The Mahabharat is so complex, each character is the lead in their own story, and each character (of the many many characters) could easily have their own post. But I am going to restrain myself and just focus on the two most intriguing (to me) characters of the epic who are not part of the Pandavas or the Kauravas, Krishna and Karna.
The main story of the Mahabharat is between two sets of cousins, the Pandavas, 5 brothers who are mostly good but with their own moments of weakness. And the Kauravas, who are lead by one very bad oldest brother Duryodhana but can have their own moments of greatness. However, while the Pandavas and the Kauravas are the central figures in the battle, each of them truly triumphs thanks to their respective allies, Krishna and Karna. And the stories of Krishna and Karna could, arguably, be the real stories. Because both of them in their own way were more powerful than the leaders they supported.
Let’s start with Karna. Mostly because he is my favorite. Karna was the result of Kunti’s pre-marital sexual experiments, son of the Sun God Surya. Because inheritance law accepts any child of a wife as her husbands, that means that Surya was technically the true heir of the kingdom, the oldest of the Pandava brothers. Really those are two separate things. First, that all of this inheritance battle and debate was in fact moot because secretly, Karna was the heir. And second that the Pandava’s, who hated and insulted him and vice versa, should have loved and revered him as their oldest brother while he should have protected and taught them as his younger brothers.
(This movie is mostly the Ramayan, but this moment when Shahrukh hates Hrithik, not realizing it is his beloved younger brother, is pure Karna and the Pandavas)
Kunti was ashamed of this child, tried to pretend he had not existed. Even to the point of Surya “restoring her virginity” after his birth. She abandoned him in a basket on the river. But she carefully waterproofed the basket with wax, and cried many tears as she sent him away. It’s a powerful vision of a teenage mother, one that resonates through to today because of how real it was. One moment of sexual exploration and joy, which turns into fear and embarrassment as she sees her pregnancy, and finally the horrible heartache of sending away the baby that she is too young to be able to keep, floating him off into the world in a fragile basket that she seals with her love.
Karna was found by a humble charioteer’s wife. She brings him home and she and her husband love the baby and raise him as their own. But when he is grown, they tell him the truth of how they found him and a bitter sense of unworthiness grows within him. He wonders what was wrong with him, why his parents did not love him, why his mother did not keep him. It is a pain that resonates down to today, every adopted child feels this, especially the child of a closed adoption who has not answers available to them. Poor Karna.
(Watch 2:30 to 5:00 in this video to see Mani Ratnam take on the heartache of Kunti sending away Karna)
Karna is a naturally gifted child. He is sent to train with the greatest noble children, learning from the greatest noble teachers. In the Mahabharat and the Ramayan, skills of combat (particularly archery) are seen as the greatest possible achievements. They are the sign of the Kshastriya caste, intelligence and nobility and strength all combined. Karna excels at them, along with all the other topics of training. And his fellow students, all noble born, hate him for this. They tease him for his low blood and blow caste (being the son of a charioteer as they all think). The cruelest of the bullies (according to some versions) is his own brother Arjun who delights in pointing out his humble background. Arjun is the only student who can match him in learning, the two boys constantly challenge each other. Karna grows up solitary and quiet, slow to make friends. But at the same time extraordinarily kind to anyone he sees as weak or in need.
Duryodhana, the Pandavas evil cousin, also grows up with Karna. He sees him (correctly) as the only one with the talent to present a challenge to Duryodhana’s rival Arjun. When they are all grown, they all enter a competition together. Before the competition begins, each contestant must declare his lineage. If Karna declares he is the son of a charioteer, he will be disqualified and thrown out of the competition. At which point Duryodhana steps in and declares that Karna is in fact a king in his own right, with one word making him the ruler of part of his kingdom. Karna is struck dumb with gratitude and asks Duryodhana what he wants in return, to which Duryodhana merely asks for Karna’s friendship. Karna finally has a friend, an ally, the first in his entire solitary life.
(Amitabh in Deewar, his mother and brother just gave him obligations, his father abandoned him, but the gangster is the first to treat him with respect and recognize his value. And thus his life changes course)
Duryodhana quickly moves forward with the ceremony to confirm Karna as a true king. Karna’s father, the charioteer, is brought to the competition grounds to witness and take part in the ceremony. The Pandavas sneer at his low status and name him as “dog-like”. Karna’s hatred for them grows at this insult to his humble loving father. Karna competes in the competition and does well, but the other competitors ignore and avoid him in disgust at his low status and background. Duryodhana seeks him out and stands by him in support, Karna is won over to a lifelong loyalty for Duryodhana by these actions.
(That loyalty, unquestioning and forever promised, even when he knows on some level that those to whom he is loyal are wrong, that is why Kattappa=Karna)
As tensions between the Pandavas and Kauravas continue, Karna is always at the side of Duryodhana, and always quick to use his position to take revenge on the 5 brothers who abused and insulted him his whole life. With the position and security Duryodhana has given him, he is no longer solitary and silent. Instead he becomes a confident aggressive braggart, declaring he can do anything Arjun can do and better. He is always quick to take advantage and twist the knife whenever the Pandavas suffer a loss. But at the same time, he remains noble and generous to anyone he sees as needy or weak. It is only the Pandavas that suffer his hatred.
