The Kurukshetra War and several other wars preceding that – like the one during Draupadi's Svayamvara, during Ghosha-Yaatraa and in Viraata Parvan - decided the question in favour of Arjuna – but not without doubt. As is the mark of all great Kavis, Vyasa and later poets seem to deliberately keep ambiguity regarding the matter of greatness.
And it is this perceived “unresolved tension” that is the secret of attraction of the debate – Arjuna or Karna, who?
We can of course question the very concept of “greatness” – and we shall do that. But before that, let us note again that Vyasa introduces doubt and ambiguity in all the Arjuna-Karna duels before Kurukshetra War. We need to examine whether there is any real ambiguity or it is a matter of perception. (I will not discuss here the Kurukshetra War duel because I have already dealt with it in my article Mahabharata: The Myth of the Death of Bhisma, Drona, Karna, Duryodhana)
Contrary to popular belief, Drona’s weapon-skill examination was not the first time when Karna was seeking an encounter with Arjuna. Long before that, Karna had been Drona and Krpa’s disciple and he had always been jealous of Arjuna.
And we must also remember that Karna was elder to Arjuna by several years. Thus, Karna’s jealousy was founded on frustration of being lesser to Arjuna. What Karna could not achieve with advantage of years, Arjuna had achieved with advantage of Gunas.
One thing we frequently forget about Mahabharatan characters is that they are “growing” or “evolving” and not “flat.” Yet, when we engage our pious souls in judging them we often do a Flat Treatment.
Let us not forget that we have seen Arjuna and Karna from their birth to death. Naturally, we have “different” Arjunas and Karnas here. Would any reader accept about him/herself that he/she has remained constant and static throughout his/her life? That, what he/she has been in her teen days, he/she has remained the same in her 20s or 30s or 40s or 50s…? Would any reader in his/her ripe days like to be judged by his/her action of green days?
Surely, no reader would say that or like that. Then why the illusion of thinking Arjuna or Karna that way?
The teen-aged Arjuna who could not hide his sulk to Drona on finding that Ekalavya had excelled him, cannot certainly be the youth Arjuna piercing the target in Draupadi's Svayamvara; and he certainly cannot be the Arjuna who leaves his brothers and Draupadi during Forest Exile and go to the Himaalayas to learn Yuddha-Vidyaa and Gaandharva-Vidyaa with unmitigated attention? And certainly, this is not the same Arjuna post-Giitaa?
If Arjuna as a Kshatriya Viira is unmatched, more than that, he is unparalleled as a Human Being. There is no other character in the whole of Mahabharata (yes, Mahabharata; and I am saying this with Krishna in mind) and even in World Itihaasa-Literature who has as many Gunas (Qualities) as Arjuna.
Arjuna was a Shilpii par excellence in “Art of Living”, Gender Relation (well, that involves the ever-ongoing Gender-Yuddha too), Yuddha-Vidyaa, and Gaandharva-Vidyaa. Other than this, his greatness as a Spiritual aadhaar is overtly evident in the fact that he was the only person capable of ‘firsthand’ listening to Giita-discourse. In this alone, Arjuna has excelled all Rshis and Munis born before or after him.
Very few people are even aware that Arjuna had his prowess in paanditya (scholarship), Raajaniiti and Kuuta-Niiti too – he is hailed as arthashaastravishaaradah (12.161.9).
Draupadi did not love him the best just because he was tall, dark, handsome and mighty. Woman might feel some attraction for tall-dark-handsome-mighty fellows (- the “gene-selection” goes through trial and error) – but no Woman ever LOVES tall-dark-handsome-mighty “dumb ass.”
Draupadi's love for Arjuna was a matter of “wave-length matching” or “tuning” we may say, that operated in an all-out dimension involving Head, Heart, and Hand – and more importantly Instinct and Intuition.
Draupadi too is hailed as Arthashaastravishaaradah . This gives us a clue in understanding that Draupadi-Arjuna relation was not just about holding hands and uttering romantic nonsensical bla-bla-bla; but more about intellectual saber-rattling. Indeed we get some ideas on that in Vana Parvan and Shaanti-Parvan. (The same glue applied to Draupadi-Yudhishthira relation though on a different plane. However, in this article I am not discussing on Yudhishthira. So, I will keep mum on that here for a separate discussion.)
The Evolutionary Woman loves a man with Kaama-prowess, but no Woman ever loves a man who is Kaamavashagah (Subservient to Kaama – Lust and Sex etc.). Kiicaka, Jayadratha and Raavana – all were miserable failures to Woman because they were Kaamavashagah.
Draupadi loved Arjuna the most because of his Ahamkaara-lessness and Restraint. Such a man never ceases arousing a Woman’s curiousness about him, such a man remains a man about whom the Myth never slackens, and such a man alone is capable of keeping ablaze the flame of attraction.
In a Mythical Narrative, Shiva’s consort Paarvatii gives a new definition of Purusha –
“One who is prabhu yet free of Ahamkaara is called Purusha
- prabhavan yo 'nahamvaadii sa vai purusha ucyate (13.134.13c).”
Arjuna was Purusha in this sense; not just being a biological male. (As a sidelight, this indeed is the real significance and definition of Purusha – that is, Purusha is a non-gendered concept.)
Arjuna was a “womanizer” not because he ran after Woman, but because he ran after his Heart while making Woman run after him.
Arjuna’s falling in love with Citraangadaa and Subhadraa are episodes that show why he was a true Man – one capable of being honest to one’s Heart, and one capable of the ‘manliness’ to pursue one’s Heart. (For Arjuna’s dalliance with other women, particularly that found in Folk Mahabharata, I would prefer a separate discussion, because here I would focus on Classical Mahabharata only.)
Like Draupadi's skill in Performance, Arjuna too was a genius in Performance. Without being a Shilpii of higher dimension, he could not have acted with incredible finesse as Brhannalaa.
Now, those who want to argue at this point that Arjuna ‘transformed’ into Brhannalaa owing to Urvashii’s curse; let God pour all blessings on them – even the quota allotted to me (if any). I will not argue with them – because I don’t want to argue with Belief. To me, sex-transformation by ‘curse’ is absurd – and that’s all.
To me therefore, Arjuna’s role as Brhannalaa was a Performance par excellence. And he could give such Performance because in his real self he had the Masculine-Feminine Balance.
Unless a biological male is in touch with his Feminine-Self, he cannot be a Real Man. And Arjuna was that rare man who was not only in touch with his Feminine Self, but who had also realized and actualized that Self.
Just as while trying to understand Arjuna’s character people often forget that he was a Pandit – an Arthashaastravishaaradah - there is similar forgetfulness that Arjuna was adept in Gaandharva-Vidyaa.
Imagine ambidextrous – Savyasaacii Arjuna – stringing and twanging his Gaandiiva with as much skill as stringing and playing the Viinaa. Imagine him dancing with all Feminine grace – imagine him evoking all the Rasas from Shrngaara to Raudra in the rhythm of his brimming muscles.
And Arjuna was a Kathaka too – a narrator of Itihaasa-Purana and stories; he used to mesmerize the women of Viraata with his verbal skills.
To such an Arjuna, Karna falls short. No, it is not Karna’s drawback – how can we judge Karna in poor light against Arjuna when even Krishna falls short to Arjuna’s all-round genius and multi-dimensional personality?
People who imagine Draupadi's secret love for Krishna or Karna or some other ‘third-person singular number’ certainly know something about the Ways of the World – but they certainly know nothing of the secrets of Woman’s Heart – the Evolutionary Woman’s Heart to be specific.
With such an Arjuna filling up Draupadi's universe, why would she seek lesser beings?
The World knew Draupadi to be a Kanyaa because she was in a polyandrous marriage, but the other Paandavas knew that Draupadi was a Sati … amidst the physical polyandry as a social obligation, Draupadi was mentally monogamous …
Coming back to Karna …
During Drona’s test-examination, Karna entered the arena and sought a duel with Arjuna. Some people argue that Drona and Krpa raised the question of “caste” to actually protect Arjuna from Karna.
