I grew up hearing a lot about Arjuna. About how brave he was and how he was instrumental in the Great Indian battle of the Good vs Evil. Almost unnoticed in the story goes Karna. The tragic hero. The sorry second.
All along the great epic of the Mahabharata,the story of Karna is that of poise, utmost loyalty, tragedy and the ultimate betrayal. No other mythological character, commands such awe and yet cuts such a tragic figure.
The birth of Karna is undesired by his mother. His foster parents, perhaps are the only people who don't take anything away from Karna and therefore hardly get a mention in the whole epic. Cursed by his teacher (Parushurama) for lying about his parentage into forgetting the incantation of a Brahmastra when required the most, Karna proceeds to make his way up. He makes a friend in Durydhona. One of the key relationships in his life. With unwavering loyalty he sides his friend. Durydhona, in return for the kingdom of Anga, asks for Karna's heart. Karna replies "Its already yours"
The complications in his character are also evident during the dice game. He is fighting his own demons. The Great Warrior Karna loses to the Karna who is weighed down by the weight of a crown gifted by Durydhona. Scorned by Draupadi at first during her Swayamvar for his humble parentage. He is incensed when Draupadi does not turn to him for help when she is being humiliated. Years of neglect, humiliation pours out in the only one moment when Karna is not himself. "Unsheathe the dark sword Draupadi from the scabbard of her clothes, she has been dangling all this while on the hips of the impotent Pandavas. Like the shrieking of a flock of parrots fluttering out of their tree-holes these words emerged scattering in a flurry of green feathers... I lifted the plate of my years- long neglect, filled with the flaming embers of revenge and emptied it on Draupadi's proud head"
And Karna feels ashamed. Of himself. He realizes that he has lowered himselves to the level of Kamsa and Shishupala.
However, the two most outstanding virtues of Karna would be his his Supreme Gift of generosity and his spirit of sacrifice. Karna's name is synonymous with sacrifice. It is this infalliable spirit of sacrifice that sets him apart from all other men. The King of Gods , Indra knew that Karna is invincible as long as he has the Kavach (Armour) and the Kundal (earrings) he was born with. Indra also knew that Karna would never refuse anything to anyone. Indra, disguised as a poor brahmin, asks for the armor and the earrings and Karna knows that he was wasn't helping a poor brahmin but Indra in disguise as his father (The Sun God) had already warned him in a dream.
But he readily obliges. The armor and the earrings refuse to part with his body. He cuts them off with a knife and gives it to Indra. Indra, shamed into generosity by Karna's gesture grants him the boon of using his most powerful weapon but only once.
Refusing to side with his brothers after learning the truth about his parentage. Karna symbolises the true spirit of friendship. Surya and Kunti try to cajole Karna to their side. But Karna refuses to side with the Pandavas. but promises his mother that he will not kill any of her sons except Arjuna. Arjuna, his most intense rival. They both have sworn to kill each other. He says that she will have always five sons not six. Either him or Arjuna. He also agrees to use the Naga-Astram against Arjuna only once. And requests his mother to keep the secret of his birth a secret until he dies,He being the true heir to the throne. The lure of power fails to corrode Karna's loyalty towards his friend.
Karna loses the opportunity to use Indra's weapon against Arjuna when Duryodhan asks Karna to save them from Ghatotkacha, the half-asura son of Bhima. Killing an asura at night would require a divine weapon. And Karna had the opportunity to use it only once. And without his armour and earrings. He had to take on an Arjuna, widely equipped with divine weapons, in the battlefield. But by using Indra's weapon against Ghatotkacha, Karna loses his sure weapon for Arjuna's death.
After Dronacharya's fall, Karna faces and defeats all the Pandavas except Arjuna. But spares their lives keeping his promise to Kunti. Fighting with Arjuna , he is first betrayed by his own charioteer, Shalya. And when he fires an all powerful weapon to kill Arjuna, Krishna plunges the chariot into the ground, saving Arjuna narrowly as the arrow strikes Arjuna's crown instead. After putting up a spectacular display of archery Karna's chariot sinks into the ground and the wheels get stuck in the soil. This was apparently due to a curse by a Brahmin whose cow he had killed by mistake. His charioteer refuses to help him. Karna disengages himself from the combat and while he is attempting to remove the wheel from the mud, Krishna exhorts Arjuna to attack Karna. Parushurama's curse ensures that Karna cannot recall the incantation for the Brahmastra and the chariot wheel remains stuck.
Karna in life and in death was all poise. Karna and Lord Krishna have a lot in common. Both being of divine origin, brought up by foster parents, warring with their own relatives. One despite being the king of Anga, was called the son of a Charioteer throughout his life. While the other, being the Supreme Lord Himself, is a Charioteer in War.But, Karna, unlike Krishna, does not even wish to forget his foster parents and beloved of that Suta caste. Krishna does not try to alleviate the pain caused to Karna throughout his life. But callously asks him to change sides in War by revealing facts about his birth.
When Karna was in his dying breath,Krishna assumed the form of a poor Brahmin and approached him. Krishna asked for gold in order to perform the marriage of his son. He implores Karna saying that he had heard a lot about him and not knowing his plight , had come to ask for the favor.
"Oh what a pity! Please go to my wife, she will give you as much gold as you need", said Karna.
The Brahmin broke into a laughter. He said, "For the sake of a little gold have I to go all the way to Hastinapura? If you say, you are not in a position to give me what I ask, I shall leave you."
Karna declared, "As long as breath remains in me, I will not say ‘no’ to anyone." Karna opened his mouth, showed the gold fillings for his teeth and said, "I shall give this to you. You can take them."
Assuming a tone of revulsion, the Brahmin said, "What is it you suggest? Do you expect me to break your teeth and take the gold from them? How can I do such a wicked deed? I am a Brahmin."
Immediately, Karna picked up a stone nearby, knocked out his teeth and offered them to the Brahmin. Krishna in his guise as Brahmin wanted to test Karna further. "What? Are you giving me teeth dripping with blood as a gift? I cannot accept this. I am leaving", he said.
Karna pleaded, "Swami, please wait for a moment." Even while he was unable to move, Karna took out an arrow and aimed it at the sky. Immediately rain dropped from the clouds. Cleaning the teeth with the rain water, Karna offered the teeth with both his hands. Krishna then reveals himself to Karna.
Krishna begged for forgiveness to Karna, something he did not from any other individual who lost their life in the war. As always, the generous Karna, fully aware that Krishna caused his cruel death, forgives Krishna, a sign of the extreme generosity which has not been seen in epics before, even from Gods. But then Karna also indicts Krishna and asked questions that will always remain unanswered. "Why did he not slay Jarasandha with the infallible discuss? Why did he flee in Mathura? How could Jarasandha, whom Karna defeated, defeat Krishna? Above all, who is Krishna?"
Krishna then grants Karna the sight of his Viswaroopa- The vision of the mighty Lord Vishnu. Even Vishnu is overwhelmed by Karna's generosity. Karna is sent straight to heaven. A place the Pandavas would have great difficulty getting in.
Karna is the best example where an extremely talented, righteous individual is doomed because of his association with the Evil. A man wronged because of the choices he made in life. The only blot to his image would be his role in killing an unarmed Abhimanyu. His affection for Duryodhan led to his downfall. And Karna was aware of that. But still he chose to side with his friend.
I have written more about Karna in the post below. It was prompted after watching the Tamil movie Karnan and it’s slightly different ending. I have also listed a few more anecdotes about Karna there. Click on the link below for that post.