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Mahabharata, the greatest epic is hailed as the fifth veda. Of all the characters in the epic, Shree Krishna’s role is the most important of all. Without his presence, the Kurukshetra war would have not been fought. Without his indulgence, Arjuna would have never lifted his bow against his own cousin brothers. But he being the God himself knew everything. He says in Bhagavad Gita that everything was destined to happen, that he knew the outcome of the war. And hence even though he is my most favourite character in the entire book, I did not take up his character for discussion since it is not just me, but anyone would find it impossible to analyze him.

The other character which has always fascinated me is Karna’s. His story is one of the saddest, since he was ill-fated ever since his birth.

Born to Kunti and Suryadeva (Sun) and being one of the best warriors of all times, he probably deserved a better life. His mother abandoned him along with his protective armor and earrings, soon after his birth since she was unmarried at that time. A charioteer of King Dritharashtra picked him from the river where his mother left him floating in a box and adopted him as his own son. Dronacharya was the tutor for all the princes from Hastinapur like Yudhistra, who was known for telling only truth, Bhima, who was known for his strength and Arjuna, who was known for his archery skills and their cousins like Duryodhana, whose pride was the primary cause for the war. Karna, was brought up by a poor father and this led to a refusal for teaching by Drona. Karna now approached Parashurama, who taught only Brahmins and lied to him that he was a Brahmin. Karna also learnt the usage of Brahmastra from him.

Once in the ashram of Parashurama, Karna fires an arrow aimlessly and a cow belonging to a Brahmin dies. The Brahmin curses him saying “Let the wheel of your chariot get stuck in the mud and at that very instant let someone kill you. This is your punishment for killing an innocent cow”.

Indra or Devendra (king of Gods), father of Arjuna did not want Karna to become more powerful and hence took the form of a worm and stung Karna when Parashurama was sleeping on his lap. Karna withstood the pain since he did not want his guru to wake up. The guru woke up and upon seeing the blood oozing out of his body, immediately recognized that Karna was not a Brahmin. A Brahmin could never withstand such a pain and still keep quiet. Parashurama cursed Karna for lying saying “When you are fighting with an enemy and the enemy is about to kill you, you will forget everything you learnt from me”.

Duryodhana becomes a good friend of Karna. Duryodhana makes him a king of a city and thus Karna joins the Kauravas. Karna never knew that he was son of Kunti and that Arjuna was his step-brother. Along with Duryodhana, he developed hatredness towards Arjuna and all the other Pandavas. Indra was now getting scared of Karna as the news spread far and wide that he was a great warrior. He devised a plan to get hold of the earrings and the divine armor of Karna. Suryadeva came to know about this plan and warned Karna not to give his armor and earrings to anyone. But Karna refuses to agree saying that he is Dhana shoora Karna, which means he gives anyone anything they ask for. Soon Indra comes dressed like an ordinary Brahmin and asks for the armor and earrings. Karna recognizes him as Indra and asks for his Shaktyayudha in return. And this way Indra makes him vulnerable to death by taking his armor given by Suryadeva himself.

Kauravas snatch the kingdom from Pandavas by cheating them and refuse to return one half of it, when they come back from exile. The Kurukshetra war is then declared. Krishna informs Kunti about the war. Kunti now approaches Karna, hoping to make him change sides. She accepts him as her son and asks him not to wage a war against his own brothers. “Let the world see Karna and Arjuna unite”, she requests. But Karna says “Oh mother, you abandoned me and as a result I am denied of all my Kshatriya rights. You have not come here to accept me as a son, but only for your selfish motive. I will not kill your other sons but either Arjuna or I will survive at the end. I have eaten Duryodhana’s salt and it is time for me to show loyalty and gratitude towards that dear friend of mine”. Kunti also makes him promise her that he will not use the same weapon twice.

And thus the war begins. Karna and Arjuna get involved in an intense fight.

