Is Karna the real hero of the Mahabharata?

Is Karna the real hero of the Mahabharata - Featured Image - Picture of a smooth-faced man, representing Karna.

Karna is the first son of Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata.

He is also a close friend of Duryodhana, the eldest of the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra who are together called the Kauravas. Duryodhana is the story’s prime antagonist, and Karna becomes his prime ally in his machinations against the Pandavas.

In this post, we will answer the question: Is Karna the real hero of the Mahabharata?

Karna is one of the important heroes of the Mahabharata. In a classic good-versus-bad tale, Karna dons the garb of a tragic antihero. If Krishna is the god and Yudhishthir the ideal man, Karna is man as he is: flawed, capricious, frustrated, uncertain, and forever oscillating between hubris and self-loathing.

Read on to discover more about whether or not Karna is the real hero of the Mahabharata.

(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Heroes of the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata does not have an explicitly introduced protagonist. Many of its characters can lay legitimate claims to being the ‘true hero’ of the story.

Here are a few nominations:

  • Arjuna – as the most powerful warrior of the world and as the hero who gets the most ‘screen time’.
  • Krishna – as the incarnation of a god and as the person who guides the flow of history.
  • Yudhishthir – as the common man’s ideal and as the only human character who succeeds in entering heaven in his mortal body.
  • Draupadi – as the chief reason for the Kurukshetra war, and the fulcrum around which the whole story turns.
  • Bhishma – as the character who witnesses all the important scenes of the Mahabharata story.

Of the above, Krishna will probably get the most number of public votes because of the fact that his mythology extends beyond the Mahabharata, and his name has come to transcend the work.

Karna the Cruel

On the other hand, Karna is often known as one of the antagonists of the story. Driven by loyalty to Duryodhana – his benefactor – Karna behaves with extreme hatred and vitriol toward the Pandavas. He is often seen plotting one machination or the other to bring about the Pandavas’ ruin.

He plays the pivotal role in escalating tensions during Draupadi’s disrobing, by arguing that Draupadi has become slave to Duryodhana. He also accuses Draupadi of being a prostitute, and commands Duhsasana to undress her in public.

(Related Article: What Happens during Draupadi’s Disrobing?)

Due to his actions, the incident becomes the primary reason for the Kurukshetra war. This is the moment during which the Pandava-Kaurava relationships sour beyond hope.

Karna also plays an enabling role in the following incidents:

  • The poisoning of Bhimasena as a child – though this is debatable if we accept the theory that Karna was not Drona’s student.
  • The attempt to trap the Pandavas and Kunti in the palace of wax in Varanavata.
  • The planning and implementation of the dice game, which leads directly to Draupadi’s disrobing.
  • The attempt by Duryodhana to visit the Pandavas in the forest with the express intention to mock them.

Karna the Noble

At the same time, the Mahabharata presents us the narrative of Karna as a noble and ‘good’ man. Here are some examples:

  • Karna makes a name for himself as a generous and wise king during his long reign (twenty five or so years) as the ruler of Anga. His reputation is that no Brahmin had ever been turned away from his home empty-handed.
  • Karna displays an extreme sense of loyalty toward his adoptive parents – Adiratha and Radha – and toward his friend Duryodhana. However, during his younger days, he does feel some shame in being called a Sutaputra.
  • Karna is remarkably self-aware, as evidenced during his conversation with Krishna just before the war begins. He assures Krishna that the war will be won by the Pandavas, and that he and Duryodhana will die in it.

(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 35: Karna Rejects a Bribe.)

  • His generosity is such that even when he knows that a person is trying to exploit him, if he does so in the garb of a Brahmin asking for alms, Karna will agree. In the case of Indra, despite being warned by Surya, he gives up his kavacha-kundalas citing that it is an honour to be in a position to fulfil the desire of the king of the gods.
  • He keeps his promises no matter what the cost. In order to honour his vow to Kunti, Karna spares four Pandavas during the war after having defeated each of them in turn.

