Part 3: Karna
KARNA’S STORY IS MELANCHOLIC. Although he was immensely endowed with qualities that would ideally bring prestige, that pristine prestige never became his till the end. It is reasonable to say that the reason for this is not because of a defect he had but because of a lacuna. He had a certain magnanimity in his character. However, it was not commensurate with the caution that wisdom brings.
He was born owing due to a mantra-boon given by Bhagavan Surya. However, he was unable to find out his real father for a long time; and when he found out, was unable to disclose it to anyone. When he was mocked and humiliated for being the son of a Sūta (charioteer in this case; in general, low birth), he was unable to find a convincing counter to it and had to swallow the indignity.
He was generous by nature. However, in his enthusiasm for generosity, he failed to differentiate the deserving from the undeserving. This was his temperament: first give away what the seeker asked and then think about it or even worse, forget all about thinking.
His supreme quality was gratitude and loyalty to his benefactor. This is the reason he steadfastly stood in Duryodhana’s camp. Loyalty is surely a praiseworthy quality, right?
Just as how he lacked discernment in his generosity, he was also bereft of the ability to distinguish between Dharma and Adharma in his loyalty towards his benefactor. Karna never felt the need to tell Duryodhana: “this is good for you, this isn’t.” It was not as if Bhishma and Drona were wanting in loyalty towards the throne (of Hastinapur). However, they did not forget to give good counsel to Duryodhana. It is a different matter that he never heeded their counsel.
Good Intent: Encouragement to Adharma
The reason Karna did not give guidance to Duryodhana about Dharma and Adharma was because such distinction was absent within him. Thus, he constantly encouraged the improper conduct of Duryodhana.
Karna’s intent was good but its outcome culminated in evil.
This is the lacuna of Karna. Just like how Dhritarashtra and Gandhari’s blind filial love became a defect in them, Karna’s wisdom-bereft devotion towards his master too, became a defect.
Excess of Fealty to the Master
Both Karna and Arjuna were intensely loyal to their respective masters. Both were equal warriors. However, in his excessive zeal towards his benefactor, Karna’s vision became blind towards Dharma. However, in Arjuna, the selfsame excessive devotion towards his Master resulted in a fury—born out of sadness—over the possibility that he would have to kill his own people. His vision of Dharma was unsleeping.
While both were equally matched in all other respects, this was their only difference.
Duty of a Friend
Karna’s loyalty stemmed from his gratitude. He was not a traitor to his master. However, he did not enquire the real nature and substance of a friend’s duty. It was not a mistake on his part to stand firmly by Duryodhana and fight on his side. Even Bhishma, Drona and others worked to discharge the debt of the salt they had eaten. However, they all contemplated on Dharma and Adharma and repeatedly counselled Duryodhana to rectify his ways. But in the end, when they saw him persisting in his stupidity, they believed that this too, was Divine Sport and discharged their debt (by fighting in the Kurukshetra war). However, never once did Karna use his independent thinking, never once did he contemplate about Dharma and Adharma. Neither did he stimulate Duryodhana’s mind in that direction. On the contrary, he encouraged the worst tendencies of Duryodhana. However, if Karna, like Bhishma and Drona, had counselled and cautioned Duryodhana in ethics and morals, who knows what his decision would have been! Perhaps his intent to go to war would have dissipated. Be that as it may, Karna would have escaped the infamy of being directly responsible for helping the cause of Adharma.
The duty of a minister towards his king is not blind obedience but virtuous intent based on wisdom and reasoning. It is true that the King’s wishes must be fulfilled. But such wishes should first be examined: whether those are righteous in the first place and after informing the King about the results of this examination. Virtue is greater than wish. Karna only saw Duryodhana’s wishes and did not care about whether they would cause him virtue. This is dereliction of principles.
Neither is this dereliction rare in this world. We normally think about what is pleasing and not what is auspicious. The mother who shows such enthusiasm in giving delicacies and toys to her child does not show the commensurate enthusiasm in punishing it. Likewise, Karna showed the same zeal in thinking about his benefactor’s immediate pleasure than in his long-term well-being. This is the difference between Karna and Arjuna. Both were equally valorous. Both had equal mastery over weapons. Both were matched in their spirit of adventure. Both were equally loyal to their respective masters. Karna’s fealty blinded his sight towards Dharma. Arjuna’s vision of Dharma became dusk-dim owing to his despondency-riddled passion at the prospect of mass killing on the anvil of war. However, while Arjuna actually contemplated, the question itself didn’t arise in Karna.
Years before the Kurukshetra War, Karna declared his belief in an argument with Arjuna on a certain occasion:
Vīrya śrēṣṭhā hi rājānaḥ balaṁ dharmonuvartatē ||
Kings acquire greatness only on the strength of valour. Dharma follows strength.
Let us now consider a scene that reveals (a person’s) temperament.
After Bhishma was wounded by Arjuna’s arrows and announced his exit from war, Karna went to him secretly, prostrated before him and sought his blessings. On that occasion, Bhishma told him that his real mother was Kunti and that in this situation, it was best for him to cross over and join his younger brothers, the Pandavas. What was Karna’s reply?
Bhuktvā duryōdhanaiśvaryam na mithyā kartumutsahē |
Vasu caiva śarīraṁ ca putradāraṁ tathā yaśaḥ ||
sarvaṁ duryōdhanasyārthē tyaktam mē bhūridakṣiṇa |
Mā caitadvyādhimaraṇaṁ kṣatraṁ syāditi kaurava।।
I cannot betray Duryodhana whose food I have eaten. Everything that I have is reserved for him. Let me get a death befitting a Kshatriya instead of a death by disease.
“I know that they are all my brothers. I also know that Krishna who is on their side is indeed a Divine Being. Even more, I know that victory is for the Pandavas. However, I cannot betray Duryodhana. I have already forsaken this body, my wealth, my wife and children for Duryodhana’s sake. All I plead from you is just one thing: let me not die from ailment; let me die a death befitting a true Kshatriya. I do not wish to suffer and die owing to disease and old age. Let a warrior’s death be mine.” This was Karna’s reply. Indeed, Karna’s is a truly noble mind!
To be continued