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 Krishna offer Draupadi to Karna?
As the Kurukshetra war is about to start, the only threat to Arjuna’s life comes from Karna’s Vasava dart. Therefore, in order to protect Arjuna’s life, Krishna attempts to lure Karna away from Duryodhana over to the Pandava side. He promises Karna the throne of Indraprastha and Draupadi as gifts if he fights alongside the Pandavas.
(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.)
When does Krishna know?
It is not clearly mentioned in the text exactly when Krishna comes to know the truth about Karna. Some readers maintain that Krishna – since he is a god – has always known about Karna and Kunti, but only chooses to reveal it at the last moment.
But I think it is more reasonable to assume that Krishna – like everyone else – is kept in the dark by Kunti. The secret remains hers alone, though it is later implied that Vyasa is also privy to it.
The first time that Krishna comes to know about Karna’s birth appears to be during his visit to Hastinapur in his capacity as peacemaker. He visits Vidura and has lengthy conversations about this and that with Kunti.
(Though Kunti does not reveal her secret to Krishna here ‘on screen’, the fact that Krishna immediately sets out to meet with Karna right afterward suggests that she may have done so.)
Let’s imagine this scenario from Krishna’s point of view for a second.
You’ve come to Hastinapur with the express intention of making peace between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. You have failed in the quest. (You’re not overly surprised by this; in fact, you’ve already predicted that you would.)
For a while now you’ve been wondering how to ensure that the Pandavas win this war with minimum damage. More than anything, you’re conscious of protecting Arjuna – because without him, Bhishma and Drona will run amuck and destroy the Panchala forces.
And the most fearsome threat Arjuna has in the battle is Karna.
Now, as you’re mulling these things over, just as you’re about to leave Hastinapur, you come to know that Karna is actually Kunti’s firstborn. Suddenly, you see a way of protecting Arjuna.
If Karna were to be told about this, you think, could he be persuaded to switch side and fight for his ‘real’ family? You will of course know that Karna is beholden to Duryodhana, so he will have to be given something in return.
Well, why not give him everything he has always deserved? If he had been Kunti’s son all along, would he not have been the first in line to the throne of Indraprastha? Indeed, would he not have been the official ‘husband’ of Draupadi?
So Krishna makes the offer to Karna – ostensibly in the interest of transparency, but in reality to remove Arjuna from danger.
It is important to note here that Krishna probably does not have any sympathetic feelings toward Karna at this point. He is not trying to do the fair thing by Karna, necessarily. His primary motive is to protect Arjuna. His secondary motive is to win the war. So he pulls out all the stops in his attempt to negotiate with Karna.
However, despite Krishna’s best offer, Karna refuses to leave Duryodhana’s side in his moment of need. He also refuses to leave the life he has built as king of Anga – a position he has now held for almost thirty years.
If Karna’s mouth waters at the thought of being offered Draupadi as queen, he does not show it. A younger Karna – the Karna who stood up to compete at Draupadi’s swayamvara – might have been tempted.
But now, Karna is around fifty years of age. He has experienced many of the world’s earthly pleasures. Draupadi is not as alluring to him as she might have once been.
Also, the position of king of Indraprastha is also not something that would have attracted Karna at this point, because he has already lived the life of a king for many years now. He knows what it is like.
And to give up all that he has – his adoptive parents, his wife, his sons, his kingdom – in order to join hands with people who have openly disliked him would be foolhardy.
So he says no. He will fight with Duryodhana to the bitter end.
Would Krishna have kept his promise?
One interesting question that crops up here is whether Krishna would have kept his promise had Karna accepted the bribe.
It is important to note here that Krishna makes this offer to Karna without ever consulting the Pandavas. Indeed, even if he believes that the Pandavas would willingly serve their elder brother, would Draupadi consent to get married – a sixth time – to a man she herself rejected at her swayamvara?
Would she willingly bear sons to the man who called her a prostitute and caused her to be disrobed in full view of a king’s assembly?
After her anger at being staked as a pawn in a dice game by Yudhishthir, would she demurely accept being offered as a prize by Krishna to Karna?
And what of Arjuna, who made a vow that he would kill Karna or consign himself to flames? Would he now make the difficult decision to kill himself because Karna has turned out to be his brother?
Even if we trust Krishna’s ability to build consensus in this matter, we must concede that it will be messy at best.
Which leads us to further question Krishna’s intentions. Did he, in fact, mean to keep his promise to Karna at all? Or was he just making an offer with the hope that Karna would accept, and then later see what is to be done if Karna survives the war?
Or did he make the promise with no intention of every keeping it? We know that Krishna is not above lying ‘for the right cause’. If he believes that lying to Karna is necessary to defeat Duryodhana, he will do it with no compunction.
Did Karna believe Krishna?
This raises an interesting question: Did Karna even believe that Krishna was making an earnest offer?
When your enemy calls you for a private meeting and makes you a scarcely believable promise predicated on you becoming a traitor to your lifelong benefactor, you probably will consider the whole thing a farce.
It is of course possible that Karna considers all of Krishna’s words here lies: his claim that Karna is Kunti’s son, his assurance that Karna will become king after the war, and his promise that Draupadi will become Karna’s wife and bear him sons.
All of this, Karna may have thought, is just Krishna trying his level best to get him to defect. None of these words are binding; after all, Krishna can orchestrate events such that he can deny the contract ever happened.
Also, what is to prevent Krishna and the Pandavas – after making full use of his services in the war – from killing him?
Seen in this light, Karna’s refusal is not just moral and right, but also prudent keeping in mind the reputation for treachery that Krishna has already built for himself.
Who is the underdog?
Notwithstanding what he says to Krishna, it is also possible that Karna believes Duryodhana’s side to be stronger in the war, almost certain to beat the Pandavas.
If this is true, the whole offer made by Krishna is laughable. Karna may have thought in his mind: the Pandavas are going to be killed in this battle. Draupadi will become Duryodhana’s slave. Why will I switch from a winning side to a losing side? The throne of Indraprastha will not be Yudhishthir’s to give once the war is over.
Note that these inner thoughts at not inconsistent with what he says to Krishna. Karna may still craftily make Krishna believe that he thinks the Pandavas are the stronger side, and that he is rejecting Krishna on moral grounds.
As the representative to the underdog, Krishna does not have believability on his side when he promises the world to Karna. All his machinations come across (to Karna) as attempts to steal the stronger side’s prime warrior.
We must note that Duryodhana also has the same attitude toward Krishna at this time. ‘With Drona, Bhishma, Karna, Shalya and the might of the Kuru army on our side, why should we negotiate?’ he asks. ‘You are the weaker side. You are certain to lose. You are in no position to make offers to anyone.’
Karna, one can reasonably surmise, is thinking the same when he rejects Krishna’s grand promises.
All in all, we can gather the following thoughts from this episode:
- Krishna offers Draupadi to Karna as prize if Karna switches sides and fights alongside the Pandavas against Duryodhana.
- It is not clear, however, if Krishna intends to keep this promise or indeed if he will be able to persuade the Pandavas and Draupadi to honour it.
- It is possible that Karna doubts Krishna’s intentions in this scene – after all, Krishna is Duryodhana’s mortal enemy, and any attempts at sweet-talk on his part must be met with extreme suspicion.
- Karna also would have taken Duryodhana’s stance on the matter: that the Pandavas are the weaker side in this battle, and are therefore trying to poach Karna by promising him the moon.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story
- 300+ Mahabharata Stories to Thrill, Delight and Enchant You
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered