The Son of the Sun – Part 1
The Mahabharata is a fascinating book with many of its characters not clearly black or clearly white, but multiple shades of grey.
Karna is an intriguing character – virtuous, yet choosing the side of the vicious Kauravas; born as a warrior, but treated lifelong as charioteer’s son; great archer, but defeated and killed in a fight with another great archer.
Let’s see where he falls on the spectrum of black to white through a series of question-answers.
[For those new to the Mahabharata, here’s a brief introduction of Karna:
Karna, a prominent warrior in the Mahabharata, was born to Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas. As he was born through a mystical union of Kunti with the sun-god before her marriage, the maiden mother couldn’t take care of him. He was raised by a charioteer family and so was known as ‘a charioteer’s son’, not receiving the respect accorded to warriors. Nonetheless, he became a formidable archer and was befriended by the evil Duryodhana, who offered him a kingdom. Karna joined Duryodhana in many of his machinations against the Pandavas, eventually fighting on his side in the Kurukshetra war. He was killed by Arjuna on the penultimate day of the eighteen-day war.]
Was Arjuna’s killing Karna when he was chariot-less not unfair, being against the kshatriya codes?
The unfairness had begun from the Kaurava side decades earlier when they tried to poison Bhima and burn the Pandavas alive.
In the Kurukshetra war, at its start the commanders of the two sides had agreed upon the codes to be followed in the war. Dhrishtadyumna, the Pandava commander, had declared that their side would not break the war codes first, but if the Kauravas broke those codes first, then the Pandavas would not let themselves be held back by the war codes.
In the ensuing battles, the kshatriya code that a chariot-less warrior should not be attacked was violated first by the Kauravas’ side. On the thirteenth day, six of their maha-rathas including Karna ganged together to kill the chariot-less Abhimanyu. So, Karna simply reaped what he had sown – he violated the code first by attacking the chariot-less Abhimanyu and was paid back in kind, as had been agreed at the start of the war.
And the unfair attack on Abhimanyu was not a one-off incident on the part of the Kauravas. On the fourteenth day when Arjuna was striving to fulfill his vow to kill Jayadratha by sunset, his horses got exhausted, and needed rest and water. While Krishna decided to lead the horses away, Arjuna had to get off the chariot. Even on seeing him chariot-less, the Kaurava forces did not stop attacking him. To the contrary, they attacked him with greater ferocity, hoping to fell him in his dangerously disadvantaged condition. Still Arjuna held them back with his expert archery while simultaneously using mystical weapons to arrange for shade and water for his horses. In an all-out war, quarters are rarely given and Arjuna didn’t ask for them – neither should Karna have asked.
Karna himself violated that specific code on the seventeenth day during his confrontation with Arjuna. When Karna sent an unstoppable mystical weapon at Arjuna’s head, Krishna forcefully pushed the chariot into the ground so that the arrow hit Arjuna’s crown instead of his head. Arjuna’s life was saved, but his chariot got stuck in the ground. While Krishna jumped off the chariot to get it out of the ground, Arjuna was disadvantaged with an immobile chariot. Karna still attacked him and Arjuna didn’t ask to be spared, but fought back and defended himself.
So in the final confrontation, Karna’s reminding Arjuna of the kshatriya code was hypocritical. When Karna tried to take the high moral ground, Krishna exposed him thoroughly by listing all the times when Karna had paid scant regard to morality. Krishna’s fitting riposte silenced Karna whose head fell in an admission of his guilt.
Krishna deciding to illustrate the principle of shatho shathyam: with the cunning, one can be cunning, asked Arjuna to shoot Karna. By countering Karna’s arguments, Krishna had signaled to Karna that Arjuna would not desist from attacking. Karna could have taken that as a warning, re-mounted his stationary chariot and resumed fighting – or he could have fought from the ground itself, as had Arjuna on the fourteenth day. His neglecting Krishna’s warning was a monumental blunder that cost him his life.
Was Karna a better archer than Arjuna?
Let’s look at the relevant incidents in the Mahabharata.
1. The first Karna-Arjuna encounter was in the martial exhibition organized by Drona to showcase the skills of his students, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, for the pleasure of Hastinapura’s leaders and citizens. In that exhibition, Arjuna excelled all till Karna gatecrashed and demanded a chance to exhibit his skills. When granted that chance, Karna equaled the performance of Arjuna, though he had initially claimed that he would surpass Arjuna. Then, Karna asked for a chance to duel with Arjuna, but while the logistics were being worked out, the sun set and the duel couldn’t take place.
