friends or enemies.

In many ways, Karna represents the rebellious, conditioned souls. We are Krsna's spiritual children, heirs to a life of eternal, always-increasing pleasure and knowledge in His kingdom. But we think ourselves permanent members of families in this world. We give our loyalty and service here, and we think ourselves good because of that. When Krsna asks for our obedience and love, we refuse, citing our many responsibilities. Although our material plans and loyalties have no lasting value, we cling to them rather than re-join our real home and family. But if, like Karna, we can get the blessings and mercy of a pure devotee of Krsna such as Kunti, we can come to our real life even before death, and see that the Lord is with us always.