If Arjuna was the aspirational hero, Karna was his antithesis – a heroic character whose flaws resulted in his ultimate downfall. Tragedy followed Karna from an early age and his lifelong loyalty to Mahabharata’s villain, Duryodhana, clouded his judgement on many occasions, forcing him to follow the path of adharma despite possessing all the virtues of a good, honest man.
Karna was the spiritual son of Lord Surya and Princess Kunti (who later became Queen of Hastinapur and gave birth to the Pandavas). A sage named Durvasa had given Kunti a mantra that allowed her to summon any God and bear their child. Curiosity got the better of Kunti and she used the mantra to summon Lord Surya, which is how Karna was born.
As he was the son of Lord Surya, Karna was a demi-God. He was born with earrings and a chest armour that made him invincible. A fatal mistake that Karna made was to remove these and donate them to charity later on, which led to him being killed by Arjuna in the Kurukshetra war.
Being a very young woman who was not at marriageable age, Kunti decided to keep Karna’s birth a secret. She put the baby in a basket and placed it in the river Ganges by her palace.
Karna was eventually found by a charioteer’s wife named Radha, who took the baby to her husband Adiratha Nandana (a charioteer), and together they adopted him and raised him as their own. While his parents did tell him he was adopted, Karna discovered his true identity much later, so he led most of his life feeling abandoned and believing he wasn’t an equal to the Kauravas or the Pandavas.
Karna grew up to become an exceptional warrior. He pursued excellence in whatever he did. But his dark side often got the better of him and overshadowed his virtues. His abandonment issues, in a way, explain his deep, but problematic friendship with Duryodhana. While Duryodhana’s evil characteristics were on display for all to see, Karna felt his friend was someone who stood by him when everyone else had abandoned him.
Their friendship was solidified at a weapons trial competition where contestants were chosen on the basis of their royal lineage. After Arjuna announced his royal title, it was Karna’s turn. He didn’t qualify because he was the son of a charioteer. Duryodhana, who believed Karna was an equal to Arjuna as a warrior, took advantage of this opportunity and declared Karna to be the King of the Angas (Bengal). Karna was won over by this kind gesture and vowed to be an ‘endless friend’ to Duryodhana.
For the most part, Karna believed that the Pandavas were his enemy. He was constantly pitted against Arjuna, who matched his skills in sporting competitions. Karna also harboured jealousy and bitterness towards Arjuna after Draupadi chose the latter over the former at her swayamwara. Towards the end of the Mahabharata, we see how these instances become a reason for Karna’s personal suffering, and he regretted every negative thing that he had said.
Karna was as heroic as he was vulnerable. This is more than evident in the scene where he met his biological mother, Kunti, in the midst of the Kurukshetra war. Before this meeting, Krishna revealed Karna’s true identity to him and urged him not to kill any of the Pandavas because they were his half-brothers. When Karna refused to agree to this request, Krishna sent Kunti to convince Karna. This is perhaps the most poignant moment in this epic poem. We witness a brave warrior become almost child-like when he confronts the mother who abandoned him. He doesn’t mince his words when he tells Kunti that even though she gave birth to him, he will always be loyal to his adopted parents – his hurt evident on his face.
Even after finding out the truth, however, Karna still emerged the bigger person. His generous spirit allowed him to forgive Kunti and he promised her that he won’t kill any of his four brothers. While keeping his self-respect intact, Karna told Kunti that in the war, either he would die or Arjuna would, so that she would still continue having five sons. This one-on-one battle between the two brothers resulted in the unfortunate death of Karna, thus bringing to an end one of the most complex, layered characters in the Mahabharata.
Karna reminds us that all human beings have good and bad qualities in them. On the one hand he is a victim of circumstance, but he also creates circumstances that victimise others. While he never wavered in his support for Duryodhana, in the end, he was also willing to accept the mistakes he made, forgive the mother who abandoned him and appreciate the good in the Pandavas, making Karna the anti-hero we all need to understand our own flaws and rise above them when the time comes.