By choosing his own reputation over the advice of his well-wishers to join the side of virtue, Karna chose the word of honor over the life of honor
– a subtle but serious error of judgment
When Krishna offered Karna kingship of the Pandavas kingdom if he defected to their side, Karna stood by the side of Duryodhana. Doesn’t this make him a glorious example of a faithful friend?
Sadly, no. It makes Karna a classic but tragic example of a good person becoming bad due to bad association – and then mistaking faithfulness to that bad association to be a matter of honor.
It is true that Duryodhana helped Karna in his time of need by giving him the kingdom of Anga. And it is laudable that Karna was grateful to him for that generosity. Yet in the larger picture the Kauravas were immoral and evil. The way Duryodhana dishonored the Pandavas and especially their wife was heinous.
When an honorable person gets unknowingly entangled in something dishonorable, then honor requires that the honorable person come out of the mess on coming to know of it, not stay on in it in the name of honor.
To illustrate with a provocative parallel, suppose a starving boy in Pakistan is offered food and shelter by a group of terrorists who brainwash people into becoming suicide bombers. The boy may not be initially aware of the evil agenda of his helpers, but when he becomes aware, should he in the name of loyalty to those who helped him once continue lifelong to be a part of a machinery of death and destruction? Is Karna’s faithfulness to Duryodhana all that different from Mohammed bin Atta’s faithfulness to Osama bin Laden in becoming a suicide bomber who brought down the twin towers and killed thousands?
Karna may not have had any idea of the evil nature of Duryodhana initially, but when he came to know about it, he should have parted ways. But unfortunately, far from parting ways, Karna not only joined Duryodhana’s way, but also egged the wicked Kaurava further along that way. Karna , in his mistaken desire to please Duryodhana, suggested the dishonoring of Draupadi. Karna's joining Duryodhana emboldened that arrogant prince to become even more insolent, imagining that he could excel the military prowess of the Pandavas , thereby courting self-destruction and causing world destruction.
What Krishna offered Duryodhana and Karna when He came as a peace messenger shows his extremely accommodating nature – His willingness to go to any length to avoid or minimize bloodshed. Krishna asked Duryodhana to give just five villages, but that evil prince rejected the offer.
Then Krishna knowing that bloodshed was inevitable decided to try to minimize it. He knew that the various formidable Kaurava generals like Bhisma, Drona, Kripa and Asvatthama bore no animosity towards the Pandavas – they would fight only because they were obliged to. The only formidable Kaurava general apart from the Kaurava brothers who was bent on the fight was Karna . If he could be won over, then that would break the back of Duryodhana’s obstinacy. It might even persuade him to agree for a peaceful settlement. If not, at least it would shorten the fight. With this intention to minimize violence, Krishna invited Karna to come on the side of the virtuous Pandavas . And when Krishna offered Karna the kingdom, that offer was not as a temptation but as Karna's rightful legacy as the eldest Pandava.
It was Krishna's accommodating nature that He not only gave Karna a chance to do the right thing, but also offered him an unparalleled reward for doing the right thing. After all the wrong things Karna had participated in or even instigated, it could well be said that he didn’t deserve such an offer. Yet Krishna magnanimously made the offer, thereby making it as easy as possible for Karna to do the right thing at least at that late stage. When Karna refused that offer, he chose wrong instead of right – all due to a mistaken sense of honor.
From the devotional perspective, Karna rejected God for the world; he gave greater importance to being honored by the world than by God. He didn’t have the intelligence to recognize that whatever Duryodhana had given him ultimately belonged to God, who had given it temporarily to Duryodhana. And it was that God who was now offering him the world’s emperorship. Even if Karna didn’t accept Krishna as the Supreme God and so didn’t consider His word authoritative, he could at least have accepted the authority of his worshipable god, Suryadeva. That effulgent deity advised Karna that for his own well-being he should side with the virtuous family of his birth and not the vicious family that he had befriended. Yet Karna stuck to his own notion of what would be honorable.
What Krishna was inviting Karna to was not defection, but redemption – a return to the path of virtue that Karna would probably have tread had he not become attached to Duryodhana. To err is human, but to continue in error isn’t. And to mistake continuing in error to be loyalty is stupidity. And when that mistake causes the death of millions, that mistaken loyalty ceases to be mere stupidity; it becomes monstrous perversity. Karna's mistaken loyalty was his greatest inner enemy and it made him a puppet in the hands of the evil Duryodhana.
Was Karna not disadvantaged during the final fight because of the curses of Parasurama and the brahmana that caused respectively his forgetfulness of the mantras for his potent weapons and his chariot’s sinking into the earth?
