Unmasking the beloved dark knight- Karna. A tragic mythical tale or an epic misunderstanding
The story of an underdog captures our hearts and minds and is a common theme in myths, legends, literature, and pop culture. From David vs. Goliath to Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed to a bespectacled young wizard taking on the Dark Lord, the underdog represents the triumph of the human spirit. The underdog story resonates with us because it speaks to our deepest fears and desires, and the idea that we can overcome adversity and achieve success. This story has a universal appeal because it speaks to our common experiences. Some experts also suggest that Schadenfreude, the satisfaction derived from another’s misfortune or tragedy, may also contribute to our attraction to underdog stories. One example that in recent times has become one of the most loved underdogs is Karna, the loyal and generous great warrior who was rejected by his own mother.
But did the epic really treat him like an underdog who was discriminated against on every occasion, or is this another instance where the retellings of a story gained more prominence than the original source?
The underdog often starts the fight, and occasionally the upper dog deserves to win. — Edgar Watson Howe
Karna’s birth was marked by a tragedy that cannot be denied. Kunti, who was unmarried at the time, was given a mantra by the sage Durvasa that would allow her to summon any god and conceive a child with them. Out of curiosity and impulsiveness, Kunti tested the mantra and called upon Surya, who fathered her child. However, due to the fear of societal backlash and the shame of having a child out of wedlock, she abandoned the newborn in a basket and sent him down the river Ganga. Fortunately, he was discovered by Adhiratha, a charioteer, and his wife Radha, who raised him as their own. Despite this stroke of luck, the tragedy of Karna’s birth lies in the fact that he was denied the love and acceptance of his biological mother and his rightful place in society due to his illegitimate birth.
There is a common belief that Karna was discriminated against and denied education due to being the son of a charioteer. However, this is not entirely accurate as Karna’s father, Adiratha, was not an ordinary charioteer but a royal one. As a result, Karna had the opportunity to study like many other royal children in the gurukul under the tutelage of guru Drona. Here is what Adi Parva¹ says:
The Vrishnis and the Andhakas, princes from various lands, and the (adopted) son of Radha of the Suta caste, (Karna), all became pupils of Drona. But of them all, the Suta child Karna, from jealousy, frequently defied Arjuna and supported by Duryodhana, used to disregard the Pandavas.
In a later chapter, Karna himself mentions being a student of Drona to the Sun god. An excerpt from Vana Parva²:
…….I have great strength of weapons obtained from Jamadagnya and the high-souled Drona
From a young age, Karna’s jealousy towards the Pandava prince Arjuna was evident and this sentiment was supported by Duryodhana. It is widely believed that during the graduation ceremony of the Kuru princes, Karna challenged Arjuna to a duel, but his request was denied, and Arjuna was declared the best without any competition. In contrast, Arjuna was prepared for the battle and even Drona acknowledged this fact. Excerpts from Adi Parva³:
….Then with the permission of Drona, the mighty Karna, delighting in battle, there did all that Partha had done before….
….Hastily embraced by his brothers, Partha that subduer of hostile cities, with the permission of Drona, advanced for the combat. On the other side, Karna, having been embraced by Duryodhana with his brothers, taking up his bow and arrows, stood ready for the fight….
Kripa, fulfilling his customary duty, formally introduced Arjuna and his lineage, and then asked Karna to do the same. However, Karna, who lacked any royal lineage, remained silent. It was then that Duryodhana intervened and crowned Karna as the King of Anga. After the ceremony, Karna’s father, Adhiratha, entered the grounds and embraced his son. Bhima, witnessing this, mocked Karna for being a charioteer’s son and challenging a royal prince. However, as the sun set, no duel took place. After supporting Karna at the graduation ceremony and making him the king of Anga, Duryodhana only asked for Karna’s friendship, and Karna willingly agreed.
Karna’s friendship and loyalty are often cited as exemplary qualities, but it is worth examining whether Karna was a good friend or a bad influence. While loyalty is an essential aspect of friendship, it is not the only factor to consider. A true friend must be willing to confront their friend and prevent them from committing wrongdoing. For instance, when Arjuna attempted to kill Yudhisthira, Krishna intervened and made him understand the gravity of his actions.
