Why does Karna Refuse to Leave Duryodhana?

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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 refuse to leave Duryodhana?

In an attempt to make Karna fight on the Pandava side, Krishna offers him the throne of Indraprastha if he leaves Duryodhana. But Karna refuses. ‘Duryodhana gave me everything when I had nothing,’ he says. ‘Now that he wants me by his side, I cannot forsake him out of greed for more wealth.’  

(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.)

Krishna’s Offer

The context surrounding Karna’s decision is this: Krishna has just attempted in vain to broker peace between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. He is just about to leave Hastinapur, return to Upaplavya, and tell Yudhishthir to prepare for war.

Just before he leaves, though, he meets with Kunti – who has been living at Vidura’s house for the thirteen years her sons have been away. Kunti reveals to Krishna the secret regarding Karna.

Krishna then decides that Karna should know this piece of information, that he should make the decision of which side to fight on after he knows the truth.

(Of course, Krishna is also hoping that by turning Karna over, he will be protecting Arjuna’s life and making the Pandavas’ job in the war much easier.)

So he seeks a private audience with Karna on outskirts of Hastinapur. He tells Karna the truth about who he is. He invites Karna to fight at the side of his younger brothers. ‘The Pandavas will serve you as slaves, O Vasusena,’ he says. ‘After the war is won, you will be king of Indraprastha, and Draupadi will be your queen.’

What does Krishna’s promise mean?

If we place ourselves in Karna’s shoes for a second, we might consider the implications of Krishna’s promise.

For your entire life, you have desperately sought to discover your true identity. You know you were adopted. You know you were abandoned at birth. You were repeatedly ridiculed as a Sutaputra, but you know you’re not one. You’ve longed to be a Kshatriya; in your heart, you’ve always known that you are one.

Now, with one word, Krishna is offering to make you not just any Kshatriya, but the foremost of all Kshatriyas. As the eldest of the Pandavas, you will become the emperor of the earth. Your sons by Draupadi will become kings after you. Your name will become immortal as one of the great Kuru kings.

You’re being promised a family – a mother, brothers, a wife, future sons – and you’re being promised all the wealth, power and status in the world.

Fate snatched from you everything you deserved. Now it is giving it all back.

All you need to do is forsake Duryodhana and reunite with your real family. You’re a Pandava. A Kshatriya. Your place is not by Duryodhana’s side. It is at the head of the Panchala army, surrounded by your five powerful brothers.

Ethical Considerations

For a moment, let us consider that Karna does say yes to this, and goes to fight on the side of the Pandavas.

Will the world see him as an opportunist? Will it consider him ungrateful to Duryodhana and therefore immoral? Karna seems to think so. He says to Krishna, ‘Duryodhana has allowed me to be a king and rule over Anga while not moving beyond the confines of the Suta tribe. He gave me everything when I had nothing. Now in his time of need, if I forsake him, what will the world say?’

What Karna calls the ‘world’ might not have had the same moral compass that Karna imagines. Yuyutsu, for instance, forsakes Duryodhana and switches over to the Pandava side just before the war. He does not attract any censure at all.

Also, the ‘world’ has already passed judgement on Duryodhana as ‘bad’ and the Pandavas as ‘good’. Indeed, whichever side Krishna fights on, we’re told, is the ‘good’ side.

So if anything, Karna would have been lauded for having finally found his conscience, and for having finally mustered the ‘courage’ to abandon the wicked Duryodhana.

Karna’s Conscience

In making his decision to reject Krishna’s offer, therefore, Karna is not only resisting his own temptations, but also the fact that in the eyes of the world, forsaking Duryodhana is the moral choice.

It is only his own moral code that is telling him to stay with Duryodhana. And it goes against every piece of advice that he has received on the subject.

He has heard celestials and elders and sages denounce Duryodhana as wicked and unethical. He knows that Duryodhana is bound to lose the war. He realizes that the world would not see it as wrong at all if he switched sides right now.

And he would finally win the ultimate victory over Arjuna – who will serve him as younger brother – and Draupadi – who will consent to have children with him.

Despite all this, he is unable to accept the trade. Only because Karna’s conscience does not allow it.

Personal Dharma

The Mahabharata often cites the ways of Dharma as subtle and ever-changing. It also introduces us to the difference between absolute Dharma and personal Dharma.

According to the tenets of absolute Dharma, Duryodhana is in the wrong. Krishna alludes to this when he says, ‘I have come to Earth to establish Dharma on firm footing again.’ He is stating that the war of Kurukshetra is between the forces of good and evil. The Pandavas are ‘good’, the Kauravas are ‘evil’.

However, each person making up the story believes that he is in the right, because applies his own personal rules of ethics to a given situation. For instance:

  • Bhishma believes it is ‘right’ to prefer the younger Pandu over the older Dhritarashtra just because the latter is blind. Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana believe that this is ‘wrong’.
  • Kunti believes it is ‘right’ for an unwed maiden to abandon her unwanted child. Karna believes that it is ‘wrong’.
  • Ashwatthama believes that it is ‘wrong’ of Dhrishtadyumna to behead Drona when he was meditating. Dhrishtadyumna believes that it is ‘right’.
  • And so on.

Similarly, Karna exercises his personal Dharma when Krishna presents him with a choice. Duryodhana is wicked in an absolute sense. Karna acknowledges this. In the coming war, the Pandavas are going to win. Karna acknowledges this. The throne of Indraprastha and Hastinapur are going to be ruled by the eldest surviving son of Pandu. Karna acknowledges this.

And yet, he does not believe that it is personally permissible for him to forsake Duryodhana in time of his need. No matter how bad Duryodhana is to the world at large, and to the Pandavas in particular, he has been a benefactor to Karna. And Karna will never let that debt remain unpaid.

One Final Reason

One other reason that Karna refuses Krishna’s offer is because it compels Karna to disown not just Duryodhana but also his entire adopted identity as a Sutaputra.

Consider this: at the beginning, Karna is depicted as being uncomfortable with being called a charioteer’s son. Even at Draupadi’s swayamvara, he looks around the hall and sighs when Draupadi insults him.

But between that incident and the start of the Kurukshetra war, thirty years pass. During this time, Karna becomes king of Anga, and he embraces his identity as a Sutaputra. He lives with Adiratha and Radha, his adoptive parents. He marries a woman that Adiratha finds for him. He has sons who are raised as Sutas.

By the time the Kurukshetra war is about the begin, Karna is in a contented frame of mind, at peace with his dual role as a member of the Suta tribe and as king of Anga. In both roles he has found fulfilment. He has succeeded in marrying his adoptive community with his ambition of being a Kshatriya.

Now, if he says yes to Krishna, if he switches sides and fights on the Pandavas’ side, what will happen to this little world he has built for himself?

  • He will have to renounce the Suta tribe – which has accepted him as his own all these years, and in which he has earned a reputable position.
  • He will have to give up the throne of Anga – whose people have come to love him as their king.
  • He will have to relegate Adiratha and Radha to secondary status below Kunti.
  • His wife will take a lower position in the hierarchy to Draupadi.
  • His children will also be considered low-born compared to the children he will have with Draupadi.

What all of this means essentially is that he will have to forsake his entire adoptive family, community and life. He will have to give up people who love him for who he is – Radha, Adiratha, his sons, his wife, his subjects – in favour of people who have always hated him and will now only grudgingly accept him as one of their own.

That is why Karna tells Krishna, ‘I was born a Sutaputra. I will die a Sutaputra.’

And that is why he rejects Krishna’s offer to leave Duryodhana’s side at the beginning of the Kurukshetra war.

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