Duryodhana and Karna versus Friendship - Page 2

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We have information elsewhere that Karna too had been captured by Citrasena and Arjuna released him: “On the occasion also of the tale of cattle, when captured by the Gandharvas, this Karna and all these thy counselors and thyself accoutred in mail and on thy car, were all liberated from the grasp of the Gandharvas by that Arjuna. [1]  Significant to note: Bhishma and Drona told this to Duryodhana, and he accepted that.

Ashamed Duryodhana saluted Yudhishthira and took his leave –“bending his head down in shame and afflicted with grief and melancholy, set out slowly.” While returning to Hastinapura, he encamped at a place. He could not sleep. Then as the dawn was approaching, Karna returned: “And as the king Duryodhana was seated on an elevated bedstead endued with the effulgence of fire, himself looking like the moon under an eclipse, towards the small hours of the morning Karna, approaching him, said. [2]

Blatant is how Karna managed the situation. To appease Duryodhana, he gave all credit of the ‘victory’ over Gandharvas to Duryodhana, and laced with that goody-goody talk, he confessed why he fled: “As regards myself, assailed by all the Gandharvas, I fled before thy eyes, unable to rally our flying host. Assailed by the foe with all his might, my body mangled with their arrows, I sought safety in flight. [3]

Duryodhana was so dejected in double humiliation [4] that this time he was in no mood to digest flattery. He narrated what actually happened, and sensing that flattery wouldn’t work nor Duryodhana would take the bait of ego-covering by a false narrative, Karna now concentrated on dishing out several narratives. Had Duryodhana been spiritually wise, he would have rejected Karna forever at this point.

Lamenting again and narrating to Karna what had happened, Duryodhana now, in a rare moment of self-wisdom could see his own folly. He did not justify his action by a professed monotheistic creed, and took full responsibility of what happened: “Insolent men having obtained prosperity and knowledge and affluence, are seldom blest for any length of time like myself puffed up with vanity. Alas, led by folly I have done a highly improper and wicked act, for which, fool that I am, I have fallen into such distress.” [5] Duryodhana could even see into the root of his pain at being laughed at by his foes, and marked his pride as the cause that gave him false sense of manliness. He contemplated suicide by self-starvation. [6]

This could have been a life-changer moment for Duryodhana had he a true friend beside him at that moment, a friend who could have encouraged his self-enquiry and self-insight, a Dharma-friend who could have boosted his morale with moral discourse. But sadly for Duryodhana, and I would consider him tragic at this particular moment, that all he had beside him was Duhshasana and Karna.

Hearing Duryodhana’s desire to abdicate throne and relinquish life, all that Duhshasana did was to console him with fantasy: “Relent, O king! Thou alone shall be king in our race for a hundred years.” [7] It was a great emotional moment for the brothers. Duhshasana began to weep melodiously catching Duryodhana’s feet.

And Karna intervened at this moment of emotional vulnerability. His counseling is a gem for them to remember who want to distinguish true friend and false friend: “Ye, Kuru princes, why do you thus yield to sorrow like ordinary men, from senselessness? Mere weeping can never ease a sorrowing man's grief. When weeping can never remove one's griefs, what do you gain by thus giving way to sorrow? Summon patience to your aid to not gladden the foe by such conduct. O king, the Pandavas only did their duty in liberating thee (kartavyam hi krtam rajan pandavais tava mokshanam, 36a). They that reside in the dominions of the king, should always do what is agreeable to the king. Protected by thee, the Pandavas are residing happily in thy dominion. It behoveth thee not to indulge in such sorrow like an ordinary person. Behold, thy uterine brothers are all sad and cheerless at seeing thee resolved to put an end to thy life by forgoing food. Blest be thou! Rise up (uttishtha) and come to thy city and console these thy uterine brothers.” (3.238.33-37)

What is startling is how Karna promptly constructed narratives of Pandavas doing duties for their King (Duryodhana). Not only is this Karna’s attempted erasure of Pandavas’ nobleness and ideological orientation (of ‘family first’), but also it is a narrative-twist of two most sacred words – Kartavya and uttishtha.

While with stark contrast, Kartavya naturally brings to mind how Krishna would do a friend’s Kartavya in his Gita advice to Arjuna, uttishtha reminds of the Rshi’s clarion call in Katha Upanishad (1.3.14) - uttishthata jagrata prapya varannibodhata (Arise, awake, find out the great ones and learn of them), and of course Krishna’s call to Arjuna with same word - uttishtha paramtapa: klaibyam ma sma gamah partha naitat tvayy upapadyate / kshudram hrdayadaurbalyam tyaktvottishtha paramtapa // (Gita: 6.24.3)

While Krishna would counsel Arjuna to arise to give up weakness of ego and pride with sense of pragmatic duty ahead, Karna counseled Duryodhana to arise to sleep again in the matrix of illusion and delusion.

With a friend like Karna, none surely needs enemy.

True to his nature, Karna abandoned Duryodhana in the Virata war. [See- Arjuna Brhannalaa and Uttara significance, Karna's character and Virata Parvan encounter].

In the first encounter, afflicted by Arjuna’s arrows Karna quitted the van of battle, and quickly took to flight [8] Karna’s fleeing from battlefield is reaffirmed at the beginning of the next Parvan. [9] Karna presumably returned, but Arjuna again pierced him in the ear [10] and destroyed his horses, chariot, and chariot driver. [11] Next, in the duel that followed, Karna did not fight alone but with soldiers too. Arjuna pierced Karna’s breast cleaving through his mail, penetrating into his body, [12]and at this “Karna's vision was obscured and his senses left him. And regaining consciousness, he felt a great pain, and leaving the combat fled in a northernly direction (udanmukhah)” [13]

Now, udanmukha has one connotation as “facing the North” (MW), but it also connotes “turned upwards.” If the latter is to be meant here, and I think that best suits the situation, then Karna’s fleeing hastily with face upwards has a comical dimension that cannot be missed. We are reminded how Karna had been boasting just sometimes back. Arjuna got him in his most vulnerable state, but spared him – very Arjuna-like.

After this experience, Karna did not show up again with his vain boastings. He did not have the courage to face Arjuna again, yet he stayed on the battlefield as we get to know from Arjuna’s direction to Uttara to take away Karna’s garments too along with others. [14]

Even innocuous speeches of Karna betray his mind. He told Bhishma, “Besides, what wickedness is there in me? I have no sin known to any one of Dhrtarashtra's people. I have never done any injury to Dhrtarashtra's son. [15] He went on to say, “It is always my duty to do all that is agreeable to king Dhritarashtra, and especially to Duryodhana, for he is in possession of the kingdom.” [16]

Nothing is hidden any more. The statement carries sub-conscious loaded hint that he could have done injury had Duryodhana been not in possession of the kingdom.

In faithful repetition of his action of leaving Duryodhana behind to fend for himself in many crucial situations – Draupadi's Svayamvara, Ghosha-Yatra and Virata cattle raid – Karna deserted Duryodhana in the most crucial time to protect his ego.

On the eve of Kurukshetra War, Karna boasted that he alone would slay within the twinkling of an eye the Pancalas, the Karushas, the Matsyas, and the Pandavas with their sons and grandsons, and bestow on Duryodhana numerous regions won by his weapons. He also told Bhishma and Drona to retire and leave the entire task to him.[17] Bhishma punctured his ego reminding of Krishna and Arjuna’s feats. Karna admitted Krishna’s superiority, and said: “The Grandsire will henceforth behold me in court only and not in battle. After thou hast become quiet, the rulers of the earth will behold my prowess in this world.”[18] Karna immediately left for his own abode,[19] without even addressing Duryodhana or giving him a chance to speak.

Karna thus not only sought Bhishma’s death, but to protect his own ego he abandoned Duryodhana on the crucial first ten days of the war, sealing Duryodhana’s fate to considerable extent. Had he been Duryodhana’s true friend, he couldn’t have done that. A true friend would have sacrificed his own ego to prioritize friend’s interest.

After he had left, Bhishma laughed loud and told Duryodhana sarcastically that Karna was incapable of fulfilling his promise because in procuring weapon from Bhargava Rama with lie, Karna had already lost his Dharma and Tapasya.[20]

In his rare moments of insight-flashes, Dhrtarashtra too had the understanding that Karna was not serving Duryodhana’s interest, that Karna, in passion was rendered intoxicated, careless and insane (impliedly, forgetful) (ghrni Karnah pramadi; 3.46.10a).

Another top-rated myth is Karna the Dana-Vira. First, his dismembering himself off the ‘natural armour and ear-rings’ has no rational basis. No human can ever be born with any natural armour or Kundalas. Actually these were Karna’s biological father’s birth-day gifts to Karna to ensure his Kshatriya-identity. [See- Karna's Father Found]

Nowhere in Mbh. is a single instance that Karna ever made a selfless sacrifice.