Krishna urges Arjuna to not show compassion towards Drona, Bhisma, Jayadratha and Karna here, in this stanza from Bhagavad Gita:

Now Karna uses Sarpastra, an arrow which is shaped like a snake, aiming it at Arjuna’s throat. As soon as Sree Krishna sees this, he pushes Arjuna’s chariot and sinks it a few inches deep in the mud. As a result, the arrow hits Arjuna’s crown and knocks it off his head. The arrow flies back to Karna and asks him to use it again. It assures him that this time it will kill Arjuna. But Karna refuses to do so in order to keep his promise that he will not use an arrow more than once. The fight now continues between Karna and Arjuna. Arjuna gets ready with a very poisonous deadly arrow and just then as if to signal the end of Karna, his chariot sinks into the ground (the brahmin’s curse). Karna forgets to use Brahmasatra, as a result of Parashurama’s curse. Then he asks Arjuna not to fire an arrow at him, while he tries to get his chariot out of the mud. He requests him to follow dharma.

Karna followed dharma (established code of conduct), in that

  • He was good natured and a very dependable person.
  • Loyalty is an important trait that Karna displays. Since he ate Duryodhana’s salt, he does not betray and change sides when his mother asks him to.
  • He never broke his promises. He did not try to kill any of the Pandavas, other than Arjuna, even though he defeated them. Even though Sarpastra asked him to fire it again and it  was evident that it would have definitely killed Arjuna, yet just to keep his promise, Karna refuses to fire it.
  • He was a great friend to Duryodhana and showed his gratitude towards Duryodhana for supporting him when he needed support.
  • Even though Suryadeva warns him not to give his armor, he does not refuse to give it to Indra who requests for it. He indeed is “dhaana shoora”.
  • His situation is really pitiable in that he being a prince, never got what he deserved ever since his mother abandoned him. He ended up in a war where he had to fight against his own brothers, in order to support a friend. It was all due to ill-fate.

For which, Sree Krishna says “Now that you are in trouble, you remember dharma. Where was your dharma, when you did these wrong deeds with Duryodhana?”

He committed adharma (behaved against the established code of conduct) like this:

  • Building friendship with someone like Duryodhana and then maintaining that friendship, even when what Duryodhana did was not right. He fell into wrong company and when you are with friends, you tend to start supporting them. That is why it is important to choose right set of friends.
  • Karna cheated his guru by telling a lie that he is a Brahmin, when he was not.
  • He supported Duryodhana in every evil deed of his like -
    • Karna uses shameful words against Draupadi and asks Duhsasana to seize garments of Draupadi and hand them to Sakuni, he also supports Duryodhana in trying to poison Bhima, in trying to burn Pandavas in a wax house.
    • Karna was responsible for killing Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna by trickery. Karna with others made Abhimanyu enter the Chakravyuha (a circular formation) which only Arjuna knew how to come out of, and then blocked the entrance so that other Pandavas could not enter. Arjuna and Krishna were battling somewhere far. Abhimanyu, all alone battled with six great warriors and then Karna went behind and broke his bow and armor, which was against the rules of the battle. Abhimanyu fought with the wheel of his chariot but all six of them surrounded Abhimanyu and killed him.

After hearing what Krishna said, Karna bowed his head in shame but still took his bow and started fighting. He shot an arrow at Arjuna that pierced his chest and then utilizing this time that he gained, Karna began lifting his chariot. At that instant, Krishna asked Arjuna to use Anjalika weapon, which then severed Karna’s head from his body.

This is something that today’s generation can learn from Karna’s story. One should make friendship of noble men and stay away from people who deviate from dharma. Just because your friend asks you to cut someone’s throats, will you cut? One needs to make a decision here. What is right and what is wrong? This is where Karna lacked in judgement. Even though Duryodhana had helped him, did he really have to take a wrong path and help him?

Please note: The author of this post has not read the original Mahabharata, written by Vedavyasa. She has  just read the translations of that by other authors and also obtained some points from B.R.Chopra’s video depiction. Should you find that some of the parts of the story are not  actually true, please let the author know by leaving a comment.

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