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 unlucky?
Karna is definitely unlucky in some respects. But he also displays a streak of cruelty against the Pandavas and Draupadi. He makes a conscious choice to stick with Duryodhana despite knowing he is in the wrong. The consequences Karna reaps, therefore, are a combination of his luck and his choices.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Karna was unlucky.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Exertion and Destiny
The Mahabharata makes this point on more than one occasion: that any given outcome is a result of (a) a person’s exertion, and (b) his destiny.
The word ‘destiny’ may have mystical connotations, but the meaning of it is quite simple: all those factors that are in play with the system and which are out of one’s personal control. These may include the actions of other human beings, living things, and any number of elements that are part of the complex world we inhabit.
Even in a naturalist’s worldview, there is place for this idea. In modern parlance, we speak of ‘controlling the controllable variables’.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 39: The Bhagavad Gita.)
Back to the Mahabharata. Developing this idea further, the text insists that of the two contributing factors to an outcome – a person’s exertion, and his destiny – the second is more powerful and sometimes sufficient. The first is necessary but insufficient.
In other words:
- A man may exert himself to the fullest and not get the outcome he desires because he is not destined for it.
- A man may not exert himself at all and receive a favourable outcome because his destiny decrees it so.
- A man may not exert himself because he thinks he is destined for success, and it eludes him.
- And so on.
Of course, since one’s destiny is always hidden from one’s view, the prescription given by the wise men is to exert oneself without giving any thought to one’s destiny. And then, if your destiny happens to agree with you, you succeed. If it doesn’t, you fail.
Karna is born of the union between a princess and a god. This is about as holy a birth as one can imagine. If there is one infant that can be relied upon to achieve greatness, it is the firstborn son of a princess and a god.
But circumstances surrounding Karna’s birth conspire to write a story for him that is complex and often ridden with despair.
Here is a list of all ‘unfortunate’ things that happen to Karna during his life:
- His biological mother abandons him.
- He is found and adopted by a couple who belong to the low-born Suta caste.
- He is robbed of his natural armour and earrings (which make him an invincible warrior) by Indra.
- He is cursed by Parashurama and by an unnamed Brahmin that he will forget all that he has learned in the moment of his greatest need.
(Related Article: Why was Karna Cursed?)
- Of all the people who could have been impressed by his showing at the graduation ceremony, he attracts the attention of Duryodhana, who then uses him as a pawn against Arjuna.
But some ‘good’ things also happen to Karna as a result of his exertions against his destiny. For instance:
- He becomes king of Anga and gets the opportunity to witness the Kshatriya life first hand, thanks to Duryodhana.
- He gains a reputation as a generous and wise king. He is much-loved by his subjects.
- He is allowed to live as a Kshatriya while also remaining true to the dictates of the Suta caste.
- He thus achieves a lot more material success than the Sutaputra.
Toward the end, just as the war is about to begin, Krishna finds out that Karna is in fact Kunti’s firstborn, and meets him in private. He offers Karna the kingdom of Indraprastha to rule in Yudhishthir’s stead if only he agrees to forsake Duryodhana.
Here, Karna is given a choice to expunge all of the misfortunes that destiny had heaped upon him. He only has to say a word and all that he had deserved at the time of his birth will come true. He will be an emperor. He will even marry Draupadi. His children will become kings after him.
But in order to receive what he is due, he has to give up all that he has earned so painstakingly, fighting against destiny every step of the way.
(Related Article: Karna and Duryodhana: What was their friendship like?)
This means that he will first have to abandon Duryodhana, much like his own mother abandoned him. Then he will have to abandon his family – his wife, his adoptive parents, his children – and the subjects of Anga who had come to look up toward him as a father.
He will have to abandon the Suta caste, the caste that had made him the man he became.
In order to acquire all of the things he thinks he deserves, he will have to give up all of the things he had earned. So instead of making the trade, he tells Krishna, ‘I was born a Sutaputra. I will die a Sutaputra.’
In rejecting Krishna’s offer, Karna reveals himself to be a man who has made his peace with his destiny. He has stopped fighting it, he has stopped questioning it. He has begun to embrace it, and even be thankful for it.
Like all of us, he is also shackled by forces outside of his control. But he comes to realize that he possesses agency to make choices and prioritizations of his own.
Does he choose loyalty or wealth? Selfishness or generosity? Self-preservation or identity? Throughout his life he feels targeted and ridiculed by the world, and he lashes and rails at it.
(Related Article: Why did Krishna offer Draupadi to Karna?)
But when the time comes to choose, he discovers that he is in fact quite comfortable in his ‘adopted’ world – the world with Adiratha and Radha and Duryodhana in it. The world in which he is king and Suta at the same time, the world in which he has crafted for himself a name.
Despite Karna’s many tragedies (as the world sees them), at the very end, he embraces his identity and willingly chooses to fight on the ‘wrong’ side in order to fulfil his promises to Duryodhana.
If he is unlucky in some respects, he is also lucky to have been given that rare gift: a clear and unswerving moral compass that allows him to say no to untold riches, fame, status and power – only to keep his word to a friend.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered