The Son of the Sun – Part 2
(This is a continuation of a four part series. You can read part 1 here )
Was Karna superior to Arjuna because he alone conquered the world for Duryodhana, whereas the four Pandavas together conquered the world for Yudhisthira?
Let’s first look at the incidents in question. When the Pandavas were in exile, Karna conquered all the kings of the world and with the tributes from them helped Duryodhana perform a great sacrifice called the Vaishnava sacrifice, somewhat similar to the Rajasuya sacrifice that Yudhisthira had performed earlier. For that sacrifice, Yudhisthira had sent four brothers to conquer the four directions.
Do these two incidents demonstrate Karna’s superiority? No, because Bhima during his eastward conquest had come to Anga and defeated its ruler. Guess who? Karna, no less. So if Bhima whose archery skills were not as good as Arjuna’s defeated Karna, how can Karna be considered better than Arjuna?
Was Arjuna alone capable of the world conquest that Karna had done? Actually, Arjuna was capable of much more than that, as can be inferred from two incidents.
- What to speak of the word’s kings, Arjuna had defeated the gods combined at Khandava – something which Karna had come nowhere close to doing, having been defeated by just one relatively minor set of gods, the Gandharvas.
- Arjuna had also singlehandedly defeated a whole army of deadly demons, the Nivatkavachas, whom the gods had not been able to defeat for a long time. This feat was also something that Karna had come nowhere close to equaling, for he had been hard-pressed by just one demon, Ghatotkacha.
If Arjuna was capable of single-handedly conquering the world on Yudhisthira’s behalf, then why didn’t he do so? Because all four younger brothers wanted to assist their eldest brother and Arjuna didn’t want to deprive them of that opportunity.
Was Karna the second best archer after Arjuna?
No, because at least two other archers defeated him.
1. Abhimanyu: On the thirteenth day of the Kurukshetra war, when Abhimanyu penetrated into the Chakra-vyuha and wrecked havoc among the Kaurava forces, he overcame Karna twice, causing him to swoon and retreat. Karna realized that he couldn’t even match Abhimanyu, leave alone overcome him. So he prompted Duryodhana to ask Drona how the prince could be defeated.
2. Bhima: The second Pandava more than matched Karna.
As mentioned earlier, Bhima defeated Karna during his eastward conquest before the Rajasuya yajna.
During the Kurukshetra war, Bhima and Karna fought several times. On the fourteenth day, when Arjuna had taken a vow to kill Jayadratha before sunset, Karna tried to check Arjuna. To help Arjuna progress undistracted, Bhima challenged Karna and kept him engaged while Arjuna closed in on Jayadratha, Bhima matched Karna.
On the sixteenth day, Bhima held back Karna, who had been appointed the Kauravas’ commander, and then attacked Dushasana. In front of Karna’s eyes, Bhima killed Dushasana. Seeing Bhima’s power and anger, the horrified Karna dropped his bow. Similarly, in front of Karna’s eyes, Bhima also killed several other Kaurava brothers as well as Karna’s son and brother, and Karna could do nothing to stop him.
Karna did overcome Bhima once in a battle with bows and arrows, and mocked him by touching him with his bow and calling him a fat glutton. At that time, Bhima challenged Karna to a wrestling match, but Karna refused. Bhima had the power to pound Karna to death with his bare fists, but remembering Arjuna’s vow to kill Karna, Bhima desisted and left the arena. So the same event that is often seen as Karna honoring his promise to Kunti to not kill any of her sons other than Arjuna could be seen as Bhima honoring Arjuna’s vow. Overall, the results of the Bhima-Karna confrontation remain in Bhima’s favor.
So, Karna was no doubt a great archer, but he was one among many, not one above many, as was Arjuna.
Was Karna not unfairly weakened by Indra, Arjuna’s father, who schemed to take away his kavacha and kundala by coming in the guise of a brahmana asking for charity?
- Even with that impenetrable armor, Karna had been wounded and defeated several times (as discussed earlier) by Drupada, by the Gandharvas and by Arjuna at Virata. So the kavacha was not a winning advantage.
- When Indra came disguised as a brahmana to ask for it, eventually, at Karna’s insistent request, the god gave him the formidable Shakti in return. So, what was supposed to be a charity became a swap.
And how did this swap affect Karna’s fortune? His kavacha had not saved him from defeat earlier. And it may well not have saved him on the fourteenth night when Ghatotkacha was on a rampage, threatening to kill him and destroy the Kaurava forces. The Shakti weapon killed Ghatotkacha and saved Karna’s life. So in the swap Karna lost something that hadn’t saved him from defeat and got something that actually saved him from death.
Was the swap such a big loss for Karna? You decide.
Was Karna not a great hero – powerful, virtuous and charitable?
Yes, he had his good qualities. He was not a black character, but he doesn’t have to be made whiter than what he was.
After all, it was Karna who suggested that Draupadi be dragged into the assembly, who came up with the obnoxious idea of disrobing her publically, who called her a prostitute. It was Karna who suggested to Duryodhana the ill-advised plan of flaunting their wealth in front of the exiled Pandavas – the plan that came to grief due to the Gandharvas. It was Karna whose repeated bragging of his prowess that made Duryodhana foolhardy enough to challenge the Pandavas to an open war. It was Karna who killed Abhimanyu ruthlessly along with five other warriors, having been the first to instigate Duryodhana that some such extreme measure was necessary to bring down the young prince. It was Karna who, in response to Shalya’s sledging, foul-mouthed the women of Madras (Shalya’s kingdom), calling them unspeakable names.
So, though he had his virtues, he doesn’t need to be unnecessarily romanticized.
(Continued in part 3 here)