Karna is one of the central characters of Mahabharata.
Karna is known as one of the strong warriors of Mahabharata, and as having qualities like generosity, standing by his promise, being loyal to his master. He is also known as competing, envious and unrighteous, one of the primary inspirations for the Mahabharata war and an ally of Duryodhana in most of the connivances against the Pandavas.
As a representative of negative tendency, Karna is usually contrasted against Arjuna, a role model and positive character of Mahabharata.
By Surya Devata’s grace, Karna was born with natural armor and golden earrings. Born to Surya Devata and Kunti as her pre-marital child, Karna was abandoned by Pritha and grew up as the God-given son of Adiratha (the official charioteer of Hastinapura’s royal family) and Radha.
Karna was trained by Drona. Karna mastered Sastra Vidya, and learns astra Vidya to some extent. He exhibits his archery and astra Vidya along with the Kuru princes on the day of demonstration of their learning.
He seeks a duel against Arjuna after exhibiting his skill, and is questioned about his birth and lineage (only one from a royal family can participate in a duel encounter with another prince). Duryodhana appoints him the king of Anga, and declares him an eligible Kshatriya. Karna was loyal to the Kuru prince Duryodhana throughout his life.
Karna approaches Drona for the brahmastra, but because of his envious nature and competing tendency against Arjuna, Drona judges him as unfit for brahmastra. Then he approaches Parasurama, lies to Parasurama that he is a Brahmin, and learns brahmastra along with many astra vidyas. But when Parasurama realizes that Karna lied to him, he curses Karna that the brahmastra will not be useful for him when fighting his most important battle.
Karna was a devotee of Surya Deva, and has the principle to give as alms anything sought from him after his worship to Surya Devata every day.
Karna’s sense of competition against Arjuna and Duryodhana’s enmity against Pandavas made them natural allies, and Karna was with Duryodhana in all his major connivances against the Pandavas. Burning of Laksha griha, deception in the game of dice, snatching the Pandava Empire, insulting Pandavas and Draupadi, ghosha yatra, gograhana, were all planned by Duryodhana, Karna and Sakuni.
After the Pandavas lost the game of dice and exiled into the forests, Karna was instrumental in expanding the Kuru kingdom and subordinating many provinces to the Kuru Empire.
The Pandavas complete their exile and send a messenger to the Kuru king to return their kingdom back. While Bhishma and Kripa advise the king to return the rightful part of kingdom to Pandavas, Karna and Duryodhana reject the idea, and prefer to go to the war. Dhritarasthtra, forced by Duryodhana refuses to give back the Pandavas their rightly owned kingdom. Sri Krishna is sent by the Pandavas again, asking for at least five villages so that they can avoid a war to get back their kingdom. This is again refused by the Duryodhana side, and it is decided that they go for a war.
Before the war, Indra approaches Karna disguised as a Brahmin seeking alms, and asks for his natural armor. Karna knows the approaching to be Indra Devata Himself, as he was told by Surya Devata before hand of Indra’s coming. However, sticking to his principle of giving away anything that is asked for, Karna does not go back and gives away his armor to Indra. Pleased with Karna’s steadfastness on his principle in the face of threat to his life, Indra gives Karna the weapon inspired with His power. The Indra Sakti can be applied once and can kill any opponent.
Kunti approaches Karna and tells him that she is his mother, and lets him know of her worry about losing her sons in either case of Karna’s or Pandavas’ loss. Karna assures Kunti that he will not kill the Pandavas except Arjuna.
When the war is inevitable, Bhishma along with his front line warriors decides to evolve the war strategy. He lists out the qualities of atirathi, maharathi and an artharathi, and evaluates Karna to be an artharathi. Unhappy with this, Karna vows not to enter the war as long as Bhishma fights on the field. Bhishma falls on the 10th day of the war, and Karna fights from 11th to 16th day of the war.
Karna kills Ghatotkaca on the 14th day and participates in the murder of Abhimanyu on the 13th day. Karna defeats all the four Pandavas once each, except Arjuna. However he leaves them alive, recalling his promise to Kunti. He faces defeats from Satyiki, Abhimanyu, Bhimasena and Arjuna.
