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 Karna and Bhishma Quarrel?
Bhishma sees Karna as a braggart. With Karna often announcing haughtily that he will kill Arjuna and failing each time, Bhishma reprimands him for making tall claims and never following through on them. For Karna’s part, he thinks that Bhishma’s partiality toward the Pandavas is hurting Duryodhana’s cause.
Read on to discover more about why Karna and Bhishma quarrel during the Mahabharata.
(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.)
Obsession with Arjuna
Right from his appearance in the story, Karna displays a particular obsession with defeating Arjuna. At the graduation ceremony, he successfully replicates all the feats that Arjuna completes. He rightly earns the descriptor of being ‘Arjuna’s equal’.
However, Karna never succeeds in defeating Arjuna in a man-to-man duel. During the few occasions they meet, either Arjuna wins or the battle ends without a definite result.
Despite this, Karna is always heard – especially in Duryodhana’s presence – proclaiming himself as the only warrior capable to defeating and killing Arjuna.
The other warriors in the Kuru army – like Bhishma and Drona – are bemused by this. Karna has not distinguished himself in any battle that he has ever fought, these men think, and yet he has the temerity to strut around and preen himself.
Bhishma also reminds Karna on more than one occasion that for all his talk about loyalty and friendship, when Duryodhana truly needed to be rescued, Karna was nowhere to be found. It was Arjuna and Bhima who had to fight the Gandharvas and secure Duryodhana’s release.
(For more detail on this incident, see: Mahabharata Episode 23: Duryodhana is Rescued.)
In Karna’s Defence
Having said this, there is some substance to Karna’s confidence in his ability to kill Arjuna. He is the only warrior to possess a weapon for which Arjuna has no counter. He has the Vasava dart, given to him by Indra.
His bragging, therefore, should not be seen as general vanity regarding his prowess as a warrior. It should instead be seen as a specific statement of fact: he is in fact the only hero on either side of the war that has a theoretical chance of defeating Arjuna.
Bhishma and Drona, skilful as they are, do not possess any weapons that may outsmart Arjuna. Karna, on the other hand, though not as skilful as Arjuna, does have the one weapon that can kill Arjuna.
However, in all probability, Bhishma does not know of the existence of the Vasava dart, so his irritation at Karna’s incessant bravado is understandable.
But what if Bhishma did know Karna had the Vasava dart with him? After all, during the battle of midnight, during which Karna eventually kills Ghatotkacha, common soldiers of the Kuru army are heard exhorting Karna to use his special weapon. So if they knew about it, chances are that Bhishma did too.
If Bhishma knows about the Vasava and still picks a quarrel with Karna, his intentions are no longer above question. If Bhishma were truly fighting on Duryodhana’s side, he would have insisted that Karna be made commander of the Kuru army, entrusted with the sole objective of engaging as often as possible with Arjuna.
The responsibility of all the other warriors – bar none! – will be to provide Karna with easy access to Arjuna, and then hope that in the many ensuing battles, Karna will be able to find a moment to use his weapon.
This would have been the logical way to approach the matter. But Bhishma takes the exact opposite approach, giving Duryodhana an ultimatum that either he or Karna can fight on the battlefield at the same time.
‘The son of Radha and I hardly ever see eye to eye, my son,’ says Bhishma. ‘If we fight together, we will quarrel too often to be of any use to you.’
The reason that Bhishma gives for his inability to fight alongside Karna is a laughable one. After all, Bhishma is fighting for Duryodhana himself, with whom he has disagreed vehemently on many occasions in the past. Can he not put aside his annoyance with Karna and take up the responsibility of commander for Duryodhana’s sake?
He probably can. This is a man who once fought against his own preceptor – Parashurama – in order not to dishonour a vow. He is not new to putting aside emotions and attending to the matter at hand.
(For more context on the Bhishma-Parashurama battle, see: Mahabharata Episode 38: Amba and Shikhandi.)
But the fact that he chooses not to do so in this case raises the possibility that he is actively working to sabotage Duryodhana’s cause.
By giving Duryodhana an ultimatum, Bhishma ensures that he puts Karna out of the battlefield for as long as he is ably fighting. That means that Arjuna’s safety is secured.
Bhishma’s intention at this point – as it becomes apparent with his fighting style later – is to draw out the battle for as long as he can and eliminate the army of the Pandavas so that the war is brought to a halt. His plan is to force a situation where the Pandavas are left without an army. But he also wishes that none of the Pandavas are hurt during this process.
Another point in favour of the theory that Bhishma is only engaging in Arjuna-shielding with all of this rigmarole is how easily he reconciles with Karna on the evening of the tenth day.
Bhishma is propped up on his bed of arrows. After all the visitors have left for the day, Karna comes to seek his blessings. Bhishma welcomes him with kindness and speaks to him with encouragement. He also apologizes for having abused Karna inordinately in the past.
He even admits that Karna is one of the atirathas – not a ‘half-ratha’ as he angrily called him before the war.
What has happened between Bhishma’s ultimatum to Duryodhana and this scene to turn Bhishma’s demeanour around? Is it just a dying man’s docility? Or could it be that Bhishma never had any anger toward Karna in the first place?
Here, Bhishma also confesses that he knows of Karna’s true identity. Vyasa, apparently, has paid him a visit before the war begins and told him. This nugget softens the edge of Bhishma’s deception: now the reader may surmise that he intended to protect both Karna and Arjuna by keeping the former out of action.
(For more detail on this scene, see: 12 Mahabharata Stories From the Bhishma Parva.)
Neither Duryodhana nor Karna, alas, are smart enough to see through the grandsire’s manipulation. If they were, Duryodhana would have chosen Karna to fight on the first day of the war instead of Bhishma.
Indeed, in Bhishma’s absence, he would have had more luck implementing the ‘Kill Arjuna at all costs’ strategy with the help of Karna. He would have found ample support from the likes of Drona, Ashwatthama and Bhagadatta.
For his part, even Karna could have swallowed his pride and begged for Bhishma’s forgiveness. He could have contrived to at least be present on the battlefield even if they were all led by Bhishma.
But Karna makes no such attempt. He tells Duryodhana that the grandsire is right; it has to be either him or Bhishma.
It is possible that Karna is here offering Duryodhana a choice: with Bhishma, you will get the most powerful regent of Hastinapur, the most experienced General of his times, and a warrior without peer – but who is partial to the enemy. With Karna, you will get perhaps not the best fighter in the world, but someone who is not only able but also desperately eager to kill Arjuna.
And everyone knows this: Kill Arjuna and the war is won.
What if Duryodhana had responded differently to this choice given to him by Karna? By siding with Bhishma and allowing Karna to sit out the war, Duryodhana fails to give his friend a vote of confidence. In essence he is saying to Karna, ‘You’re strong, but I’d rather have Bhishma fighting for me than you.’
But if Duryodhana had said to Bhishma instead: ‘Grandfather, for all your ability I think your heart mourns for the sons of Pandu. I wish to ride out to battle with a man by my side who I know is fighting for me.’
And if he had instead made Karna the first commander of the Kuru army? What would have happened?
Bhishma would sit out the battle in this scenario, with the understanding that he will enter the fray once Karna is either grievously injured or dead. The rest of the Kuru army would have focused on Arjuna right from the beginning, and would have employed formations that would encourage Karna and Arjuna to face off against one another repeatedly.
This does not necessarily mean that they would succeed in killing Arjuna. But at least they would give it their very best shot without holding back. And if Karna loses his life while attempting to kill Arjuna, Bhishma can always implement his ‘destroy their army’ plan later.
On the other hand, if Karna succeeds in killing Arjuna, the war is (just about) over. Duryodhana has won.
The Krishna Factor
We are, of course, underestimating the adaptive power of Krishna in this counterfactual scenario. Seeing that the Kauravas have employed Karna as the commander, Krishna would have guessed that they’re betting all their resources on Karna’s successful use of the Vasava weapon.
He might have then advised Yudhishthir to employ counter-arrays that ensure that Arjuna is hidden from Karna at all times. He might even have enlisted the services of Ghatotkacha (or another hero) much earlier with the express intention of tempting Karna into using the Vasava on the wrong person.
Overall, therefore, the final result may have been the same – i.e.: Karna uses the Vasava on a lesser warrior in a moment of befuddlement; Arjuna emerges after this to kill Karna; Bhishma enters the fray and is put away with the use of Shikhandi; Drona is killed with a lie – and so on.
In other words, the sequence of the events may have changed with the result remaining the same. And yet, one gets the feeling that Duryodhana would have stood a better chance with this approach.
As it Happened…
Notwithstanding all of this analysis, though, it bears mentioning that the fallout between Bhishma and Karna severely dents Duryodhana’s chances to win the war.
Considering that these two are often touted – along with Drona – as among the most powerful and skilful warriors of the army, the fact that Duryodhana is not able to assemble them together on the battlefield for ten whole days is quite significant in the final tally.
It is also a pity that the two men have no real reason to be quarrelling with one another. Bhishma just happens to not like Karna’s tendency to overstate his own abilities. This amounts to nothing more than a minor personality clash, which a commander of Bhishma’s calibre and experience ought to have handled better.
But instead, Duryodhana is forced to fight with a fractured army right from the start.
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