Character Sketch of Karna in Mahabharata, Is Karna a Hero or Villain?

Character Sketch of Karna in Mahabharata, Is Karna a Hero or Villain?

 Karna in Mahabharata

Karna or Vasusena is one of the most admired as well as controversial characters of the Mahabharata. His birth begins with mystery. In these sections- ‘The Dicing’, ‘The Sequel to the Dicing’ and ‘The Temptation of Karna’, several facets of Karna’s character have evolved. His character invites criticism as well as praise. It is difficult to deliver a final verdict to the character of this man. Though he was following the path of adharma but he was forced to follow against his own will. He deserves praise because he always challenged the colossal forces. He accepted the friendship of Duryodhana and sacrificed every pleasure of life to keep his friendship intact.

The character of Karna in section ‘The Dicing‘ and ‘The Sequel to the Dicing‘ invite criticism but the section ‘The Temptation of Karna’ present Karna as the real son of lord Surya. Karna was the friend of Duryodhana. He knew the jealousy of Duryodhana against the Pandavas. He did not want to hurt the pride of Duryodhana but tried to keep him happy. This may be called the moral lapse of Karna but one should have to keep in his mind that when Karna was struggling for his identity, Duryodhana declared him Anga Naresh (the King of Anga). He never came out from this debt of Duryodhana. He remained indebted to Duryodhana till his last breath.

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Karna used diatribe against the Pandavas and the queen Draupadi. His words were harsh and did not suit the status of mighty warrior. He was one of the conspirators against the Pandavas. He was instrumental in the humiliation of the Pandavas after the defeat of king Yudhisthira by Sakuni. Sakuni provoked Yudhisthira to stake Draupadi. Sakuni once again defeated Yudhisthira. Duryodhana wanted to bring Draupadi in the midst of Assembly Hall. Draupadi declined to come with the usher. She wanted to know her position. When Yudhisthira staked Draupadi, he had lost freedom. He was a slave. This prompted Duryodhana to send Duhsasana to bring Draupadi. Duhsasana brought Draupadi by force. He physically mauled Draupadi and also molested her. The mighty warrior like Karna did not speak a single word against this injustice because everything was done at the behest of his friend Duryodhana. When the status of Draupadi was debated in the Assembly Hall he spoke against her. He knew that Draupadi was a helpless meek woman. Vikarna, the younger brother of Duryodhana spoke against the game of dicing and supported the Draupadis cause of for her freedom. Karna opposed it to soothe the ego of his friend Duryodhana. This is a serious blemish on his character. Karna had the deep knowledge of Vedas. Moreover, he was a man outstanding courage. He should have shown the kindness towards the helpless woman.

The debate continued and Duhsasana was ordered by the Kuru scion Duryodhana to bring Draupadi in the midst of Assembly Hall. Duhsasana pulled the hair of Draupadi in a very cruel manner. He mauled her. She was molested by Duhsasana before the people in the people in the Assembly. Karna’s truthfulness departed from his heart because he was in the company of his callous friend Duryodhana. He failed to hear the helpless voice of a meek woman whose husband had turned into a slave. Probably Karna had a grudge against Draupadi because he was debarred to become the participant of Draupadi’s swayamvar as he was suta and hence suta putra, Bhimasen became very angry to see the plight of Draupadi and he took oath to break the chest of Duhsasana. He oathed to drink the blood of this fiend. Bhimasen was only treading the path of dharma otherwise the Assembly Hall would have turned into battle field. The sage Vaisampayana has narrated the anger of Bhimasen.

…But if the king of Dharma unleashes me, I shall crush the evil band of Dhrtarastra
with the sword like flats of my hands, as a lion flattens small game!

Bhisma, Drona and Vidur pacified the anger of Bhima. Karna came to the rescue of the evil bands of the Kauravas. Karna called Draupadi a slave’s wealth. She was the wife of the Pandavas who had become a slave.

Karna said:

The wife of a slave, you are his now, my dear: A masterless slave wench, you are
now slave wealth! …. Now quickly choose you another husband Who will not
gamble your freedom away: For license with masters in never censured : That is
the slave’s rule, remember it!

Karna crossed the boundary of royal rules and civility. He forgot his position as suta’s son. Bhimasen though himself a slave reminded Karna the rule of serfdom.

Bhima said:

I do not anger at a suta’s son, For the Law of serfdom is surely upon us

The behaviour of Karna had a touch of arrogance. He behaved in uncivil way. He had become devil in his words. He hurt the Pandavas and queen Draupadi by his cruel words. The Pandavas had landed to slavehood and he got the opportunity to assault them verbally in the Assembly Hall. Vaisampayana has depicted his ugly behaviour.

“…The Gods have laid down that a woman shall have one husband, scion of Kuru. She
subunits to many men and assuredly is a whore!…..”

“Duhsasana, this Vikarna is only a child, blabbing of wisdom! Strip the clothes from the Pandavas and Draupadi!”

