Why was Karna denigrated as suta-putra?
From: Kailash Gupta
In Chapter 4 of BG Krishna says Varnashrama system is based on Guna and Karma. Please explain why Karna was addressed as Sud-putra inspite of having Khatriya guna and Karma.
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Transcription by Shalini Ahluwalia
Why was Karna denigrated as suta-putra?
Firstly, the Bhagavad Gita does say that the Varnashram is divided by qualities and activities but that does not mean that birth is absolutely inconsequential. Human tendency is to go to extremes, so the extremes which has stratified and ruined the Varnashram in modern Indian society is to claim birth to be all-important. This is not supported by the Bhagavad Gita. At the same time the other extreme is to consider birth to be totally unimportant. Srila Prabhupada’s standard example about who could become a Brahmana or Kshatirya was that if a person is born in a doctor’s family that does not mean that he automatically becomes a doctor. He has to qualify himself to be a doctor. So similarly a person may be born in a Brahmana or Kshatriya family but he does not become a Brahmana or Kshatriya automatically, he has to qualify himself. At the same time if somebody is born in a doctor’s family there are so many support systems for him to become a doctor if he so chooses to and has the capacities to become. He has seen his parents practice medicine right from the childhood, he has seen the intricacies of a doctor’s life to some extent and he will have a supportive environment at home. There will be guidance, there will be encouragement. Similarly if a person is born in a Brahmana’s family he has the facilities to become a Brahmana so this is just a clarification that birth is important though it is certainly not all-important. At the same time it is not entirely unimportant also.
Now with respect to Karna’s case, did he have Kshatriya guna and karma? He certainly had the Kshatriya karma. He had remarkable expertise in archery, he had the capacity to fight. Did he have the Kshatriya guna? He had it partially but there was one durguna which clouded and covered all his guna. And that was attachment to bad association. Duryodhana was constantly envious of the Pandavas and he was just looking for some person who could foil Arjuna. Duryodhana felt he himself could foil Bhima but he needed somebody to act as a foil for Arjuna and when he saw Karna he felt this is the person. From that moment onwards Karna was used by Duryodhana as an instrument of his envy and hatred for the Pandavas. If a terrorist who commits a murderous attack killing thousands of people is faithful to his general who is a bigger terrorist, is that faithfulness very laudable? In a narrow context we can say he was faithful but in a broader context he is violating the basic human value of dignity for human life. Karna’s faithfulness to Duryodhana is not much dissimilar. Karna not only fought on behalf of the Kauravas and played an active role in the Krurukshetra war but he was the basis of Duryodhana’s confidence in doing all the sinful activities. In fact, it was Karna who suggested when Yudhishthira lost the gambling match, that Draupadi be brought in the assembly and be stripped naked. A Kshatriya is meant to protect the citizens. Which Kshatriya of a genuine nature would want to strip another man’s wife in public. The very suggestion that Karna spoke such a thing indicates that he didn’t really have Kshatirya qualities. He had Kshatriya activities, he had Kshatirya competence but he did not have the Kshatriya character. Not only that it was he also who conspired in the slaying of Abhimanyu by unfair means. In fact it was he who suggested to Duryodhana that there is no way we can kill Abhimanyu, we have to find some other ways. Shakuni told that the only way we can kill him is by unfair means. And then Drona proposed let the six of us attack him together. So if we look at the life of Karna y he also had one Kshatirya quality of charity that is there. But the whole important quality of Kshatriya is – kshat traayate iti kshatirya – to protect people from being hurt. He directly violated that quality by supporting one who was hurting innocent people. A king who is ready to strip a woman in public, what will he do when he comes to power? And if such a king gets support and confidence by a powerful warrior on his side his atrocities will get even worse. That is exactly what happened to Duryodhana. So Duryodhana hatched more and more evil schemes primarily because Karna was there by his side and he felt that Karna would be able to fight and finish the eventual war. So the address of Karna as suta-putra was certainly derisive, derisive means critical or mocking and it was painful to Karna but the point, according to the Mahabharata is that he was referred to like that, he also at crucial times acted in ways unworthy of being a Kshatriya. So to summarise he had the qualities of a Kshatriya only partially – one quality of charity – but he lacked far more the quality of wanting to protect innocent people infact he may not have hurt innocent people but he was actively supporting one who was doing it on a mass scale.
So if a person truly develops the qualities of a particular Varna then he will be respectfully accommodated into that Varna. But when a person is given the rank and stature of a particular Varna and at that time does not behave in a way befitting of the Varna then his birth will be remembered to indicate that he has been given a post for which he was not qualified.
So that was why Karna was repeatedly referred to as suta-putra. Eventually when he was about to be killed Karna told Arjuna please fight honestly, please fight virtuously. So at that time Krishna told Karna that today you remember virtue, where was your virtue when in a rigged gambling match Yudhisthira was banished? Where was your virtue when you suggested that Draupadi be disrobed? Where was your virtue when Pandavas after staying in the forest for thirteen years came back to ask for their kingdom? And you were party to Duryodhana’s refusal. Where was your virtue when the Pandavas were attempted to be burnt alive in Varnavat? Where was your virtue when six of you came together and killed Abhimanyu – a sixteen year old boy – most viciously? So like that Krishna gives a long list of all the wrong activities, vicious activities that Karna was a part of. And then Krishna told him if it was virtue at all those times then Arjuna will use the same virtue to kill you today. Kill Karna. And that is how Karna met his end.
So Karna emerges through the Mahabharata as a heroic but tragic figure.
He was tragic because his heroism was eclipsed by his tragically wrong choices. Just as a good student if he goes in a hostel and mixes with bad boys, with boys who have all sorts of vicious habits, gets spoiled by that association. Karna had some virtue but his attachment to a vicious person spoiled him and because he was spoiled in this way behaving and supporting behaviour which was un-Kshatriya like, his suta-putra status was continually recollected.