On the 16th day of war while fighting Arjuna, Karna loses mobility as his chariot gets stuck in the mud. He gets down the chariot, and appeals to Arjuna for time to recover his chariot, but Sri Krishna reminds Karna of his various unrighteous deeds and killing of Abhimanyu and questions him of his eligibility to ask for a righteous war with himself. Karna is killed by Arjuna.
Qualities of Karna
Some of the qualities of Karna:
1. Valor A true kshatriya should have several qualities including valor and perseverance. Karna had the quality of retreating from the battle when the enemy proves stronger. This is what made him show low in front of great Kurus like Bhimasena and Arjuna. His curses combined with this quality were the reasons Bhishma categorized him as Artha rathi and not as a Maha rathi.
Some of Karna’s losses as a warrior, in the MBH:
a) Karna was taught by Drona with the permission of Kuru rulers. When Drona asked for Guru dakshina, which is to arrest Drupada, Karna was there with Duryodhana and the entire army. They lost to Drupada, could not stand his army and came back showing their backs to Drupada. Immediately after this, just the five Pandavas went, without army, defeated and arrested Drupada, presented him in front of Drona as their Guru dakshina. (* need reference) b) Arjuna and Karna competed during the exhibition of their learning. There is no result. c) After Draupadi swayamvara, Karna challenges Arjuna not knowing him to be Arjuna (since Arjuna is disguised as a Brahmin). When Arjuna proves stronger, Karna stops and leaves. d) Ghosha yatra: The Gandharva Citrasena attacked the Kaurava army, Karna ran away from him, unable to stand him. And Citrasena arrested Duryodhana and Arjuna-Bhima released Duryodhana upon Yudhistira's instruction. Citrasena (is the same as Angara Parna, who was defeated by Arjuna in Adi parva, and is a friend of Arjuna). e) Gograhana: Arjuna alone, vanquished the entire Kaurava army - with Aswatthama, Drona, Bhishma, Kripa, Duryodhana and Karna. Karna loses to Arjuna and leaves the field.
Karna’s losses in the Great Mahabharata War: f) Abhimanyu defeated Karna on the 13th day g) Satyiki defeated Karna on the 14th day h) On 14th day, Bhimasena defeats Karna repeatedly (with archery alone), while killing one fourth of Duryodhana’s brothers simultaneously. Karna proves completely ineffective. When Bhima got out of his car with his mace, too close to Karna, he had one option to break the car and Karna - he did not because Arjuna had taken oath to kill Karna. It is at this point, that Karna puts his bow around Bhima's neck and insults him. Then Arjuna defeats Karna, takes Bhima on his chariot, and rebukes Karna for behaving cheaply. While Bhima defeated Karna so many times, he does not insult Karna. But the one chance Karna gets, he badmouths Bhimasena. i) Again, the day Karna is killed - Bhima fights Karna, and Karna faints. When Bhima, out of anger, tries to cut his tongue off - Salya saves Karna by asking Bhima to leave him and go away. j) Karna loses to Arjuna in every encounter, and Arjuna is called Vijaya- he has not been defeated anytime. On the 16th day Karna gets moments of Advantage against Arjuna, but never stands to win.
Following valor, the next quality Karna is known about, is his friendship.
There are three grades of friendship - 1. Out of mutual affection, 2. Out of common cause, 3. Out of common enmity. These are uttama, madhyama and adhama kinds.There are two contrasting pairs of friends in Mahabharata. Krishna-Arjuna is the first kind, and Karna-Duryodhana is the last kind. Krishna and Arjuna held each other's side for their affection, for their commitment to dharma.Karna and Duryodhana stuck to each other, out of strategic enmity. Karna to vanquish Arjuna, and Duryodhana to vanquish Pandavas with Karna's help.
Next, friendship, as it is defined, a good friend is one who guides us in the right path, makes us do things for our well-being. While we see Krishna always guiding Arjuna on the right path, Karna always guided Duryodhana on the wrong. He not only persuaded Duryodhana not to do wrong things, but in fact he was the architect of most unrighteous deeds of Duryodhana - burning the palace of lac, insulting Draupadi, killing Abhimanyu through deceit, what not.