Duhsasana immediately went to Draupadi and tried to strip her clothe. The honour of Draupadi was saved and restored by the almighty lord Krishna. Duhsasana became tired but he failed to strip the clothe from the body of Draupudi. Vidura narrated the story to Kuru king Dhrtarustra. He wanted to bring morality and justice in the Assembly Hall. The king had forgotten his duty and deviated from his path. There was a chaos and pandemonium in the Assembly Hall. Vidura and Gandhari charged the Kuru king for his indecision. The king was blind in love for his son. Vidura told that the people will laugh to Kuru king on his indecision.

At last, the Kuru king called his son a fool who failed to give respect to a woman in the Assembly. Though these words were against his own wishes. Further to amend the outrageous behaviour of the Kauravas and his sons, the Kuru king gave two boons to Draupadi. She utilised these boons judiciously. In the first boon she secured the freedom of her husband. In the second boon she restored the previous status of the Pandavas. Karna appreciated Draupadi for her wisdom.

Karna said:

Of all the women of mankind, famous for their beauty, of whom we have heard, no
one have we heard accomplished such a deed! …. Krsna Draupadi has become the
salvation of the Pandavas! When they were sinking, boatless and drowing, in the
plumbless ocean, the Pancali became the Pandavas’ boat, to set them ashore!

These words of Karna deserve appreciation. He praised her virtues but the words he employed earlier against her character had done irreparable damage to Karna’s own reputation.

In the section ‘The Temptation’, Karna deserves praise for his extra ordinary qualities. He triumphed the weakness of human flesh. He appeared as a towering personality. Even the god failed to tempt him. He surrendered his material benefits for the sake of his friendship with Duryodhana. The mother Kunti failed to deviate his son from his path of his own self principled life.

Krishna knew the importance of Karna. He failed in his mission to bring peace between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Krishna saw the ray of hope for peace only lied with Karna. Karna was the friend of the Kuru scion Duryodhana. Duryodhana relied too much on Karna. He wanted to dissolve the friendship between Karna and Duryodhana to avoid the battle between brothers. He went to Karna and explained the mystery behind his birth. In fact, Karna was the elder brother of the Pandavas. He was born before the marriage of Kunti. He was unwedded child of Kunti. Krishna told that he was the rightful heir of the kingdom which belonged to the Pandavas. It was robbed by the Kauravas. He requested Karna to fight for the cause of the Pandavas. Karna was offered the kingdom of the Pandavas and also Draupadi as his wife. He was not tempted by this offer of almighty. Krishna told him that he was not a son of a Wagoner. The almighty told that he would be accepted by the Pandavas.

The god says;

I myself shall perform your consecration. You will be king, with Yudhisthira as
your younger deputy. 

Karna heard everything. He had faced humiliation through out his life. He was denied the opportunity to participate in the marriage of Draupadi because of his caste. He was called suta putra. The same Draupadi was offered to him as his wife.

The picture of glorious future was presented to Karna. He had passed aspersion to this Pandavas and Draupadi through out his life. He did not get what he deserved. He was compelled to tread the path of life which the fate compelled to him. He was abandoned by his mother Kunti. He was flowed in the river. He was reared by wagoner father Adhiratha and mother Radha. He loved his own identity. He did not want to dilute his identity. Now he was a suta and he had accepted this identity very gladly. He had immense love and respect for his foster father and mother. He did not see any hope to become one with the Pandavas. Karna did not want to hurt his foster father and mother by attaining new identity.

Kunti abandoned me. She cast me out

Adhirtha found me, and he and Radha

 loved me from the first. Out of love for me

Radha’s breast poured forth milk immediately.

Karna made it clear that he had no problem in his identity of suta putra. He was married to suta girls. He had fathered children with his suta wife. He was the friend of Duryodhana and who had cherished high hope from him. He did not want to desert Duryodhana because he gave him identity to challenge the Pandavas. He was declared Anga Naresh by Duryodhana. Now Duryodhana’s army was ready to fight. He had prepared for the war. Karna told Krishna that he knew he was following the path of adharma. He had decided to support Duryodhana. Krishna was in the side of the Pandava i.e. dharma.

The defeat of the Kauravas became almost certain. He told that his death is waiting for him. He had no remorse for it. He knew the result of the war Karna told that even if he will be given the kingdom by the Pandavas, he will surrender it at the feet of Duryodhana. He further told that he kept his enmity with Arjuna only. He will never hurt the other Pandavas. Karna told that he had a different dream for the Pandavas. Karna told Krishna about his dream.

I had a dream – Yudhisthira ascending steps to a huge palace – with his brothers.

When Karna was not tempted by the material benefits and beauty of Draupadi, Kunti tried to bring Karna on the side of the Pandayas, But Karna had a serious complaint against his mother Kunti. When he was left by her, she had serious compulsion. But when she became dignified queen, she should have accepted him as her son. For Karna nothing is important in his life except honour.

So I have no illusion. But my honour

is more precious to me than life itself. ….

I have pledged to die, if die I must.

She met Karna early in the morning. She had disguised herself. She told Karna about the mystery of her birth. She told him that he was not a suta’s son. Kunti told that he is her son. It was endorsed by lord Surya.

that came from the sun : Kunti speaks the truth;

obey your mother and you will benefit.

Karna did not deviate from his path. He scolded his mother for not coming to his help. He was sneered, mocked and humiliated by the Pandavas and other as suta putra. But he promised his mother that she will always remain the mother of five sons. He told that only Duryodhana qualifies his love. He gave words to his mother that he will not harm his brothers except Arjuna.

But here is my word- only Arjuna,

not his brothers, will meet death at my hands.

 Kunti sobbed and departed from the place.

The character of Karna has touch of pathos and pity. He struggled through out his life against the odd forces but remained true to his own self principled life.

He was left by his own mother. He lost his own identity of kshatriya. Karna wascalled suta putra because he was reared by wagoner Adhirtha and his wife Radha. He loved his foster father and mother. They belonged to suta caste. His own brothers teased him because of his caste. He was bestowed with the novel identity by Kuru scion Duryodhana, when he declared him Anga Naresh  (the king of Anuga Pradesh). He remained indebted to his friend till his last breath. He very polity declined to accept the new Identity offered by lord Krishna. He was above from material and mundane pleasure of life. His character attracts our attention because of his selfless instinct.

The Good Aspect of Karna’s Character

Karna: Chivalrous Warrior and Powerful Archer

Karna in Mahabharata is the mighty warrior. In archery he even surpassed another greatest figure of Pandava, Arjun. Arjun had no such capacity to kill Karna in the battle. Indra and Lord Krishna helped Arjuna to execute Karna. Karna never stooped to the ultimatum and fought like a superhero in spite of all adverse circumstances and finally met his death.

Generous and Charitable Nature

Just because of this very nature Karna made an idiom by his name as ‘Data Karna’  or ‘Daan Veer’ (A man with high charitable nature). The Son of Surya, Karna, was born with an armour and golden earrings, which protected him and made him unconquerable. Indra knew this and he disguised himself as a Brahmin and went to Karna and asked him to give his armour and earrings. Karna removed his armour from his body at once and gave it to Indra along with his earrings. Being surprised at Karna’s generosity, Indra offered Karna his unbeatable weapon named “Shakti”.

Karna : A Man of High Value

Lord Krishna tried to tempt Karna by offering him the opportunity to be the king of entire kingdom along with Draupadi as his wife. But Karna denied it straightway. This is an evidence of his moral nature.

Karna : Grateful and Committed

Karna remained ever grateful to his dear friend even though he knew he is on the wrong track of Adharma. But he never forgot the kind of respect Duryodhana showered upon him even at his most critical situation of his life. He was well aware of the consequence of the battle. Though he never ditch his friendship and kept his words intact even sacrificing his own life.

Karna: Never forget his Past

Karna never forgot his past life. He was going through unspoken pang and agony in his life when people cursed him as bastard or suta putra (son of low caste). His poor wagoner parents reared him with love and care. Though he had a royal hope as offered by Lord Krishna, he did not reject his foster parents and decided to stay with them.

Karna: Love for Mother

He had an immense love and respect for his foster parents as well as his blood mother, Kunti. Yes a sense of deep hatred has been nurtured in the heart of Karna for Kunti, but he paid due respect to her when she came to meet Karna.

Karna: A Tragic 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. Only for this reason he was deprived to have proper education and training from Drona and cursed mercilessly by Parasurama. He fought against all his odds in life. He never got what he deserved in his life. Even then he had outstanding prowess of a mighty warrior, sometimes even greater than Arjun. His heroic death captures million hearts with sympathy and pathos.

Bad Aspect’s of Karna’s Character

Dishonour towards Womanhood (Draupadi)

During the game of dice, in front of Karna’s eyes Daupadi, his own brothers’ wife was insulted and molested by Duhsasana publicly, but he remained as a silent spectator and thus stigmatized his own manhood who doesn’t know to respect woman.

Killer of his own nephew

In a fire of revenge against Arjuna he murders his nephew Abhimanyu cold-bloodedly.

Is Karna Good or Bad?

There is a sharp debate regarding this hot issue. There are plenty who are on the side of Karna, while another party is on the other side. Undoubtedly the Character of Karna catches everyone’s attention. But 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.

Karna, even though a legendary character in Mahabharata, had walked through the paths of evil which ultimately caused his downfall and catastrophe. This gives us a lesson that no matter how powerful you are if are going through the paths of evil or Adharma your doom is definite. The character of Karna is a sharp contrast between the character of Arjuna – between Dharma and Adharma – where ultimately Dharma wins. So we cannot claim Karna thoroughly good character.


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. He became the hero of the oppressed, of all those who fight against an unjust society. Today Karna stands as a role model for the fight against discrimination.

The character of Karna gives us a realistic message that, no matter how society looks upon you or you may not get what you deserve or whatever awkward situation you may fall into, one must always stick to our principles and strive for greatness in dispatching their duties.

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