The Mahabharata Research
In the ancient Epic (Karna, Vasusena)
Karna is undoubtedly one of the charismatic central characters in Mahabharata. Like Bhishma, Karna as well is greeted with unfortunate events in the early phase of his life, and challenged with difficult dilemmas at the later phase. Born to the princess Kunti, he ended up being abandoned and raised up by the chairoteer Athiratha. But it wasn't in fact a real misfortune, for he got a loving mother in Radha and a caring father in Athiratha. Karna as a child got attracted to archery and desired to learn it. In a way it was unsual for the son a chairoteer to turn a warrior. Being rejected by Drona, he decided to gain the skills from Drona's own guru Parashurama. Very much like Arjuna, Karna also impresses his teacher with his dedication to become the best archer in the world. Impressed by his skills Parashurama shared the knowledge of some super destructive weapons with Karna.
The big turnaround in his life happens when he challenges Arjuna during the demostrations at Hastinapur. When the entire city was mocking his lower caste, he found a surprising support from the Kaurava prince Duryodhana, who gifts him a city, and announces him as the king of Anga. For Karna, this was an unbelievable generousity which he didn't know how to reciprocate with. All he had was his skills, and he offers that in return. His promise of friendship and allegience to Duryodhana at this Rangabhoomi is the real beginning of Karna's misfortunes. Despite knowing that he was on the side of injustice, Karna had to stand by his dear friend. He had to become party to some of the wicked conspiracies of Duryodhana. And over a period of time he got so used to it that, he himself joined the group to insult Draupadi after the game of dice.
Coming to hs warrior skills, Karna was in fact the only warrior believed to be able to defeat Arjuna in battle, an admiration expressed by many characters including Lord Krishna and Bhishma within the body of this work. As per the Mahabharata, Karna was the only warrior in that era who single-handedly successfully conducted Digvijaya, a campaign in which he conquered all kings in every direction of the known world, to establish Duryodhana as the emperor to conduct the Vaishnava sacrifice. He defeats everyone he's fought with except Arjuna. In all the battles he had with Arjuna, Karna ended up on the losing side except for the 16th day of the Mahabharata war, where he gained an upper hand, but was denied victory by the smartness of Krishna. And finally Karna ended up being killed by his sworn enemy Arjuna, but still gaining the gracefulness that the mighty Arjuna had to kill him by unjust means when he was unarmed.
Behind the Hero
Karna fought against misfortunes throughout his life and kept his word under all circumstances. Right from his childhood he was furious about the discrimination against the caste system. He was eager to challenge the social system that denied access to education and training to people of certain caste. His desire to be the best warrior in the world was fuelled by his desire to prove that a chairoteers Son who is rejected by the society can be better than the royals. When Drona rejected him, he didnot lose hope, instead had the attitude to challenge the discrimination which inspired him to learn military skills from Drona's Guru himself. With the fear of rejection, he lied to Parasurama about his background and later got scolded and cursed by his teacher when the truth was revealed.
The biggest turning point in Karna's life as mentioned happens after his return to Hastinapur, when Drona arranges a demonstration for his students. When the entire city gets thrilled watching the uneblievable things that Arjuna performed before them, Drona proudly announces that Arjuna is the greatest archer in the world. Karna who longs for the same title saw this as his opportunity to showcase his skills and create his identity. He challenges Drona's statement and jumps in to demostrate that he can match Arjuna. For Karna, who was looking for a chance to gain attention to his hardwork and skills, suddently the task seemed simple. He doesn't need to fight hundred battles to prove his greatness. Here's someone being praised as the best, and all he need to do is to best this so called best warrior - and Karna was so confident on his skills that he backed himself to do that. But he was faced with humiliation citing his race and lineage. When the kaurava prince jumped in to save him from the humiliation and out of the blue announces him as the king of Anga, he's speechless and is overcome with gratitude. He badly wanted such a recognition, but never expected it to happen, and hence was quick to swear his allegience and his arms to the prince. But when the prince instead offers him his friendship, Karna makes the decisive oath to swear his life, skills and all that he had earned with his hardwork until then to this new friendship. And Karna's life was changed for ever. Over years, his frienship to Duryodhana and hostility towards the pandavas, Arjuna in particular, grew stronger and stronger. And it lead him to join the group in humiliating Draupadi and killing Abhimanyu against all norms and rules.
Karna goes through a lot of dilemma's throughout his life. He had to choose between righteousness and a friendship. When he's revealed his true identity, he's submersed in a deep confusion. The realization that his sworn enemy whom he hated the most is his own brother wasn't able to overcome Karna's hostility towards Arjuna. Over years, he had gotten so close to Duryodhana, and had so deeply hated Arjuna that he stood by his decision to fight Arjuna. Desite knowing that he would be at a big disadvantage against the mighty Arjuna by imposing restrictions on the usage of weapons, he takes this upon himself to console his mother who's facing a great misfortune. Karna emerges clearly a mentally and emotionally strong character. He was able to overcome the emotional blackmail and temptation by the best strategist of the time, Krishna himself. The very fact that he was able to bury his confusion and face the Pandava camp with all his might shows how quickly he could bury the newly found blood relations and stand by his long lasting friendship and fight for the goal he's been waiting for years - to prove himself superior to Arjuna. He becomes party to the cold blooded murder of his nephew Abhimanyu. Burying all his previous losses to Arjuna, he bring up the best fighting spirit of his life against Arjuna and nearly kills him on the 16th day of the war. Apart from his freindship Karna is renowed for his generousity as well. His oath to never leave anyone ,approaching him for help, emptyhanded gets glorified when he decided to offer some promises to his mother Kunti, and when he decided to donate his primary defense system before the war. With lots of positive and negative attributes associated with him, Karna still emerges as one of the most celebrated characters in the epic. His strengths and sacrificess make him one of the most admired characters in modern times.
