Why did Bhishma not allow Karna to fight?

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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: Why did Bhishma not allow Karna to fight?

As the start of the Mahabharata war is imminent, after Bhishma is made commander, he tells Duryodhana that if he and Karna fights on the battlefield at the same time, it will cause unnecessary quarrels and loss to the Kuru cause. By thus removing Karna from action, Bhishma also protects Arjuna.

(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Bhishma’s Ultimatum

Just before the Mahabharata war begins, Duryodhana makes Bhishma the first commander of his forces. This decision is a unanimous one: Bhishma has been leading the Kuru army in all its wars since time immemorial.

Despite his misgivings about Bhishma’s will to fight the Pandavas, Duryodhana may have hoped that Bhishma would rise to the occasion and perform his duty as Hastinapur’s regent.

Bhishma’s first reaction is to (modestly) thank Duryodhana for giving him the honour of leading the Kuru army. Then he makes a few remarks:

  • He reiterates that the Pandavas – especially Arjuna – are very tough to defeat in battle. He reminds Duryodhana of the time in Matsya when Arjuna fought all of them singlehandedly and prevailed. ‘But,’ he says, ‘I will do my very best to win this war for you.’
  • He reminds Duryodhana that he will not fight against any warrior who has once been or who is right now a woman. When a bemused Duryodhana asks who he is referring to, Bhishma tells him Shikhandi’s story.

(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 38: Amba and Shikhandi.)

  • Finally, Bhishma gives Duryodhana an ultimatum: that he will not fight if Karna fights. ‘Only one of us should take to the battlefield at once, my son,’ he says.

Duryodhana is flustered at Bhishma’s stand regarding Karna. But Bhishma stands his ground. Karna, understanding his friend’s predicament, offers to sit out the war until Bhishma falls.

Bhishma’s Reason

Bhishma does give a reason for placing this condition. ‘The son of Radha and I are always at loggerheads, my son,’ he tells Duryodhana. ‘If we fight together, I have no doubt that we will quarrel so much that it will cause the army more harm than good.’

An objective reader may ask at this point: Whose fault is it that the Bhishma-Karna relationship is sour?

Karna has never gone out of his way to pick a quarrel with Bhishma. It is Bhishma who has repeatedly poked at Karna’s side, needling him for his misplaced bravado – especially regarding his confidence in defeating Arjuna.

(But there are good reasons for Karna’s bluster, as we have seen in Why and when does Karna remove his armor?)

Regardless of how the issue began, one might wonder if it befits a warrior of Bhishma’s standing to effectively cripple his army because he cannot find a way to work with a particular person. One would think that it is the hallmark of a leader to pull a team of disparate individuals together in a common direction.

This makes us ask the question: Did Bhishma have another, secret reason for making this play?

What Bhishma should have done

At this point in time just before the war begins, Bhishma already knows about Karna’s Vasava dart, and the fact that he has been saving it up for a fateful encounter with Arjuna.

Bhishma is also wise enough to know that among all the warriors who have lined up to fight at Kurukshetra, one man along possesses the ability to kill Arjuna. And that is Karna.

Considering that Arjuna is the most powerful warrior on the Pandava side, and that killing him would mean near-certain victory for Duryodhana, what should Bhishma have done if he were working impartially?

He should have crafted a strategy centered around Karna. He should have instructed all his warriors that the sole aim of the Kaurava army is to ensure that Karna and Arjuna would repeatedly clash, thus increasing the likelihood that Karna will find the opportunity to use his Vasava.

Instead, what does he do? He does the exact opposite. Not only does he marginalize the one man who can win Duryodhana the war, he also ensures that he does not fight.

Protecting Arjuna?

From the outside, this looks like the behaviour of someone who is keen to protect Arjuna. For all his protestation that he will fight fairly and to the best of his ability, Bhishma seems to be working behind the scenes to protect Arjuna from Karna.

We must also note that Bhishma tells Duryodhana that Karna can fight after he has been defeated. It is also possible that Bhishma has plans of his own: perhaps he wishes to fight in such a manner that he brings about a stalemate in the battle without killing any of the Pandavas.

(During his ten days at the helm, this is exactly how Bhishma fights: by exerting himself fully against common infantry and cavalry forces, he endeavours to deprive the Pandavas of their army so that they will be forced to surrender.)

Bhishma plans to fight ‘forever’: he knows that while he cannot defeat Arjuna, he is no mean warrior either. He can theoretically bring the battle to a close without killing any of the Pandavas. On the other hand, if he falls, then it means that his plan has failed, and that Karna can be allowed to enter the fray.

(Related Article: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Bhishma Parva.)

No matter which of the above theories is true, we must accept an inexorable truth: Bhishma enters the battle with a personal strategy (that of bringing the war to an end with the least damage done) that is at odds with Duryodhana’s ambitions.

And as the appointed commander of the army, Bhishma is shirking his duty by doing this. One may not be too far off calling his behaviour traitorous.

Effects of Bhishma’s Ruse

Bhishma’s machinations bring about a number of consequences that are favourable to the Pandavas:

  • Over the first ten days, the Kaurava forces – in the image of their commander – do not exert themselves fully.
  • Knowing that Karna is not on the battlefield, Arjuna gets free rein to fight as Yudhishthir’s lynchpin, going everywhere and overseeing everything in the company of Krishna.
  • The Kauravas miss an opportunity to target Arjuna with the full strength of their army. Imagine Bhishma, Drona, Ashwatthama, Kripa and Bhagadatta fighting with the sole purpose of pitting Karna against Arjuna.
  • As it happens, by the time Karna takes to the field, Bhishma is out of action, and the Kauravas have already lost plenty of heroes to Arjuna’s prowess.
  • Bhishma’s tactics frustrate Krishna – twice – to the point that he almost breaks his vow and attacks Bhishma. Bhishma welcomes this: he believes that if Krishna kills him, the battle will come to an end because the prince of Dwaraka has foresworn his oath.

(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 42: Bhishma Falls.)

One Piece of Advice

It is only after Drona’s ascendance to the position of commander – on Day 11 – that the war begins to assume the flavour of ruthlessness. Drona fights and strategizes like a man possessed, not allowing his love for the Pandavas (and Arjuna) to interfere with his duty toward Duryodhana.

This is why Duryodhana would have been much better served by appointing either Drona or Karna as the first commander of his forces, even if it meant that Bhishma would watch from the sidelines.

This would have been a tough decision to make because of the optics surrounding it, but with the benefit of hindsight, if one could give Duryodhana one piece of advice that would probably win him the war, it would be this.

His deference to Bhishma may have been the one factor most responsible for his ultimate loss.

Further Reading

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