Result: Draw. Score: Arjuna – 0, Karna – 0
2. When Drona asked that as his guru-dakshina, his students defeat and arrest Drupada, the Kauravas sped off accompanied by Karna. But Drupada at the head of his forces defeated them. Then the Pandavas led by Arjuna attacked Drupada’s forces, and Arjuna defeated and arrested Drupada, doing what Karna couldn’t do.
Result: Arjuna demonstrated his superiority. Score: Arjuna – 1, Karna – 0
3. During Draupadi’s svayamvara, when Arjuna, dressed as a brahmana, won the princess’ hand, the kings felt that Drupada had insulted them by giving his daughter to a brahmana instead of a kshatriya. So they attacked Drupada. To defend their father-in-law, Arjuna and Bhima intervened and held the kings back till it became a face-off: Karna vs. Arjuna and Shalya vs. Bhima. While Bhima bested Shalya, Arjuna more than matched Karna, who thereafter decided to desist from the fight, saying that he would not fight with a brahmana.
Result: Draw. Score: Arjuna – 1, Karna – 0
4. When the Pandavas were living in exile, Duryodhana, at the instigation of Karna, decided to rub salt into their wounds by flaunting his wealth in front of them. But some Gandharvas who were sporting in that area blocked Duryodhana. In the resulting confrontation, the Gandharvas defeated the Kaurava forces, wounding Karna and causing him to flee, and then arresting Duryodhana. Later, when some Kaurava soldiers appealed to the Pandavas for help, Arjuna routed the same Gandharvas who had routed Karna, and released Duryodhana.
Result: Arjuna again demonstrated his superiority. Score: Arjuna – 2, Karna – 0
5. During the Virata battle, Arjuna fought single-handedly against the entire Kaurava army and defeated all the Kaurava generals including Karna. This was the greatest solo performance in the entire epic.
Some people argue that this contest did not accurately reflect their skills because Karna had not carried his Shakti weapon. But who is responsible for Karna’s not carrying the weapon? Isn’t a warrior expected to carry his best weapons when going for war? (Imagine a batsman after getting clean bowled for a duck in a World Cup final rationalizing his cheap dismissal: “I got out because I forgot to carry my best bat to the crease.”) And Arjuna did not get his formidable array of weapons for free – he performed severe austerities in the Himalayas to appease the gods and painstakingly add each powerful weapon to his formidable arsenal.
Result: Arjuna won fair and square. Score: Arjuna – 3, Karna – 0
So, even before their final decisive confrontation on the seventeenth day of the Kurukshetra war, Arjuna had unambiguously established his superiority.
(You can read the subsequent parts here: part 2, part 3 part 4)
Prabhuji, this is a wonderful article. Eagerly waiting for the next part.
Thank you for the wonderful article. It clarifies lots of doubts in a very systematic way. There are few more doubts which are raised about this character as following
1. Dropadi didn’t allow Karna to participate in her Svayamvara. Wasn’t it an injustice to him? If he were given a chance, he would have surely won her.
2. Arjuna was son of Indra. To give an advantage to his son, Indra disguised as Brhmana approached Karna and took away his shield which would have made certainly a difference in the war.
3. What about the GREAT CHARITABLE nature of Karna?
4. Although Krishna informed Karna that is he was the eldest Pandav and if he joined the Padavas’ party, he would be made King. Although Krishna Predicted the future, he still didn’t accept the offer. Wasn’t it a good example of gratitude to his friend, Duryodhana?
I hope these questions will also be answered in next part.
Yes, all of them will be addressed in the future parts.
Hare Krishna Prabhuji, pamho.
Thank you very much for these enlightening series of articles on ‘The Son of the Sun’. I understand that Karna was not equal to Arjuna in terms of virtue and righteousness but can we so confidently claim from the Mahabharata that Karna did not have the skills of an Archer as good as Arjuna? Because I find a verse in the Mahabharata where Krishna himself tells Arjuna that He considers Karna to be equal to Arjuna and perhaps superior. This verse comes in Karna Parva after the episode where Arjuna speaks harshly towards Yudhisthira on advice of Krishna. (Due to the vow of killing any person who says, ‘Give your Gandiva bow to another’).
