Karna in Mahabharat – Hero or Villain?
Karna is among the most popular and complex characters in the Mahabharata, showing both nobility and nastiness over the course of the story.
In this article, Sadhguru looks at the basis of his undoing – his bitterness.
Sadhguru: In India, for people who are conversant with the Mahabharata, there is a whole culture where Karna is a kind of anti-hero. He is a sweet mango gone bad. He was a wonderful human being gone totally bad because he invested in bitterness. His bitterness took him into a disastrous life story. He was a man with a phenomenal sense of integrity and generosity but all this was lost. He died in the battle in a bad way.
The “Low-Born” King
He was resentful because he did not know whose child he was. But the people who brought him up, did so with utmost love. His foster parents, Radha and Athiratha, loved him immensely and brought him up very well, the way they knew. He always remembered how much his mother loved him. “That is one person who loved me for who I am,” he says. Out of his competence and the will of fate, he became Angaraja – the king of Anga. He got many things and was given a position and place in the palace. In many ways he was also a big king’s sidekick. Duryodhana held him dear and took advice from him. He had everything that life could offer. If you look at his life, the fact of it is that he was a charioteer’s son who became a king. He should have been really happy. A child who is found floating on the water grows up to become a king. Is it not a wonderful thing? But no, he did not give up his resentment. He was always unhappy and miserable because he could not come to terms with what he was being labeled as. Wherever he went, people referred to him as a suta or “low-born” because of his ambitions. Throughout his life he complained about this. All the time, he nourished bitterness within himself about his so-called low birth.
This bitterness made a wonderful human being into such a nasty and ugly character in the Mahabharata. He was a great human being and showed his greatness in different situations, but because of this bitterness, in many ways it was he who turned everything wrong. For Duryodhana, it did not matter what Shakuni said or did, it was Karna’s advice which always sealed the deal. After everything was decided, he would look at Karna, “What shall we do?” Karna could very easily have turned the direction of the whole story.
Tragedy And Sacrifice
His life went through various pitches of tragedy and sacrifice alternately. He displayed this sense of sacrifice continuously, but no good came out of it because he was destroyed by the one thing that mattered to him the most – he wanted to be somebody that he was not, at least in the society. Maybe he actually was in reality, but as far as society was concerned, he wanted to be somebody he was not. Because of this obsession, he continuously blundered. He was an intelligent man. He had enough sense to see that what Duryodhana was doing was wrong. But he was not just a passive participant, he was an active participant who goaded Duryodhana on, many times. Duryodhana’s life could have been saved if only Karna used his intelligence rather than his loyalty and gratitude. He failed to use his intelligence and continuously went from one blunder to another.
A Life Full Of Wrong Turns
When Krishna came to sue for peace, he spoke to Karna. “Why are you doing this to yourself? This is not what you are. Let me tell you what your parentage is. Kunti is your mother and your father is Surya.” Suddenly, Karna broke down. He always wanted to know who he was and where he came from. He always wanted to know who it was who let him off in the river in that little box. Suddenly, he realized that he had been actively trying to nurture hatred towards the five Pandavas, even though it was not naturally so. Because of his gratitude to Duryodhana, somewhere, he believed he must hate these five people. Though there was no hatred in his heart, he worked it up all the time and came out meaner than anyone. If Shakuni said one mean thing, he would say the next mean thing. And he wouldn’t stop there because he was always working up his hatred trying to prove his loyalty and be grateful for what Duryodhana had done for him. Somewhere deep inside, he knew that everything he was doing was wrong, but his loyalty was so strong that he continued to do it. He was a wonderful guy but he continuously made mistakes. All our lives are like that – if we make one wrong choice, it takes ten years to recover, isn’t it? He never recovered because he made too many wrong turns.
Was Karna Good or Bad?
Karna meets his end from Arjuna's arrow.
Existence is not making a judgment about who is good or bad. It is only social situations that try to judge people as good and bad. It is only individual human beings who try to judge you as good and bad. Existence never judges because it is not written anywhere that one thing is good and some other thing is bad. It is just that if you do the right things, the right results happen to you. If you don’t do the right things, the right things do not happen to you. I think that’s perfectly fair. All the Karna fans think it is unfair that he should have been put through so much. I think it’s perfectly fair. Society may not be fair, but the existence is perfectly fair – unless you do the right things, the right things will not happen to you. If existence was not like this, there would be no value for doing the right things or for human intelligence. Nothing that we value in our life would be valuable if you could do wrong things and still the right things happened to you. Life doesn’t work like that.
Editor’s Note: Watch the Leela series, for more of Sadhguru’s talks on Krishna.