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Friday, January 21, 2011

Was Karna a Noble Man?

Okay, away from real life for a bit and into philosophy...

(For those who don't know the story of Karna, I'll put as brief a summary as I can at the end of the post)

At study group last week we were reading about fate. We think of fate as something done to us, something we have no control over, but Advaita says that fate is the results of our own choices. We cannot effect the past, it is done, but when the past was the present the things we did created our fate. In the present we always have the choice of what to do and we can change our fate for the future. The message is, make good choices now for a happy future. It isn't quite that simple, but that's the basic idea.

There is a Sanskrit saying:
...For yesterday is but a memory
And tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived
makes every yesterday a memory
of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day....

So, with that in mind, how much choice was there in The Mahabharata? It is a great piece to look at for examining fate because it is all about how can you tell what needs to be done. Every action that happens has an element of fate from the past, but also a choice, and a fate, and a choice, and it keeps going back and back and back so you can't tell which came first.

When Karna finds out that he is the son of Kunti, he has the choice to join the Pandavas or to stay loyal to Duryodhana. He stays where he is and as a result of that choice, he is killed.

Do you think he should have made a different choice? Do you think that he could have? Did he know what he was sacrificing? Was it noble to be loyal to a friend, even when that friend was wrong?

The story:
I will make this as brief as I can, so forgive me if I leave out some details. The heroes of The Mahabharata are five brothers called the Pandava because their earthly father was Pandu, but in fact each was fathered by a different God and born to Kunti (and Madri, but I'm going to leave her out). Before Kunti married Pandu, she had used her "gift" to have a child with the sun God and his name was Karna. She was ashamed and abandoned him, he was raised by a chariot driver (a much lower class than what he should have been, as Kunti was a princess and later a queen).

Years later the Pandava brothers are in conflict with their cousins for the kingdom. It rightfully belongs to the Pandavas, although it's a little bit murky. On the side of the cousins, the Kaurava, is Duryodhana. He is selfish and power hungry and unable to see the greater good.

Karna arrives and challenges one of the Pandava brothers, Arjuna, to fight. Karna is rejected because he is a lower class and doesn't know who his real parents are. Duryodhana sweeps in and gives him a small kingdom in order to make him worthy to fight Arjuna. Karna and Duryhodhana become good friends and Karna swears loyalty to him, not knowing that Arjuna is actually his brother.

A war begins over the succession conflict. In the middle of it, Karna is told that he is the eldest Pandava and he could go and join their side and they would welcome him, but Duryodhana is the only one who has been kind to him, so he stays where he is.

He is killed in battle by Arjuna. (His death has some complicated issues also, which I might get into later).


  1. arna is my favorite character from Mahabharath, after Shri Krishna ofcourse.

    For Karna, the choice was not between hs brothers and his friends, but between good and bad. And he chose the latter. It was not an easy choice though. Duryodhan had helped him in his bad times so Karna always felt indebted to him. But Duryodhan did not help him selflessly. He gave a kingdom to Karna so tha he can use him against the Pandavas. Karna could not see this. He supported Duryodhan in all his evil doings. Compare Karna with Vibheeshana from Ramayana. Both had choices -- good or bad.

  2. I agree, Karna is one of my favorites too. I have a lot of sympathy for him, even though I think he made the wrong choice.

    You're right, Duryodhana's help was selfishly motivated, but Karna saw good in everyone. It almost seemed an accident that he ended up on the wrong side of the war. I think in the story that is shown to be the consequence of not knowing who you are.

    He chose to be loyal to the only person who had ever shown him kindness, even though it was badly motivated kindness and I feel like I can't blame him for that, it was noble to be loyal, and yet...

    The consequence of his choice was death and I think he knew that. I think he chose to be loyal, knowing that it would be his end.

  3. 1. the essence of geetha "do your karma without any expectation as the results are not in your hands"
    2. Yes Karna was a noble man who was in dharmasankata(complications of dharma, hard to choose from one another) During the war Krishna seeing the strength of kaurava army approaches Karna and breaks the news that he is the son of kunti and tries to bribe him to join pandavas

    Krishna: Pandavas will accept you as your elder brother and you will be made the emperor and what good is it fighting your own brothers and killing them

    Karna: When nobody accepted me in the society Duryodhana accepted me as his friend and gave me a kingdom so I could be among Royals and be treated as equal in the society, how could I betray him when he needs me the most? It is my dharma to stand by my friend weather it is right or wrong

    Krishna: Duryodhana gave you his kingdom because he saw your ability to challenge Arjuna and defeat him, he didnt offer you his friendship but he bought you for a price

    Karna: If he bought me for a price, I was the one who sold myself, hence it is my dharma to stand by him regardless of right and wrong.

    Karna loses the battle and dies because:

    1. kunti tricks him into promising that he will not kill any pandavas apart from Arjuna and also takes his word that he would not use the same weapon twice.
    2. He has a curse from his guru that he will loose all his knowledge of weapons when he needs them the most.
    3. God Indra disguises as a poor Brahman and takes his(Karna's) Body armour
    4. Krishna tricks him into loosing the battle with Arjuna.

    Karna is the most noble of all characters in Mahabharatha

    Sorry about the long post- Kamal

    1. Krishna new all this and he even had admitted that he gave great gita to Arjuna but Karna was unkwoningly following the gita.
      Karna was just doing his duties towards friend, mother, Lord Krishna, brothers and Fate...

  4. That last part is an example of what I was saying about the constant fate and choice behind every single thing. There are multitudes of reasons for each thing that happens!

    I want to talk at some point about Krishna using trickery, I think that's a very interesting part of the story.

    So, was Karna correct that it was his dharma? It feels as though if he had given in and gone over to the Pandava side, it would have weakened his character quite a lot.

  5. "I think in the story that is shown to be the consequence of not knowing who you are"

    I think the story is about prioritising your dharma for eg: Karna knew when Indra came in disguise of Brahman, but he stood by his oath of offering anything asked during prayer time and gave Indra his body armour. Because he chose the dharma of keeping is word above everything.

    In contrast when there was a fight between Bheema and duryodhana it was a rule of the fight not to hit in the groin area, but bheema hit duryodhana in the groin killing him, because krishna chose breaking the rule of the fight is far better than loosing the moral war.

  6. The point of keeping the character Karna in the epic is to say even if you are righteous and noble man when you stand by adharma or one who is doing adharma you will face consequences which are not right.

    The same goes to Kumbhakarna in Ramayana, he was righteous and he knew his brother Ravana had done wrong by kidnapping Sita, but he fought Lord Rama because he thought it was his dharma to fight for his brother and his mother country(because Lord Rama had attacked Lanka) Regardless of what is right or wrong.

    Regarding Krishna's trickery we will have to remember Lord Rama's quote when he killed Vali
    "An Adharmi cannot and should not expect his opponent to follow dharma in war" Because by following adharma he would have lost his right to ask for dharma

  7. Hi Aamba,

    your blog is very nice.
    I recommend you read" Mrityunjaya"a novel based on will love it

  8. @Kamal: I don't think Karna was the most noble character. He supported Draupadi's cheer haran (andmay other wrong things) -- I don't think loyalty to Duryodhan can be used as an excuse here.

    The one to whom most unjustice was done -- may be.

    Amba said ,"So, was Karna correct that it was his dharma?"

    Hmm, I don't think so. He saw Duryodhan as his friend. Duryodhan also respected him a lot. Probably more than Shakuni. He could have tried to convince him and go for a truce. He *chose* to blindly support him in all his evil intentions.

    As I said before, compare the case with Vibheeshan in Ramayana. Vibheeshan and Kumbhkarna, both were Raavan's brothers. Both knew he was doing wrong. Both tried to convince him but Raavan was stubborn. Vibheeshan then *chose* to support Ram and Kumbhkarna *chose* to support Raavan. Hence the different fates for both.

  9. Thank you for the recommendation, I will look for that.

    I think being righteous and following our dharma is not easy. It is not always easy to tell what our dharma is!

  10. @Sumit, Karna always regretted keeping quite during draupadi's cheer haran. There was a reason for him to keep quite, he was enraged by Draupadi's insults. First insult was when he went to swayamwar she refused to marry him saying he was of a lower caste without royal blood hence she wouldnt wed him. During Cheerharan Draupadi went to ask everyone in the court hall for help apart from Karna, this enraged him because he thought she is being stuck up and not asking his help because of his lower caste. Everybody make wrong decisions when they are angry.

    Karna did try to convince Duryodhana for truce, Karna always thought he was in debt of Duryodhana and he saw the only way to payback was by giving his life up.

    We also have to consider that Karna was not killed but he gave up. He was warned by Surya about not giving his body armour to Indra, but Karna did give it because he saw there was no way to upheld Dharma without being killed.

  11. Do you know originally Mahabharath was called "Jaya"
    i quote:
    "The original epic was called Jaya, then it was called Vijaya, then Bharata and finally Mahabharata. Jaya had about twenty five thousand verses while the final form had over one hundred thousand verses"
    "But if one strips out the excess fat, one realizes that the Mahabharata is not a preachy tale appealing for peace. It is a determined exploration of the root of conflict. Hence the original title Jaya, which means victory where there are no losers, contrasting it with Vijaya, which is victory where there is always a loser. We realize that the Pandavas achieve Vijaya in Kurukshetra but only Yudhishtira attains Jaya, much later, six chapters after the war ends."
    check :-
    PS- the dude has a book on this called "jaya" i havent read it but people say its refreshing and gives a new insight into Mahabharata. Makes a good point why the immortals have mortal imperfections.

  12. mahabharata is one of my favorite piece of literature.
    whatever comment i wanted to write over this post - kamal said it all.


    even krishna had to face the consequences of his adharmic acts. he was cursed more than ones for various "wrong" choices he made. he had a ignominious death , faced personal tragedy at the end of his times, watched helplessly his clan fighting and killing each other , women kidnapped etc.

    what i like most about mahabharata or indian mythology in general is even gods are "humans".

    interestingly (at least in my part of india) karna is seen as a noble character and bhibhisan is always associated with traitors.


  13. there is a famous bengali poem by tagore; where at the end karna says to kunti -

    " Mother, don’t be afraid.
    Let me predict: it’s the Pandavs who will win.
    On the panel of this night’s gloom I can clearly read
    before my eyes the dire results of war:
    legible in starlight. This quiet, unruffled hour
    from the infinite sky a music drifts to my ears:
    of effort without victory, sweat of work without hope –
    I can see the end, full of peace and emptiness.
    The side that is going to lose –
    please don’t ask me to desert that side.
    Let Pandu’s children win, and become kings,
    let me stay with the losers, those whose hopes will be dashed.
    The night of my birth you left me upon the earth:
    nameless, homeless. In the same way today
    be ruthless, Mother, and just abandon me:
    leave me to my defeat, infamous, lustreless.
    Only this blessing grant me before you leave:
    may greed for victory, for fame, or for a kingdom
    never deflect me from a hero’s path and salvation."

    the translation unfortunately is not as beautiful as the original.

  14. That poem is gorgeous, I can't imagine how beautiful it must be in the original. I love it.

    I mentioned Krishna suffering the consequences of his adharmic acts, but some in my study group didn't agree that was the cause of his later suffering.

  15. I did not know that saying was from sanskrit litt. Do you know the original Subhashitam in Sanskrit?