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: Was Karna a coward?
At different parts of the story, Karna displays a distinct lack of physical courage while fighting in battles. But equally, his generosity and wisdom as king, and his continued loyalty to Duryodhana as friend, mark him out as someone with incredible amounts of moral courage.
(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 Easy Answer
The easy answer to whether Karna is a coward is yes. During the final year of the Pandavas’ exile, when Duryodhana is captured by Gandharvas and needs rescuing, Karna flees the battlefield and hides in the forest until the Pandavas have finished the job.
During his first meeting with Arjuna in a man-to-man fight (at Draupadi’s swayamvara), Karna withdraws from battle citing that it is ‘improper’ for a Kshatriya to fight a Brahmin with otherworldly powers. It is quite possible that the true reason behind this forfeiture is Karna’s fear that he will lose – and perhaps even die.
During the Mahabharata war, Karna flees the battle on more than one occasion, not least against Abhimanyu.
All of these instances seem to suggest that yes, Karna is a coward. But of course, here we’re only speaking of physical courage. If we expand the definition of the word to include moral, emotional and spiritual elements, Karna is not found as wanting.
But first, let’s speculate about reasons behind Karna’s cowardice. After all, why is he so fearful?
Why is Karna so fearful?
Elsewhere on this blog, we have posited the theory that Karna loses his kavacha-kundalas as a young man, way before he makes his first appearance at the Kuru graduation ceremony.
(If you’d like to read the reasoning behind this in detail, see: Why and when does Karna remove his armour?)
If this is true, then it is consistent with Karna’s observed behaviour. If you’ve been stripped off your natural armour and earrings – artefacts that make you impossible to injure – a certain amount of fear is bound to enter your being.
This is especially true if Karna has already developed a fighting style that relied on the power of his kavacha-kundalas up until then. Once Indra makes off with them, Karna now has to reinvent himself from the ground up as a warrior.
Earlier, he may have focused on offence-first strategies, leaving defence to the magic of his kavacha. Now he has to pay attention – like other mortals – to arrows that the opponent is shooting at him as well.
This also explains why Karna is wonderful (Arjuna’s equal, in fact) at shooting lifeless targets but not as good when facing a real enemy. When shooting at an object, he can be his old self, the Karna of the kavacha-kundalas, and focus completely on the finer points of letting an arrow fly.
But when pitted against a live opponent, he can no longer pretend that he is invincible. He has to invest significant amounts of attention toward warding off what the other man is throwing at him.
So it is my submission that the loss of the kavacha-kundalas has made Karna a coward in battle.
Learning the art of defence
Does Karna ever actually learn the art of defence to compensate for the loss of his kavacha-kundalas? Evidence suggests that he does, at least in terms of skill.
In his first ever examination on the field of battle – during the Kuru invasion of Panchala – he fails utterly. But a couple of years later, when he meets Arjuna in single combat, he matches the Pandava blow for blow over the course of a lengthy battle.
In this intervening time, therefore, Karna seems to have plugged some of the gaps in his defensive skills. But what seems more difficult for him to master is his mind: though he can train his body and muscles to adopt his more rounded fighting style, his mind still seems fixated on the fact that he is no longer invincible.
This notion is not unreasonable. Mental wounds inflicted in childhood leave lasting scars. Most of us never fully liberate ourselves from them.
One must also note that this must have been a painful process for Karna. Restructuring one’s entire style of fighting from scratch is easier when you’re younger and still learning. But as an adult, to unlearn everything and put the pieces together in a different way – especially without the guidance of a preceptor – is excruciating.
While Karna has been busy with this, he loses ground to Arjuna who doesn’t have to worry about such things.
Confidence against Arjuna
While Karna exhibits fearful behaviour in battle with other people, whenever the prospect of fighting Arjuna rises, he is up for the fight. And he often gives a good account of himself too. Why?
This is because he has the Vasava dart. Whenever he is duelling Arjuna, in his mind he feels invincible. All his fear deserts him because he knows that if matters become dire, he can always use the dart and win.
This explains why Karna – despite showing very little evidence of courage against other warriors – always brings his best game when Arjuna is his opponent.
Courage as Commander
On the other hand, Karna displays plenty of courage and skill when he is leading or commanding armies. In such cases, one assumes again that his fear of injury is removed by the presence of the army around him. And this allows him to flex his skills to their fullest.
The certainty that nothing can happen to him seems to be the main ingredient that Karna needs to fight at his best. Whether that assurance comes from the Vasava dart or from the presence of plenty of bodyguards and soldiers that surround him, without it he is reduced to a shadow of his potential self.
On two occasions in the Mahabharata, Karna distinguishes himself with success while leading an army. First, he leads the Kuru army on an expedition of conquest and makes Duryodhana an emperor. This happens, ironically, soon after that debacle with the Gandharvas.
Then, during the two days that he serves as commander during the Kurukshetra war, he performs many heroic deeds. Among other things, he wins individual battles against each of the four Pandavas. No mean feat.
During this time, we must note that his Vasava dart is no longer with him. So while he is almost invincible around other people, he is no longer so against Arjuna.
Other forms of courage
Thus far in this article, we have examined only Karna’s physical courage. But then, we must remember that other forms of courage too.
- In his role as king of Anga, and in the reputation he builds for himself as a wise and generous man, he exhibits a significant amount of emotional courage. One needs to have near mastery over one’s emotions to be a much-loved ruler of a kingdom.
- In his insistence to loyalty – to Duryodhana despite everything, to Radha and Adiratha, and to the Suta tribe for having reared him – Karna shows himself to be a man of great moral courage.
- In his self-awareness, in the predictions that he makes to Krishna about the end of the war, in the knowledge that he displays of his own place in the universe, and in the ease with which he forgives Kunti for having abandoned him, we can see that Karna has plenty of spiritual courage.
(To see these aspects of Karna in more detail, see: Mahabharata Episode 35: Karna Rejects a Bribe.)
Some of the much more celebrated characters of the Mahabharata – Bhishma, for instance – can be thought of as more deprived than Karna when you expand the definition of ‘courage’ in this way.
To properly answer the question of whether Karna is a coward, one must take into account the following points:
- On several occasions, Karna displays the behaviour of a man who is physically fearful of his safety.
- The reason for this is that ever since losing his kavacha-kundalas, Karna’s mind has always dwelled on the possibility that he will be injured during a fight. This is despite him honing a defensive aspect to his fighting style.
- He distinguishes himself as a brave and successful warrior whenever he is given an army to lead or command. As a commander, you always have access to safety whenever you need it.
- When one expands the definition of the word ‘courage’ to include moral, spiritual and emotional elements, Karna outshines many of the more ‘powerful’ characters of the story such as Bhishma.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story
- 300+ Mahabharata Stories to Thrill, Delight and Enchant You
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered