By Chaitanya Charan das
Speaking on the Mahabharata outside Bharata – at Princeton
During my visit to Central New Jersey, 2016, Govinda Prabhu and I spoke at Princeton University on the topic of “Tragic Hero? Lessons from the life of the Mahabharata character Karna.”
Vineet Chander (Venkat Bhatta Prabhu) serves as the Director of Hindu Affairs at Pinceton University; and he had invited me to speak on this topic. Later, it turned out that Govinda P was also there in Central New Jersey at the time of my program. So, both of us were asked to speak together.
I found it striking that while I have spoken at many colleges in India, I have never spoken on a directly scriptural topic in an Indian college. And yet here I was in an American college – and one of the world’s top colleges at that – speaking on an openly scriptural topic. What was even more intriguing was that nearly 50% of the audience was non-Indians – professors and students of South Asian religions.
Addressing the negativities that befell Karna, Govinda Prabhu spoke on how we all need to look for opportunity more than for sympathy. Addressing the Karna-Duryodhana friendship, I spoke on how a low self-esteem makes us emotionally vulnerable to be manipulated by whoever seems to offer us respect. I largely spoke on the points I have written in my question-answers on Karna below.
The audio-video of the talk is available here: https://goo.gl/YtR75j
After the talk, on seeing the intense interest throughout of a pan-Indian and a non-Indian audience, I felt reinforced in my conviction realized that sharing life lessons through epics comprises an appealing and powerful way of connecting scriptural wisdom with people’s practical concerns – a way that we bhakti teachers need to tap much more effectively.
The Mahabharata is a fascinating book with many of its characters not clearly black or clearly white, but multiple shades of grey.
Karna is an intriguing character – virtuous, yet choosing the side of the vicious Kauravas; born as a warrior, but treated lifelong as charioteer’s son; great archer, but defeated and killed in a fight with another great archer.
Let’s see where he falls on the spectrum of black to white through a series of question-answers.
[For those new to the Mahabharata, here’s a brief introduction of Karna:
Karna, a prominent warrior in the Mahabharata, was born to Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas. As he was born through a mystical union of Kunti with the sun-god before her marriage, the maiden mother couldn’t take care of him. He was raised by a charioteer family and so was known as ‘a charioteer’s son’, not receiving the respect accorded to warriors. Nonetheless, he became a formidable archer and was befriended by the evil Duryodhana, who offered him a kingdom. Karna joined Duryodhana in many of his machinations against the Pandavas, eventually fighting on his side in the Kurukshetra war. He was killed by Arjuna on the penultimate day of the eighteen-day war.]
Was Arjuna’s killing Karna when he was chariot-less not unfair, being against the kshatriya codes?
The unfairness had begun from the Kaurava side decades earlier when they tried to poison Bhima and burn the Pandavas alive.
In the Kurukshetra war, at its start the commanders of the two sides had agreed upon the codes to be followed in the war. Dhrishtadyumna, the Pandava commander, had declared that their side would not break the war codes first, but if the Kauravas broke those codes first, then the Pandavas would not let themselves be held back by the war codes.
In the ensuing battles, the kshatriya code that a chariot-less warrior should not be attacked was violated first by the Kauravas’ side. On the thirteenth day, six of their maha-rathas including Karna ganged together to kill the chariot-less Abhimanyu. So, Karna simply reaped what he had sown – he violated the code first by attacking the chariot-less Abhimanyu and was paid back in kind, as had been agreed at the start of the war.
And the unfair attack on Abhimanyu was not a one-off incident on the part of the Kauravas. On the fourteenth day when Arjuna was striving to fulfill his vow to kill Jayadratha by sunset, his horses got exhausted, and needed rest and water. While Krishna decided to lead the horses away, Arjuna had to get off the chariot. Even on seeing him chariot-less, the Kaurava forces did not stop attacking him. To the contrary, they attacked him with greater ferocity, hoping to fell him in his dangerously disadvantaged condition. Still Arjuna held them back with his expert archery while simultaneously using mystical weapons to arrange for shade and water for his horses. In an all-out war, quarters are rarely given and Arjuna didn’t ask for them – neither should Karna have asked.
