By Caitanya Carina Dasa

A mistaken sense of loyalty drives a hero to follow a villain instead of his greatest well-wisher.

The Mahabharata is a fascinating book, with many of its characters not clearly black or white, but multiple shades of gray. Karna, for example, is an intriguing character – virtuous, yet choosing the side of the vicious Kauravas; born as a warrior, but treated lifelong as charioteer’s son; a great archer, but defeated and killed in a fight with another great archer.

Through a series of questions and answers, let’s see where Karna falls on the spectrum of black to white.

Was not Arjuna’s killing of Karna when Karna was chariotless 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 chariotless warrior should not be attacked was violated first by the Kauravas’ side. On the thirteenth day, six of their maha-rathas, 1including Karna, ganged together to kill the chariotless Abhimanyu. So, Karna simply reaped what he had sown – he violated the code first by attacking the chariotless 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, Arjuna’s 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 chariotless, 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 Arjuna, 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, remounted his stationary chariot, and resumed fighting – or he could have fought from the ground itself, as had Arjuna on the fourteenth day. Karna’s 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 2his 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 ,3when Arjuna, dressed as a brahmana, won the princess’s 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 versus Arjuna, and Salya versus Bhima. While Bhima bested Salya, 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 to war? 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 awe-inspiring 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.

Was Karna not wronged because society considered him lowborn?

1. Yes, but that caste-by-birth notion was a deviation from the Vedic norm, a deviation that is acknowledged in the Bhagavad-gita.

Krishna states in the Gita (4.1, 2) that the spiritual knowledge He had given at the start of the creation had become obscured by the power of time. 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 being 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 (4.13) 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.

2. It could well be said that Karna had an unfair advantage since his birth because he was born with an impenetrable armor. When so much is said about what he lost because of his perceived low birth as a charioteer’s son, why not talk about what he gained at birth? None of the Pandavas, despite being born from celestials, had a congenital armor – Karna started off with a big advantage over Arjuna. If the match was fixed against Karna due to his low birth, then it was fixed for him due to his congenital armor. So, the net result could be said to be a level playing field. Why make such a big fuss about his being deprived due to his low birth?

Eventually, Karna did get a kingdom (Anga, given by Duryodhana), the friendship of kings (Duryodhana and his friends), and the respect of kings (he was made the commander of the Kaurava army, which included many powerful kings).

3. Additionally, who doesn’t get wronged at some time or the other in life? Were the Pandavas not wronged when they had to live in the forest like fugitives after their residence in Varanavata 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, they 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.

Was Karna not an exemplary man of honor, in that he promised Kunti he would not kill any of her sons except Arjuna and kept that promise?

Yes, that was laudable, but better would have been to do 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 favor honor over virtue. He wrongly considered 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 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 he 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: the promise that she would always have five sons; he would not kill any of the Pandavas except Arjuna. He honored his word – again, to preserve his reputation.

Now, his sparing the Pandavas’ lives was honorable, but a similar sense of honor among the Pandavas led to their sparing Karna’s life. As mentioned earlier, Abhimanyu and Bhima had both overpowered Karna – and they could have killed him. But to honor Arjuna’s vow that he would be the one to kill Karna, they did not take Karna’s life. So he spared the lives of others, and others spared his life – score even; nothing extraordinarily great about this action of Karna’s.

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.

When Krishna offered Karna kingship of the Pandavas’ kingdom if he defected to their side, Karna refused the offer and chose to stay on Duryodhana’s side. Doesn’t this make him a glorious example of a faithful friend?

Sadly, no. It makes Karna a classic but tragic example of a good person becoming bad due to bad association – and then mistaking faithfulness to that bad association to be a matter of honor.

It is true that Duryodhana helped Karna in his time of need by giving him the kingdom of Anga. And it is laudable that Karna was grateful to him for that generosity. Yet in the larger picture, the Kauravas were immoral and evil. The way Duryodhana dishonored the Pandavas and especially their wife was heinous.

When an honorable person gets unknowingly entangled in something dishonorable, then honor requires that the honorable person come out of the mess when coming to know of it, not stay in it in the name of honor.

To illustrate with a provocative parallel, suppose a starving boy in Pakistan is offered food and shelter by the hate-spouting madrasas that brainwash people into becoming suicide bombers. The boy may not be initially aware of the evil agenda of his helpers, but when he becomes aware, should he in the name of loyalty to those who helped him once continue lifelong to be a part of a machinery of death and destruction?

Karna may not initially have had any idea of the evil nature of Duryodhana, but when he came to know about it, he should have parted ways. But unfortunately, far from parting ways, Karna not only joined Duryodhana’s way, but also egged on the wicked Kaurava further along that way. Karna, in his mistaken desire to please Duryodhana, suggested the dishonoring of Draupadi. Karna’s joining Duryodhana emboldened the arrogant Duryodhana to become even more insolent, imagining that he could excel the military prowess of the Pandavas, thereby courting self-destruction and causing world destruction.

When Krishna came as a peace messenger, the compromise He proposed shows His extremely accommodating nature, His willingness to go to any length to avoid or minimize bloodshed. Krishna told Duryodhana that he could have the whole kingdom except for five villages for the five Pandavas, but that evil prince rejected the proposal.

Then Krishna, knowing that bloodshed was inevitable, decided to try to minimize it. He knew that the various formidable Kaurava generals like Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, Ashvatthama, and Shalya bore no animosity towards the Pandavas – they would fight only because they were obliged to. The only formidable Kaurava general apart from the Kaurava brothers who was bent on the fight was Karna. If he could be won over, then that would break the back of Duryodhana’s obstinacy. It might even persuade him to agree to a peaceful settlement. If not, at least it would shorten the fight. With this intention to minimize violence, Krishna invited Karna to come on the side of the virtuous Pandavas. And when Krishna offered Karna the kingdom, that offer was not as a temptation but as Karna’s rightful legacy as the eldest Pandava.

It was Krishna’s accommodating nature that he not only gave Karna a chance to do the right thing, but also offered him an unparalleled reward for doing the right thing. After all the wrong things Karna had participated in or even instigated, it could well be said that he didn’t deserve such an offer. Yet Krishna magnanimously made the offer, thereby making it as easy as possible for Karna to do the right thing at least at that late stage. When Karna refused that offer, he chose wrong instead of right – all due to a mistaken sense of honor.

From the devotional perspective, Karna rejected God for the world; he gave greater importance to being honored by the world than by God. He didn’t have the intelligence to recognize that whatever Duryodhana had given him ultimately belonged to God, who had given it temporarily to Duryodhana. And it was that God who was now offering him the world’s emperorship.

Even if Karna didn’t accept Krishna as the Supreme God and so didn’t consider His word authoritative, he could at least have accepted the authority of his own worshipable god, Suryadeva. That effulgent deity advised Karna that for his own well-being he should side with the virtuous family of his birth and not the vicious family that he had befriended. Yet Karna stuck to his own notion of what would be honorable.

What Krishna was inviting Karna to was not defection, but redemption – a return to the path of virtue that Karna would probably have tread had he not become attached to Duryodhana.

To err is human, but for Karna to continue in error, in the name of loyalty, was stupidity. And when that mistaken loyalty caused the death of millions, it ceased to be mere stupidity; it became monstrous perversity. Karna’s mistaken loyalty was his greatest inner enemy, and it made him a puppet in the hands of the evil Duryodhana.

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 for good.


1. Literally “great chariot,” the phrase refers to the greatest chariot fighters.

2. A gift offered to one’s guru or teacher, such as at the time of initiation or graduation.

3. A ceremony in which a princess chooses her husband from a group of suitable princes.