The Pandavas and Draupadi. Karna is at her Swayamvar along with the disguised Pandavas. According to some versions, Karna actually succeeds in the impossible task of hitting a fish’s eye with an arrow, but Draupadi refuses to marry him because he is low caste and therefore (to her) disgusting. In other versions, he just barely misses the target. Or he does not even participate, merely observes. In any case, Arjun succeeds in the challenge. But he does so while in disguise as a Brahmin. If caste rules were to be fairly observed, he would not be qualified for Draupadi’s hand just as Karna was disqualified for being a lower caste. Karna objects to him winning, but Draupadi overrules him and garlands Arjun anyway.
The general interpretation of Karna and Draupadi’s relationship is that she looked down on him for being low caste (she thought) just as her husbands did. While he resented her for being the wife of his enemies and looking down on him as they did (including rejecting him at her Swayamvar). However, it is also possible to interpret their relationship as poisoned love. This is a popular, although not supported by the text, interpretation. That Draupadi secretly longed for Karna but could never be with him because their positions prevented it, and therefore pretended a hatred in public. More than that, that Draupadi was in fact cosmically “intended” for Karna, Karna combined within himself all the virtues that his 5 younger brothers spread between themselves. Or the reverse, that Draupadi was cosmically “intended” for the 5 Pandavas, but as a woman she desired Karna. Again, this is NOT a correct interpretation, but it’s continued existence and popularity is a sign of the popularity of Karna as a character (we can believe Draupadi secretly loved him because we love him) and a greater sign of female longing, that the proper perfect husband(s) are fine and yet we wish for someone else we could not have. The whole thing is expressed beautifully in the Rajinikanth-Shobhana romance in Thalapathy.
(Rajinikanth and Shobhana love each other passionately, but they belong in two different worlds, she is the calm hymn sung to the temple, he is the wild dance in the streets)
Karna’s lowest moment in the epic comes when he lets his jealousy and anger towards Draupadi free. When Draupadi is dragged out during the dice game, Karna encourages the misbehavior towards her. He is not the one to attempt to pull off her sari, but he does nothing to stop it. Worse, he taunts her for being a loose woman who has 5 husbands. And suggests she tour the kitchens and pick out a servant for a new husband since all of her current 5 are now slaves of Duryodhana having gambled away their freedom. These are terrible insults to give to any woman, especially Draupadi in this moment, and Draupadi in particular who is the pinnacle of virtue and propriety.
But Karna is human. Later, he confesses to Krishna that he deeply regrets his actions in that moment. And that he only spoke so in order to please his friend Duryodhana, he gave in to peer pressure (essentially). And he regrets it and knows he will pay a price later in some way for his actions that went against Dharma. This is the primary time in the epic when Karna directly goes against Dharma. His rivalry and insults towards Arjun never quite crossed that line. Otherwise, he is a brave smart young man who reacts to the constant insults and injustices given to him with clever rejoinders and a burning loyalty to those few who always stayed by him.
Karna was always going to face Arjun and one of them would fall, there was no way around it. But until the end, even Krishna (the Avatar of God who understood things on a deeper level) is trying hard to prevent this confrontation. Because he sees that both men are perfect examples of Dharma and they should rightfully be allies, not enemies. And so he makes one last desperate attempt, during the final battles at Kurekshatra, one evening he secretly goes to visit Karna and give him the choices in life he never really had.
(This sequence is ridiculous and I love it. Dharmendra finally finds his younger brothers, but makes the choice to turn away from them because he no longer feels he has a place with them)
Krishna tells Karna the truth of his parentage. And not only that, promises him that if he accepts his heritage and his birth, Krishna can guarantee that the Pandavas will acknowledge him as their oldest brother and, together, they can defeat the Kauravas. Karna will become the rightful and just king of all the earth. And best of all, he will become one of the husbands of Draupadi. It is everything anyone could want, and it is his birthright and his destiny.
But Karna declines. His real mother is the woman who found and raised him. His real father is the man who loved him as a son. His real wife is the humble woman his charioteer father picked for him. “Bonds of love” are worth more than all the wealth and power in the world. He will not betray them, all those who cared and believed in him, by switching sides.
Krishna still has hope. The next night, he sends Kunti to Karna. Karna greets her, knowing her to be his biological mother, and introduces himself proudly as the son of “Radha and Adhiratha” (his adoptive parents). Kunti tells him that he is her firstborn son, and the god Surya appears to confirm her story. Karna’s response is to say “You discarded me. You destroyed me in a way that no enemy could ever do.” He loves the people who gave him love, his parents and his friends. And so he will stand by them until the end, and reject those who rejected him. The bonds of blood means nothing next to the bonds of love. The best he can offer Kunti is a promise to kill only Arjun and leave her other sons alone. Therefore, no matter the outcome, Kunti will always have 5 sons, just as before.
