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 go to hell?
Karna, in fact, does not go to hell. At the very end of the story, after Yudhishthir has passed all his tests and gained entrance to the hall of Indra, Karna is present there. This is an admission on part of the Mahabharata that Karna’s sins were all committed at Duryodhana’s behest – and are therefore pardonable.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Karna’s Wicked Deeds
Karna commits numerous deeds in his life that can be defined as ‘wicked’. For instance:
- He abuses Draupadi with unnecessary brutality during the dice game. It is he who calls her a prostitute and suggests that she should be disrobed in public.
- He has a close hand in the planning of the events of Varanavata – where Duryodhana constructs a palace of wax for the Pandavas and tries to burn them alive.
- He is the first of the Kaurava atirathas to take up the mantle of killing Abhimanyu. He breaks the bow of Abhimanyu while shooting at him from behind his chariot.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 18: Yudhishthir Loses Everything.)
Karna’s Cowardly Deeds
During the course of the Mahabharata, Karna displays a distinct lack of physical courage, which for a Kshatriya is a sinful act. Here are a few incidents:
- During his battle against Arjuna at Draupadi’s swayamvara, he withdraws from the challenge citing unwillingness to fight against a Brahmin. But it appears that he is frightened.
- During the Pandavas’ exile, when Duryodhana is captured by Gandharvas, Karna flees from the battlefield and leaves his friend to be rescued by his enemies the Pandavas.
- During the final battle of Kurukshetra, Karna flees from several battles, not least against Abhimanyu whom he later handicaps by shooting at him from behind.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 23: Duryodhana is Rescued.)
Karna’s Heroic Deeds
To counterbalance his cowardly and wicked behaviour, Karna does commit some noble actions befitting a hero. Namely:
- When Krishna makes him an offer before the Kurukshetra war and tells him that the entire world and Draupadi will be his if he betrays Duryodhana, Karna withstands temptation and stays loyal to his friend.
- When Kunti tells him about the truth behind his birth, Karna does not forgive her. He does not accept her as his mother. But he promises her that he will seek to kill only Arjuna during the battle. ‘You will have five sons regardless of who wins the war,’ he tells her.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 35: Karna Rejects a Bribe.)
- Just before the Pandavas’ year of incognito begins, Karna goes on an expedition of conquest on Duryodhana’s behalf. He subjugates all the kingdoms in his path. He makes Duryodhana an emperor.
- When Indra arrives in the garb of a Brahmin and asks him for his natural armour and earrings, Karna does not hesitate to peel them off despite knowing that this is Indra’s ploy to protect Arjuna against him.
- As king of Anga, he builds a formidable reputation. His subjects are happy under his rule, and they consider him the most generous of kings.
(Suggested: Was Karna in love with Draupadi?)
A Place in Heaven
When Yudhishthir successfully attains heaven in his mortal body, Karna is present in the hall of Indra, looking ‘as resplendent as the sun’. This means that the powers-that-be have decided, after weighing up Karna’s good deeds against his bad, that he is worthy of dwelling in heaven.
Duryodhana, meanwhile, is banished to hell – which suggests that Yama comes to the conclusion after considering all matters that all the wicked deeds that Karna perpetrates are primarily Duryodhana’s responsibility.
(Suggested: What was Karna famous for?)
A few other reasons suggest themselves as to why Karna is sent to heaven:
- By the time the Mahabharata war ends, the Pandavas come to know the true identity of Karna, and perform various soul-purifying rites in his name. Perhaps the fact that he had been forgiven by his enemies lessens the weight of his wrongs.
- Ultimately, Karna is the son of Surya, a god. The son of a god cannot be sent to hell for all eternity.
- Karna’s wrongful deeds – though highly visible – are overshadowed by the large number of good and generous deeds he performs as king of Anga. His ledger, therefore, is still black despite his villainy.
- Karna’s wicked acts can be explained away as motivated by loyalty to a friend, and not out of selfishness or a sinful heart. Thus, Yama might have found it easier to pardon him.
(Suggested: Is Karna the real hero of the Mahabharata?)
A Period of Atonement
However, Karna does not get sent to heaven straight after his death. He is first taken to hell for a short period of time in order to atone for his deeds.
To Yudhishthir, Indra explains: ‘Good people endure a short period in hell as penance for their small number of wrongdoings. They are then taken to heaven forever.
Bad people, on the other hand, enjoy a short period in heaven as reward for their small number of virtuous actions. They are then taken to hell forever.’
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 60: The Pandavas Die.)
From the fact that Karna is present in Indra’s hall at the arrival of Yudhishthir, we can surmise deduce that Karna – according to Indra – is one of the ‘good people’.
We can also surmise that after his death, Karna is first taken to hell until all the sins of his life have been washed away. These include his wronging of Draupadi and the killing of Abhimanyu.
After that, he is taken to heaven where he will reside for the rest of eternity, enjoying the fruits of all his virtuous deeds.
(Suggested: Was Karna unlucky?)
One wonders what the reunion between Karna and the Pandavas in heaven must have been like. Is it awkward for them to reconcile with one another given how bitter their enmity was on Earth?
The Pandavas did come to know soon after the war that Karna was their elder brother. After that, they have had thirty six years in which to get used to the idea that their killing of Karna was unfortunate. Perhaps that is enough time for a new relationship to begin in heaven.
(Suggested: Was Karna the greatest warrior?)
It is also possible that the denizens of heaven do not necessarily fraternize with one another as do the people of Earth. Since heaven is beyond earthly desires and fears, the people that populate it – one imagines – no longer concern themselves with notions such as love and brotherhood.
In any case, Karna and the Pandavas have a happy enough reunion in Indra’s hall. Also to be noted is the fact that Kunti is here too, so she is finally able to see all of her sons together.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
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- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered