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 does Karna hate Arjuna?
There are three reasons why Karna hates Arjuna: (1) Professional jealousy because Arjuna is a better archer and warrior, (2) Rivalry with respect to Draupadi, who rejects him and weds Arjuna, and (3) Loyalty to Duryodhana who wishes him to defeat and kill Arjuna at all costs.
Read on to discover more about the Karna’s feelings for Arjuna.
(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.)
- Karna Matches Arjuna
- Arjuna Surpasses Karna
- Rivalry over Draupadi?
- Loyalty toward Duryodhana
- Obsession with Arjuna
- Special Ability
- Further Reading
Karna Matches Arjuna
The rivalry between Karna and Arjuna begins when the former appears at the graduation ceremony of the Kurus and – without bothering to introduce himself – proceeds to repeat all of Arjuna’s prior feats successfully.
Karna’s appearance here is a surprise to everyone. Duryodhana and his brothers are just about to leave the stadium in disgust when he arrives unannounced. We can therefore conclude that it must have been Karna’s idea.
What did he hope to achieve by coming to the ceremony? He may have seen this as his ticket up the socioeconomic ladder. By now he has already trained under Parashurama and is a skilled archer. Now all he needs is a stage on which to prove himself.
The graduation ceremony offers him that platform. Once he arrives, though, how does he catch the eye and imagination of the spectators? What must he do to create an indelible impression?
He knows already that Arjuna is considered the most skilled of all the Kuru princes. He also knows that the ceremony will be used to showcase many of Arjuna’s tricks with bow and arrow. He will be the apple of everyone’s eye.
For Karna, therefore, what better way to steal the spotlight than proving himself a match for Dronacharya’s favourite disciple? They can’t help but notice him then.
His gambit works. He does get noticed – by Duryodhana. Where he may have been hoping for a job within Bhishma’s army at most, Duryodhana makes him king, no less. Karna’s life changes overnight. From a Sutaputra, he becomes king of Anga.
Arjuna Surpasses Karna
We must remember that Karna is around eighteen years old when this first encounter happens. (Arjuna is around fourteen.) They’re only just boys.
As they grow older and as time passes, Arjuna improves at a much faster rate than Karna. He is also blessed with more privilege: not only does he have the advantage of being immersed in palace atmosphere, he also is never encumbered by responsibilities such as earning a living or governing a kingdom.
Karna, on the other hand, lives as a poor man for the first eighteen years of his life. Then he becomes king of Anga. In both situations, he is burdened by life enough that he does not have the sufficient time and energy to keep up with Arjuna.
Also, Arjuna is favoured by the gods. During the burning of Khandava, Agni gives him two inexhaustible quivers and the Gandiva. During his exile, Shiva gives him the Pashupatastra. During his visit to Amaravati, the gods gift him several celestial gifts.
So in the thirty years or so that pass between the graduation ceremony and the beginning of the Kurukshetra war, Arjuna is by far the most powerful warrior in the world, whereas Karna is merely one of the atirathas.
Karna witnesses Arjuna’s power on four separate occasions:
- Soon after the graduation ceremony, Karna and Duryodhana fail to invade Panchala and capture Drupada. The Pandavas, though, succeed. Although here Arjuna has the support of Bhimasena, it is he who defeats Drupada and brings him back to Drona.
- Two years or so later, during Draupadi’s swayamvara, after Arjuna has won the princess of Panchala, he gets challenged by Karna. The battle is well-matched. But Karna withdraws from the duel claiming reluctance to hurt a Brahmin.
- During the Pandavas’ final year of exile, Karna flees from the battlefield against an army of Gandharvas whereas Arjuna and Bhimasena lead the Kuru army successfully against them.
- Around twenty six years later, Karna and Arjuna meet again on the battlefield at the end of the Virata Parva. This is Arjuna at the peak of his prowess. He lays waste to the entire Kuru army while fighting from a single chariot.
Karna must have noted in the first instance that his battle skills are not up to Arjuna’s standard. By the second occasion, he appears to have bridged the gap and given Arjuna a good fight in single combat.
But by the third and fourth incidents, it is obvious to anyone watching that Karna is no longer Arjuna’s equal. In fact, it is apparent that Arjuna is miles ahead of everyone – Bhishma, Drona and Ashwatthama included.
During these twenty six years, Karna may have improved himself, but Arjuna’s transformation from earthly to celestial warrior is so incredible that he leaves everyone behind.
This must have caused a pang of envy in Karna’s heart, seeing how the scales have tilted.
Rivalry over Draupadi?
Another aspect of Karna’s antagonism toward Arjuna concerns Draupadi. At the time of Draupadi’s swayamvara, Arjuna might have been eighteen or so and Karna twenty two.
Whether Karna enters Draupadi’s swayamvara of his own volition or whether he is instructed by Duryodhana to do so, we do not know. But we do know that when Draupadi publicly rejects him (‘I do not wish to be wedded to a Sutaputra’) before he has had a chance to approach the podium, no one rises to his support – not even Duryodhana.
