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 dislike the Pandavas?
There are three reasons why Karna dislikes the Pandavas. One: the Pandavas are the enemies of his benefactor, Duryodhana, so to show his loyalty, he has to hate them too. Two: Bhima and Arjuna call him a Sutaputra at the graduation ceremony. Three: the Pandavas represent the status and wealth that Karna aspires to achieve.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
A Struggle with Identity
Karna knows from the start that he is not the son of Adiratha and Radha. He knows that he has been abandoned by his birth mother. From the story of how Adiratha found him, he knows that his birth family is probably a rich one. From the appearance of his earrings and armour, he knows that his parentage is at least semi-divine.
Right from a young age, Karna’s deepest desire is to reclaim his ‘deserved spot’ among Kshatriyas. He does not wish to go through life as a charioteer’s son.
He therefore trains under Parashurama. He goes to the graduation ceremony with the intention of catching the eye of some Kuru elder or another powerful man when he repeats all of Arjuna’s feats.
(Related Post: Mahabharata Episode 8: Karna Arrives.)
There is a good chance that Karna has spent a good amount of time and effort planning his appearance at the graduation ceremony. During this process, he would have understood Bhima and Arjuna to be the most powerful of the Pandavas. And he would have deliberately chosen to emulate the most skilled of the Kuru princes in order to showcase himself.
That sets up an immediate dynamic of competition between Karna and Arjuna.
After Karna’s successful performance at the graduation ceremony, there is little chance that he and Arjuna will be friends.
At this stage, Arjuna is a vain prince who believes himself to be the best archer in the world. And yet here is a second low-born youth in the kingdom (after Ekalavya) to match his skill.
Arjuna is not known to react well when he discovers an archer as good as he. He does not possess the requisite humility and good cheer that is needed to embrace a potential competitor as friend.
(This is not to say he does not develop these qualities later; just that at this point in the story, he does not have them.)
Bhima and Arjuna, therefore, both insult Karna and call him a Sutaputra, implying that he is not fit to be present among them in that arena. None of the Kuru elders admonish or stop the princes.
Kripa subtly supports Arjuna and Bhima by asking Karna to introduce himself and his dynasty. This ensures that the relationship between Karna and the Pandavas starts on the wrong foot.
Loyalty to Duryodhana
All the Kuru elders – even the supposed master strategists like Bhishma – miss a trick at the graduation ceremony. It would have been more sensible to invite Karna into the palace life of Hastinapur, by giving him employment in the army perhaps, or even by keeping him around to groom into a possible warrior in the future.
Instead, by being so eager to defend Arjuna’s vanity, the establishment gives Duryodhana an opportunity to strike up a friendship with Karna. Duryodhana jumps at this chance, because right in front of his very eyes he has been shown a way by which Arjuna could be defeated.
Duryodhana thus supports Karna (purely out of selfish motivations, though one cannot be certain about this), and makes him king of Anga right there at the ceremony.
Their friendship is certainly an unequal one. Duryodhana gives Karna all these material comforts, and the understanding is that Karna will remain loyal to Duryodhana in return.
This loyalty forces Karna to appropriate all of Duryodhana’s loves and hates. And because Duryodhana hates the Pandavas more than anything, Karna learns to do so too.
Rejection by Draupadi
Karna also gets rejected at Draupadi’s swayamvara. When he stands up in Drupada’s ceremonial hall with the intention of trying his hand at the archery task that will potentially win him Draupadi, she stops him by announcing to everyone that she doesn’t wish to be married to a low-born man.
We must bear in mind that this insult would have burned Karna the most because by this time, he has been king of Anga for a while. He is no longer just a Sutaputra. He may have felt that he does not deserve the moniker anymore.
(Related Post: What Happens during Draupadi’s Swayamvara?)
Whether Draupadi is morally right to reject him here is beside the point. But this gives Karna another personal grudge against her, which he acts on during her disrobing.
And of course, his dislike for Draupadi also increases his general distaste for the Pandavas on the whole.
Maturing into Acceptance
However, by the time the Kurukshetra war arrives, Karna has been ruling Anga for more than twenty five years. He may have fervently desired wealth and status of a Kshatriya when he was young, but now he is a middle-aged man who has seen it all.
He remains close to his adoptive parents Adiratha and Radha during this time. He gets married to a girl from the Suta caste, and he remains true to all the dictates of his order.
In fact, Karna tells Krishna that he is thankful to Duryodhana for ‘having allowed me to be king while remaining a Suta’.
He has children whom he raises not as kings but as Sutaputras. The man who has railed during his younger life against the term has slowly come to embrace it – so much so that he tells Krishna, ‘I was born a Sutaputra. I will die a Sutaputra.’
Karna also becomes a king in his own right during this period. He gains a reputation as a generous and wise man among his subjects. He is well-loved, and his kind treatment of underprivileged people in Anga becomes legendary.
In other words, Karna becomes more and more accepting of who he is. By the time the war begins, he appears to be very comfortable in the life that he has built for himself – with Duryodhana’s help but with his own personality as well.
(Related Post: Mahabharata Episode 35: Karna Rejects a Bribe.)
Karna is in fact so at peace with himself that he is able to reject Krishna’s invitation (to come rule Indraprastha as Draupadi’s husband) and remain true to his values. All the things that Krishna offers him were once alluring to him, but not anymore.
Later, when Kunti reveals herself to be his birth mother, Karna is able to reject her too, and announce that he is the son of Adiratha and Radha.
Contrast this with the feeling of shame he feels when Adiratha publicly embraces him at the graduation ceremony. Then, he wished he was someone else’s son. Now, he proudly claims them as his parents.
At this late stage, all of his personal grudges against the Pandavas have likely evaporated, and the only reason for him to fight against the sons of Pandu is his loyalty to Duryodhana.
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered