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 killed fairly?
Karna is killed by Arjuna just before sunset on the seventeenth day of the Mahabharata war. Karna is off his chariot on the ground when Arjuna shoots him. This has led some to suggest that the manner of his death is unfair. But the rules of fairness agreed to by the two sides at the beginning of the war have all long been broken. Within that context, Arjuna is within the bounds of fair fight.
(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.)
Krishna Protects Arjuna
Before we look at the moral dilemmas surrounding Karna’s death, let us recap the general circumstances surrounding the incident.
It is late evening on the seventeenth day of the war. Karna and Arjuna finally come face to face for their much-awaited duel. Krishna is Arjuna’s charioteer. Manning Karna’s horses is Shalya, the king of Madra.
During the course of this battle, a Naga named Aswasena appears on the scene and begs to be shot from Karna’s bow at Arjuna. Karna obliges. The arrow zips through the air and makes for Arjuna’s forehead, but right in the nick of time, Krishna stamps down on the chariot and causes one of its wheels to sink into the earth.
Aswasena the arrow only succeeds, therefore, in knocking off Arjuna’s crown. Now, with his friend’s life saved, Krishna leaps off the chariot and raises the sunken wheel back onto firm ground.
This appears to be normal behaviour for a charioteer: if the vehicle is stuck or immovable, it is his job to rescue it.
But later in the battle, the situation is reversed. Karna’s chariot-wheel now sinks into the earth, and Karna asks Shalya to attend to it while he continues to fight Arjuna.
Shalya refuses. ‘I only consented to drive you around,’ he says. ‘Not to maintain your vehicle.’
This is, of course, boorish behaviour from Shalya. But it’s also understandable. To expect the king of Madra – who gave one akshauhini of troops to Duryodhana for this war – to perform chores of this nature for a Sutaputra is a bit much.
In any case, Karna is left with no choice but to try and pull out the wheel on his own. He jumps to the ground and fights Arjuna on two feet for a while. Then he says, ‘Partha, grant me a few minutes while I repair my chariot. It does not become a warrior of your stature to shoot at your opponent when he is deprived of his vehicle.’
Arjuna thinks about this, but Krishna swoops in and puts an end to the debate. He reminds Arjuna that nothing about the Kauravas and Karna has even been ‘Dharmic’.
Krishna commands Arjuna to shoot when the opportunity presents itself. Arjuna obeys, and with one arrow beheads Karna.
First of all, we must admit that according to the letter of the law, what Arjuna did here is unfair.
At the beginning of the war, both sides have agreed to a collection of rules that defined what is called ‘fair fight’ or ‘Dharma Yuddha’. In this contract, there are such guidelines such as a warrior must only fight another warrior if he is of ‘equal station’, a warrior must not attack an enemy who has renounced his weapons, and so on.
Included in the document is a rule that a chariot-warrior must not shoot at his opponent if the latter is standing on his two feet.
If Arjuna had done this to Karna on the first day of the war, therefore, or if we apply the rule without any thought given to context and precedent, then yes, Arjuna and Krishna are in the wrong.
The Fall of Dharma
As Krishna mentions, Duryodhana and Karna have never sought to play fair with the Pandavas. Indeed, their strategy has always been to use the Pandavas’ Dharma-following tendencies against them. Krishna is therefore wary of Arjuna letting his enemy slip from his grasp when the moment is nigh.
Now there is the more significant point of Dharma gradually declining in significance as the war wears on.
For the first nine days, Bhishma upholds a semblance of order in proceedings. On the tenth day, he resolves to eliminate the army of the Pandavas by letting loose on foot-soldiers. This is the first breach of the agreed-upon contract.
Bhishma’s fall is in itself a huge dereliction of Dharma, with Arjuna shooting at his grandfather from behind Shikhandi. After that, a number of such incidents occur. Abhimanyu, Bhurishrava and Drona are all killed by unfair means.
In the case of the last two, they’re beheaded after they have publicly renounced their weapons and sat down to meditate. Thos are much larger infarctions than shooting at your opponent when he is no longer on his chariot.
Seen in this larger context, the killing of Karna is not all that unfair relative to everything else that happens during the war.
At the end of the war, after being (unfairly) felled by Bhimasena, Duryodhana accuses Krishna of having fought a morally corrupt war. ‘You have killed Bhishma, Drona, Bhurishrava, Karna – and now me – by unfair means, Krishna. This victory is not deserved!’
Krishna does not answer Duryodhana directly, but noticing that the prince’s words are showing an effect on the demeanours of the Pandavas, he tells Yudhishthir:
‘The army that Duryodhana assembled against you, O King, would have been unassailable if we had fought with purely just means. But our scriptures have said that when one’s foe is stronger than one, there is no dishonour in adopting unfair methods.’
Thus, Krishna himself acknowledges that the manner of the Pandavas’ victory is less-than-fair. But he believes it is justified because the Pandavas have been brought to their knees by Duryodhana also by unfair means.
When your enemy uses unjust methods, according to Krishna, there is nothing wrong in matching them.
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