(Karna bows to her in greeting, as his elder. He rejects her love, but with the respect due to her age and station)
That last promise, that is a complex emotional weapon Karna is wielding. Declaring that, as of now and for all time in the past, Kunti only had 5 sons. Rejecting any claim she may have on him as her 6th son. And equally arguing that Kunti’s only concern is to maintain a stable number, Arjun or Karna, she will not grieve, so long as she still has her 5.
This is not the first opportunity Kunti had to claim Karna. Over and over, she stood by and did nothing while her sons shamed him, going as far back as Draupadi’s Swayamvar. Now, at the last moment, she is trying to stake a claim on him after years of rejection and take him away from the parents and friends who loved him all these years. Of course, from Kunti’s side, she was a scared teenager who wrapped the child in all the love she had to give, and now has been tormented for years watching as the enmity grows between the two sets of her children and she could not find the strength to tell any of them the truth. It’s just sad, in that painful heartstopping way that cannot end and has no respite for either side.
(In some versions, this meeting ends with them embracing and crying together, before saying good-bye, never to speak again before Karna’s death. Not sure if that is more sad, less sad, or equally sad to them ending their meeting without truly coming together)
Karna’s death comes because of another great gesture of humility and Dharma. He was born with armor embedded in his flesh, a sign of his immortal legacy from his father the Sun god which always protected him. In heaven the king of the Gods, Indra, father of Yudhishistra, comes up with a plan to take this armor away. He will come to earth as a Brahmin beggar and ask Karna for it. Surya, Karna’s father, learns of this plan and comes to warn his son. But Karna rejects his warning, says that such a gesture of generosity would be legendary and give him fame beyond death. And so when Indra in disguise comes to him, Karna cuts the armor from his flesh and gives it to Indra covered in his blood. Indra, against his will, is struck by Karna’s greatness and gives him a weapon that will kill whoever it is aimed at but can be used only once.
Arjun and Karna are now set against each other as equals again. Karna is without his immortal armor, but has gained the unstoppable weapon. This is well into the war, the 14th day. Both sides have suffered hideous losses, Arjun’s beloved son died the previous day (attacked from behind while trying to fix his chariot). As the battle begins, Arjun fights terribly and is supported by his nephew, a half-demon who is a master of illusion. For the first time sunset does not end the battle, it continues to rage. Karna’s troops are dying around him. He wants to save his weapon for Arjun, but in order to save his troops on this day and in this moment he must use it against Arjun’s nephew instead. He sacrifices his one advantage in order to bring the bloody day to an end and save his men.
(Here’s a cool statue from Indonesia of Karna killing Arjun’s nephew, Karna is the cool classy one with the arrow, the nephew is the demon seeming one standing on horses)
The next day, Arjun is determined to kill Karna. Arjun goes to battle with Krishna as his charioteer. Karna goes into battle with a king for his charioteer, a king who despises him as beneath his notice. Karna wishes for an ally to help in the battle and instead he finds no support. He still battles nobly and strong, holding Arjun off. But Arjun is determined. Finally, Karna’s wheel becomes stuck. He must leap off the chariot and turn his back in order to loosen it. With his back turned and his hands full, Karna is helpless. Arjun shoots him from behind, killing him.
In some versions, Kunti wanders the field that night searching for the body of her lost son. The Pandavas ask what she is doing, and in grief she reveals to them the truth. That night there is a brief peace between sides as all come together to mourn Karna. In some versions, the Pandavas perform the final rites. In others, Duryodhana begs to be allowed to perform the rites for his best friend, although Yudhishistra has first right by birth, and the Pandavas agree to his request in sympathy for his great grief.
In other versions, it is not until after the war is over that Kunti reveals the truth. Karna is thrown in a mass grave with the other warriors, buried before his family learns who he is, even in death remaining with the common people.
Every version agrees that after the death of Karna, Duryodhana lost all heart for battle and will to live. He was a bad man, but his friendship for Karna was the best part of himself. With the death of Karna, he had nothing, and let himself die the next day, falling to the Pandavas, his body desecrated by them.
(Duryodhana, his body being kicked by the second Pandava brother Bheema)
And most versions agree that, after the battle was over, Karna’s widow was taken by the Pandavas, brought back to their palace and treated as a beloved sister. Karna’s one remaining child was raised in the palace. Arjun became a father and a teacher to him, trying to expatiate the sins of what he did to the father by what he could do for the son.
(Arjun killing Karna at Krishna’s direction)
Karna is perhaps the best character in the epic. Not the best in terms of morality or skill (although he is arguably that as well), but “best” as in the most complex and layered. The most human, the most capable of pain. And therefore, for many people, the one character they love the best. In order versions of the epic, Karna is introduced without much backstory, like the beloved spin off character in a new sitcom. The expectation is that the listeners will already know all about him and be excited to see him.
His lesson of love over bonds of blood, that relationships have to be earned, is a powerful one and a noble one. And his place in the epic is to tell us that there are good people everywhere, those you think of as your “enemies” may in fact be your closest relatives, that everyone is owed love and respect and understanding. And that we should honor those who accept their Karma, Karna pays the debt for his mother’s sin his entire life and rejects a chance to turn it over, to start fresh. His life is what it is and he would not have it another way.