Why did Duryodhana befriend Karna?

Why did Duryodhana befriend Karna - Featured Image - Picture of two hands clasped at the wrist, representing friendship

Duryodhana is the main antagonist of the Mahabharata. He is the eldest son of King Dhritarashtra and Queen Gandhari of Hastinapur. He and his ninety nine younger brothers are together called the Kauravas.

Central to Duryodhana’s life is his belief that Dhritarashtra was the rightful king of Hastinapur, and that he had been cheated out of the throne by Bhishma and Vidura. Duryodhana attempts to correct this wrong by proclaiming himself heir to the Kuru throne.

Duryodhana’s relentless envy and ambition bring about his downfall. He drags the Kuru kingdom to the Kurukshetra war, and becomes responsible for the deaths of thousands of people.

In this post, we will answer the question: Why did Duryodhana befriend Karna?

Duryodhana befriends Karna because he is able to see from Karna’s display of archery prowess that he will be the perfect nemesis for Arjuna. Duryodhana thinks himself capable of handling Bhima, but he has been looking for someone to match Arjuna’s skill. The moment he finds Karna, therefore, he latches on to him and begins nurturing him.

Read on to discover more about why Duryodhana befriended Karna.

(For answers to all Duryodhana-related questions, see: Duryodhana: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Kripa’s Mistake

Duryodhana and Karna’s friendship begins on the day of the Kuru princes’ graduation ceremony. Karna appears out of nowhere and repeats all the archery tasks that Arjuna had completed earlier.

In doing this, Karna proves himself to be – in skill levels at least – Arjuna’s equal.

Duryodhana springs to Karna’s aid only when Kripa humiliates the new entrant by asking him to name his lineage. When Karna hesitates, it becomes apparent to everyone that he is a low-born man.

Kripa could have handled the situation differently. When Karna challenges Arjuna to a single combat, Kripa could just have said, ‘We do not allow our princes to enter into real-life battles in tournaments of this sort.’

He may even have conferred with Bhishma and thought of ways in which they could bring this promising new archer into the royal fold. If he could be groomed properly, he may become a great asset in the future for Kuru’s army.

But the openly antagonistic stance that Kripa adopts gives Duryodhana an opportunity to befriend the newcomer.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 8: Karna Arrives.)

Humanitarian Grounds

There is no explicit explanation given in the Mahabharata for Duryodhana’s action. The implicit message is that Duryodhana is a kind man, and he automatically feels sympathy toward anyone who rails against the Pandavas’ power.

It is quite possible that watching an underprivileged man get insulted touches Duryodhana’s nerve, and he does what he can to even out the scales a little bit.

While there is some truth to this, we must also admit that very few actions in real life emerge from single motivational factors. Most effects have multiple causes working in tandem.

In this case, we may ask: would Duryodhana have reacted with the same eagerness to protect the honour of a man who had not just proved himself Arjuna’s equal with bow and arrow?

Karna as Tool

At the time of the Kuru graduation ceremony, the Pandava-Kaurava rivalry is already firmly in place. The ceremony, in fact, until the arrival of Karna, becomes a bit of an Arjuna-show, with the third Pandava displaying a dazzling array of skills.

It may have become clear to a dismayed Duryodhana that Arjuna and Bhima are the two most powerful Pandavas – and if the Kauravas ever to win against the sons of Kunti, they have to find a way to defeat these two.

Duryodhana thinks of himself as Bhima’s equal in some respects. Though Bhima is altogether stronger, Duryodhana knows that there are some scenarios in which he can give the son of Vayu a good fight.

But Arjuna – Arjuna is far beyond anyone’s reach. Even if Bhima was to be killed somehow, Arjuna is by himself enough to take on the hundred Kaurava brothers – and win.

With the arrival of Karna, though, Duryodhana must have uttered a cry of relief in his mind. Here is a warrior who has just proved himself to be Arjuna’s equal. And Kripacharya has already snubbed him.

If only he – Duryodhana – can take the new hero under his wing; if only Karna could be moulded into someone who can match Arjuna, that will mean that between the two of them, they will stand a chance against Arjuna and Bhima.