Karna and Duryodhana:
The Karna Duryodhana relationship is regarded by many as the perfect example of great friendship. The way they valued each other was beyond words to describe. Ever since Karna offered his allegience to Duryodhana at the Rangabhoomi in Hastinapur, he stuck to his promise even during events which he disapproved of. Karna was willing to give up his honour and grace for the sake of his friendship with Duryodhana. And for Duryodhana Karna was the dearest person in the world. But if you take a back seat and look at the intricacies of this relationship, you could notice that it's in fact a relationship boldened with feelings of appreciation,gratitude, obligation and promises. Duryodhana who was terribly disappointed with the rise of Arjuna had lost his hope of challenging the Pandavas. It was then he saw a skilled young man who could stand up to Arjuna, and he grabbed the opportunity to get him to his side. His offer of the kingdom of Anga to Karna was not an act of generousity, but was done with a price tag, which Karna offered immediately. And Karna's affection towards Duryodhana was in fact caused by a single feeling - gratitude for the honour bestowed on him when the entire world was mocking at him. Karna was at times torn between his own moral values and the promise to Duryodhana and he chose Duryodhana over his own conscience.
When people of conflicting principiles associate over a period of time, they are bound to get influenced by each other. In this case, Duryodhana did not really get influenced by the principles and values of Karna, but Karna on the other hand sailed to the depths of sins along with his friend. The Karna who challenged Arjuna at the rangabhoomi was a man of principles who was proud of his righteous nature. Bu the Karna who insulted Draupadi had already become a pawn of his beloved friend and lost his moral values. By the time the war arrived, Karna was already recounting on the unfortunate path that he ended up travelling. But Karna chose to honour his commitment and friendship till the very end, though it brough his own doom, and well for the same reason, he's seen as a symbol of friendship today.
Arjun and Karna:
Arjun or Karna Who is a better warrior? Arjun or Karna? I've come across this question quite often in a lot of forums and discussions, and wasn't surprised to see that many people come up with Karna as the answer. And it's indeed a pity to hear that, since anyone who has read an unbiased version of the epic will never think twice before picking Arjun. For the most authentic version, I would always turn to Kisari Mohan Ganguly's translation (as mentioned in the references), and could find umpteen number of instances where Karna is unable to stand up to Arjun.
While Karna's rivalry with Arjuna is most spoken about, it is less realized that Karna was in fact one of the great warriors that Arjuna rivaled with. The admirers of Karna cite 2 incidents to claim him superiority over Arjun; Arjun's failure to thwart the Nagastra on the 17th day (and Krishna saving Arjun), and Arjun killing Karna when he was unarmed, but all other instances of Arjun's supeiriority are ignored. In a war, no warrior goes unharmed even in victory, and even the mightiest warrior will have their moments of failure. In fact Karna was not the only warrior who got Arjun off-guard. The valient Bhagadatta did it. And of course Karna also did it. But Arjun's superiority could be seen from his victory over the entire Kaurava army (including Karna) at the battle of Virata or from his victory over Karna and Duryodhana's army at the battle of Panchala, or even from the battle with the Gandharva's where Karna had retreated. And Karna's defeat at the hands of Bhim, Satyaki, Abhimanyu, Chitrasena are also often untold.
Karna's character resonates a lot with the image of a modern day hero, and hence rose to the heart of millions of people who read Mahabharata. As the epic transitioned through different sections of the society, he became the hero of the oppressed, of all those who fight against an unjust society. To add to this, Karna's image as a generous donor made him even more admired. Many stories on Karna's valour got added to many local and tribal versions of the epic. These include the story of Krishna praising Karna's might for thrusting Arjun's chariot with his arrows, Karna's heroics to defeat vasuki and save the pandavas, Krishna's test of generosity for Arjun to realize Karna's greatness, and on and on. But you would find none of these stories in K.M.Ganguly's translation. Karna indeed is a great warrior, but a close examination of the epic crowns Arjuna as the greatest warrior of his time.
In Modern versions:
Today Karna stands as a role model for the fight against discrimination. He was a victim of caste based discrimination that existed in ancient India(and still exist in some form today). He's seen as a role model for all those who consider themselves as suppressed and would desire to rise above all the challenges they come across. And Karna is in fact the favorite hero of most of the people who get introduced to the epic. And people feel proud to announce that their personality resonates with that of Karna, or that they are inspired by Karna, or they are impressed by Karna.
Karna is in some way the most overrated character in modern times. He is indeed one of the greatest warriors, whose martial exploits are recorded in detail in the epic. And he's one of the best 5 warriors who fought the Great Mahabharata Battle, and he was considered as a warrior who could match or better Arjuna. But he tasted defeat multiple times, before peaking to gain upper hand on the 16th day of the final battle. He was indeed a great donor, and the epic presents a few instances that shows the generousity of Karna. Folklores that were added to different regional and tribal versions of Mahabharata over centuries brought in numerous tales depicting Karna's valour and generousity. Modern day readers of the epic are often influenced by such later additions and pick Karna as their favourite character. Karna's fall from a man of ethics and principles to a companion of unrighteousness and evilness goes unnoticed. All the misdeeds of Karna during the later part of his life is shadowed by the injustice faced by Karna during his childhood, the misfortune that embraced him before the battle and the unjust manner of his killing makes Karna the most sympathized character today.