One of the instances where intervention was necessary was the unfortunate episode at the game of dice, where Yudhisthir gambled and lost Draupadi as a bet. The elders present at the hall were left speechless with shock while Duryodhan, Dushaashan, Shakuni, and others shamelessly laughed at the misery of their cousins. Vikarna, the brother of Duryodhan, protested and urged the elders to stop the Adharma. However, the worst reaction came from Karna, who was a loyal friend of Duryodhan. He displayed anger towards Vikarna for questioning a “fair” game and called Draupadi an unchaste woman for having many husbands. Contrary to popular belief, it was not Duryodhan but Karna who ordered the disrobing of the Pandavas and Draupadi⁴.
the son of Radha(Karna), deprived of his senses by anger, waving his well-shaped arms, said these words:
….This Draupadi, however, hath many husbands. Therefore, certain it is that she is an unchaste woman……
……..O Dussasana, this Vikarna speaking words of (apparent) wisdom is but a boy. Take off the robes of the Pandavas as also the attire of Draupadi…..
The responsibility for the disgraceful act at the game that day lay with everyone present, as either a passive bystander or an active participant. However, the situation called for a true friend to step in and try to reason with their friend. Unfortunately, this did not happen, and instead, the friend made things worse by adding to the chaos with their words. It was this friend’s self-centered and talkative nature that caused Duryodhan to get into trouble, despite the advice of the elders. In the Virat Parva, Aswatthama highlighted Karna’s tendency to boast about himself when he insulted their guru Drona⁵:
……Why dost thou, therefore, boast of thyself? Having won numerous battles, and acquired enormous wealth, and vanquished hostile hosts, men of true heroism speak not a word of their prowess. Fire burneth mutely and mutely does the sun shine…..
The Mahabharata highlights various instances where Karna’s arrogance and self-praising behavior have been noted. In the same section as above, Ashwathama says —
…….In what single combat didst thou vanquish Dhananjaya, or Nakula, or Sahadeva, although thou hast robbed them of their wealth? In what battle didst thou defeat Yudhishthira or Bhima that foremost of strong men? In what battle was Indraprastha conquered by thee? What thou hast done, however, O thou of wicked deeds is to drag that princess to court……
One such occasion is in the Virat Parva, where Duryodhana plans to invade Matsya’s kingdom suspecting that the Pandavas were hiding there. Karna boasted of his ability to single-handedly defeat the entire opposing army, claiming that if he were to face Arjuna, Arjuna would meet his demise. Hearing this, Kripa says:
….O Radheya, thy crooked heart always inclineth to war… Thou knowest not the true nature of things; nor dost thou take into account their after-consequences….
….Who is there that would binding his own hands and feet and tying a huge stone unto his neck, cross the ocean swimming with his bare arms? What manliness is there in such an act? he is a fool that would, without, skill in weapons and without strength, desire to fight with Partha who is so mighty and skilled in weapons….
During the Udyog parva, while discussing who should lead their army, Karna declared with pride that he could defeat the sons of Pandavas. However, Bhishma cautioned Karna that his mind was clouded as his death approached. He also warned Karna that his celestial weapon would be destroyed by Krishna’s discus, and the serpentine weapon he worships would perish with him. Karna was advised not to underestimate Arjuna, as he is protected by Vasudeva himself, even though Karna has slain powerful foes.
The “harsh” words spoken somehow wounded Karna’s pride to such an extent that he laid down his weapons and resolved to participate in the war only after the death of the venerable Bhishma. This was the moment Karna had longed for his entire life, the battle he had ensured would take place at any expense. However, when his comrade needed him the most, he abandoned it all due to his arrogance and impetuousness. When Karna departed from the assembly, even Bhishma chuckled mockingly⁶:
How well does the son of Suta keep his promise? He repeatedly pledged to slay thousands and tens of thousands of enemy warriors. Indeed, that moment, when, representing himself as a Brahmana unto the holy and blameless Rama, Vikartana’s son(Karna) obtained that weapon, that vile wretch lost both his virtue and asceticism.
Why has Karna, despite the way he is portrayed in the epic, become a character that elicits sympathy?
I believe that one reason alternate stories are prevalent is due to the popularity of adapted Sanskrit plays. Sometimes, retellings can be more popular than the original source material because they are more relatable to contemporary audiences. Playwrights such as Bhasa, Kalidasa, and Bharat Muni wrote plays and poems based on epics, which were filled with emotions. Karnabharam, or the burden of Karna, is an example of a retelling that portrays Karna as a brave, generous, and righteous king. The play’s tragedy and emotion evoke sympathy for the character.
As time passes, these plays become ingrained in households and passed down from generation to generation. Each generation adds its own thoughts and variations, further distancing it from the original source material, much like the game of Chinese whispers. This is a metaphor for how our beliefs and ideas can become distorted, emphasizing the importance of seeking out the truth.
असतो मा सद्गमय । तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय
Lead us from the unreal to the real. Lead us from darkness to light.