Yes, but again he was not the only one to be cursed. Arjuna was cursed by Urvasi to become a eunuch. And Arjuna’s being cursed was even more unfair than that of Karna's .
Urvasi had wanted to unite with him, but Arjuna respectfully refused, regarding her like a mother as she had been the wife of his ancestor Pururava. Being infuriated at being turned down, Urvasi cursed Arjuna. So Arjuna got the curse without having done anything reproachable – in fact after having done something immensely laudable. Indra lauded him later, “Your self-control exceeds even that of the great sages.” In contrast, Karna's curses were due to his having done something reproachable, even if it might not have been with bad intention. He lied to Parasurama, saying that he had been born in a brahmana family. And he accidentally killed the brahmana’s cow, mistaking it to be an animal to be hunted.
Further, many other people have also got cursed disproportionately for minor transgressions: Dasaratha, Pandu and Pariksit, for example. So there’s nothing uniquely tragic about Karna's getting cursed – no need to make a martyr out of him.
Moreover, what happens to us is not as important as how we respond to it. By choosing right responses, the effect of unfortunate happenings can be minimized. Arjuna used the curse to live discreetly as a dance teacher during the period when the Pandavas were expected to live incognito. Karna too could have done something to deal with the curse. To minimize the effect of the “chariot-beingswallowed” curse, he could have had a backup chariot always ready or could even have switched to an entirely different carrier, say, an elephant. To minimize the effect of the “mantras-forgetting” curse, he could have done austerities and acquired other weapons along with the mantras to hurl them – Parasurama’s curse applied only to the mantras he had given to Karna . Overreliance on one weapon, especially that is known to, even fated, to let one down is a suicidally unsound strategy – entirely unworthy of anyone who wishes to be considered as the world champion archer. And of course he could have entirely avoided this ill-starred conflict if he had had the good sense to listen to Krishna and chose the side of virtue.
Was Karna not disadvantaged lifelong because society considered him lowborn?
1. Yes, the notion that he was a charioteer’s son deprived him of the respect given to the son of ksatriya. Still, he was also uniquely advantaged in having an impenetrable armor since birth. None of the Pandavas , despite being born from celestials, had a congenital armor – Karna started off with a big advantage over Arjuna. So, if in one sense, the match was fixed against him due to his presumed low birth, then in another sense, it was fixed for him due to his congenital armor. The net result could be said to be a level playing field.
Eventually, though Karna lost his kavaca, he did gain all the things due to a ksatriya: kingdom, the friendship of kings and the respect of kings – resulting again in a level playing field. Thus, his birth did not permanently deprive him of the things he merited.
2. If we look at things from a limited, this-life perspective, everyone gets some troubles despite having apparently done nothing to deserve them. Were the Pandavas not wronged when they had to live in the forest like fugitives after their residence in Varanavata was burnt down? It was no fault of theirs that they were born in the same dynasty as the envious Duryodhana who made them the target of his wicked machinations. Were they not wronged when they were dispossessed of their kingdom and exiled through a rigged gambling match? Were they not wronged when their wife Draupadi was dishonored?
Yet despite the wrongs that happened to them, the Pandavas stayed on the side of virtue, whereas Karna chose the side of vice. If we use the wrongs that happen to us to justify our making wrong choices, then we can never make things right – we perpetuate a series of wrongs that make things worse for ourselves as well as for others.
3. If we look at things from a more complete, multi-life perspective, then we understand that the problems we face in this life are due to our karma from previous lives. The Mahabharata mentions that Karna was demon named Dambhodbhava in his previous life. This demon had terrorized the universe on the strength of a blessing got from the sun-god. He had been blessed to have a thousand kavacas which:
i. Could be destroyed only one at a time
ii. Could be destroyed only by someone who had performed a thousand years of austerity
iii. Would cause the immediate death of the destroyer of the kavaca.
This combination of blessings made him undefeatable till he met his match in the form of the divine sages Nara-Narayana, who are considered non-different from each other. They fought with him alternately, one fighting while the other performed austerity – both doing so for a thousand years. When the warrior would destroy one kavaca and fall dead, the ascetic would revive him by the power of his austerities and then they would swap places. The warrior would fight and finally destroy another kavaca after a thousand years till the ascetic acquired enough merit through austerity to take up the fight for another thousand years and destroy one more kavaca.
