In response to my previous post about neglected characters in the Mahabharata, many comments referred to Karna, which sort-of propelled me to do this post. Karna is one of the most enigmatic characters in the epic. If you could pick just one person from the story who personifies its ‘grey’ nature, you would do well to pick Karna. Even after years and years of hearing retelling after retelling, we have not yet made up our minds on this man. This is because he’s a true chameleon from one scene to the next, and Vyasa never allows us to settle down in one judgement of him.
Here I am listing five of Karna’s most often seen faces.
1. The great warrior
Karna is frequently named – both by his contemporaries and historians – as one of the great warriors of his age. The first time we see him in the flesh, he appears out of nowhere at the stadium in Hastinapur where the Kuru princes were showing off their skills. For anyone seeing him at this moment, it is clear that he has a touch of the divine about him. He challenges Arjuna and matches him move for move, only for Dronacharya to step in and stop the duel mid-way. At Draupadi’s groom-choosing, he’s the only person other than Arjuna to be able to lift the ceremonial bow.
But, as Irawati Karwe says in her beautiful book, Yuganta, there is very little evidence in actual battle of Karna’s prowess. During the goharan, he gets routed by Arjuna in a battle where the Pandava prince is fighting the entire Kaurava army single-handed. Even during the war, owing to pride, he stays out of the war for a full ten days. When he does arrive, though, he fails to make a significant impact.
2. The generous king
Many tales are told about Karna’s generosity. Often, he commits acts of outrageous kindness at cost to himself. When he’s young, he squeezes oil out of the earth to help a Brahmin boy only to incur the wrath of Mother Earth. When he holds his pose even while bleeding to the bite of a bug so that Parashurama’s sleep should not be disturbed, he only gets cursed as a result. And finally, during the war, when Indra appears and begs for his armour, he gladly gives it, knowing full well that it would make him vulnerable in battle.
3. The loyal friend
Karna’s friendship with Duryodhana is the stuff of legend. At the stadium when Karna first makes his appearance in the story, Duryodhana comes to his rescue and makes him a king. On that day Karna makes a promise that he wouldn’t ever leave Duryodhana’s side; a promise he would keep to his death. Throughout the tale there are instances when the friends do not agree with each other, but never do they quarrel. Karna’s loyalty made him one part of Dushta Chatushtayam (the wicked foursome) along with Duryodhana, Dushasana and Shakuni, but he wouldn’t once think of breaking away. The world may think anything it wishes of him, he says, but he would never forego his friendship.
4. The confused man
His is probably the first recorded case of identity crisis. Repeatedly throughout the story, he laments that a man who does not know his roots will never achieve happiness. Abandoned at birth, A Kshatriya by looks but a lowly charioteer by adoption, a king by circumstance, a warrior by choice; what is he? Who is he? Only right at the very end does he get his answers, but as always, they raise new questions in his head. Kunti tells him that he is her son, the eldest of the Pandavas, and that he must fight therefore with his brothers, to which Karna replies: ‘I only have one brother. His name is Duryodhana.’
5. The vengeful villain
At Draupadi’s disrobing, when Vikarna, one of the Kaurava brothers, opposes the act, it is Karna who jumps into the fray and discourses on why it is right for the Kauravas to treat Draupadi as property. He may have been speaking for what is just and what the Dharma of that day upheld, or he may have been speaking out of revenge, for Draupadi insults him at her groom-choosing and prevents him from competing for her hand. He behaves similarly during the war; when Bhishma chides him, he sulks and vows not to fight until the grandsire has fallen. This is at great cost to the Kauravas, and yet he holds firm, putting a personal slight above the needs of his friend Duryodhana.
More than anything, Karna comes across as a man of low self-esteem. His excessive generosity and loyalty, perhaps, are just reflections of his eager-to-please nature. The under confident are also often easily hurt, and are prone to claims of revenge. Maybe this is why we all feel sorry for him, because we see in him a bit of ourselves.
What are your reasons for liking Karna? If you think there is a facet of his that I’ve missed, or if you’d like to share your own opinion of him, please do in the comments below.