Not only, that, but the false kind of confidence Karna gave to Duryodhana about his own skill and boasting of vanquishing Pandavas, was the inspiration for Duryodhana to go into the war, eliminate his clan and cause a huge human loss.
A friend is one who stands by us in times of difficulty. While Karna, in most of the occasions, has let Duryodhana down in the middle of the war. In Ghosha yatra when Citrasena attacked their army, Karna, instead of trying to rescue Duryodhana, saves his life and leaves the battle. He did the same in Gograhana when Arjuna was slaying their armies. Karna left Duryodhana to his fate and fled.
So not only from valor perspective, but even as a good friend, Karna failed Duryodhana.
3. Dharma Nistha Karna was among the most Adharmic characters of Mahabharata. We say someone is Dharmic, if the purpose of his actions is Dharma, and when it is not arbitrary, but consistent. When we talk of a person, it is good to list out what his dharma is, and then evaluate how much he stood for it. So in case of Karna, these are the applicable ones:
a) Raja Dharma: Karna is appointed the king of Anga, and became a king. Karna, as a samanta of Duryodhana, executed his duties well. Though there is no special mention or praise for his ruler ship, that is one thing he smoothly conducted. b) Kshatriya Dharma: a. A Kshatriya is not supposed to accept any favor from anyone. This is demonstrated by many kings, including Pandavas. Rama was offered the heavenly worlds by the Rishis when he visits them during vana vasa, but Rama replies that being a Kshatriya he should not accept, but will earn those himself. Hariscandra, was offered help when in trouble, so that he could be bailed out. He too, refuses help as he is a Kshatriya.However, the beginning of Karna's career includes taking such favors - he does not win but gets Anga Rajya as a favor. Also, he, along with Duryodhana's team, fails in giving Gurudakshina to Drona. b. A Kshatriya is not supposed to run away from the war, even if it means death. Karna not only arbitrarily runs, but has the habit of running from the field. He ran away in the following occasions: i. When the Gandharva Citrasena fights them during Ghosha yatra ii. During Gograhana, unable to withstand Arjuna iii. In the war, he runs multiple times in the few days he fights - from Bhima, Arjuna, Satyiki, Abhimanyu
c) Mitra dharma: i. A friend's duty is to guide, as a well wisher, and make the friend do what is good for him. Sreya (one that gets good) and Preya (what we want) are two things and it is the responsibility of a friend to do both, and when there is a contention, choose sreya. Karna chose to tell preya to Duryodhana, even if it meant destruction, thus being a bad friend. He guided Duryodhana on the path of unrighteousness. ii. A friend should be with us, in times of need. Karna did fight the war on Duryodhana's side, like others - Aswatthama, Drona, Kripa, Bhishma, Vikarna who knew Dharma was on the other side but it was their Dharma to fight on Duryodhana's side. But unlike those, Karna left Duryodhana many times in the field to be arrested: 1. Ghosha Yatra 2. Gograhana 3. Duryodhana was defeated multiple times in the war, by Yudhistira, Arjuna, Nakula. It was in front of Karna's eyes, that Duryodhana's brothers were killed by Bhima. Karna's valor not only proved useless in stopping Bhima, but in turn it was Duryodhana who sacrificed his brothers to save Karna.
d) Vyakti Dharma: A Dharmic person is supposed to act dispassionately, according to Dharma. His actions should be based on dharma and not on preferences. Whereas Karna's actions, most of the times, are driven by strong negative tendencies:
a. Jealousy for Arjuna was one motivator for his life. During vidyabhyasa, when the princes were to display their martial arts, Arjuna did, so as Bhima and other princes. Karna asked for a chance and he was immediately given chance by Drona to exhibit his skill. But he did not stop there, he wanted to fight Arjuna. It was then that he was insulted and consequently given Angarajya. The same was the reason he approached Drona for Brahmastra. Drona refuses, since his motive is based on enmity and not loka kalyana. Then he approaches Parasurama for the same and lies to him that he is a brahmana. Parasurama, being noble, curses Karna only to the extent that he gave instruction and not for entire astra vidya of Karna. Even here, it is clear that Karna put his enmity above Dharma.
Very few know that Karna had a sense of competition with Arjuna even in dana guna. There is a story where a brahmin goes to Arjuna while it was raining, and asks for wood. Arjuna says he cannot give. Then he goes to Karna and says he needs wood for cooking. Karna asks him if he went to Arjuna, is pleased by the reply, and then gives him the wood from his own house - by breaking a pillar of his palace.
The technical aspect in dana guna is that it should be done purely as a matter of principle and not for any return. The moment there is a return, then it does not remain dana. And Karna giving his natural armor to Indra is such. Karna's desire in doing dana is to get the power to slay Arjuna. And the moment he gives his armor to Indra, Indra gives him the Sakti which is capable of slaying anyone. There, that very moment, Karna's offering is returned with something that is capable of fulfilling his desire. He used it to save his life from Ghatotkaca later, but that is a different thing. (That again proves that power cannot do anything when you are not on the side of Dharma.)
Contrasting this with Arjuna, his virtue was purely a virtue, and not a rule or contract. When a brahmin approaches him to save his cattle, he goes, knowing that he has to pass through and disturb Yudhistira's privacy if he has to take his weapons. The arrangement was that he had to do vanavasa if he did that. But Arjuna being noble, saves the brahmin's cattle, then goes to vanavasa. (Of course, he gets more astras, marries Subhadra and gets benefited in many ways. And this proves that if you are by Dharma your wellbeing is ensured.)
It is the same jealousy for Arjuna, that makes Karna insult Draupadi. It is the same jealousy, that makes him conspire Laksha griha, engineer the murder of Abhimanyu and many other unrighteous deeds. A person, however knowledgeable he may be, will turn into a wretch if he surrenders to qualities like envy - and entire life of Karna stands for it.
b. Karna lacks the dignity of a king. He bad mouthed those revered like Bhishma and Drona, in multiple occasions - Gograhana, during Krishna's rayabara, before the treacherous game of dice and before the war begins. The reasons:
i. they praise Arjuna ii. they want to do good to Duryodhana and prevent him from inviting his death iii. they adjudged Karna's valor, with a balancesheet based on his capabilities and weaknesses
e) Karna's death: He was killed when he was standing without a weapon, and that was the inspiration of Krishna to punish Karna for what he did. Technically, a person who has Brahmastra and Pasupata cannot be defeated and Arjuna, along with Bhima, was ajeya, who cannot be slain. They were the only ones in entire Dwapara Yuga who could not be defeated. So it was out of question that Karna could defeat Arjuna. And with Pasupata or Brahmastra or any other Divya astra, Arjuna could have easily slain Karna any moment he wanted.
(But Arjuna was principled to the hilt - he did not use those astras because they should not be used for selfish reasons, and against an enemy who is weaker. While Karna tried to gain and use those purely for selfish reasons, that too negative. Also by Astra vidya or tapas Karna was much inferior to Arjuna who was none but Nara maha rishi taking another life to continue his tapas. For both the reasons, Arjuna did not use those astras. He uses Brahma siro namaka, against Aswatthama, that too as a response to his astra. And he takes it back when Rishis ask him to. While Aswatthama still does not, and directs it on Uttara's womb. Even at his own loss, Arjuna heeds to elders' words, withdraws instead of using his astras.)
Instead of killing Karna in an encounter, killing him when he was helpless was to teach him that he did similar things which were wrong.
Overall, a discussion of Karna as a hero happens in the context of the lower side of human character and not in the context of its higher side. For instance, one could say Karna did not desert Duryodhana in the war and he could have, so he is great. But one cannot say he is a great friend, because he did not do what a great friend should do – to prescribe what is in welfare of the friend or what the friend should do to be righteous and virtuous. One could say he did a great “dana” but one could not say he is selfless in doing so. One could say he is a great warrior, but not that he is a great kshatriya. Therefore Karna is always compared to what worst a human can do, and marked better than that. But he is not compared to what best a human can do, because he falls much short of that.