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 good or bad?
In the Mahabharata, Karna is an ally and henchman of Duryodhana, the prime antagonist. However, he is also a Pandava by birth, and the son of a god. He is depicted as a tragic hero throughout the story, as someone who yearns to do right but is compelled by destiny to end up on the losing side.
(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.)
First of all, since the characters of the Mahabharata place much value on this, we must acknowledge that Karna is of extremely high birth. Indeed, it may not be a stretch to say that as human births go, it does not get more privileged than this.
He is the son of a princess and a god. As the union of Kshatriya and celestial stock, Karna is given the best possible start in life in terms of genes.
He is given the divine gift of kavacha-kundalas which make him an invincible warrior – at least until he gives them away. Though he is raised as a Suta, he does not look like a Suta, which means that he is able to disguise himself successfully to train under Parashurama.
He is also told by his adoptive parents that he is not theirs, so Karna knows that he is destined for bigger things.
Fighting against Circumstance
In the Mahabharata, we’re often told that all consequences are a combination of three things: privilege, effort and circumstances. In order to succeed, all three of them have to align together. Remove any one and the person is bound to failure and obscurity.
In Karna’s case, he is privileged by birth and is also blessed with a tremendous work ethic. But circumstances often conspire against him.
- He is the firstborn son of a princess and a god. By that token, he should grow up to become one of the great kings of the world. Yet, because he is unwanted by his mother, he gets abandoned and raised as a charioteer.
- After his training under Parashurama, his secret identity is revealed to the sage after a worm crawls onto his thigh at an inopportune moment. Parashurama then curses him.
- After his performance at the Kuru graduation ceremony, Karna gains the favour of Duryodhana of all people. If he had been taken under the wing of Bhishma or Drona, for instance, his story might have turned out differently.
- In the final battle, Karna asks for Shalya to serve as his charioteer so that they can together match the skills of Krishna and Arjuna. But unbeknownst to him, Shalya is working for the Pandavas. He discourages and taunts Karna. He refuses to help him during the duel with Arjuna.
Karna is thus dealt blow after blow by circumstances outside his control.
Enmity with the Pandavas
Having said this, Karna also makes some conscious choices which bring out a mean streak – specifically against the Pandavas and Draupadi.
- At the graduation ceremony, Karna appears for the first time in the story and announces an intention to match all of Arjuna’s feats. Right from this moment, he is often heard pitting himself against Arjuna in all respects.
- Karna helps Duryodhana plan the events of Varanavata and the house of wax.
- At the dice game, Karna goes out of his way to insult and abuse Draupadi to such an extent that the Pandava-Kaurava relationship is irrevocably damaged.
- During the exile, Karna encourages Duryodhana to go to the forest with the only intention of ridiculing the Pandavas. When the plan backfires and Duryodhana is captured by Gandharvas, Karna flees the battle.
(Here, we must note that it is never clear how much of Karna’s antagonism toward the Pandavas is inborn and how much is mere pretension intended as support for Duryodhana. But in at least two of the above instances, he performs actions that goes above and beyond what might have expected of him as a friend.)
Quarrel against Bhishma
On occasion, Karna comes across as a rude, abrasive personality in general. We see an example of this at the dice game, when he speaks harshly to Vikarna while arguing about Draupadi’ status.
Karna is merely an outsider – probably present at the hall on Duryodhana’s invitation – speaking to one of the Kuru princes. Even allowing for the fact that Vikarna is younger than Karna, the tone of Karna’s speech is too derisive and vain.
What really ends up hurting Duryodhana’s chances in the war, though, is Karna’s quarrel with Bhishma. If Karna is really beholden to Duryodhana so much that he manufactures hate against the Pandavas and Draupadi, then we must also imagine that he should have been able to swallow his pride despite Bhishma’s goading.
Yes, Bhishma needlessly provokes him. Yes, Bhishma is also equally at fault for giving Duryodhana an ultimatum to choose between himself and Karna. But Karna need not have played his part to fan to flames further.
He could have taken the moral high ground (he is no stranger to self-righteousness) and attempted to make peace with Bhishma. Instead, he petulantly agrees that he will not fight until Bhishma falls.
Arrogance and Cowardice
Karna exhibits a combination of arrogance and cowardice that riles up many people in Duryodhana’s army. After Bhishma falls, Kripacharya and Ashwatthama also once pick a fight with Karna, and their complaint is the same: for all your tall claims, you have no achievements to speak of as a warrior.
On more than one occasion during the war, Karna flees from his opponent after being stripped off weapons and chariot. When Abhimanyu is rampaging alone in the Chakravyuha, Karna admits to Drona that ‘loyalty to Duryodhana is the only thing keeping him from running away from the battlefield’.
