The story of Karna has to do a lot with how a girl’s curiosity for a “gift” led her to a miserable life which became a curse not only for her but also for her great son whose life was plagued with injustice. It can aptly be said that it is a story of a tragic hero who had royal blood in him but was never considered royal; leave aside the respect and honour he deserved. It is a story in which a warrior gave his life for friendship, even though it meant being on the opposite side of his brothers the Pandavas(who knew nothing of karna’s existence till he was killed by one of them, namely Arjun).
More notably it is a story of a great soul who was a great philanthropist and in one instance gave away his very protective body armor (‘Kavacha’) and a pair of earrings (‘Kundala’), which he was born with.( which the sun god, his father had given to him so that he could not be killed by anyone.)
The story of karna cannot begin or end without Kunti being the central character. She was Karna’s biological mother. The best metaphor to represent her in this present era are those girls who are from well to do families and want “freedom” but end up with teenage pregnancies and then abandon their new born, not letting anyone know in the process about what occurred, thereby manifesting a life of misery for the child.
Kunti’s other sons Yudhistra, Bhim and Arjun were sons by various other gods as Pandu was cursed that he cannot have physical relations with his wives or any women.(since pandu accidentally killed a Rishi in forest hunting who had taken the form of deer and was enjoying with his mate. The Rishi cursed Pandu that he would similarly die when he would mate with his wife therefore can never bear sons as per a curse by a sage).
In short Kunti was quite the matriarch, I bet modern feminist would be so proud of her achievements of having kids with whoever she wanted, though it is been reported in Mahabharata that she had a mantra that she could call upon any god for a “gift”.)
Karna’s Birth :
When Kunti called Sun god with a mantra to test the validity of the mantra, which was provided to her by a sage who was happy with her service towards her when the sage came to her palace (after all the women empowerment and liberation are key factors here) she got scared and wanted the Sun God to go away, but he pleaded his helplessness against the power of mantra. (she was one with captivating spell)
Surya dev (or Sun God) however assured Kunti that even after being blessed with a son, she would still remain a virgin and would not have to suffer any opprobrium. And so Karna was born with kavach and kundal (armor which would make him invincible). Kunti was nevertheless afraid of social stigma and therefore she abandoned the child. She put Karna in a basket and placed the same in the Ganges river, the basket was seen by Adhirath, a charioteer, who had no issues. He picked up the baby and brought him up. That is why Karna is also sometimes called Sarathiputra. Thereby karna became the illegitimate eldest son of Kunti. (the irony of the situation is that there are many karnas born even today).
On a personal note one would never forgive Kunti for what she did to Karna,even though many feminist can go gaga over her problem. The point however would remain that she never owned up her responsibility and her fault till the end. So even though she was karna’s mother, from my view point she was the reason that karna had to suffer so much in life and one would rarely sympathies with such a character, her “pain” was nothing compared to the pain endured by karna throughout his life. (though many would disagree with my viewpoint)
Teachings and the curse by Parshuram:
As Karna grew up, he became more interested in the art of warfare than in merely being a charioteer like his father Adhirata. Karna met Dronacharya, who was an established teacher in the art of warfare. Dronacharya taught the Kuru princes, but refused to take Karna as his student, since Karna was a son of a charioteer and Dronacharya only taught Kshatriyas, or warriors. (another case of elitism in education system and deep arrogance)
After being refused by Dronacharya, Karna sought his brother Shona’s help. But in Indian culture, to learn an art you must have a teacher, so Karna appointed the sun god as his first taecher, learned to wield his weapons during the day by gathering information about the various weapons and practiced with them after sundown.
Karna was keen to acquire the Brahmastra mantra from the great teacher Parshuram. However, he knew that Parshuram gave instructions to Brahmins (the priestly tribe) only (call it elitism in education system). So he disguised as a Brahmin and beseeched Parshuram to accept him as a disciple. Parshuram accepted him as such and started giving him instructions.
One day when Parshuram was resting in Karnas lap, it so happened that a bee stung Karna on the lower part of his thigh (It was Lord Indra who did that by taking the form of a bee). It was very painful and he started bleeding. However, fearing that if he moved his legs, he would awaken Parshuram, he did not move at all and continued to suffer. When Parshuram woke up, he saw Karna bleeding.
He cursed him immediately as he believed that a Brahmin cannot suffer so much physical pain. Only a kshatriya (the warrior tribe) can endure so much discomfort. Karna was obliged to disclose his identity. Parshuram was greatly annoyed because he was a sworn enemy of Kshatriyas. He therefore cursed Karna that as he had learnt through deceit, he shall forget the skill which Parshuram had taught him at the crucial juncture.
Karna pleaded that any student would have acted in the same way and that he was the son of Vasusena, a mere charioteer and not a Kshatriya. But while Parashurama regretted cursing Karna in a moment of anger, his curse was irrevocable (This shows how 2nd misjudegment after kunti’s resulted in the downfall of karna). In order to subside the curse Parashurama gave to Karna as a gift the celestial weapon called Bhargavastra, along with his personal bow called Vijaya, for being such a diligent student.
Then there was another curse in which he accidentally killed a poor bhramin’s cow who cursed him helpless in the same way the innocent cow had become, by his chariot wheels getting stuck to his ground. (The reason on his death he was not on his chariot when Arjun killed him)
Draupadi and karna
The problem with Draupadi was that she was as flawed as Kunti but with loads of EGO inside her. (It seems to me that it was karna’s fate to have such flawed women in his life even though his quality as man was what women always wish in a son or a husband)
It is said that when Draupadi was once praying for a husband, she asked that her husband be:
1) Righteous and good
2) Strong and brave
3) A great warrior
4) Good looking
Lord Shiva told her that no one man can have all the 5 qualities. But as usual Drupadi highly stubborn and egoistic would not relent, Lord Shiva granted her wish. Except she had to be the wife of 5 brothers- each Pandav brother had one of the qualities she desired.
Yudhistra (righteous and good)
Bheem (strong and brave)
Arjun (a great warrior)
Nakul and Sahdev (good-looking/handsome).
However it is said, Karna had all these 5 qualities- he was after all technically the eldest of Kunti’s son .
When he went for her swamwar (where a woman is allowed to choose her husband, yes it was very liberating experience back then in ancient India too), where Pandav were dressed as Brahmins or Priests. She insulted him by calling him a mere son of a charioteer who DARED to think of marrying a princess, being true to her egoistic nature (after all she considered herself to be very EDUCATED and she believed that she knew everything about karna, another case where her arrogance was at best, as in reality karna was of Royal Blood and eldest brother of 5 Pandav, so in short was the perfect husband for her, Krishna here too played his spoiler game by misguiding Draupadi)
Karna and Arjun
It would be right to say that their fight was much like two tigers fighting for their pride , only that in this case Karna knew the truth but Arjun didn’t. The hostilities between Karna and Arjun were since childhood were in when he heard his brother shone tell about Arjun piercing through the eyes of a fish. Karna retaliated that he could pierce through two eyes of the fish with just one shot.
The Arjun’s humiliation of karna again and again by calling him the son of a mere charioteer or shurdra ( lowly ranked Servant ) who DARED to fight the kshatriyas or warrior tribe men made the blood of karna boil. Then the biggest reason fight between them is Draupadi (who I think was born just to get Mahabharat started with absolute egoism)
Many have said Karna was wrong in calling Draupadi a whore while she was being stripped by Durshasan. He said that saying that a women having more than one husband is a whore (as Draupadi had five Pandavas to be called as Husbands).
Though one would like to bring a different perspective here. Karna’s attempt to humiliate Draupadi and damage her spirit can be seen as revenge act. Draupadi too humiliated karna and damaged his spirit and kept on doing so till the end, by calling a shudra ( son of a servant). If a woman’s pain and humiliation is taken into account then why shouldn’t a man’s pain be considered, after all earlier he gave her full respect and wanted to love and honour her as his bride but she called him names ?
His death was a result of a series of curses which he received in his life. Those curses were due to the misjudgment of the ones giving them. It was also due to his mother who did not care about her eldest son but was content with her 3 sons and 2 step-sons, though she came to plead to him before the day he was suppose to fight Arjun to not fight,but Karna said it was too late for her to recognize him as her son.It was also result of his giving up of his body Armour and earning with which he was born to Lord Indra who came disguised as a poor Brahmin. Karna use to pray to Sun God at every noon and he was famous for giving away anything that some asked from him at that time even if it may lead to his death. Indra capitalized on that nobility of karna and asked for his armour to save his son. Indra, shamed into generosity by Karna’s gesture, reciprocated by giving Karna the boon to use his most powerful weapon, the Vasavi shakti, but only once. It was then that Karna earned the name Vaikartana, as he cut the armour off his body without flinching.
During kurushetra war,while fighting against Arjun, karna’s chariot wheel sank into the ground in loose, wet soil. Descending from his chariot to remove the wheel, he requested Arjuna to wait, as the etiquette of battle allowed. However, Krishna instructed Arjun to kill Karna while he was weaponless even though rules of war state that no warrior will raise his arms against an opponent who is without his weapon. But Krishna knew that in a fair war, Arjun would not be able defeat Karna. His rationale was that killing Karna was critical to win the war and hence a necessary evil.
The real deal and Karna on management:
The real deal is that world did not deserved a great and noble warrior as karna. His defiance, fight against odds, anger, philanthropy, courage, hunger for knowledge, honorable conduct, devotion to teacher and loyalty towards friend, all are traits for deep admiration. The world never recognized while he was alive his greatness. In corporate world there will be karnas who will keep on doing their duty because it shall be done, even though it means fighting against all odds. In the end they may or may not get RESPECT for their efforts.
Karna in today’s world:
They are all around you, the only thing is that those of the likes of Bhishma or Krishna can see right through them. For rest, it is no need to know who is Karna as their life of arrogance will get affected and so will Karna’s charm.
PS: for those who want a woman’s perspective on karna can visit http://seema-suchislife.blogspot.in/2010/05/complete-man-karna.html