All Karna-glorifying and Karna-redeeming narratives are posthumous, that is, after Karna died, Kunti made his identity public, and the Pandavas accepted him as their elder brother. The Karna-glorifying and Karna-redeeming narratives are thus more political, and meant to protect Kunti’s and Pandavas’ honours.

Karna had never been any match to Arjuna in Kshatriya-merit or as a human. [See- Arjuna or Karna - Who was the Greatest?] The actual sacrifice was by Arjuna that he accepted the new Karna-glorifying narratives quite naturally true to his character.

The posthumous Karna-glorifying narratives in fact began at an appropriate moment soon after Arjuna killed Karna in fair and square duel in Kurukshetra War. [See - Mahabharata: The Myth of the Death of Bhisma, Drona, Karna, Duryodhana]. Vyasa and Krishna had pardoned one of the greatest adversaries to their Reform Movement.

While reporting Karna’s death to Dhrtarashtra, Sanjaya compared Arjuna’s killing of Karna with Indra’s killing of Vrtra and Rama’s killing of Ravana.[21] Obviously, there is nothing redeeming here except that Karna is equated to Ravana in all its significances. Sanjaya narrated straight: “Even so hath Arjuna in single combat, slain, with all his kinsmen, that foremost of smiters, viz., Karna, who was invincible in battle and upon whom the Dhartarashtras had placed their hopes of victory, and who was the great cause of the hostility with the Pandavas!”[22]

Therefore, whatever Sanjaya said about Karna later (that is, so called unfair death) and praised Karna as Dharmika and Dana-Vira (8.68.43-46) was only to appease Dhrtarashtra, and to keep his good spirit. This is not lie; this is the duty of a worthy counsellor.

In the SHanti-Parvan, after Yudhishthira had performed SHraddha rites of Karna, Narada initiated the redeeming process by narrating Karna’s life with new sets of narratives. Narada told Yudhishthira, “Even thus had thy brother been cursed and beguiled by many.”[23] Narada demonstrated narrative-creation meant for public by citing various reasons for which Arjuna could ultimately succeed in killing Karna –

  1. Deprived of his car-rings and divested of his natural armour (vimuktah kundalabhyam ca sahajena ca varmana, 10a)
  2. Brahmana's curse (brahmanasyabhishapena, 11a)
  3. Great-souled Bhargava Rama’s curse (ramasya ca mahatmanah, 11a)
  4. Karna’s boon granted to Kunti (kuntyash ca varadanena, 11c)
  5. Illusion practised on him by Indra (mayaya ca shatakratoh, 11c)
  6. Depreciation by Bhishma as only half a car-warrior (bhishmavamanat samkhyayam rathanam ardhakirtanat, 12a)
  7. Destruction of his energy caused by Shalya (with his keen speeches) (Shalyat tejovadhac, 12c)
  8. Vasudeva-Krishna’s policy (vasudevanayena ca, 12c)
  9. Celestial weapons obtained by Arjuna from his Gurus and Gods (astrani divyany adaya yudhi gandivadhanvana, 14a)

These sympathy-generating narratives were propagated because by then Karna was no more a part of the Kauravas, but an established Pandava – the eldest sixth Pandava.

Karna knew well the proportional relation between perceived value and illusion. This strategy does not work with truth-seekers and Adhyatmika persons (Dharmika) because they know to remain in the matrix without attachment – the Pannkal Mach[24] in Shri Ramakrishna’s words. Karna took care of sustaining that illusion, and enhanced his value in Duryodhana’s eyes.

Karna had his moments of redemption. After Draupadi salvaged the Pandavas in Dice-Game Sabha, Karna was the first to openly admire Draupadi – his hidden love for Draupadi outpouring without hesitation. Strangely, there was no reaction from Duryodhana to this sudden gust of Draupadi-eulogy. Perhaps, he was too flabbergasted.

Karna’s conversation with Krishna shows a marked evolution in his self.

Karna already had foreboding what is going to happen, that is, Yudhishthira would win and become King (5.139.23-24). And then he imagined the forthcoming Kurukshetra War as Sacrifice, and his poetry flowed (5.139.29-32). He even regretted his harsh words to Draupadi, repented and confessed that he said that to gratify Duryodhana.

Philosophy and realization works well in calm mind and in presence of a personality like Krishna. That is what happened here.

