Karna was often visited by misfortune but others too had to suffer misfortune. Karna’s loyalty and generosity were often misplaced. That was the root of his tragedy

Navaratna Rajaram

Karna the tragic hero

Karna the son of Surya, born as the pre-marital son of the Yadava princess Kunti is a tragic figure in the great historic epic filled with tragedies, The Mahabharata. An important point to note is that Karna was the greatest warrior on the Kuru side, but as fate would have he was also the first of the Pandavas born to Kunti.

While much is made of the venerable old warriors Bhishma and Drona, they were no match for Karna and Duryodhana knew it. Bhishma’s heart was not in the war and Drona was in it only for the money. As Bhima once teased him, he himself was a warrior who incurred no sin by fighting, because as a Kshatriya, it was his duty to fight for the protection of others. Drona, Bhima said was a degraded Brahmin who was killing innocents for the sake of a good life for himself and his family.

Karna was the only Kaurava warrior feared by Yudhishtira as the possible peer of Arjuna. It was Karna who made his friend and benefactor Durydhana feel he was strong enough to take on his rival Pandava cousins. Shakuni was cunning and Dhritarashtra devious and indulgent, but none of that would count on the battlefield.

It is possible that Karna was the only warrior who could have prevented the Mahabharata War. Had he switched sides or at least refused to support Duryodhana, there would have been no war. Duryodhana would not have dared take on the Pandavas and their allies without Karna. Krishna who wanted to prevent war, tried to get Karna to switch, appealing to his pride and sense of justice (Dharma) I am indebted to an article by Pramod Pathak (in the Pioneer) for some of the ideas here. It was Karna’s continued support for Duryodhana that made the war inevitable, and this was the reason for Bhishma’s aversion to Karna.

Karna’s misfortunes

A very interesting conversation between Krishna and Karna before the Mahabharata gives valuable insights into Karna’s mind and motives. When Krishna tries to find out how a person as noble as Karna is taking the side of Duryodhana with his record of Adharma, Karna gives a long reply citing reasons for his disenchantment with Dharma.

He says that his mother abandoned him the moment he was born and he could only survive by a quirk of fate. Even though he was not responsible for what had transpired, he was stamped illegitimate. Dronacharya refused to teach him because he was not considered a Kshatriya — even though he actually was. By concealing his identity, he could persuade Parashurama to teach him but there also, he ultimately got a curse rather than a blessing once it was discovered that he actually was a Kshatriya.

At Draupadi’s Swayamvara he was disgraced. Not quite. Draupadi chose Arjuna who performed the feat that Karna could not, but that was her right as the princess whose hand they sought.

Later, only to save her sons’ life did Kunti, his mother, accept him as her son. So, whatever he had got was owing to Duryodhana’s generosity. How could he possibly be wrong for taking the side of Duryodhana? That was Karna’s rationale for supporting Duryodhana, in spite of his evil and unjust conduct.


Krishna too suffered misfortunes

Lord Krishna’s reply to this is worth understanding. He says that he was born in a jail and death was lurking all around him, even before he was born. His brothers and sisters were killed just because they were his siblings. The night he was born he was separated from his parents. He was brought up with poor children and cowherds all around. There were several attempts to kill him even before he could learn to walk. In fact, people would curse him for being the reason for bringing Kamsa’s wrath on them. He could only receive education when he was 16. (He was a prodigy and self-taught.) He had to move his entire community far off to save them from Jarasandha. He was branded a coward for running away from fighting. He was discredited many times.

And he stood to gain nothing from the war. He would be known as Partha’s charioteer. Whether Yudhisthira won or Duryodhana won, Krishna would only remain a bystander. Everyone faces misfortunes and challenges in his life — be it Duryodhana or Yudhisthira. Yet to discriminate between right and wrong is one’s Dharma. No matter how bad the circumstances are, your reaction to them is what matters. Life’s unfairness is no reason to side with Adharma. You have the free will to choose between Dharma and Adharma and your own conscience is your guide.

It was Karna’s tragedy he chose Adharma to return Duryodhana’s generosity. Curiously, where Duryodhana was greedy like his father, Karna was generous to a fault, and that was partly his undoing. It was his choice, but he had to face the consequences, no excuses.

Pandavas suffered even more

How about Kunti and the Pandavas, did they not suffer? Widowed when her children were still young, she had to live on the charity of the covetous Dhritarashtra, and Bhishma’s sense of justice, while her children suffered because of Duryodhana’s envy. Though qualified by birth and qualities to be ruler, Yudhishtira was repeatedly thwarted. Dhritarashtra, while superficially extolling Yudhishtira’s virtues as Dharma Raja (King Dharma), he colluded with his son’s nefarious schemes to eliminate them including the ploy to burn them in the house of lacquer built for the purpose. It was only the sagacity of Vidura, the resourcefulness of Yudhishtira and the strength of Bhima that saved them. It was probably because of the sense of insecurity from all this that made Kunti ask them to marry Draupadi as their common wife.

Even after they returned, Yudhishtira was denied his due as the crown prince. Instead Dhritarashtra sent him and his brothers to the wilderness of Khandava to build a new capital. When they succeeded in turning this wilderness into the prosperous Indraprastha which Yudhishtira ruled with wisdom and fame, Duryodhana’s envy still knew no bounds. With the help of his cunning uncle Shakuni, he tricked Yudhishtira into a dice game and sent him and his brothers into a second exile. And they humiliated Draupadi to add insult to the considerable injury. Neither Karna nor any of the elders did anything to stop this gross injustice.

Only the young Vikarna had the decency to protest, but not strong enough to stop the outrage. For this too Vikarna was derided by Karna. And all the five sons of the Pandavas died unfairly. Abhimanyu was killed in an unfair manner when he was unarmed. Their five sons survived the war but were killed in a dastardly night attack by Asvatthama after the death of Duryodhana. In Yudhishtira’s picturesque phrase, they were like a ship that braved the oceans only to sink in a puddle.

Karna too lost his sons in the war, but in fair fight, unlike Abhimanyu and the Pandava sons.

In their individual combats, Karna was generally bested by Arjuna. During the cattle raid in Virata’s kingdom, with the young Uttara as his charioteer, Arjuna defeated all the Kauravas including Karna. Earlier in their forest dwelling when Duryodhana came to show his splendour and was captured by the Gandharva chief Chitrasena, it was Arjuna an and not Karna who got him released, Thanks to Dharma Raja’s generous persuasion.

Krishna’s dharma lesson to Karna

With this background, let us get to the climactic Karna Parva.

The narrative, as with all the war parvas is confusing, but Karna was momentarily immobilized because his chariot wheel was stuck in the blood-soaked mud due to all the blood on the ground. According to some accounts, Karna was forced to get down and free his chariot wheel that was stuck in the mud.

He appealed to Arjuna for time, saying Dharma demanded Karna be allowed to extricate his chariot wheel. Somewhat sentimental Arjuna who had a weakness for Karna and his sons, seemed moved but Krishna would have no part of what he saw as Karna’s self-serving appeal to Dharma.

Then Krishna,, stationed on the car, addressed Karna, saying,

“By good luck it is, O son of Radha, that you remember Dharma!

It is generally seen that they who are mean, when they sink into distress, rail at Providence but never at their own misdeeds. Yourself and Suyodhana and Duhshasana and Shakuni, the son of Subala, had caused Draupadi, clad in a single piece of raiment, to be dragged into the midst of the assembly. On that occasion, O Karna, this Dharma of yours did not show itself. When at the assembly Shakuni, an adept in dice, vanquished Kunti’s son Yudhishthira who was unacquainted with it, where had your Dharma gone?

When the Kuru king (Duryodhana), acting under your advice, treated Bhimasena in that way with the aid of snakes and poisoned food, where was your Dharma gone? When the period of exile into the woods was over as also the thirteenth year, thou didst not make over to the Pandavas their kingdom. Whither had this Dharma of yours then gone?

You people set fire to the house of lac at Varanavata for burning to death the sleeping Pandavas. Where then, O son of Radha, had this Dharma of yours gone? You laughed at Krishnaa (Draupadi) while she stood in the midst of the assembly, scantily dressed because in her season and obedient to Duhshasana’s will, where, then, O Karna, had this Dharma of yours gone?

When from the apartment reserved for the ladies, innocent Krishnaa was dragged, you did not interfere. Where, O son of Radha, had this Dharma of yours  gone? Yourself addressing the princess Draupadi, that lady whose tread is as dignified as that of the elephant, in these words, viz., ‘The Pandavas, O Krishnaa, are lost. They have sunk into eternal hell. Do you choose another husband!’

You looked on the scene with delight. Where then, O Karna, had this Dharma of yours gone? Covetous of kingdom and relying on the ruler of the Gandharas (Shakuni), you summoned the Pandavas (to a match of dice). Where had your Dharma gone?

When many mighty car-warriors, encircling the boy Abhimanyu in battle, slew him, where had your Dharma then then gone? If this Dharma that thou now invoket was nowhere on those occasions, what is the use then of parching thy palate now, by uttering that word? You are now for the practice of Dharma, O Suta, but you shall not escape with life.

The Pandavas, who are free from cupidity, will recover their kingdom by the prowess of their arms, aided with all their friends. Having slain in battle their powerful foes, they, with, will recover their kingdom. The Dhartarashtras (Kauravas) will meet with destruction at the hands of those lions among men (viz., the sons of Pandu), that are always protected by Dharma!

In the Gita, Krishna had no use for Arjuna invoking his misguided idea of Dharma for not fighting his adversaries. He had even less sympathy for Karna’s appeal to Dharma in his moment of distress and impending defeat.

There is an ancient Sanskrit saying: “Dharmo rakshati, rakshitah.” Dharma protectcs those who protect it, but Karna in his cynicism had given up on Dharma. He could not now appeal for mercy in the name of Dharma.

Dharma is both duty and justice. It is not something to select and discard at one’s convenience. And that was Karna’s end.

In his play Julius Caesar, Shakespeare wrote “Brutus is an honorable man,” with more than a hint of sarcasm. So too was Karna and noble as well, but his nobility was not accompanied by judgment. That was his tragedy.

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