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 jealous of Arjuna?
Karna’s enmity with Arjuna has more to do with his loyalty to Duryodhana than with jealousy. But as someone who matches Arjuna’s skill at the graduation ceremony, to see his once-equal opponent grow beyond recognition into the world’s greatest archer must have been difficult. Karna also feels envious of Arjuna for having won Draupadi.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Karna was jealous of Arjuna.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Fealty toward Duryodhana
The main thrust of Karna’s enmity toward Arjuna is his undying fealty toward Duryodhana. More than anything, Karna wants to defeat Arjuna because he wants to prove himself a worthy aide to Duryodhana.
At the graduation ceremony, when Karna matches Arjuna in skill with bow and arrow, not only does Duryodhana support him against the discriminatory attacks of the Kuru elders, but he also crowns Karna king of Anga right at that moment.
In one fell swoop, Karna receives from Duryodhana everything he had ever wanted: an elevation of status, wealth, and an opportunity to build for himself a name as king.
From this moment on, Karna views himself as Duryodhana’s slave. He vows to support Duryodhana in all of his endeavours, including his ambition to destroy the Pandavas and Draupadi at all costs.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 8: Karna Arrives.)
However, we can surmise that jealousy must also be present in Karna’s heart. We know that Karna matches Arjuna in skill during the graduation ceremony, thus setting up the narrative that he is Arjuna’s equal.
Then, over the course of the story, Karna watches as Arjuna becomes stronger and stronger as warrior while he himself stagnates or recedes in his power.
- Arjuna succeeds in capturing Drupada and in defeating the army of Panchala in order to fulfil Drona’s wish. Just a short time prior to this, Karna and Duryodhana fail at the quest.
- During the burning of Khandava, Arjuna receives the Gandiva, two inexhaustible quivers of arrows, and an indestructible chariot from Agni, the god of fire. He also succeeds – fighting alongside Krishna – in defeating the army of the gods led by Indra.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 13: Massacre at Khandava.)
- During the Pandavas’ exile, Arjuna becomes an even more powerful warrior, procuring the Pashupatastra from Shiva and a number of other divine weapons from other gods.
- By the time of the agnyaatavaasa, Arjuna is almost invincible, as evidenced by the manner in which he rescues Virata’s cattle from the Kuru army.
Meanwhile, Karna takes a different path. He becomes king of Anga. He marries a Suta woman and has sons with her. He gains a bit of a reputation as a generous and wise king.
As an archer, though, he has not progressed much since the time of the graduation ceremony. All of this must cause a tinge of envy in his heart.
Rejection by Draupadi
At Draupadi’s swayamvara, Karna intends to attempt to complete the task set by Drupada to win Draupadi’s hand. In the entire assembly, besides Arjuna, Karna is the only archer capable of cracking Drupada’s test.
However, just as he is about to step up to the podium, Draupadi raises her voice and addresses the gathering. ‘I do not wish to be married to a Sutaputra,’ she says. ‘This man should not be allowed to compete.’
(Related Article: What Happens during Draupadi’s Swayamvara?)
She does not give any explanation for her behaviour, nor does anyone ask her for one. No one rises to speak on Karna’s behalf; not even Duryodhana.
From this muted acceptance of Draupadi’s words, we may surmise that she is well within her rights to reject any given suitor before he competes. By the same token, she does not have the right to reject a man after he has won her.
This public rejection shames Karna – especially because he is now a king worthy of respect and yet the world does not give it to him.
Arjuna wins Draupadi
Not only does Karna get rejected by Draupadi, but he also has to watch as Arjuna – in the guise of a poverty-stricken Brahmin – wins Draupadi’s hand, defeats him in single combat, and makes off with her.
At this point, Karna does not know that the Brahmin is tussling with him is Arjuna in disguise. But he learns of it later, a part of him must feel envious toward Arjuna – not just because he wanted Draupadi too and Arjuna won her, but also because Arjuna was given the opportunity to vie for her.
This would have burned Karna’s heart toward both Arjuna and Draupadi.
His behaviour at Draupadi’s disrobing – where he insists that she is a prostitute and that she should be unclothed in public – could be read as at least partly motivated by personal vengeance. While he is glad to play the supporting role to Duryodhana’s antics, he is also not above landing a few blows of his own.
Jealousy about Krishna
On the eve of the seventeenth day of the war, Karna explains to Duryodhana that the only difference between him and Arjuna – in terms of relative strengths as warriors – is that Arjuna has Krishna for a charioteer and friend.
To even the scales, he asks Duryodhana to appoint Shalya as his charioteer. Duryodhana agrees.
Needless to say, this is extremely misguided analysis. Krishna became Arjuna’s charioteer out of his free will and desire to help. Since he has promised not to pick up weapons anyway, his serving as Arjuna’s charioteer does not cause the army any corresponding loss.
(Related Article: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Karna Parva.)
Shalya, on the other hand, is a fighting warrior, himself the leader of a whole akshauhini of troops. Appointing him as Karna’s charioteer automatically means that the army is deprived of his fighting and strategic prowess during that day.
Also, Shalya does not want to be Karna’s charioteer. No self-respecting king – let alone the king of a great kingdom, one of the Kuru elders, no less – will like being given the job of driving the chariot of a Suta.
But Karna is blind to all of this. He is so blinded by envy about Arjuna and Krishna’s relationship that he thinks he can simply get himself a ‘Krishna’ as well by merely appointing Shalya his driver.
Despite all this…
Despite all this, though, the discerning reader will conclude that Karna’s ill-feeling for Arjuna is driven mostly by his loyalty to Duryodhana. At no time does he allow his personal jealousy to overpower his duty toward his king.
How do we know this? Just before the war, Karna does get a chance to ‘make Arjuna his slave’ by accepting Krishna’s offer to fight on the Pandavas’ side. If his jealousy had been overpowering, Karna would have said yes – and he would have won Arjuna’s eternal subservience along with Draupadi as his main wife.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 35: Karna Rejects a Bribe.)
On a personal level, that would have been a victory sweeter than any other. He would have had the last laugh on both Arjuna and Draupadi, his two main tormentors.
But the fact that he says no, and that he chooses Duryodhana, suggests that it is Duryodhana that is most important to him in his life – even more than his personal need to overcome Arjuna.
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered