Karna and the Encouragement to Adharma

This article is part 6 of 8 in the series Characters of the Mahabharata

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.

Virtuous Intent

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.

Karna’s Belief

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.

Magnanimous Conduct

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

Author(s)

About:

Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.

Translator(s)

About:

Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

Prekshaa Publications

The Mahābhārata is the greatest epic in the world both in magnitude and profundity. A veritable cultural compendium of Bhārata-varṣa, it is a product of the creative genius of Maharṣi Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa. The epic captures the experiential wisdom of our civilization and all subsequent literary, artistic, and philosophical creations are indebted to it. To read the Mahābhārata is to...

Shiva Rama Krishna

சிவன். ராமன். கிருஷ்ணன்.
இந்திய பாரம்பரியத்தின் முப்பெரும் கதாநாயகர்கள்.
உயர் இந்தியாவில் தலைமுறைகள் பல கடந்தும் கடவுளர்களாக போற்றப்பட்டு வழிகாட்டிகளாக விளங்குபவர்கள்.
மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
தனிநபர்களாகவும், குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்களாகவும், சமுதாய பிரஜைகளாகவும் நாம் அனைவரும் பரிமளிக்கிறோம்.
சிவன் தனிமனித அடையாளமாக அமைகிறான்....

ऋतुभिः सह कवयः सदैव सम्बद्धाः। विशिष्य संस्कृतकवयः। यथा हि ऋतवः प्रतिसंवत्सरं प्रतिनवतामावहन्ति मानवेषु तथैव ऋतुवर्णनान्यपि काव्यरसिकेषु कामपि विच्छित्तिमातन्वते। ऋतुकल्याणं हि सत्यमिदमेव हृदि कृत्वा प्रवृत्तम्। नगरजीवनस्य यान्त्रिकतां मान्त्रिकतां च ध्वनदिदं चम्पूकाव्यं गद्यपद्यमिश्रितमिति सुव्यक्तमेव। ऐदम्पूर्वतया प्रायः पुरीपरिसरप्रसृतानाम् ऋतूनां विलासोऽत्र प्रपञ्चितः। बेङ्गलूरुनामके...

The Art and Science of Avadhānam in Sanskrit is a definitive work on Sāhityāvadhānam, a form of Indian classical art based on multitasking, lateral thinking, and extempore versification. Dotted throughout with tasteful examples, it expounds in great detail on the theory and practice of this unique performing art. It is as much a handbook of performance as it is an anthology of well-turned...

This anthology is a revised edition of the author's 1978 classic. This series of essays, containing his original research in various fields, throws light on the socio-cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu spanning several centuries. These compelling episodes will appeal to scholars and laymen alike.
“When superstitious mediaevalists mislead the country about its judicial past, we have to...

The cultural history of a nation, unlike the customary mainstream history, has a larger time-frame and encompasses the timeless ethos of a society undergirding the course of events and vicissitudes. A major key to the understanding of a society’s unique character is an appreciation of the far-reaching contributions by outstanding personalities of certain periods – especially in the realms of...

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective...

Yaugandharam

इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...

Vanitakavitotsavah

इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।

Vaiphalyaphalam

इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।

Nipunapraghunakam

इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।

Bharavatarastavah

अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...

Bharatilochana

ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...

Vagarthavismayasvadah

“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...