However, true to real life experience, things would again take different turn in the real Kurukshetra; but that is only natural. In real war, in do or die situation, survival instinct and intuition being constantly oppressed, philosophy and poetry take backstage (and this is exemplified through Arjuna too, who forgot Gita teachings after the war), but the mark of Karna’s evolution is already made in this episode. The point of that evolution is his acquired SHraddha for Arjuna. [See- Karna – Masculine-Mask Vulnerable Gender Identity]

Krishna’s presence sublimated Karna to a different level from where he could actually see the real purpose of the war. In a unique tuning with Krishna’s mission, Karna sought destruction of the old Kshatriya order.[26] Just as Karna merged with Krishna’s purpose, he tuned with Vyasa’s purpose too, and in fact, it is Karna who titled Vyasa’s would-be creation: “As long, O Janardana, as the hills and the rivers will last, so long will the fame of these achievements last. The Brahmanas will recite this great war of the Bharatas. The fame, O thou of Vrshnis's race, that they achieve in battles is the wealth that Kshatriyas own” (5.139.56)

Karna, at least now, at least in Krishna’s presence, no more saw his combat with Arjuna as the aim, but as the means to achieving Krishna’s and Vyasa’s purpose: “O Keshava, bring Kunti's son (Arjuna) before me for battle, keeping for ever this our discourse a secret.”[27]

After Arjuna killed Karna in Kurukshetra War, Krishna remembered Karna’s role in the Dice-Game Sabha while showing his dead body to Yudhishthira: “He who announced Krishna won by dice (yah sa dyutajitam Krishnam praha), the vilest of good men (satpurushadhamah) – today the earth drinks that Suta’s son’s blood”[28] Krishna thus summed up Karna’s character in a single phrase - satpurushadhamah - honest and mean.

Mbh teaches us to be broad-minded and to recognize simultaneity and relativity of subjective perceptions. Vyasa in narrating Mbh.-Itihasa shows the Vedic messages in action. [See- How Vyasa conveys Truth through RgVedic Signifiers and structure-architecture]. From a broad perspective, we understand, both Karna and Duryodhana had merit. [See- The Other Duryodhana in Classical Mahabharata]

Both had the Guru and the Mother (also Guru) missing in their life owing to their ego-block and Ahamkara. However, both had true friendship missing too in their lives. Duryodhana and Karna lived in unity with show of friendship, but netither tried to be the other’s true friend, and neither had the Dharma-merit to know what true friendship is. With the constant example of Krishna and Arjuna before them, I wonder, if apart from jealousy to that friendship, they ever wanted to be Krishna-Arjuna in deep recesses of their mind. Negative feelings hide the positive; so, I would say, yes, they wanted to be.

If we look at our own lives, we often find some ‘friends’ (acquired in childhood or in course of adult Life’s journey) who are more vicious and venomous than enemies. Unless one makes oneself mentally strong to firmly shun these sort of ‘friends’ and red-card them out of one’s life’s circle, one must be ready to pay with greater damage in future.


Then the kings one after another begin to exhibit prowess for (winning) Draupadi (tatas tu te rajaganah kramena; Krishnanimittam nrpa vikramantah, 1.178.15a). But with varying results, often bordering the comic, they fail to even string the bow, and finally, “that assemblage of monarchs, their hope of obtaining Krishna gone, looked sad and woeful (Krishnanimittam vinivrttabhavam; rajnam tada mandalam artam asit, 1.178.17c).” Obviously, this includes Karna too, he being one of the monarchs in that assemblage. Arjuna rose up when all kings had given up and turned back and fled from the scene of archery-performance on failure to string the bow (yada nivrtta rajano dhanushah sajyakarmani, 1.179.1a). All kings (Raja) who attempted the feat include Karna too because by that time he has already been King of Anga. Karna’s failure is further evident from the surprise of the audience at Arjuna’s would-be-attempt because they wondered how a Brahmin could perform the feat when celebrated Kshatriyas or royal persons or kings or princes like Karna and Shalya and others endued with might and accomplished in the science and practice of arms could not? (yat KarnaShalyapramukhaih parthivair lokavishrutaih, 4a).


