Mahabharat’s Karna, “The Philanthropic Warrior” — Hero or Anti Hero Part 2

Background reading about Karna – The Philanthropic Warrior

Karna was born to the unwed princess Kunti and Surya (the Sun God). She was not prepared to face the wrath of the society and gave Karna up – literally put him in a basket and let him float down the river. Karna was rescued by a poor charioteer and his wife, who brought Karna up with immense love and training as a Kshatriya (a warrior), despite social restrictions on caste and class mobility. Karna was ambitious, so much so that he evolved as Prince Duryodhan’s (of Hastinapur) most relied upon confidant. Duryodhan gifted Karna a kingdom in return – crowing a charioteer’s son, a powerful king. Duryodhan was blinded by ambition, pride and anger and wanted to take over his cousin Yudhistir’s empire (Yudhishtir was the king of Indraprastha and ruled with his 4 brothers and wife, Queen Draupadi). Karna aided Duryodhan’s uncontrolled ambition blindly, and subsequently dearly paid for his alliance.


Our readers must know by now, how much Karna’s character intrigues us. This week, we explore why Karna emerges a hero despite his unheroic choice of supporting Duryodhan.


Why did Karna support Duryodhan?

Karna obligation for Duryodhan was his fetter. For Karna, Duryodhan was the only brave soul who didn’t discriminate against Karna for his caste and creed. Duryodhan saw the potential in Karna as a great warrior and gifted him an empire for his loyalty. Karna was jaded by the world’s prejudice against him purely based on his father’s status in society. The gift of a kingdom from Duryodhan was the stamp of approval Karna needed as a gifted ambitious warrior. 

Sadly, Karna also had to compromise his ideals time after time to placate Duryodhan and to safeguard his own kingdom. 

Karna who didn’t have the emotional and mental strength to break away from Duryodhan’s evil plans, found solace in his father’s advice. Karna’s father suggested that the only way humans can rid themselves of malefic karmic effects is by being charitable. Karna took the advice to heart and gave away most of his wealth and his own body armor before the epic war of Mahabharat. 


Though charity was critical in solidifying his image as a philanthropic soul, he will also be remembered for these terrible crimes:

  1. Not stopping Lakshyagrah from happening – Duryodhan along with Karna planned to burn his cousins – the Pandavs alive. Karna did nothing to stop this evil plan from being executed.
  2. Not giving up his throne – Karna was ambitious and wanted to be recognized as a worthy king. Instead of giving up the throne to feel less obligated to Duryodhana, he clung on to the throne as a result of his egotistical desires.
  3. Not protecting Draupadi’s honor – When Draupadi was being sexually harassed and molested in the public courthouse, Karna added fuel to fire. He called Draupadi a prostitute who was worthy of being insulted. It’s a regret Karna lived with; rightfully though, ill-effects of our actions cannot be redeemed by mere regrets.

Despite Karna’s choices, loyal supporters of Karna state he should be recognized for his loyalty. But we ask – should loyalty be regarded a virtue if it’s not guided by good judgement? We think wisdom is a critical component of loyalty!

When Kunti apologized to Karna for abandoning him, it was too late for a man who was on the verge of losing everything – his pride, his ideals, his birth mother, his half-brothers. Kunti in fact, urged Karna to reconcile with his half-brothers, the Pandvas. However, Karna being a loyal friend, did not desert Duryodhan at the time of war. Karna didn’t want to be vindicated as Kunti’s royal son. He accepted his fate as a charioteer’s son – a “sooth putra”. 

Though Karna emerges as the most philanthropic and loyal warrior in Mahabharat and possibly in the history of India, Karna died a miserable death in the battlefield. As Krishna says, Karna paid for his inactions and poor judgement. In the end, he wasn’t punished for his caste, creed – but for his alliance with the wrong-doers.

There are important lessons to be learnt from Karna’s life by anyone trying to lead a more moral life. 

1. Understand the trappings of ego

We must pay attention to our weaknesses especially the ego. We must pay attention when judgements and alliances in life are guided by ego. When ego is our guide, we as humans set ourselves up for sour outcomes. When the people near and dear us warning us of poor judgements, it’s because they care. Keeping a close circle of confidants is important in guiding our actions.

2. Align yourself with people who are guided by morality and empathy – always!

Not only is it important to do the dharmic (right) deed whenever we can, it is also important to align ourselves with people guided by empathy, fairness, and morality. In the end aligning with those with a deviant moral compass, does us more harm in the long-run.

3. Make charity the center of your life

Charity is known to improve mental and subsequently physical well-being. And best of all, we don’t need to be rich like Bill Gates to be charitable. There are simple things we all can do – buy some flowers for mom, feed the birds, make extra sandwich for a co-worker, pay a kind compliment to a friend and so on. Charity can easily be made the center of our life by conducting one charitable deed a day.

A buddhist monk once told me, it’s so easy to be charitable – just take out the moment in your life to empathize with someone else. The happiness we create as a result impacts the well-being of everyone around! So be charitable – but with wisdom guiding your decision.


10 thoughts on “Mahabharat’s Karna, “The Philanthropic Warrior” — Hero or Anti Hero Part 2

  1. Very nicely written! Just want to bring in another theory into the forefront. We all know that Karn had a soft corner for Draupadi. Though she insulted him in front of everyone during the Swayamvar, I am sure he , being a man of morals and righteousness wouldn’t want to insult her like that in public. I think he called Draupadi a prostitute so that he could anger the Pandavas into doing something to stop her molestation. He was inviting some action of protest from Arjun or Bheem by insulting Draupadi, but none of them had the courage to defy Yudhisthira and go against him. Karn could have stopped the whole thing himself, but he was crushed under Duryodhan’s debt and was loyal to him.

  2. Nice article but i feel backdrop of Karna’s history also should be taken in consideration.
    He too was unrightfully defeated in war.

  3. First of all writting about mahabharatha its not a normal issue you having very nice courage to write this and explaining about the thing karn,s its really amazing to telling about karna and to duryadhana the character who is the base one in whole mahabharatha and ethic meaning is to study very good.

    This type of article I am studying first time really by unfortunatly I got this link then I started studing about after i got interesting on mahabharth really awesome script written by you

  4. why should karna protect draupathi’s honor..its arjuns duty to protect her..I mean she loved him..favoured him among all her husbands..he should have got up..he should have fought..he should have asked yudishtrar to get lost or talk some sense to him..yet he remained scilent..when your wife is molested you should stand up for her ,not expect a next door neighbor to come and save your wife..had dhuryodhan and karna abducted draupathi and tried to molest her ,then I agree with you that they are the worst rogues..karna reacted the way how a normal man would react..he dint lust after draupathi ,unlike dushasen and dhuryodhan..he just wanted revenge..and revenge knows no gender..male or female when it comes to revenge they get blinded..its not that I am blindly supporting karna…having five not one husband and no one reacting to the wife being molested ,no use blaming the opposite party.. was a good post, keep writing..and karna is my hero in the whole mahabarath ,so no matter what I keep supporting him

  5. Loved reading your article. These characters are new to me; yet you have brought them to life. Thank you.

    It is said, “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time”. This is the biggest lesson I get from reading your story: That Karna’s associations did not make him a better man. And to be a better person I must seek the best people to befriend.

    The best people are always the kindest ones. Whenever they are in doubt, they do the act that is most kind.

    Thank you again for your masterful organization of content and you skillful presentation of a story and learning points. You added value to my day’s experience.

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