The second reality of Karna

Karna from the Mahabharata is a character you keep running into from time to time. Two brilliant posts by the Jabberwocky and Mr. O-V-Shake just reminded me of my trysts with Karna, and I want to recount them here.

Actually, even before I dive into Karna's character and the dramatic mix of luck, valor and cowardice in his life, let me tell you about when I first heard or read about Karna. No it wasn't a textbook (or the Mahabharat TV series). It was during one of Soumitra Chatterjee's visits to my home town. For those of you who know him from just the movies, you definitely do not know the great elocutionist and reciter that is he. I have been fortunate enough to listen to his recitation of the "Karna Kunti Sangbad" - a great poem by Rabindranath Tagore. The poem depicts Karna's last and only honest conversation with Kunti when she begs for her other son's life.If you ever get a chance, definitely listen to it. When I came across this poetic novel again in my academic life, the beautiful baritone recitation that I had in my mind made reading this piece all the more enjoyable.

When I was in school, the life and tragedy of Karna was the theme of discussion in quite a few classes. I have written essays and answered short questions in exams a number of times about what kind of injustice he had to endure all through his mortal existence. And singing paeans to tragic heroes is always easy, I would say, especially since from the first day of the class, that is the very idea your teachers preached and recited. The number of marks you received at the end of the semester depended to a large extent on how well you could weep in ink (or at least so I believed).

The other thing that was taught was that he epitomized the notion of a good friend. He stuck to the losing side just because he was friends with them, and never left his friends even in the thick of battle. His loyalty was something to be emulated, especially since he was the underdog fighting against a well-trained opponent (namely, Arjuna). If you read Jabberwocky's post above, you will know what I mean.

When I was in college, this topic of discussion came up once with a friend. He was thoroughly on the side of Arjuna (and I admit, to my surprise). Throughout my education, I had this self-evident notion of Karna being the good guy and Arjuna the bad guy (you can interpret it as the poor union worker vs the greedy capitalist in Communist Party interpretation). It was also supported by my teachers, and I think someone else who was my parents' age echoed the sentiment as well. So I then proceeded to illustrate (and secretly educate) my friend about why he should consider Karna the true hero of the situation, and how the devious Arjuna slayed him at a time when he was at a serious disadvantage.

But my friend pointed out a serious flaw in my lifelong theory. That being, a true friend's duty is to rescue his friend from taking a wrong step, not going with the flow no matter what. So when Duryodhan was asking his brother to pull and drag Draupadi into the courtroom by her hair, or when he was trying to usurp the Hastinapur throne after the Pandavas returned, it was Karna's moral duty to stop his friend from doing these. Also, my friend added, if you find someone on the path to doom and you have tried your best to prevent them from that outcome, you have no moral obligation to stick with them; irrespective of whatever favors they have done to you.

As I ponder over it today, I think my friend was right. This second look at the character brought out a very different reality of Karna for me. More than friendship or loyalty, I think the bigger reason why he took Duryodhan's side was plain politics and vengeance. He thought he was joining the winning side, hated the Pandavas to the core, and earlier alliances with Duryodhan would have paid off much richer dividends if indeed the Kauravas had won the war.

But more than the politics, it is interesting how perceptions and realities change when one can think critically about subjects. I wonder what other surprises lie in store for me. But to confess, I actually relish these opportunities of revisiting what I have learned and debating them - the exercise is very intellectually satisfying.

Before I end this post, however, I have to tell you about one of the closing lines from "Karna Kunti Sangbad" which always stayed with me. When Karna decides to sacrifice his life to let Arjuna live, just because Kunti asked for it, he states,
"জয়ী হউক অমর হউক পান্ডব সন্তান
আমি রব নিশ্ফালের হতাশের দলে"

(Let the son of Pandu be victorious and live forever, I choose to stay with the hopeless desperate ones) -- Rabindranath Tagore.


  1. Very very well written and a very thoughtful post!! :) Loved it!

    I would suggest "Jay Mahabharata" by Devdutt Patnaik if at all your like to read :)

  2. Bubblegum, Thank you so much! I'll add "Jay Mahabharata" to my list of future readings!

  3. You know, Karna may be see nas a tragic hero these days, but he was very much the partner of Duryodhana the villain, always egging him on with his encouragement and advise and lending Duryodhana a mighty arm when needed. Sure, he was loyal to Duryodhana. But Karna also stood by and allowed Duryodhana to molest Draupadi. He could, if he wanted, advised Duryodhana correctly and prevented Duryodhana from committing many outrages, but he allowed his own enmity with the Pandavas to blind him to Dharma and what is right. Thus he is a compromised hero, in my book.