During the battle with the Gandharvas – with Duryodhana desperately needing him to step up – Karna runs away.
Indeed, but for the presence of his Vasava dart and therefore his theoretical ability to kill Arjuna, even Duryodhana might have forsaken him long ago as a lost cause.
Throughout his life, there is not once instance where Karna displays evidence of heroism in battle – where he overcomes odds and wins.
Conquering the World
Karna does have one successful expedition of conquest against his name. Soon after the incident with the Gandharvas, after their return to Hastinapur, Karna sets out in Duryodhana’s name and establishes him as emperor to the entire world.
However, the qualifying detail here is that Karna is not alone in this quest. He fights at the head of the Kuru army. His success as a leader or commander should not be taken as proof of his skill as a warrior.
Incidentally, during the Kurukshetra war, Karna gives a great account of himself during the Karna Parva, when he gets to lead Duryodhana’s forces out against the Pandavas. All his ‘heroic’ moments occur when he is commander.
This is yet another point in favour of the notion that Duryodhana should have trusted Karna – and not Bhishma – to become his army’s first commander.
As king of Anga, Karna gains a reputation as a generous king. In popular culture, he is often called ‘Danaveera’, the ‘hero among philanthropists’.
Though very few particular details are given, we’re told that Karna has bettered the lives of thousands of Brahmins during the course of his reign over Anga. Some anecdotes claim that no Brahmin has ever had to return from Karna’s palace empty-handed.
Some may ask the obvious question here: did that mean Karna was charitable only to Brahmins? What of the other varnas?
This is just a quirk of reporting; in those days, the generosity and kindness of a king often was measured by the way he treated Brahmins in his kingdom. The theory was that if Brahmins are happy, the spiritual health of your city is sound.
In practice, Karna must have been generous to everyone. If he had been otherwise, those stories would have come out.
A cynic may view this behaviour from Karna suspiciously: he may say that Karna is only engaging in charitable behaviour because he thinks that is what a king ought to do. But the counter to this is that appearances are hard to keep up for the length of time (around thirty years) that Karna ruled Anga.
So we may conclude that Karna has a generous heart – for those who are less fortunate than he is.
Wisdom and Morality
During his private conversation with Krishna just before the war – the only time we see Karna as himself, when he is not playing the role of Duryodhana’s obnoxious henchman – he displays a sound mind. His words are laced with wisdom and coherence.
He speaks to Krishna respectfully, and reveals his prediction that the Kauravas are going to lose. He rejects Krishna’s offer and refuses to leave Duryodhana’s side despite knowing that they will end up on the losing side of the battle.
Later, when Kunti seeks him out and tries to win him over to the Pandava side, Karna once again speaks with calm self-assurance. He forgives Kunti, gives her a promise, and overall gives one the impression of being comfortable in his skin.
Karna’s moral code is also a staunchly rigid one. In it, loyalty and support to Duryodhana comes first. Loyalty to his adoptive parents, Radha and Adiratha, comes second. Loyalty to his adoptive varna, the Sutas, come third.
In order to preserve these three tenets, he is willing to make any sacrifices, and to break ethical boundaries in other ways. His personal moral code is, for him, more important than general, overarching ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
Ascension to Heaven
It is instructive that while Duryodhana is sent to hell at the end of the Mahabharata, Karna is shown to be sitting in Indra’s hall, ‘looking as bright as the sun’ in the company of some Apsaras.
The story, therefore, seems to be giving us a subtle hint that despite his many faults, and despite his close association with Duryodhana, Karna is – at the end of the day – one of the good guys.
Or maybe the message is that as long as you’re of privileged birth (born to a god and so on), you can do anything in the world of men and you will still be assured of a seat in heaven.
To answer the question of whether Karna is good or bad, then, we must concede that Karna exhibits numerous ‘good’ attributes. He is generous as a king, loyal as a friend, dutiful as a son, and loving as a brother and father.
He is wise, and he exhibits a keen understanding of morality.
But on the other hand, he is also fierce in his support of Duryodhana – to the extent that he is willing to break the codes of Dharma as it is understood by people at large. He is willing to break the law, to adopt the persona of someone who is boorish and abrasive, and to be called a villain.
He also possesses a combination of vanity and cowardice that does not endear him to many people. Despite this, he also has a knack for leading armies – giving a good account of himself on two separate occasions as commander.
All this leads one to believe that Karna is – like all of us – a combination of good and bad. And whether a trait of his is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depends on whether you agree with him or not.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
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- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered