Karna, a tragic Anti-Hero???

Karna is one of the most misperceived characters from the epic Mahabharata. He’s made into some “good guy in wrong team”, a tragic victim of casteism, a noble warrior and what not, but the nuances of Mahabharata show a different story.

Casteism/Nepotism

Neither Drona nor Draupadi had rejected him. Karna trained under both Kripacharya & Dronacharya alongwith other princes. Karna being a student of Drona is explicitly mentioned at multiple instances in the epic. Drona only denied him the knowledge of BrahmaAstra, because Drona didn’t deem him worthy enough considering his wicked & envious nature, stating only those who have observed certain penances are qualified for it. Refused by Drona, Karna then went to Parashuram imposing as a “Bhargava”, resorting to Nepotism himself. The lie he told Parashuram was not just being a brahmin, but a Bhargava, as Parashuram was a Bhargava himself, so he could gain Parashurama’s trust easily. Parashuram had no caste restriction for teaching whatsoever, he had mentored various folks from different races. This whole ‘only brahmin student’ thing is outrightly bogus.

In the original Mahabharata, Karna simply failed to complete task for Draupadi’s Marriage, which is mentioned at multiple places in that entire narration, whereas Draupadi’s rejection is nowhere mentioned in most of the recensions.

Charity

Karna’s so-called philanthropy is not emphasized even a fraction, in the Mahabharata, of what its popularly believed, with the term “Danavira” nowhere to be found in the Mahabharata. Karna was by no means a selfless willing donor. In the much-hyped “Kavacha-donation” incident, he first tried to bribe Indra, negotiating by offering anything else but the Kavacha, but finally made the deal in exchange of Indra’s Vasavi dart. His “charity” streak began when he took the vow of not refusing anything to anyone if he gets asked for it, until he defeats Arjuna. Prior to that, there is nothing about his charity mentioned. So it was not a selfless action, it was motivated by his envy for Arjuna. Much of his actions his entire life were centered around his jealousy for Arjuna only.

Friendship

Karna was anything but a loyal & true friend. Karna and Duryodhana had become friends in Drona’s gurukul during childhood only. The foundational basis of their friendship was their mutual contempt for Pandavas, which is also quite explicitly mentioned at various instances in the Mahabharata, not some favor by Duryodhana. It was sort of an arrangement, rather than an organic friendship. Karna had on various occasions shown that for him his ego was primary than anything else, like when he remained sulking in his tent, refusing to fight under Bhishma, after he felt insulted by Bhishma’s scolding remarks, depriving Duryodhana of his aid in the 1st 10 days of war. Bhishma forbidding Karna to fight is purely a concoction of TV serials, in actuality it was Karna himself who refused. Another such instance comes when he promised Kunti of sparing Pandava brothers, except Arjuna, a thing she never even asked for at the first place. This was a complete betrayal of Duryodhana’s trust, and showed that Duryodhana’s friendship mattered nothing to him, but only his ego of proving himself better than Arjuna.

 Karna’s foster father was a royal of Anga, whose lineage is recorded in VishnuPurana & Harivamsa and mentioned to be a close friend of Dhritrashtra. Sutas were no low caste, but an elite class only, formed from exogamy between Brahmins & Kshatriyas, coming below only to them in the Social hierarchy. Sutas held many powerful influential positions in the Polity & society of those times, with some kingdoms ruled completely by them as well. All those lores about some underprivileged childhood of Karna has no basis in the Mahabharata. He was raised as a prince of Anga, in a wealthy & loving family, mentioned to be having servants at their disposal as well.

Warriorship

Karna didn’t have a good warrior track record at all. He lost multiple battles, often even fled from the battlefield whenever he seemed to be losing and also resorted to unlawful warfare. He was defeated multiple times by Bhima, Satyaki, Abhimanyu, Pradyumna, etc. even in archery and also by Drupada & even the foot soldiers.

In the GhoshYatra incident, Karna ran for his life after losing miserably to Gandharvas, leaving Duryodhana to be captured, who was later rescued by Arjuna. It was after this incident Karna took the aforementioned vow.

Karna could never defeat Arjuna in combat. He didn’t die like its popularly believed. Krishna never suggested Arjuna to attack unarmed Karna. Karna, citing Dharma, requested Arjuna to allow him to pull his stuck chariot, Krishna turned down that request, counting all the evil deeds of Karna. The battle went on. Karna was distracted because he was fighting with Arjuna while trying to extract the chariot ultimately dying in the process.  Arjuna had defeated Karna on multiple previous occasions, each time sparing his life. He was far from an undefeated Warrior.

Moreover Karna was not at all a noble person. He was actively & willingly involved in every evil plot of Duryodhana against the Pandavas(poisoning Bhima, Lakshagriha, GhoshaYatra, dice game, attempt at capturing Krishna and everything else), even suggested some of them. It was him only who kept Duryodhana instigated against Pandavas all the time. He was the catalyst that fueled Duryodhana’s ego, a thing stated by Krishna himself. Krishna had no special adoration for Karna, he infact had repeatedly iterated that Karna was the root/trunk of all evils. Krishna also vowed to slay Karna himself, not just once. Karna was an ever-boasting person, often rude to elders & abused women(not just Draupadi). It was Karna only who ordered for the disrobing of Draupadi. Under his rule on Anga, state sanctioned slave trade was rampant, even married women and children were sold & bought like farm animals.

V.S. Suthankar who supervised the compilation of the Critical Edition of Mahabharata, describes the chief traits of Karna to be pride, arrogance and malignity…, in his journals on Mahabharata. He further rebutted all the modern and folkloric eulogies of Karna stating them to be completely missing out the nuances of the epic.

Almost all the lores eulogizing Karna as some pious being or a tragic hero, which includes almost the entire character arc of Karna shown in modern TV serials & much of that in older ones, and retelling fictions or derivative literature of the epic, have absolutely no basis in the Mahabharata. Unfortunately, I cannot address all of them, but the truth of Mahabharata is that he was an outright Villainous character, nothing else.

Source: Bibek Debroy Translation of BORI CE, KMG Translation, Geetapress Unabridged Mahabharata Translation, Harivamsa translation by D.H. Rao, VishnuPuran Translation by H.H. Wilson, “On the Meaning of Mahabharata” by V.S. Suthankar, “Interpolations in the Mahabharata” by M.A. Mehendale(BORI Annals).

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