This will be the story of Karna – one of the most respected characters of the Mahabharata,
Karna was an epitome of giving. His dharma was to give anything that anyone asked. He was abandoned by his mother Kunti after birth, and was brought up by Dhritarashtra’s charioteer. Karna symbolized dharma very effectively in many incidents in the Mahabharata. Karna remained a true son to his foster parents, and remained a true and loyal friend to Duryodhana, by siding him in the war. As a true friend, he repeatedly pressed Duryodhana to defeat the Pandavas through the Dharmic ways of battle, but when Duryodhana chose the deceitful way, Karna still remained loyal to him. Karna promised Kunti that she will continue to have 5 sons after the battle was over, and he kept his promise. Since Karna and Arjuna had sworn to live only after killing the other, one of them must die. Despite defeating each of the other 4 Pandava brothers in battle, he never killed anyone because of his promise to Kunti.
Karna was a great giver. Karna was born with Surya’s Kavacha. As long as Karna retained him Kavacha, he was invincible in battle. Surya warned Karna to not head to Indra’s request for his kavacha. But since it was against Karna’s dharma to say no to someone’s request, he willingly gave it away to Indra. Indra’s taking away of Karna’s kavacha was part of a larger scale of establishing dharma for the Pandavas.
Despite Karna’s white character, there were a few black dots that were very prominent. When a thirsty old woman once asked Karna for some water, he belittled her by saying that Karna gives bigger things than water, and that she should ask someone smaller than Karna for something small like water. The result of that pain that the old woman felt was to come back to Karna when he was thirsty in the battlefield and there was no one to give him water. Krishna reminds him of this incident and Karna realizes his mistake. In another incident, when Abhimnayu was being attacked by all the chieftains of the Kaurava army, Karna realized that it was adharmic to attack a single person, so he stepped back. His loyalty to the Kaurava army prevented him from siding Abhimanyu and protecting him. At the same time, his elevated notions of dharma stopped him from shooting the fatal arrow at Abhimanyu.
Karna could not receive his warrior training from Dronacharya because it was in Drona’s personal interests to make Arjuna the supreme warrior and he was dissatisfied with Karna’s lowly birth (the truth about his birth was not revealed then). He then approaches the great Parashurama, and disguises himself as a Brahmin, when he finds out that Parashurama does not accept Kshatriyas as disciples. One afternoon, while Parashurama naps with his head rested on his disciple Karna’s lap, a bee begins to sting Karna’s lap. Karna was afraid that he would wake up his guru, and hence he bore that pain quitely. After the nap, Parashuram sees the big bite on Karna’s body, and immediately knows that no one but a kshatriya can bear this bodily pain. Thus, Parashurama curses Karna – that he would forget all his learning in the one most crucial moment of his life. This happens when Arjuna and Karna remain stalemate in duel, leading Arjuna to release the fatal arrow.
When Arjuna and Karna are engaged in a bloody duel, Karna’s chariot gets stuck in the ground, and he is disarmed by Arjuna. While Arjuna hesitates to continue fighting with a disarmed soldier, Krishna reminds Arjuna about the death of his son, Abhimanyu, and Arjuna continues fighting. Karna meanwhile, uses the chariot wheel as a shield to protect himself. Arjuna manages to further disarm Karna, and the fatal arrow has left Arjuna’s bow, but falls on Karna’s feet instead of killing him. While Arjuna stands bewildered at what just happened, Krishna explains that Karna – the embodiment of Dharma – has protected Dharma all his life, and now Dharma itself is protecting him. The only way Arjuna can defeat Karna is if Karna has given away his Dharma also in charity. There is a beautiful verse in Sanskrit that runs:
Dharmeva Hato Hanthi, Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitaha.
(Means: One who forsakes Dharma, is forsaken by Dharma, and Dharma protects the one who protects it.)
In the final scene, Krishna goes to Karna to ask for his Dharma. Karna knows that the only thing that is keeping him alive is his Dharma, that he has stood against all his life, and he knows that the minute he gives it away, he dies. But Karna, being an epotime of Dharma itself, gladly gives it away to Krishna. At this juncture, Krishna shows gives his Vishwarupa Darshanam to Karna, putting Karna’s agitated mind at peace. Ordinary people are incapable of seeing Krishna’s true form, but Karna’s good deeds enabled him to. At Krishna’s behest, Arjuna releases a final arrow that decaptitates Karna.
While saints like Buddha eptiomized Dharma in extreme non-violent form, and while Mahavira did so through non-aggression, Karna truly symbolized Dharma in a Kshatriya’s manner.