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: What was Karna and Duryodhana’s friendship like?
Karna and Duryodhana are often depicted as friends, but the power imbalance between them is too large for friendship to develop. Karna sees Duryodhana as his benefactor and his king, and himself as more of a slave. Duryodhana considers Karna nothing more than a pawn with which to destroy the Pandavas.
Read on to discover more about Karna and Duryodhana’s relationship.
(In Karna: Your Ultimate Guide to the Mahabharata’s Antihero, we delve deeper into the character of Karna. We also answer all Karna-related questions in Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
The Nature of Friendship
Elsewhere in the Mahabharata, Drupada tells Drona that friendship cannot exist between two individuals who are significantly different in social standing.
Drona and Drupada are friends as children. Drupada promises Drona: ‘When I am king, half my kingdom will be yours.’
But after they grow up, Drona becomes a poor Brahmin and Drupada is crowned king of Panchala. Drona naively believes that Drupada’s age-old promise is a binding one.
(Suggested: Why did Drona support the Kauravas?)
He appears in Drupada’s court, accompanied by Kripi and Ashwatthama, and says, ‘Drupada, your old friend has come seeking you. Please give me half your kingdom like you promised.’
Drupada is amused at Drona’s words. ‘If you want charity, my man,’ he says, ‘I shall give you gifts like a king ought to give a Brahmin. But how can friendship exist between someone of your stature and someone of mine?’
(Drona feels slighted by this remark, and he takes vengeance upon Drupada by asking the Kuru princes to invade Panchala. For more on that, see: Mahabharata Episode 9: Invasion of Panchala.)
Karna and Duryodhana
With that preamble, let us examine the relationship of Karna and Duryodhana.
Let’s look at Duryodhana’s point of view first. At the graduation ceremony, when he meets Karna for the first time and watches him flawlessly repeat all of Arjuna’s many feats with bow and arrow, Duryodhana is struck by strategic possibilities.
Making his job easier, the Kuru elders – in a desperate bid to save Arjuna’s self-respect – begin to question and ridicule Karna.
Now, by this time, Duryodhana and his brothers have already been relegated to second-berth-status behind the Pandavas. Arjuna is the most skilful of them all. Bhima is the most powerful.
(Suggested: Was Karna jealous of Arjuna?)
Even at this young age (Fifteen? Sixteen?) Duryodhana knows enough about polity to guess that when the time comes, Bhishma will favour Yudhishthir over him.
In order to become king, then, he knows that he will have to fight – and somehow defeat the sons of Pandu.
He considers himself a decent match against Bhimasena with the mace. But Arjuna’s skill far outshines everyone else’s. How does one go about defeating him?
While Duryodhana is mulling over these points, fate places Karna in his path.
(Suggested: Why did Duryodhana hate the Pandavas?)
Why does Duryodhana help Karna?
There is no explicit reason given for why Duryodhana rescues Karna from his state of ridicule.
The accepted notion is that Duryodhana has a noble side to him that cannot see a member of the lower class – especially someone so skilled – being discriminated against.
That can certainly be part of the reason, though Duryodhana exhibits this largesse of heart rarely before this incident or since.
But certainly a big part of his motivation behind helping Karna is his idea that this young man can be groomed to become Arjuna’s nemesis.
(Suggested: Why did Duryodhana befriend Karna?)
Also, Duryodhana would have been smart enough to realize that even Bhishma cannot be relied upon to be stupid. There is a good possibility that Bhishma will recruit Karna as a soldier or a leader of a division of the Kuru army.
Even though he does not speak during the ceremony, he will most likely make a move right afterward.
Duryodhana is therefore eager to make his play immediately. He jumps to Karna’s aid, gives a heartfelt speech about how class structures are immaterial when deciding skill, and makes his new friend king of Anga.
Now. About that.
Does Duryodhana own Anga?
During this incident, no explanation is offered for this puzzling question: On whose authority does Duryodhana make Karna king of Anga?
Anga does not belong to Duryodhana. We must assume that it belongs to Dhritarashtra as part of his kingdom. Duryodhana is not even a crown-prince. So how is he able to give it away to Karna without so much as taking his father’s permission?
The only theory that suggests itself to me is that the princes have been given dominion over small kingdoms as they have come of age, so that Bhishma can keep an eye on how the boys are coping with demands that come with kingship.
(Suggested: How was Duryodhana as king?)
We don’t know for sure, but perhaps Yudhishthir has also been given a kingdom of his own to rule. Perhaps Bhishma’s assessment that Yudhishthir is the better ruler stems from not just his instinct but also from a few months observation.
If this is true, we must further assume that when Duryodhana was given Anga to rule on a trial basis, Bhishma also gave him the power to do what he likes with it. That includes waging wars – and giving it away in alms.
After all, in order to judge a man’s behaviour under conditions of power, you must give him power.
Did Anga become Independent?
Now that we have established that Duryodhana owned Anga at the time of his giving it away to Karna, we must also ask: after this transfer is complete, does Anga become an independent city?
Or does Anga already have a king who has been ruling it all this time, and now Karna just takes his place?
We’re not told details about this, but common sense dictates that Bhishma will have safeguards to this kind of behaviour. He cannot allow his grandchildren to merely give away their kingdoms with no repercussions.
(Suggested: Why does Karna refuse to leave Duryodhana?)
We must conclude, therefore, that Karna becomes a tribute-paying king of Anga. His allegiance is pledged at all times to Hastinapur.
We may also surmise that this act of Duryodhana counts as a black mark against his suitability as future king in Bhishma’s eyes.
And yet, Duryodhana does this because he believes it is worth losing a bit of favour with Bhishma if the trade is that he will gain Karna’s loyalty for life.
Friend or Slave?
On several occasions, Duryodhana publicly declares Karna as his friend. But we must also look under the surface at his actions.
After all, Kshatriyas are no strangers to claiming friendship with people of lower castes – as Drupada did with Drona.
After he secures Karna’s servitude by making him king of Anga, Duryodhana gets a number of opportunities to stand up with his ‘friend’. For instance:
- When Draupadi publicly humiliates and rejects him, Duryodhana could have risen and spoken about Karna’s many achievements.
- When Bhishma mocks Karna and classifies him as ‘half-a-ratha’, Duryodhana could have defended him.
(Suggested: Was Karna good or bad?)
- When Bhishma gives him an ultimatum and says that only one of him or Karna should fight in the war at a time, Duryodhana does not speak a word of support.
- When Ashwatthama and Kripacharya later trade words with Karna, again Duryodhana is silent.
- For all his public proclamations of faith in Karna, Duryodhana only turns to him after Bhishma and Drona have failed. Despite complaining about the duo’s partiality toward the Pandavas, Duryodhana does not trust Karna to do a better job.
It is possible that after years of backing Karna, his repeated failure to defeat Arjuna has jaded Duryodhana. Still, his demeanour toward Karna is more of in line with that of a master toward his slave than a friend.
(Suggested: Why does Karna hate Arjuna?)
What does Karna think?
For Karna’s part, he rarely claims to be Duryodhana’s friend. He always maintains that Duryodhana is his benefactor, someone who has given him everything – and to whom he must in return give anything that is asked.
Karna does not see it as his duty to judge Duryodhana’s behaviour, nor does he think it right to disobey anything that Duryodhana asks him to do.
He does not advise Duryodhana to make peace with the Pandavas – because if Duryodhana were happy with peace, their entire relationship would not have existed.
(Suggested: Why does Karna abuse Draupadi?)
We often see Karna in the presence of Duryodhana in the story, and his behaviour comes across as petulant, callous and rude. But that is the role that Karna sees for himself under Duryodhana. He is the instigator of flames.
Every once in a while we see Karna in private, where Duryodhana is nowhere to be found – like when he speaks to Krishna before the war or when he visits Bhishma on the tenth evening.
On both these occasions, Karna is patient, wise, respectful and generous.
Karna’s view, therefore, is that playing the role that Duryodhana asks him to play against the Pandavas is the least he can do to repay the wealth, favour and power that Duryodhana gifted him all those years ago.
(Suggested: Was Karna a coward?)
Some of us may ask at this juncture: sure, Karna can do what Duryodhana wants, but can he not advise him against acts that are clearly immoral?
But that, in Karna’s book, would be disobeying and disrespecting his king. Only by offering his complete support and eagerness to serve at all times does Karna think that he can repay Duryodhana’s debt.
This is where the relationship differs from friendship. We consider those people our ‘true’ friends who occasionally tell us what we do not want to hear. But neither Karna nor Duryodhana sees their association that way.
In Duryodhana’s view, Karna is a puppet that he has bought. In Karna’s view, he must dance to all of Duryodhana’s tunes.
(Suggested: Why did Bhishma not allow Karna to fight?)
If you liked this post, you may find this interesting also: Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.