Karna himself violated that specific code on the seventeenth day during his confrontation with Arjuna. When Karna sent an unstoppable mystical weapon at Arjuna’s head, Krishna forcefully pushed the chariot into the ground so that the arrow hit Arjuna’s crown instead of his head. Arjuna’s life was saved, but his chariot got stuck in the ground. While Krishna jumped off the chariot to get it out of the ground, Arjuna was disadvantaged with an immobile chariot. Karna still attacked him and Arjuna didn’t ask to be spared, but fought back and defended himself.
So in the final confrontation, Karna’s reminding Arjuna of the kshatriya code was hypocritical. When Karna tried to take the high moral ground, Krishna exposed him thoroughly by listing all the times when Karna had paid scant regard to morality. Krishna’s fitting riposte silenced Karna whose head fell in an admission of his guilt.
Krishna deciding to illustrate the principle of shatho shathyam: with the cunning, one can be cunning, asked Arjuna to shoot Karna. By countering Karna’s arguments, Krishna had signaled to Karna that Arjuna would not desist from attacking. Karna could have taken that as a warning, re-mounted his stationary chariot and resumed fighting – or he could have fought from the ground itself, as had Arjuna on the fourteenth day. His neglecting Krishna’s warning was a monumental blunder that cost him his life.
Was Karna a better archer than Arjuna?
Let’s look at the relevant incidents in the Mahabharata.
1. The first Karna-Arjuna encounter was in the martial exhibition organized by Drona to showcase the skills of his students, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, for the pleasure of Hastinapura’s leaders and citizens. In that exhibition, Arjuna excelled all till Karna gatecrashed and demanded a chance to exhibit his skills. When granted that chance, Karna equaled the performance of Arjuna, though he had initially claimed that he would surpass Arjuna. Then, Karna asked for a chance to duel with Arjuna, but while the logistics were being worked out, the sun set and the duel couldn’t take place.
Result: Draw. Score: Arjuna – 0, Karna – 0
2. When Drona asked that as his guru-dakshina, his students defeat and arrest Drupada, the Kauravas sped off accompanied by Karna. But Drupada at the head of his forces defeated them. Then the Pandavas led by Arjuna attacked Drupada’s forces, and Arjuna defeated and arrested Drupada, doing what Karna couldn’t do.
Result: Arjuna demonstrated his superiority. Score: Arjuna – 1, Karna – 0
3. During Draupadi’s svayamvara, when Arjuna, dressed as a brahmana, won the princess’ hand, the kings felt that Drupada had insulted them by giving his daughter to a brahmana instead of a kshatriya. So they attacked Drupada. To defend their father-in-law, Arjuna and Bhima intervened and held the kings back till it became a face-off: Karna vs. Arjuna and Shalya vs. Bhima. While Bhima bested Shalya, Arjuna more than matched Karna, who thereafter decided to desist from the fight, saying that he would not fight with a brahmana.
Result: Draw. Score: Arjuna – 1, Karna – 0
4. When the Pandavas were living in exile, Duryodhana, at the instigation of Karna, decided to rub salt into their wounds by flaunting his wealth in front of them. But some Gandharvas who were sporting in that area blocked Duryodhana. In the resulting confrontation, the Gandharvas defeated the Kaurava forces, wounding Karna and causing him to flee, and then arresting Duryodhana. Later, when some Kaurava soldiers appealed to the Pandavas for help, Arjuna routed the same Gandharvas who had routed Karna, and released Duryodhana.
Result: Arjuna again demonstrated his superiority. Score: Arjuna – 2, Karna – 0
5. During the Virata battle, Arjuna fought single-handedly against the entire Kaurava army and defeated all the Kaurava generals including Karna. This was the greatest solo performance in the entire epic.
Some people argue that this contest did not accurately reflect their skills because Karna had not carried his Shakti weapon. But who is responsible for Karna’s not carrying the weapon? Isn’t a warrior expected to carry his best weapons when going for war? (Imagine a batsman after getting clean bowled for a duck in a World Cup final rationalizing his cheap dismissal: “I got out because I forgot to carry my best bat to the crease.”) And Arjuna did not get his formidable array of weapons for free – he performed severe austerities in the Himalayas to appease the gods and painstakingly add each powerful weapon to his formidable arsenal.
Result: Arjuna won fair and square. Score: Arjuna – 3, Karna – 0
So, even before their final decisive confrontation on the seventeenth day of the Kurukshetra war, Arjuna had unambiguously established his superiority.
Was Karna superior to Arjuna because he alone conquered the world for Duryodhana, whereas the four Pandavas together conquered the world for Yudhisthira?
Let’s first look at the incidents in question. When the Pandavas were in exile, Karna conquered all the kings of the world and with the tributes from them helped Duryodhana perform a great sacrifice called the Vaishnava sacrifice, somewhat similar to the Rajasuya sacrifice that Yudhisthira had performed earlier. For that sacrifice, Yudhisthira had sent four brothers to conquer the four directions.
Do these two incidents demonstrate Karna’s superiority? No, because Bhima during his eastward conquest had come to Anga and defeated its ruler. Guess who? Karna, no less. So if Bhima whose archery skills were not as good as Arjuna’s defeated Karna, how can Karna be considered better than Arjuna?
Was Arjuna alone capable of the world conquest that Karna had done? Actually, Arjuna was capable of much more than that, as can be inferred from two incidents.
- What to speak of the word’s kings, Arjuna had defeated the gods combined at Khandava – something which Karna had come nowhere close to doing, having been defeated by just one relatively minor set of gods, the Gandharvas.
- Arjuna had also singlehandedly defeated a whole army of deadly demons, the Nivatkavachas, whom the gods had not been able to defeat for a long time. This feat was also something that Karna had come nowhere close to equaling, for he had been hard-pressed by just one demon, Ghatotkacha.
If Arjuna was capable of single-handedly conquering the world on Yudhisthira’s behalf, then why didn’t he do so? Because all four younger brothers wanted to assist their eldest brother and Arjuna didn’t want to deprive them of that opportunity.
Was Karna the second best archer after Arjuna?
No, because at least two other archers defeated him.
1. Abhimanyu: On the thirteenth day of the Kurukshetra war, when Abhimanyu penetrated into the Chakra-vyuha and wrecked havoc among the Kaurava forces, he overcame Karna twice, causing him to swoon and retreat. Karna realized that he couldn’t even match Abhimanyu, leave alone overcome him. So he prompted Duryodhana to ask Drona how the prince could be defeated.
2. Bhima: The second Pandava more than matched Karna.
As mentioned earlier, Bhima defeated Karna during his eastward conquest before the Rajasuya yajna.
During the Kurukshetra war, Bhima and Karna fought several times. On the fourteenth day, when Arjuna had taken a vow to kill Jayadratha before sunset, Karna tried to check Arjuna. To help Arjuna progress undistracted, Bhima challenged Karna and kept him engaged while Arjuna closed in on Jayadratha, Bhima matched Karna.
On the sixteenth day, Bhima held back Karna, who had been appointed the Kauravas’ commander, and then attacked Dushasana. In front of Karna’s eyes, Bhima killed Dushasana. Seeing Bhima’s power and anger, the horrified Karna dropped his bow. Similarly, in front of Karna’s eyes, Bhima also killed several other Kaurava brothers as well as Karna’s son and brother, and Karna could do nothing to stop him.
