The Son of the Sun – part 4
Was Karna not disadvantaged lifelong because society considered him lowborn?
1. Yes, the notion that he was a charioteer’s son deprived him of the respect given to a son of kshatriya. Still, but he was also uniquely advantaged in having an impenetrable armor since birth. None of the Pandavas, despite being born from celestials, had a congenital armor – Karna started off with a big advantage over Arjuna. So, if in one sense, the match was fixed against him due to his presumed low birth, then in another sense, it was fixed for him due to his congenital armor. The net result could be said to be a level playing field.
Eventually, though Karna lost his kavacha, he did gain all the things due to a kshatriya: kingdom, the friendship of kings and the respect of kings – resulting again in a level playing field. Thus, his birth did not permanently deprive him of the things he merited.
2. If we look at things from a limited, this-life perspective, everyone gets some troubles despite having apparently done nothing to deserve them. Were the Pandavas not wronged when they had to live in the forest like fugitives after their residence in Varnavarta was burnt down? It was no fault of theirs that they were born in the same dynasty as the envious Duryodhana who made them the target of his wicked machinations. Were they not wronged when they were dispossessed of their kingdom and exiled through a rigged gambling match? Were they not wronged when their wife Draupadi was dishonored?
Yet despite the wrongs that happened to them, the Pandavas stayed on the side of virtue, whereas Karna chose the side of vice. If we use the wrongs that happen to us to justify our making wrong choices, then we can never make things right – we perpetuate a series of wrongs that make things worse for ourselves as well as others.
3. If we look at things from a more complete, multi-life perspective, then we understand that the problems we face in this life are due to our karma from previous lives. The Mahabharata mentions that Karna was demon named Dambhodbhava in his previous life. This demon had terrorized the universe on the strength of a blessing got from the sun-god. He had been blessed to have a thousand kavachas which:
i. Could be destroyed only one at a time
ii. Could be destroyed only by someone who had performed a thousand years of austerity
iii. Would cause the immediate death of the destroyer of the kavacha.
This combination of blessings made his undefeatable till he met his match in the form of the divine sages Nara-Narayana, who are considered non-different from each other. They fought with him alternately, one fighting while the other performed austerity – both doing so for a thousand years. When the warrior would destroy one kavacha and fall dead, the ascetic would revive him by the power of his austerities and then they would swap places. The warrior would fight and finally destroy another kavacha after a thousand years till the ascetic acquired enough merit through austerity to take up the fight for another thousand years and destroy one more kavacha.
By this resourceful and arduous arrangement, those sages destroyed nine hundred and ninety nine kavachas. When just one kavacha remained, the demon fled to the shelter of the sun-god, who due to attachment to his worshiper refused to hand the fugitive over to Nara-Narayana rishis. Eventually, the demon was impregnated by the sun-god into the womb of Kunti and he was born as Karna. Simultaneously, Nara-Narayana appeared as Arjuna and Krishna to complete their unfinished mission of ridding the universe of the terrible demon.
Karna, due to his contact with the sun-god and due to his being parented by that effulgent deity, had developed some virtues. But due to the inclinations from his demoniac previous life, he also had some weaknesses. Thus, he became a complex grey character in the Mahabharata. And whatever he suffered during his life was the result of the bad karma he had done in his previous life.
4. The caste-by-birth notion that led to discrimination against Karna was a deviation from the Vedic norm, a deviation that is acknowledged in the Bhagavad-gita.
Krishna states in the Gita that the spiritual knowledge that he had given at the start of the creation (04.01) had become obscured by the power of time (04.02). Due to this decline of spiritual knowledge, the social order present at the time when the Gita was spoken (which is the same as the time when the Mahabharata occurred – the Gita is a part of the Mahabharata) had deviated from the spiritual standard. One sample of this deviation was the prevalence of the caste-by-birth idea, something contrary to the Gita’s teaching (04.13) that caste is determined by qualities and activities. As the caste system was rigid and stratified at that time, Karna was often labeled by his birth instead of by his qualities and activities.
Every age has its blind spots and its fallibilities – the problems resulting from those blind spots are one of the ways people in that age get the reactions to their past-life karma. To act virtuously while enduring various problems coming due to our past-life misdeeds is the defining challenge of life in all ages. Though Karna did act virtuously in several ways, his choosing the side of vice as a lifelong commitment was his fatal blunder.
Was it not wrong for Draupadi to dishonor Karna by stating during her svayamvara that she would not marry the son of a charioteer?
According to the Mahabharata-Tatparya-Nirnaya of Srila Madhavacharya as well as the critical edition of the Mahabharata prepared by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Draupadi didn’t reject Karna – Karna contested and failed to hit the target. In these narratives, the incident of Draupadi rejecting Karna as a potential suitor didn’t occur at all. Nonetheless, because most extant versions of the Mahabharata do include this incident, let’s analyze its ethical dimensions.
The very word svayamvara (svayam – oneself, vara – bridegroom) implies that the occasion is a forum for the bride to choose her groom. So Draupadi had the right to choose her husband. The test of archery skill was an aid for her in making the choice, but ultimately it was meant to be her choice.
In the contest, the expected competitors were kshatriya kings. Karna put himself in a potentially embarrassing situation when despite knowing that many in society questioned his kshatriya credentials, he assumed that he could participate in the contest and marched to the central arena only to be stopped by Draupadi. A less presumptuous attitude could have saved Karna of the dishonor.
Was Karna not an exemplary man of honor that he promised Kunti that he would not kill any of her sons except Arjuna and kept that promise?
Yes, that was a laudable thing he did, but it would have been better if he had done what Kunti had beseeched and what even his worshipable deity and actual father Suryadeva had asked him to do: join the ranks of the virtuous Pandavas.
Due to his perceived low birth and the attendant lack of respect, Karna was forever craving for respect. This deep-seated status anxiety clouded his judgment, making him privilege honor over virtue. He mistook that being respected as a person who kept his word of honor was more important than leading a life of virtue.
To compensate for the lack of respect due to his perceived low birth, Karna had built a reputation for himself of being unflinchingly charitable. When Kunti asked him to come over to the side of his virtuous brothers, his status anxiety prevented him from doing the right thing. Yet it also couldn’t brook the idea of refusing her entirely, for that would sully his reputation. So, to preserve his reputation, he gave her another charity: that she would always have five sons, for he would not kill any of the Pandavas except for Arjuna. And to preserve that reputation, he honored that word by sparing the other four Pandavas.
Now his sparing their life was honorable, but a similar sense of honor among the Pandavas led to his life being spared too. As mentioned earlier, Abhimanyu and Bhima had both overpowered Karna – and they could have killed him. But to honor the vow of Arjuna that he would be the one to kill Karna, they did not take Karna’s life. So he spared others’ life and others spared his life – score even; nothing extraordinarily great about it.
By choosing his own reputation over the advice of his well-wishing parents to join the side of virtue, Karna chose the word of honor over the life of honor – a subtle but serious error of judgment.
To conclude, Karna demonstrates how attachment to bad association can not only make a good person bad but can also make that person mistake bad to be good.