Now, this argument is ludicrous.
Drona’s examination was meant for Kuru-Paandavas princes only. It was to show Hastinaapura that they would be well-protected by the new generation. Just as no other prince of other Rashtra was invited there, Karna too was not invited. It was only natural.
Of course, Drona had his own agenda. He wanted to avenge his so-called humiliation at Drupada’s hand. But that is another matter. And even there we would find Karna miserably defeated by Drupada’s army and Paancaala citizens!
Karna’s seeking a duel there was only his matter of incurable Ahamkaara that would ultimately bring about his downfall.
Drona and Krpa were only too polite to Karna to send him back raising a technical question. If it had been any other Rashtra without a Bhiishma, the appropriate action would have been to kick Karna out or to mete him out an Mrtyu-Danda for his audacity.
Duryodhana’s so-called immediate action of gifting Anga-Raajya to Karna and make him a King thus is only a Myth. Not only that Duryodhana had no such power at that time – (he was a mere prince and not King) – Hastinaapura could not have any hold over Anga-Raajya with Jaraasandha living.
Take a look at the distance between Hastinaapura and Anga (from a modern-day map), and the absurdity would be evident.
Bhiishma never looked outside Hastinaapura to annex territories. Besides, Anga was then under Jaraasandha’s rule (though in all probability, Anga was no single Rashtra, and there were many Anga-Raajyas.)
According to Harivamsha, Duryodhana et al. played second fiddle to Jaraasandha in his invasion against Yaadava confederacy at Mathuraa.
Other than this, we overlook another significant fact.
Karna’s foster-father Adhiratha was by no means Dhrtaraashtra’s charioteer. This is another popular notion based on the misconception of “Suuta.” Suuta means many other things. Kiicaka too was regarded a Suuta – let us remember.
In fact, Adhiratha was Dhrtaraashtra’s friend, and more importantly, as per Puranas, Adhiratha carried royal blood of Anga. So, from this point of view, Karna was already an Anga-prince. That explains, why he was accepted as Drona and Krpa’s disciple in the first place.
I have discussed elsewhere that Karna’s biological father was a Braahmana known as Durvaasaa (see - Karna's Father Found); and in all probability, this Durvaasaa-Braahmana hailed from Magadha or Anga. This explains why Adhiratha got to adopt Karna when Kunti-Bhoja rejected his legitimacy (- in those days, Kaaniina-Putra was accepted by society as legitimate at par with child born in wedlock). This rejection was of course fostered by that Durvaasaa-Braahmana to protect his identity – read, “Reputation” – and therefore, the ‘Oscar’ of blame went to Kunti and the hot-ball lifeless Suurya.
The very absurdity of attributing a human’s fatherhood to a mediocre star Suurya betrays that there was much political hushing up behind the Myth to dupe Common People.
Contrary to popular belief, Kunti kept track of Karna even after being forced to abandon him; and I suggest, this is one reason why she chose Paandu in Svayamvara.
Kunti knew that becoming Paandu’s wife would enable her to keep close to Karna.
During Draupadi's Svayamvara, Karna engaged in combat with Arjuna. Soon he abandoned war with high praises for his opponent. It is as if Karna is suddenly flooded with Dharma-consciousness.
Question is: where was this Dharma-consciousness when he joined numerous kings and Kshatriyas in an unlawful war against only two persons – Bhiima and Arjuna? Karna’s cowardice is glaring; and his sudden flush of Dharma-consciousness was only an Escape-Route.
Karna betrays his cowardice again during Ghosha-Yaatraa (Vana Parvan – section 234, KMG) when his utmost desire to lick Duryodhana’s boots (well, Paadukaa) and sadistically humiliate Paandavas – particularly Draupadi - backfire. He forgets all friendship and runs away. Here is the description:
“And attacked with great vigour, the Kuru host was greatly afflicted and struck with panic. O king, all of them that liked to live, fled from the field. But while the entire Dhritarashtra host broke and fled, Karna, that offspring of the Sun, stood there, O king, immovable as a hill. Indeed, Duryodhana and Karna and Sakuni, the son of Suvala, all fought with the Gandharvas, although every one of them was much wounded and mangled in the encounter. All the Gandharvas then, desirous of slaying Karna, rushed together by hundreds and thousands towards Karna. And those mighty warriors, desirous of slaying the Suta's son, surrounded him on all sides, with swords and battle-axes and spears. And some cut down the yoke of his car, and some his flagstaff, and some the shaft of his car, and some his horses, and some his charioteer. And some cut down his umbrella and some the wooden fender round his car and some the joints of his car. It was thus that many thousands of Gandharvas, together attacking his car, broke it into minute fragments. And while his car was thus attacked, Karna leaped therefrom with sword and shield in hand, and mounting on Vikarna's car, urged the steeds for saving himself." (KMG – 239)
If it is argued that Karna was defeated by many, it may be equally counter-argued as follows-
Why did he stand “immovable as a hill” instead of offering good advice to Duryodhana?
And if it was his valour to stand “immovable as a hill”, why could he not stand “immovable as a hill” beside Duryodhana and instead fled “for saving himself”?
That Karna was drunk at that time and so fled is only B. R. Chopra’s invention to add some drunken glory to Karna. But Vyasa leaves no doubt that Karna fled “for saving himself”.
In the Viraata war too, Karna is beaten black and blue by Arjuna. The recent Star Plus Mahabharata made some wretched attempts to redeem Karna by making Bhiishma intervene during Arjuna-Karna duel with Diwali-type fire-cracker arms!
In the Kurukshetra War, Karna is no match to many – including Bhiima, Abhimanyu and Saatyaki.
Since Karna had to be re-installed as the Paandava senior after his death with full honour, Vyasa and/or later poets created some ambiguity about Karna’s death by inventing tales of his chariot-wheel being swallowed by Earth.
Well, the Earth had more serious business and had no necessity to swallow Karna’s chariot-wheel. Karna’s chariot-wheel had already been clogged by his own Adharma and cowardice.
Who else than a coward would have proposed Draupadi's disrobing? This only betrays Karna’s sadism born of frustration at his failure to obtain Draupadi.
That Draupadi rejected Karna as a Suuta in her Svayamvara is not supported by Southern recension of Mahabharata. There, it is clearly stated that Karna failed like many other Kshatriyas. Even in the Northern recension (where we have the tale of Draupadi rejecting Karna), it is clearly stated that Karna failed like many other Kshatriyas.
Making Draupadi utter a rejection was only some later regional poet’s pathetic ploy to redeem Karna and demean Draupadi.
Karna was no match to Arjuna in Kurukshetra War.
Let us remember that Arjuna fought for all 18 days, whereas Karna joined the fight after 10 days after Bhiishma’s death. Practically speaking, Karna got rest for 10 days and Arjuna had already exhausted himself much in those 10 days. Even then, ‘fresh’ Karna was no match for ‘exhausted’ Arjuna.
We need not carry our debate any further.
Vyasa has well-settled the greatness issue …
Now, of course, lesser to Arjuna does not mean Karna’s discredit or something like that. He is a colourful personality, a unique character, a not-to-be-forgotten human being, and he certainly has his place among the immortals.
All characters mentioned in Mahabharata are immortals – aren’t they?
Karna is memorable because he is a “growing” and “evolving” character who goes through trial and error and learns from life.
It is self-contradiction that makes Karna a memorable hero – self-contradiction is the mark of personal evolution. He was the first to praise Draupadi after humiliating her in Dice-Game Sabhaa; he could admit his failure to Krishna on the eve of war; and yes, he had his share of deprivations in life.
But then, who does not have his/her share of deprivations? Krishna is the most-failed character in Mahabharata (- and I will discuss this in a separate article); Arjuna had to taste inglorious defeat at the hand of Pancanada Dasyus; and Draupadi is left without any son.
Karna’s failure is his failure to realize his dignity. Jealousy for Arjuna became an obsession for him and obscured his sense of self-dignity.
Karna had his tryst with Destiny that he created for himself.
Who are we to humiliate Karna by trying to over-evaluate him?