  1. karnaprabhrtayash ceme tvam capi kavaci rathi / mokshita ghoshayatrayam paryaptam tan nidarshanam // 5.136.8
  2. athopavishtam rajanam paryanke jvalanaprabhe / upaplutam yatha somam rahuna ratrisamkshaye/ upagamyabravit karno duryodhanam idam tada // (3.236,8)
  3. <aham tv abhidrutah sarvair gandharvaih pashyatas tava / nashaknuvam sthapayitum diryamanam svavahinim // sharakshatangash ca bhrsham vyapayato 'bhipiditah / (3.236.11-12a)
  4. Defeat and captivity at Gandharvas’ hand, and adding salt to injury, subsequent rescue by Pandavas
  5. ripunam shirasi sthitva tatha vikramya corasi / atmadoshat paribhrashtah katham vakshyami tan aham // durvinitah shriyam prapya vidyam aishvaryam eva ca /tishthanti na ciram bhadre yathaham madagarvitah //aho bata yathedam me kashtam dushcaritam krtam /svayam durbuddhina mohad yena prapto 'smi samshayam // (3.238.16-18)
  6. tasmat prayam upasishye na hi shakshyami jivitum / cetayano hi ko jivet krcchrac chatrubhir uddhrtah // shatrubhish cavahasito mani paurushavarjitah / pandavair vikramadhyaish ca savamanam avekshitah // (3.238.19-20)
  7. 03,238.031e tvam eva nah kule raja bhavishyasi shatam samah
  8. sa parthamuktair vishikhaih pranunno; gajo gajeneva jitas tarasvi /
    vihaya samgramashirah prayato; vaikartanah pandavabanataptah //
  9. apayate tu radheye, 4.50.1a
  10. sa karnam karninavidhyat, 93
  11. 4,50.2b@45_97-98
  12. tasya bhittva tanutranam kayam abhyapatac charah, 24a
  13. tatah sa tamasavishto na sma kim cit prajajnivan // (24c)
    sa gadhavedano hitva ranam prayad udanmukhah / (4.55.25a)
  14. karnasya pitam ruciram ca vastram, 4.61.13a
  15. kim canyan mayi durvrttam yena mam parigarhase/ na hi me vrjinam kim cid dhartarashtra viduh kva cit // 5.48.30
  16. tatha duryodhanasyapi sa hi rajye samahitah (5.48.31)
  17. nimeshamatram tam rshiprasadam; avapya pancalakarushamatsyan / nihatya parthamsh ca saputrapautraml; lokan aham shastrajitan prapatsye // pitamahas tishthatu te samipe; dronash ca sarve ca narendramukhyah / yathapradhanena balena yatva; parthan hanishyami mamaisha bharah // (5.61.5-6)
  18. asamshayam vrshnipatir yathoktas; tatha ca bhuyash ca tato mahatma / aham yad uktah parusham tu kim cit; pitamahas tasya phalam shrnotu // nyasyami shastrani na jatu samkhye; pitamaho drakshyati mam sabhayam / tvayi prashante tu mama prabhavam; drakshyanti sarve bhuvi bhumipalah // (5.61.12-13)
  19. ity evam uktva sa mahadhanushman; hitva sabham svam bhavanam jagama // 5.61.14a
  20. tadaiva dharmash ca tapash ca nashtam; vaikartanasyadhamapurushasya // 5.61.17c
  21. mahendrena yatha vrtro yatha ramena ravanah // 8.4.52a
  22. tatharjunena nihato dvairathe yuddhadurmadah // 8.4.54a
  23. evam shaptas tava bhrata bahubhish capi vancitah, 12.5.15a
  24. A species of fish with habitat in clart. It swathes in mud but have slippery scales to evade stink
  25. yad abruvam aham krshna katukani sma pandavan / priyartham dhartarashtrasya tena tapye 'dya karmana, 15.139.45
  26. “I pray to thee, O bull of the Kshatriya race, let not the Kshatriyas, old in learning and old in years, perish miserably, O Janardana, for thy sake. Oh, let this swelling host of Kshatriyas perish by means of weapons on that most sacred of all spots in the three worlds, viz. Kurukshetra. O Keshava. O thou of eyes like lotus-leaves, accomplish on this spot what thou hast in thy mind, so that, O thou of Vrshnis's race, the whole Kshatriya order may attain to heaven (svargam avapnuyat).” (5.139.52-54)
  27. samupanaya kaunteyam yuddhaya mama keshava / mantrasamvaranam kurvan nityam eva paramtapa, 5.139.17
  28. yah sa dyutajitam krshnam prahasat purushadhamah / tasyadya sutaputrasya bhumih pibati shonitam // (8.69.17) (trans. Hiltebeitel and Adluri)


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