Karna did overcome Bhima once in a battle with bows and arrows, and mocked him by touching him with his bow and calling him a fat glutton. At that time, Bhima challenged Karna to a wrestling match, but Karna refused. Bhima had the power to pound Karna to death with his bare fists, but remembering Arjuna’s vow to kill Karna, Bhima desisted and left the arena. So the same event that is often seen as Karna honoring his promise to Kunti to not kill any of her sons other than Arjuna could be seen as Bhima honoring Arjuna’s vow. Overall, the results of the Bhima-Karna confrontation remain in Bhima’s favor.
So, Karna was no doubt a great archer, but he was one among many, not one above many, as was Arjuna.
Was Karna not unfairly weakened by Indra, Arjuna’s father, who schemed to take away his kavacha and kundala by coming in the guise of a brahmana asking for charity?
- Even with that impenetrable armor, Karna had been wounded and defeated several times (as discussed earlier) by Drupada, by the Gandharvas and by Arjuna at Virata. So the kavacha was not a winning advantage.
- When Indra came disguised as a brahmana to ask for it, eventually, at Karna’s insistent request, the god gave him the formidable Shakti in return. So, what was supposed to be a charity became a swap.
And how did this swap affect Karna’s fortune? His kavacha had not saved him from defeat earlier. And it may well not have saved him on the fourteenth night when Ghatotkacha was on a rampage, threatening to kill him and destroy the Kaurava forces. The Shakti weapon killed Ghatotkacha and saved Karna’s life. So in the swap Karna lost something that hadn’t saved him from defeat and got something that actually saved him from death.
Was the swap such a big loss for Karna? You decide.
Was Karna not a great hero – powerful, virtuous and charitable?
Yes, he had his good qualities. He was not a black character, but he doesn’t have to be made whiter than what he was.
After all, it was Karna who suggested that Draupadi be dragged into the assembly, who came up with the obnoxious idea of disrobing her publically, who called her a prostitute. It was Karna who suggested to Duryodhana the ill-advised plan of flaunting their wealth in front of the exiled Pandavas – the plan that came to grief due to the Gandharvas. It was Karna whose repeated bragging of his prowess that made Duryodhana foolhardy enough to challenge the Pandavas to an open war. It was Karna who killed Abhimanyu ruthlessly along with five other warriors, having been the first to instigate Duryodhana that some such extreme measure was necessary to bring down the young prince. It was Karna who, in response to Shalya’s sledging, foul-mouthed the women of Madras (Shalya’s kingdom), calling them unspeakable names.
So, though he had his virtues, he doesn’t need to be unnecessarily romanticized.
When Krishna offered Karna kingship of the Pandavas’ kingdom if he defected to their side, Karna by the side of Duryodhana. Doesn’t this make him a glorious example of a faithful friend?
Sadly, no. It makes Karna a classic but tragic example of a good person becoming bad due to bad association – and then mistaking faithfulness to that bad association to be a matter of honor.
It is true that Duryodhana helped Karna in his time of need by giving him the kingdom of Anga. And it is laudable that Karna was grateful to him for that generosity. Yet in the larger picture the Kauravas were immoral and evil. The way Duryodhana dishonored the Pandavas and especially their wife was heinous.
When an honorable person gets unknowingly entangled in something dishonorable, then honor requires that the honorable person come out of the mess on coming to know of it, not stay on in it in the name of honor.
To illustrate with a provocative parallel, suppose a starving boy in Pakistan is offered food and shelter by a group of terrorists who brainwash people into becoming suicide bombers. The boy may not be initially aware of the evil agenda of his helpers, but when he becomes aware, should he in the name of loyalty to those who helped him once continue lifelong to be a part of a machinery of death and destruction? Is Karna’s faithfulness to Duryodhana all that different from Mohammed bin Atta’s faithfulness to Osama bin Laden in becoming a suicide bomber who brought down the twin towers and killed thousands?
Karna may not have had any idea of the evil nature of Duryodhana initially, but when he came to know about it, he should have parted ways. But unfortunately, far from parting ways, Karna not only joined Duryodhana’s way, but also egged the wicked Kaurava further along that way. Karna, in his mistaken desire to please Duryodhana, suggested the dishonoring of Draupadi. Karna’s joining Duryodhana emboldened that arrogant prince to become even more insolent, imagining that he could excel the military prowess of the Pandavas, thereby courting self-destruction and causing world destruction.
What Krishna offered Duryodhana and Karna when he came as a peace messenger shows his extremely accommodating nature – his willingness to go to any length to avoid or minimize bloodshed. Krishna asked Duryodhana to give just five villages, but that evil prince rejected the offer.
Then Krishna knowing that bloodshed was inevitable decided to try to minimize it. He knew that the various formidable Kaurava generals like Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and Ashwatthama bore no animosity towards the Pandavas – they would fight only because they were obliged to. The only formidable Kaurava general apart from the Kaurava brothers who was bent on the fight was Karna. If he could be won over, then that would break the back of Duryodhana’s obstinacy. It might even persuade him to agree for a peaceful settlement. If not, at least it would shorten the fight. With this intention to minimize violence, Krishna invited Karna to come on the side of the virtuous Pandavas. And when Krishna offered Karna the kingdom, that offer was not as a temptation but as Karna’s rightful legacy as the eldest Pandava.
It was Krishna’s accommodating nature that he not only gave Karna a chance to do the right thing, but also offered him an unparalleled reward for doing the right thing. After all the wrong things Karna had participated in or even instigated, it could well be said that he didn’t deserve such an offer. Yet Krishna magnanimously made the offer, thereby making it as easy as possible for Karna to do the right thing at least at that late stage. When Karna refused that offer, he chose wrong instead of right – all due to a mistaken sense of honor.
From the devotional perspective, Karna rejected God for the world; he gave greater importance to being honored by the world than by God. He didn’t have the intelligence to recognize that whatever Duryodhana had given him ultimately belonged to God, who had given it temporarily to Duryodhana. And it was that God who was now offering him the world’s emperorship.
Even if Karna didn’t accept Krishna as the Supreme God and so didn’t consider his word authoritative, he could at least have accepted the authority of his worshipable god, Suryadeva. That effulgent deity advised Karna that for his own well-being he should side with the virtuous family of his birth and not the vicious family that he had befriended. Yet Karna stuck to his own notion of what would be honorable.
What Krishna was inviting Karna to was not defection, but redemption – a return to the path of virtue that Karna would probably have tread had he not become attached to Duryodhana.
To err is human, but to continue in error isn’t. And to mistake continuing in error to be loyalty is stupidity. And when that mistake causes the death of millions, that mistaken loyalty ceases to be mere stupidity; it becomes monstrous perversity. Karna’s mistaken loyalty was his greatest inner enemy and it made him a puppet in the hands of the evil Duryodhana.
Was Karna not disadvantaged during the final fight because of the curses of Parashurama and the brahmana that caused respectively his forgetfulness of the mantras for his potent weapons and his chariot’s sinking into the earth?
Yes, but again he was not the only one to be cursed. Arjuna was cursed by Urvashi to become a eunuch. And Arjuna’s being cursed was even more unfair than that of Karna’s.
Urvashi had wanted to unite with him, but Arjuna respectfully refused, regarding her like a mother as she had been the wife of his ancestor Pururava. Being infuriated at being turned down, Urvashi cursed Arjuna. So Arjuna got the curse without having done anything reproachable – in fact after having done something immensely laudable. Indra lauded him later, “Your self-control exceeds even that of the great sages.” In contrast, Karna’s curses were due to his having done something reproachable, even if it might not have been with bad intention. He lied to Parashurama, saying that he had been born in a brahmana family. And he accidentally killed the brahmana’s cow, mistaking it to be an animal to be hunted.
Further, many other people have also got cursed disproportionately for minor transgressions: Dasharatha, Pandu and Parikshit, for example. So there’s nothing uniquely tragic about Karna’s getting cursed – no need to make a martyr out of him.
