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 suffer so much?
Karna’s suffering is caused primarily by acts of destiny: Kunti’s abandonment, Parashurama’s curse and Indra’s intervention are examples. Karna also suffers inordinately for choices he makes in order to transcend his destiny: his loyalty to Duryodhana, his rejection of Krishna’s bribe, and his promise to Kunti being cases in point.
Read on to discover more about why Karna suffered so much.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Karna is born in the womb of a princess of a great kingdom, and his father is the sun god. His is therefore the most privileged of births, and by all rights he should have lived a life of great fame, power and wealth.
But right from the beginning, choices made by people around him begin to affect his destiny adversely. The very first of these acts is Kunti’s, who decides to abandon her child in order to ward off societal infamy. She puts him in a basket and lets him float down the river, hoping against hope that the elements will let him live.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 4: Kunti, Madri and Gandhari.)
Karna is found by a poor childless charioteer – named Adiratha – and his wife. He is raised as a member of the Suta caste. Throughout his life, this label of ‘Sutaputra’ attaches itself to Karna each time he displays ambition to break out of strictures placed upon him by the caste system.
Kunti’s decision, therefore, is the first reason for Karna’s suffering.
During his early life as the adopted son of Adiratha and Radha, Karna repeatedly tries to move up the social ladder and obtain a life of higher status. In this quest, he seeks out Sage Parashurama and becomes his student.
But he pretends to be a Brahmin boy before presenting himself to the sage, (rightly) fearing that he would be rejected if he went as a Sutaputra.
Parashurama teaches Karna everything there is to know, but just as the tenure is coming to an end, the sage comes to know of Karna’s secret and curses him for the sin of lying to his preceptor.
(Related Article: Why was Karna cursed?)
Parashurama says, ‘Just when you need the knowledge that you received from me the most, you will fail to remember it.’
Karna also earns similar curses on two other occasions: once when he inadvertently kills a Brahmin’s cow, and another time when he tries to squeeze some spilled ghee out of damp earth.
It is ironic that all these times, Karna does not set out to do anything wrong. Indeed, in the case of Parashurama especially, he displays remarkable restraint in the face of pain to allow his preceptor to sleep peacefully – only to be cursed.
These three curses come back to haunt him, finally resulting in his death at Arjuna’s hands. They are therefore – combined – the second reason for Karna’s suffering.
Karna is born with impenetrable armour covering every inch of his body. His skin is therefore unbreakable. He also has two earrings whose function is unknown, but together, these ‘kavacha-kundalas’ make him an invincible warrior.
Even with the misfortune of being abandoned at birth and of being cursed by his preceptor, Karna would easily have fulfilled all of his ambition if he were allowed to keep his kavacha-kundalas.
Put simply, as long as his kavacha-kundalas are with him, Karna can never be injured by any weapon. No warrior – no matter how powerful – will succeed in defeating him.
(Related Article: Why and when does Karna remove his armour?)
Knowing this, Indra dons the disguise of a Brahmin and approaches Karna. He asks for the kavacha-kundalas in alms. Despite knowing the true identity of his visitor, Karna stays true to his generous spirit and peels the armour off his skin.
Indra’s motivation behind this is to protect his son Arjuna. Of course, he gives the Vasava dart to Karna in return, but that is scant price to pay for the kavacha-kundalas.
This intervention by Indra is the third reason for Karna’s suffering.
Karna does not actively seek Duryodhana’s friendship or favour. He comes to the graduation ceremony of the Kuru princes with the intention of exhibiting his archery skills to the royal assemblage. His hope might have been that someone important from among the Kuru elders would spot and groom him.
But it so happens that none of the ‘good’ people at the ceremony give him any respect whatsoever. Arjuna and Bhima insult him. Kripa tells him that the occasion does not call for one so low-born to compete with a prince.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 8: Karna Arrives.)
The only person that stands up for Karna at this moment – whether for selfish or moral reasons; probably a bit of both – is Duryodhana. Not only does Duryodhana support him, but he also crowns him king of Anga right at that moment so that Karna becomes ‘important’ enough to challenge Arjuna.
Duryodhana’s friendship, therefore, falls into Karna’s lap without him ever wishing for it.
Once it does, though, Karna binds himself to it utterly. He chooses to remain forever beholden to Duryodhana no matter how unscrupulous his deeds are. He provides unconditional support to his friend and partakes in his hatred for the Pandavas.
This choice that he makes – to remain loyal to Duryodhana at all times – is the fourth reason for Karna’s suffering.
Before the start of the war, Krishna finds out (presumably from Kunti) about the secret behind Karna’s birth. He seeks a private audience with Karna and makes him an offer.
‘If you fight on the side of the Pandavas, O King of Anga,’ he says, ‘your five brothers will worship you like a father. They will make you king after the war is won. Draupadi will become your queen – and she will have sons with you. These sons will become kings of Indraprastha after you. The Kuru dynasty will continue through you and your progeny.’
On the surface, this looks like something that Karna had always wanted. But it is what the young Karna had wanted, the Karna who had come to the graduation ceremony looking for acceptance.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 35: Karna Rejects a Bribe.)
In the intervening thirty years or so, Karna has become king of great repute himself. The more he has seen the Kshatriya way of life, the less ashamed he has grown of being a Suta.
He has married a Suta girl, and he has raised his sons as Sutas. He is no longer interested in what Krishna has to offer. Besides, he has long ago taken a personal vow to remain by Duryodhana’s side always.
He therefore rejects Krishna’s bribe, and chooses to die a Sutaputra. This decision to reject Krishna’s offer is the fifth reason for Karna’s subsequent suffering.
Promise to Kunti
Despite all the above factors – even without the kavacha-kundalas, notwithstanding the damage done to him by Parashurama’s curse and by Krishna’s tactics – Karna would have been able to kill four of his brothers in the war.
And if he had been able to capture Yudhishthir and bring him back alive to Duryodhana, the war would have been over. He would have ended up on the winning side.
All this would have been possible – but for a promise he gives to Kunti.
Soon after he rejects Krishna’s offer to defect on Duryodhana, Karna receives a visit from Kunti. She tells him about the truth regarding his birth, and once again implores him to fight on the ‘right’ side.
Karna rejects her pleas, and reaffirms that Adiratha and Radha are his only parents. But he does give Kunti a promise, that he would not harm any of her sons other than Arjuna.
‘This way, my lady,’ he says, ‘regardless of whether it is I or Arjuna who dies in the war, you will still have five sons after it.’
This promise, we must remember, is unprovoked; Karna gives it on his own, of the generosity of his heart. True to his word, he spares all four of his younger brothers in the war after securing victories against each of them.
This is the sixth factor that contributes to Karna’s suffering.
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