The verse I am talking about is as follows:
Vasudeva said, “O wielder of Gandiva, save thee there exists no other man that could vanquish those whom thou hast vanquished with this bow of thine. We have seen many heroes, who, endued with prowess like that Sakra, have attained to the highest regions, encountering thy heroic self in battle! Who else, O puissant one, that is not equal to thee, would be safe and sound after encountering Drona and Bhishma and Bhagadatta, O sire, and Vinda and Anuvinda of Avanti and Sudakshina, the chief of the Kambojas and Srutayudha of mighty energy and Acyutayudha as well? Thou hast celestial weapons, and lightness of hand and might, and thou art never stupefied in battle! Thou hast also that humility which is due to knowledge! Thou canst strike with effect! Thou hast sureness of aim, and presence of mind as regards the selection of means, O Arjuna! Thou art competent to destroy all mobile and immobile creatures including the very gods with the Gandharvas! On earth, O Partha, there is no human warrior who is equal to thee in battle. Amongst all Kshatriyas, invincible in battle, that wield the bow, amongst the very gods, I have not seen or heard of even one that is equal to thee. The Creator of all beings, viz., Brahma himself created the great bow Gandiva with which thou fightest, O Partha! For this reason there is no one that is equal to thee. I must, however, O son of Pandu, say that which is beneficial to thee. Do not. O mighty-armed one, disregard Karna, that ornament of battle! Karna is possessed of might. He is proud and accomplished in weapons. He is a maharatha. He is accomplished (in the ways of battle) and conversant with all modes of warfare. He is also well-acquainted with all that suits place and time. What need is there of saying much? Hear in brief, O son of Pandu! I regard the mighty car-warrior Karna as thy equal, or perhaps, thy superior! With the greatest care and resolution shouldst thou slay him in great battle. In energy he is equal to Agni. As regards speed, he is equal to the impetuosity of the wind. In wrath, he resembles the Destroyer himself. Endued with might, he resembles a lion in the formation of his body. He is eight ratnis in stature. His arms are large. His chest is broad. He is invincible. He is sensitive. He is a hero. He is, again, the foremost of heroes. He is exceedingly handsome. Possessed of every accomplishment of a warrior, he is a dispeller of the fears of friends. Engaged in the good of Dhritarashtra’s son, he always hates the sons of Pandu. No one, not even the gods with Vasava at their head, can slay the son of Radha, save thee, as I think. Slay, therefore, the Suta’s son today. No one possessed of flesh and blood, not even the gods fighting with great care, not all the warriors (of the three worlds) fighting together can vanquish that car-warrior. Towards the Pandavas he is always of wicked soul and sinful behaviour, and cruel, and of wicked intelligence. In his quarrel with the sons of Pandu, he is actuated by no consideration affecting his own interests. Slaying that Karna, therefore, fulfill thy purpose today. Despatch today unto Yama’s presence that Suta’s son, that foremost of car-warriors, whose death is near. Indeed, slaying that Suta’s son, that first of car-warriors, show the love for Yudhishthira the just. I know thy prowess truly, O Partha, which is incapable of being resisted by the gods and Asuras. The Suta’s son of wicked soul, from exceeding pride, always disregards the sons of Pandu. O Dhananjaya, slay that man today for whose sake the wretched Duryodhana regardeth himself a hero, that root of all (those) sinful persons, that son of a Suta. Slay, O Dhananjaya, that tiger among men, that active and proud Karna, who hath a sword for his tongue, a bow for his mouth, and arrows for his teeth. I know thee well as regards the energy and the might that are in thee. Slay the brave Karna in battle, like a lion slaying an elephant. Slay in battle today, O Partha, that Karna, otherwise called Vaikartana, in consequence of whose energy Dhritarashtra’s son disregards thine.'”
I could not find a better translation or exact verses. Please clarify on this.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Would also like to add that Arjuna did NOT have his Gandiva yet when he was showcasing his skills at the first event for students organized by Drona, or later during the Draupadi swayamvar. So Karna talking about being handicapped bcos of leaving the Shakthi behind is unconvincing. Besides which Karna ALWAYS had his armour and earring made from Amrita since birth. He ALWAYS had an unfair advantage over eveyr other warrior until the Great War where he gave it in EXCHANGE for the infallible Shakthi, which is not a sacrifice, in my humble view.