Moreover, what happens to us is not as important as we respond to it. By choosing right responses, the effect of unfortunate happenings can be minimized. Arjuna used the curse to live discreetly as a dance teacher during the period when the Pandavas were expected to live incognito. Karna too could have done something to deal with the curse. To minimize the effect of the “chariot-being-swallowed” curse, he could have had a backup chariot always ready or could even have switched to an entirely different carrier, say, an elephant. To minimize the effect of the “mantras-forgetting” curse, he could have done austerities and acquired other weapons along with the mantras to hurl them – Parashurama’s curse applied only to the mantras he had given to Karna. Overreliance on one weapon, especially that is known to, even fated, to let one down is a suicidally unsound strategy – entirely unworthy of anyone who wishes to be considered as the world champion archer. And of course he could have entirely avoided this ill-starred conflict if he had had the good sense to listen to Krishna and chose the side of virtue.
Was Karna not disadvantaged lifelong because society considered him lowborn?
1. Yes, the notion that he was a charioteer’s son deprived him of the respect given to a son of kshatriya. Still, but he was also uniquely advantaged in having an impenetrable armor since birth. None of the Pandavas, despite being born from celestials, had a congenital armor – Karna started off with a big advantage over Arjuna. So, if in one sense, the match was fixed against him due to his presumed low birth, then in another sense, it was fixed for him due to his congenital armor. The net result could be said to be a level playing field.
Eventually, though Karna lost his kavacha, he did gain all the things due to a kshatriya: kingdom, the friendship of kings and the respect of kings – resulting again in a level playing field. Thus, his birth did not permanently deprive him of the things he merited.
2. If we look at things from a limited, this-life perspective, everyone gets some troubles despite having apparently done nothing to deserve them. Were the Pandavas not wronged when they had to live in the forest like fugitives after their residence in Varnavarta was burnt down? It was no fault of theirs that they were born in the same dynasty as the envious Duryodhana who made them the target of his wicked machinations. Were they not wronged when they were dispossessed of their kingdom and exiled through a rigged gambling match? Were they not wronged when their wife Draupadi was dishonored?
Yet despite the wrongs that happened to them, the Pandavas stayed on the side of virtue, whereas Karna chose the side of vice. If we use the wrongs that happen to us to justify our making wrong choices, then we can never make things right – we perpetuate a series of wrongs that make things worse for ourselves as well as others.
3. If we look at things from a more complete, multi-life perspective, then we understand that the problems we face in this life are due to our karma from previous lives. The Mahabharata mentions that Karna was demon named Dambhodbhava in his previous life. This demon had terrorized the universe on the strength of a blessing got from the sun-god. He had been blessed to have a thousand kavachas which:
i. Could be destroyed only one at a time
ii. Could be destroyed only by someone who had performed a thousand years of austerity
iii. Would cause the immediate death of the destroyer of the kavacha.
This combination of blessings made his undefeatable till he met his match in the form of the divine sages Nara-Narayana, who are considered non-different from each other. They fought with him alternately, one fighting while the other performed austerity – both doing so for a thousand years. When the warrior would destroy one kavacha and fall dead, the ascetic would revive him by the power of his austerities and then they would swap places. The warrior would fight and finally destroy another kavacha after a thousand years till the ascetic acquired enough merit through austerity to take up the fight for another thousand years and destroy one more kavacha.
By this resourceful and arduous arrangement, those sages destroyed nine hundred and ninety nine kavachas. When just one kavacha remained, the demon fled to the shelter of the sun-god, who due to attachment to his worshiper refused to hand the fugitive over to Nara-Narayana rishis. Eventually, the demon was impregnated by the sun-god into the womb of Kunti and he was born as Karna. Simultaneously, Nara-Narayana appeared as Arjuna and Krishna to complete their unfinished mission of ridding the universe of the terrible demon.
Karna, due to his contact with the sun-god and due to his being parented by that effulgent deity, had developed some virtues. But due to the inclinations from his demoniac previous life, he also had some weaknesses. Thus, he became a complex grey character in the Mahabharata. And whatever he suffered during his life was the result of the bad karma he had done in his previous life.