Which is suggestive of the notion that Draupadi was probably within her rights to say what she did.
However, after rejecting him, she does not raise a murmur of protest when an unknown Brahmin (Arjuna in disguise, but she doesn’t know that) comes up to the bow to try his luck.
It later emerges that it was indeed Arjuna who won Draupadi. When Karna comes to know of it, he must have once again burned with envy – because once again he had been prevented from competing fairly with his arch rival.
This incident would have left him feeling black in his heart both for Arjuna and for Draupadi.
Loyalty toward Duryodhana
The biggest factor behind Karna’s hatred for Arjuna, though, is that Duryodhana hates Arjuna. And as his humble subject, it is Karna’s duty to also hate him.
Duryodhana has one reason and one reason only for helping Karna during the graduation ceremony: and that is the hope that Karna will one day help him kill Arjuna and therefore cripple the Pandavas fatally.
Duryodhana views himself as a reasonable foil for Bhima, but for Arjuna he has no answer – until Karna appears. The eagerness with which he embraces Karna betrays his desperation to strike up a friendship with the new entrant.
None of this is said out loud, but Karna realizes it. He also understands that what exists between him and Duryodhana is not friendship. As a Sutaputra, he knows that true friendship cannot exist between a benefactor and his ward.
The benefactor may sometimes call it friendship to be kind, but the ward must never forget his place. Throughout the story, Karna therefore behaves as if he is Duryodhana’s slave or servant.
Bhishma once berates Karna that he is not Duryodhana’s friend, that a true friend would correct the princes’ wicked ways and guide him toward good.
Karna does not reply to the accusation, but if he did he would say that he is Duryodhana’s follower, his subject, his supporter – and in those capacities he does not have the right to correct his master. If Duryodhana says jump, Karna sees it as his duty to ask, ‘How high?’
Obsession with Arjuna
The more often Karna fights with Arjuna without success, or Arjuna demonstrates his far superior skill against an opponent, Karna’s obsession with defeating Arjuna intensifies.
Each time Arjuna shows up Karna, Karna bristles because he knows that Duryodhana is watching too, and taking note of his ‘friend’ not living up to his expectation.
By the time the Kurukshetra war approaches, Karna’s repeated claims about ‘certainly killing Arjuna’ are almost laughably pitiful. Indeed, Bhishma’s main complaint against Karna is that for all his talk, he has failed repeatedly against Arjuna – either directly or in a shared arena.
But what may not have struck Bhishma is the possibility that the losses have caused Karna to overcompensate with words. The more he loses, the more it becomes apparent to him that he is no longer equal to Arjuna, the more he feels the need to be loud-mouthed.
Having said all this, there is some substance to Karna’s bravado with respect to Arjuna: he has the Vasava dart in his possession with which he can certainly kill Arjuna.
For this to happen, though, he must: (a) Isolate Arjuna in single combat, (b) gain enough of an ascendancy to have the time required to summon the Vasava dart, and (c) have the presence of mind to use it.
He can also hurl the weapon at Arjuna when the latter is fighting someone else, but someone of Karna’s love for righteousness would not do that.
It is this ability that Karna possesses that makes him Arjuna’s primary threat during the Mahabharata war. The Vasava dart is the only weapon that Arjuna cannot counter. Everything that Drona and Bhishma can throw at him, Arjuna can manage just fine.
With this being the case, why don’t the Kauravas formulate a strategy with Karna as their central piece? Why don’t they construct arrays specifically designed to bring Karna face to face with Arjuna as often as possible?
As it turns out, they do. The Kauravas go to bed every night of the war thinking of this very thing, but come the next morning, they forget about it thanks to Krishna fogging their minds.
Therefore, in a strange way, Karna is justified in claiming that he is the only one with the ability to kill Arjuna.
There you have it. Now you know the different reasons behind Karna’s hatred of Arjuna.
- Karna begins his journey by matching Arjuna’s skill with bow and arrow at the graduation ceremony. Everyone in the world then sees them as ‘equals’.
- But as time passes, Arjuna improves beyond recognition through a combination of deliberate practice, experience and blessings from gods. Karna’s improvement is less remarkable.
- Karna also loses to Arjuna on several occasions. He also fails at certain quests which Arjuna completes effortlessly immediately afterward.
- All this makes Karna envious of Arjuna. Karna also resents Draupadi for having rejected him publicly during her swayamvara. And he resents Arjuna for having won her ‘unfairly’ – because he won only by disallowing Karna from competing.
- Karna’s loyalty to Duryodhana is by far the biggest factor causing him to hate Arjuna. Because he sees himself as Duryodhana’s slave and subject, he sees as his duty to hate whomever Duryodhana hates.
- As Karna’s defeats to Arjuna become more and more frequent, his hatred becomes more and more obsessive.
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered