Mahabharat’s Karna – The Hero or Anti-Hero? – Part 1

There isn’t a gentle heart that doesn’t sympathize with Karna – a critical Mahanayak (major actor / character) in the epic Mahabharata. Born to a young unwed princess – Kunti and the Sun God, Karna was abandoned at childbirth, because his parents didn’t have the courage to face the society replete with double standards.

Youtube link of Kunti abandoning Karna 

Karna’s journey through the epic epitomized the saying – life ain’t fair! Despite being a courageous and talented archer he wasn’t allowed by the royalty and the stringent caste structure in the Hastinapur Empire to serve and train as royal warriors did. He was discriminated against and was constantly reminded of his place in the society – a charioteer’s son, whose ambitions as a warrior were morally and structurally deviant.  Karna therefore is pushed out of Hastinapur; he finds a teacher in the brave maverick Parashuram, who trains Karna thinking Karna is a Brahmin (priestly class with the highest caste ranking). Despite the affection Parashuram develops for Karna, he too abandons Karna after learning he is not a Brahmin by birth.

Youtube link of Karna banished from Hastinapur by Bhishma

Youtube link for Karna being rejected by the Royal Teacher – Drona

Karna returns to Hastinapur in hopes his talent will be recognized on premise of his intensive training. Yet again, the norms of the discriminating society do not allow him to participate as a warrior with young Kuru and Pandava princes, on grounds that he is neither Kshatriya (the warrior caste) nor a Brahmin (the priestly caste) by birth. It’s at this critical juncture that Karna finds a lifetime of friendship and gratitude in Duryodhana who awards a kingdom to Karna and immediately crowns him king and a potential ally against his cousins – Pandavas.

Youtube link for first meeting between Karna and Duryodhan

What Karna assumes as favors returned for Duryodhana kindness, become a series of compromises with Dharma (righteousness). Duryodhana is shown constantly asking Karna to join him in plotting against Pandavas. Karna, instead of stopping or correcting Duryodhana’s devious ways, inadvertently lends support to Duryodhana as he plots to kill the Pandavas by burning them alive, is a willing participant in Draupadi’s (Pandavas’s wife) public molestation (future episode), and takes up arms against Pandavas in alliance with Duryodhan.

Youtube link for the Lakshagrah plotting (Kuru princes plotting to kill Pandavas and Kunti)

So why didn’t Karna give up his “donated” empire to Duryodhana and walk away from morally objectionable circumstances? Perhaps it was his ambition to establish his name and fame as a world-class warrior, a fitting “king” and a loyal friend. Karna’s parents repeatedly warn him that partnering with Duryodhana to achieve his royal ambitions will only bring him infamy and misery. Instead of giving an ear to their advice, Karna continuously justifies Duryodhana’s crooked intentions, and leaves behind his parents to start a new life in the palaces of Hastinapur.

Credit: Starplus.in
Credit: Starplus.in

With his loyalty peddled away to wickedly ambitions of Duryodhana, Karna plays a mere moot spectator not daring to defy his friend. He probably knew that he would be stripped of his powers and kingdom should he choose to deviate. So he stuck around, playing a supportive role in vilifying and destroying Pandavas, and reinforcing Duryodhana blind ambitions.

So while Karna will always go down in history books as a loyal friend to Duryodhana, there potentially is another explanation to this blind loyalty – his own aggressive aspirations. Wronged by entire world including his own mother, Karna always carried the burden of his persecution on his indiscriminate shoulders – in the end, he was unable to side with Dharma on critical occasions, which finally led to his downfall.

There’s an aspect of Karna’s personality that deserves special mention – “Danveer”, or the benevolent. Karna was always known as the charitable warrior, who never denied any requester anything. Apparently Karna’s father understood that Karna would be unable to give up on Duryodhana friendship and royal favors. His father therefore suggested, Karna perform penance for his implicit misdeeds by being exceedingly charitable as and when possible. Karna took this advice to heart eventually and earned the reputation for being the most charitable warrior in Indian history.

Youtube video of Karna being advised by his father about charity

As the story progresses, we hope to see Karna evolve into a more willful character than a mere spectator as he is currently portrayed. But then again, as Winston Churchill correctly stated, “History is written by the victors”. So we can only speculate about what transpired between Karna, Kunti, his half-brothers and their circumstances.

We will also continue to discuss Karna’s characters with respect to his mistreatment of Draupadi, his fallout with his mother and his ultimate battle with his half-brothers – Pandavas.

We would however appreciate your views about Karna’s character in the great epic – Mahabharata.

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8 thoughts on “Mahabharat’s Karna – The Hero or Anti-Hero? – Part 1

    1. We really appreciate your comment. We love your take of various issues as well. Watching the Mahabharat again makes us think a lot about characters and how they evolved over the course of the entire epic.

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