By this resourceful and arduous arrangement, those sages destroyed nine hundred and ninety nine kavacas. When just one kavaca remained, the demon fled to the shelter of the sun-god, who due to attachment to his worshiper refused to hand the fugitive over to Nara-Narayana åsis. Eventually, the demon was impregnated by the sun-god into the womb of Kunti and he was born as Karna . Simultaneously, Nara-Narayana appeared as Arjuna and Krishna to complete their unfinished mission of ridding the universe of the terrible demon.
Karna , due to his contact with the sun-god and due to his being parented by that effulgent deity, had developed some virtues. But due to the inclinations from his demoniac previous life, he also had some weaknesses. Thus, he became a complex grey character in the Mahabharata. And whatever he suffered during his life was the result of the bad karma he had done in his previous life.
3. The caste-by-birth notion that led to discrimination against Karna was a deviation from the Vedic norm, a deviation that is acknowledged in the Bhagavad-gita.
Krishna states in the Gita that the spiritual knowledge that he had given at the start of the creation (4.1) had become obscured by the power of time (4.2). Due to this decline of spiritual knowledge, the social order present at the time when the Gita was spoken (which is the same as the time when the Mahabharata occurred – the Gita is a part of the Mahabharata) had deviated from the spiritual standard. One sample of this deviation was the prevalence of the casteby- birth idea, something contrary to the Gita’s teaching (4.13) that caste is determined by qualities and activities. As the caste system was rigid and stratified at that time, Karna was often labeled by his birth instead of by his qualities and activities.
Every age has its blind spots and its fallibilities – the problems resulting from those blind spots are one of the ways people in that age get the reactions to their past-life karma. To act virtuously while enduring various problems coming due to our past-life misdeeds is the defining challenge of life in all ages. Though Karna did act virtuously in several ways, his choosing the side of vice as a lifelong commitment was his fatal blunder.
Was it not wrong for Draupadi to dishonor Karna by stating during her svayaàvara that she would not marry the son of a charioteer ?
According to the Mahabharata- Tatparya-Nirnaya of srila Madhvacarya as well as the critical edition of the Mahabharata prepared by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Draupadi didn’t reject Karna – Karna contested and failed to hit the target. In these narratives, the incident of Draupadi rejecting Karna as a potential suitor didn’t occur at all. Nonetheless, because most extant versions of the Mahabharata do include this incident, let’s analyze its ethical dimensions.
The very word svayaàvara (svayam – oneself, vara – bridegroom) implies that the occasion is a forum for the bride to choose her groom. So Draupadi had the right to choose her husband. The test of archery skill was an aid for her in making the choice, but ultimately it was meant to be her choice.
In the contest, the expected competitors were ksatriya kings. Karna put himself in a potentially embarrassing situation when despite knowing that many in society questioned his ksatriya credentials, he assumed that he could participate in the contest and marched to the central arena only to be stopped by Draupadi. A less presumptuous attitude could have saved Karna of the dishonor.
Was Karna not an exemplary man of honor that he promised Kunti that he would not kill any of her sons except Arjuna and kept that promise?
Yes, that was a laudable thing he did, but it would have been better if he had done what Kunti had beseeched and what even his worshipable deity and actual father Suryadeva had asked him to do: join the ranks of the virtuous Pandavas .
Due to his perceived low birth and the attendant lack of respect, Karna was forever craving for respect. This deep-seated status anxiety clouded his judgment, making him privilege honor over virtue. He mistook that being respected as a person who kept his word of honor was more important than leading a life of virtue.
To compensate for the lack of respect due to his perceived low birth, Karna had built a reputation for himself of being unflinchingly charitable. When Kunti asked him to come over to the side of his virtuous brothers, his status anxiety prevented him from doing the right thing. Yet it also couldn’t brook the idea of refusing her entirely, for that would sully his reputation. So, to preserve his reputation, he gave her another charity: that she would always have five sons, for he would not kill any of the Pandavas except for Arjuna. And to preserve that reputation, he honored that word by sparing the other four Pandavas .
Now his sparing their life was honorable, but a similar sense of honor among the Pandavas led to his life being spared too. As mentioned earlier, Abhimanyu and Bhima had both overpowered Karna – and they could have killed him. But to honor the vow of Arjuna that he would be the one to kill Karna , they did not take Karna's life. So he spared others’ life and others spared his life – score even; nothing extraordinarily great about it.
By choosing his own reputation over the advice of his well-wishing parents to join the side of virtue, Karna chose the word of honor over the life of honor – a subtle but serious error of judgment.
To conclude, Karna demonstrates how attachment to bad association can not only make a good person bad but can also make that person mistake bad to be good.
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.