    In many ways, Karna represents the silent majority who choose to pretend blindness in the face of injustice and sheer villainy. Sure, he has a lot of great qualities, but by choosing to turn a blind eye to Duryodhana's acts of injustice he compromised himself in the eyes of the world. He HAD to remain loyal to his friend to the end, otherwise the world would have condemned him as a traitor and a fair-weather friend.

    There is no doubting that Karna is a great man, a great warrior and well learned in the ways of Dharma. He could rival all the Pandavas in his knowledge and scholarship and he was no doubt the personification of sacrifice and charity, but he chose to associate himself with a scoundrel and paid the price.

  4. But what else could he do. In those days only kshatriyas could wield arms and for that you needed a dominion which duryodhan gave him. He could have gone to some other kingdom and impressed another king but still would have had to compromise. He was in love with his profession of bearing arms which forced him to choose the wrong side. But still he sacrifised himself.

  5. Visiting here after a long time.
    Very well written. Coming to Karna, this has been my experience too. I wrote essays about him when I was a child, and my views gradually changed.

    There is one more thing. When did Kunti go and speak to Karna first? Right after she recognized him? Or just before the war, when she feared for the safety of her sons born after her marriage? We must remember that the society at the time of the Mahabharata was more free, and it would have probably been okay for Kunti to accept Karna as the first Pandava. What do you think?

  6. Hari, "In many ways, Karna represents the silent majority who choose to pretend blindness in the face of injustice and sheer villainy. Sure, he has a lot of great qualities, but by choosing to turn a blind eye to Duryodhana's acts of injustice he compromised himself in the eyes of the world" - what a brilliant summary! Thanks, and very valid points w.r.t. the path of Dharma in this context.

    Anonymous, welcome to the blog. I believe there is always a choice in life. He could have definitely discouraged his friends from doing what they did. If, in spite of his most sincere efforts Duryodhana was still going to wage war, we would have been more lenient upon him for choosing to follow his friend into war.

    Parijata, welcome back! Yeah it seems we all wrote essays about him as a child. I do not think the society was more free at that time - Kunti wouldn't have discarded him in the first place. I think she knew from a long time back who Karna was, but decided to go and beg for her other son's life in the middle of the war itself. Mahabharata purists - please correct me if my memory is deceiving me.

  7. I am not sure it is as easy as taking the "right" or "wrong" path in life and to dissuade a friend from doing what is "right" and what is "wrong." for, who defines these things ? the character of Karna has to be looked at from a deeper perspective. certainly being dumped by the parents do not seem "right" neither does the silence, when he is termed suta-putra. i believe that Karna deserves much more attention than a reductionist conclusion.

  8. I want to argue on the first point .. why the hell did pandavas keep draupathi in the first place .. they have won her they will do what they wish ..

    coming on karna being on the side of Kuru family .. Duryodhna made him a king not some ordinary person with such a good heart could do that .. even pandavas did not have that much heart to accept him .. Arjuna was a not a real hero at all .. if he was not protected by his father(Indra), Krishna and by Hanuman in the war he would have died like an ordinary soldiers death..

    After the war was over .. it was Arjuna who got down of the chariot first instead of his radha saradhi Krishna.. .. Once Krishna got down of the chariot it blow into pieces ..

    Arjuna was incompetent with ekalavya alone .. who learned blindly believing that dronacharya taught him .. how can we believe that he was capable of defeating Karna.. Beacause the karna's previous form of life was a Demon who only lord indra took many forms to kill him and to take away his kavach kunda..

    All this war was just to kill people there was no real meaning as which was good or who was good or the others were bad ..

    After the war the pandavas couldn't protect the women of yadavas from bandids after Balram and Krishna passed away (1 and half year only after the war ).. they were exaggerated in
    that war and were written nothing else.

    Please dont read half and decide read complete .. After the death of pandavas they were moved to hell But duryodhna was taken directly to heaven Because he was a very good king Pandavas were not at all capable kings with out Krishna


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