Something along these lines may have crossed Duryodhana’s mind in the few moments that it took Kripa to insult Karna. So Duryodhana sets about proclaiming himself Karna’s good friend.

(Suggested: Karna and Duryodhana: What was their friendship like?)

Promise Unfulfilled

Despite Duryodhana’s planning, and despite Karna’s very sincere loyalty toward his benefactor, Arjuna’s progress as archer exceeds everyone’s imaginations.

Not only does he become the best archer in the world, but he also goes on to procure a number of divine weapons that makes him virtually invincible by the time of the Virata Parva.

He has leapfrogged the likes of Drona and Bhishma by a great distance. Karna has no chance.

On the few occasions that Karna faces Arjuna – or that Arjuna and Karna face the same challenge one after the other – Karna proves himself to be nowhere near a match to Arjuna’s prowess.

For example:

  • When the princes are sent to invade Panchala as Drona’s dakshina, Karna accompanies Duryodhana and loses to Drupada. Arjuna and Bhima succeed at the quest immediately afterwards.
  • When Duryodhana is captured by Gandharvas toward the end of the Pandavas’ exile, Karna flees from the battle out of fear. It is left to Arjuna and Bhima to fight the Gandharva army and rescue Duryodhana.
  • At the end of the Virata Parva, when the Kuru army attempts to raid Matsya’s cattle, Karna fails at so much as denting Arjuna’s armour.

(Suggested: Why was Arjuna Invincible?)

Lack of Trust

Although Duryodhana does not make any statements to this effect, we can surmise that he will have lost trust in Karna by the beginning of the Kurukshetra war.

When they were young men, Karna and Arjuna were indeed equals. But time has favoured Arjuna to the point that Karna is unable to keep up with him. Duryodhana sees this, and accepts it as the naked truth.

That is why when Bhishma gives him the ultimatum that either he or Karna must fight in the war, Duryodhana does not hesitate to choose Bhishma over his long-time friend. This is because in Duryodhana’s mind, Bhishma is not only a better fighter than Karna, but he is also more likely to kill Arjuna.

In this analysis, however, Duryodhana does not take into account the fact that Bhishma has no intention of killing Arjuna.

(Suggested: Why did Bhishma not allow Karna to fight?)

An Alternate Choice

At the very moment that Duryodhana’s trust in Karna broke down, he should have had the courage to back his man. His thought process should have gone this way:

Arjuna is the lynchpin of the Pandava force. The Kauravas will not win the war even if the entire Pandava army is decimated and Arjuna survives. On the other hand, if Arjuna is removed, the rest of the army is no threat.

The entirety of the Kaurava strategy should therefore have been to isolate, attack, and kill Arjuna come what may. What is the best tactic to achieve this goal?

Bhishma is a great overall fighter, but the fight during the Virata Parva has made it clear that neither Bhishma nor Drona have a weapon that Arjuna cannot counter. In fact, in the whole of the Kaurava army, only one man has a missile to which Arjuna must succumb.

And that man is Karna. The weapon in question is the Vasava dart of Indra. If Karna uses it on Arjuna, Arjuna will die. No force in the three worlds can stop the Vasava.

Knowing this, when offered the choice between Karna and Bhishma, Duryodhana should have gone ahead and picked the former. He should have placed Karna in the middle of his fighting force, and given him only one instruction: no matter what, shadow Arjuna.

The rest of the Kuru army’s role is to protect Karna from other Pandava warriors – and to create circumstances where Karna can use the Vasava against Arjuna.


Duryodhana befriends Karna with the express intention of using him as a tool to defeat and kill Arjuna. But Karna – despite his loyalty – cannot rise to Arjuna’s level, especially with the latter being blessed by gods and sages.

As a result, Duryodhana loses trust in his talisman, and decides not to use him in the Kurukshetra war for the first ten days. This, as it turns out, is a mistake, because the Kurukshetra war would have been the perfect opportunity for Karna to use the Vasava on Arjuna.

Thus, it is Duryodhana’s own lack of trust that prevents Karna from defeating Arjuna.

Further Reading

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