4. The caste-by-birth notion that led to discrimination against Karna was a deviation from the Vedic norm, a deviation that is acknowledged in the Bhagavad-gita.
Krishna states in the Gita that the spiritual knowledge that he had given at the start of the creation (04.01) had become obscured by the power of time (04.02). Due to this decline of spiritual knowledge, the social order present at the time when the Gita was spoken (which is the same as the time when the Mahabharata occurred – the Gita is a part of the Mahabharata) had deviated from the spiritual standard. One sample of this deviation was the prevalence of the caste-by-birth idea, something contrary to the Gita’s teaching (04.13) that caste is determined by qualities and activities. As the caste system was rigid and stratified at that time, Karna was often labeled by his birth instead of by his qualities and activities.
Every age has its blind spots and its fallibilities – the problems resulting from those blind spots are one of the ways people in that age get the reactions to their past-life karma. To act virtuously while enduring various problems coming due to our past-life misdeeds is the defining challenge of life in all ages. Though Karna did act virtuously in several ways, his choosing the side of vice as a lifelong commitment was his fatal blunder.
Was it not wrong for Draupadi to dishonor Karna by stating during her svayamvara that she would not marry the son of a charioteer?
According to the Mahabharata-Tatparya-Nirnaya of Srila Madhavacharya as well as the critical edition of the Mahabharata prepared by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Draupadi didn’t reject Karna – Karna contested and failed to hit the target. In these narratives, the incident of Draupadi rejecting Karna as a potential suitor didn’t occur at all. Nonetheless, because most extant versions of the Mahabharata do include this incident, let’s analyze its ethical dimensions.
The very word svayamvara (svayam – oneself, vara – bridegroom) implies that the occasion is a forum for the bride to choose her groom. So Draupadi had the right to choose her husband. The test of archery skill was an aid for her in making the choice, but ultimately it was meant to be her choice.
In the contest, the expected competitors were kshatriya kings. Karna put himself in a potentially embarrassing situation when despite knowing that many in society questioned his kshatriya credentials, he assumed that he could participate in the contest and marched to the central arena only to be stopped by Draupadi. A less presumptuous attitude could have saved Karna of the dishonor.
Was Karna not an exemplary man of honor that he promised Kunti that he would not kill any of her sons except Arjuna and kept that promise?
Yes, that was a laudable thing he did, but it would have been better if he had done what Kunti had beseeched and what even his worshipable deity and actual father Suryadeva had asked him to do: join the ranks of the virtuous Pandavas.
Due to his perceived low birth and the attendant lack of respect, Karna was forever craving for respect. This deep-seated status anxiety clouded his judgment, making him privilege honor over virtue. He mistook that being respected as a person who kept his word of honor was more important than leading a life of virtue.
To compensate for the lack of respect due to his perceived low birth, Karna had built a reputation for himself of being unflinchingly charitable. When Kunti asked him to come over to the side of his virtuous brothers, his status anxiety prevented him from doing the right thing. Yet it also couldn’t brook the idea of refusing her entirely, for that would sully his reputation. So, to preserve his reputation, he gave her another charity: that she would always have five sons, for he would not kill any of the Pandavas except for Arjuna. And to preserve that reputation, he honored that word by sparing the other four Pandavas.
Now his sparing their life was honorable, but a similar sense of honor among the Pandavas led to his life being spared too. As mentioned earlier, Abhimanyu and Bhima had both overpowered Karna – and they could have killed him. But to honor the vow of Arjuna that he would be the one to kill Karna, they did not take Karna’s life. So he spared others’ life and others spared his life – score even; nothing extraordinarily great about it.
By choosing his own reputation over the advice of his well-wishing parents to join the side of virtue, Karna chose the word of honor over the life of honor – a subtle but serious error of judgment.
To conclude, Karna demonstrates how attachment to bad association can not only make a good person bad but can also make that person mistake bad to be good.