Karna the Arrogant

Bhishma notices the arrogant nature of Karna and draws our attention to it. During the war, after Bhishma has fallen, Kripa admonishes Karna for the same failing. This leads to a slanging match between Karna and Ashwatthama. Duryodhana intervenes just in time to separate the two heroes.

Later, when Shalya is asked by Duryodhana to be Karna’s charioteer, he also mentions the baseless bravado of the Radheya.

All of this leads the reader to believe that none of the warriors who fight on Duryodhana’s side are particularly enamoured by Karna. Not only do they dislike him for egging Duryodhana on, they also do not think of him as a worthy hero.

(Related Article: Why did Bhishma and Karna Quarrel?)

Karna does not have any great accomplishments in the field of battle. About the only time he gives proof of his fighting ability is when he leads the Kuru army on an expedition of conquest around the world. However, this is quite different to a war.

What really irritates Bhishma – and the rest of the Kuru elders – is that Karna is extremely confident each time he faces Arjuna. But on every single occasion, he loses.

The Mahabharata does not give us an explanation for this behaviour. One reason is that Karna’s posturing is entirely for Duryodhana’s benefit. He wants to be seen by Duryodhana as being eager to fight Arjuna.

The other reason, of course, is that the presence of the Vasava dart gives him confidence every time he faces Arjuna.

Karna the Cowardly

To counterbalance his arrogance, Karna behaves like a coward on several occasions, right in the thick of battle. For instance:

  • At Draupadi’s swayamvara, after fighting with Arjuna (who is in disguise) for a long time, Karna withdraws from the challenge citing aversion to fight a Brahmin. But this can easily be construed as lack of courage to keep going.
  • When Duryodhana is captured by Gandharvas toward the end of the Pandavas’ exile, Karna flees the battle and it is left to Bhima and Arjuna to rescue the Kaurava prince.

(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 23: Duryodhana is Rescued.)

  • During the war, Karna flees from several battles, not least when Abhimanyu kills his younger brother on the thirteenth day. Also, in the manner befitting a coward, he returns to shoot at Abhimanyu’s bow from behind the young man’s chariot.

We must hasten to add here that what Karna displays is lack of physical courage.

Karna the Unfortunate

The other angle to Karna is that he is an unfortunate target of destiny’s cruelty. Despite being born in highly privileged circumstances, he is abandoned by his birth mother, found by people of a lowly caste, and raised as a charioteer when he deserves to be a king.

He is derided by being a Sutaputra all of his earlier life, until Duryodhana makes him a king – but in return he purchases Karna’s loyalty, which he uses as pawn against the Pandavas.

(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 26: Karna is Defanged.)

Karna’s innate goodness is exploited by many: Indra by asking him for his kavacha-kundalas, Kunti by asking him to not fight her sons, Parashurama who curses him, and Krishna who tries to bribe him and then turns around to insult him on the field.

This image of Karna is that of a helpless man who is trying his best to make a good life for himself with the forces of destiny arrayed against him. He succeeds only somewhat; at the end he surrenders to it and accepts that he will forever be a Sutaputra.

Karna the Relatable

While it is impossible to tell who the ‘real’ hero of the Mahabharata is, one may safely state that Karna is definitely the story’s most relatable character.

He displays a full range of human emotions and frailties. He fights against destiny to exert his own will, but ultimately submits to it.

No other character in the story paints a picture of the human condition as vividly as does Karna.

Like him, each of us is born deserving everything. As we grow first into children, then into youth and finally into adulthood, the world progressively exerts its force upon us, making us yield in a thousand ways.

Like him, we have moments where we are generous and kind and noble, but also moments where we are cruel, spiteful and selfish. Like him, we feel that we’re better than the world thinks we are, that we deserve more than we’re given.

But we also wonder if that’s true.

Like him, we can give plenty and want nothing in return. Like him, we can spend our whole lives wanting something and then give it up for a higher ideal when it is handed to us.

If Karna has captured imaginations of storytellers down the years, it is because of this quality: he is the anti-Yudhishthir; a flawed, capricious, inconsistent man who is striving every moment to attain unattainable ideals.

In a story full of memorable heroes, he is the most real.

Further Reading

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