Karna Pledges Eternal Friendship to Duryodhana
The Adi Parva of the Mahabharata does not tell us anything about what happened to Karna in the years between the Pramanakoti and other childhood incidents and his appearance in the arena years later. But from the Shanti Parva of the epic we get a clear picture of the events of these crucial years in the life of this main pillar of Duryodhana’s evil strength, fear of whose competence would later make someone like Krishna lose sleep for three months immediately prior to the war. Krishna would find relief only when Karna is forced to use against Ghatotkacha the shakti Vaijayanti he had received from Indra that he had kept reserved for use against Arjuna. And such is Krishna’s relief at Vaijayanti being spent on Ghatotkacha instead of Arjuna that at the death of Bhima’s son Krishna jumps up on the floor of the chariot he was driving and dance, shouting and hooting for joy and gathering in his arms his friend Arjuna and slapping his back again and again to express his joy, confusing everyone in the war field, the Pandavas more than anyone else.
Answering a question from Yudhishthira in the opening chapters of the Shanti Parva, after the war has ended, Sage Narada tells him about Karna’s early years in great detail. By then of course Yudhishthira has learnt that Karna was the eldest son of Kunti and hence his elder brother, whom according to Indian culture he should have treated like his own father.
To quote from the epic, Narada tells Yudhishtiira: “Endued with great energy, that child [Karna abandoned by Kunti at birth] came to have the status of a Suta. He subsequently acquired the science of weapons from the preceptor (Drona), that foremost descendant of Angirasa's race... Beholding that Dhananjaya was superior to everyone in the science of weapons, Karna one day approached Drona in private and said these words unto him, 'I desire to be acquainted with the Brahma weapon [brahmastra], with all its mantras and the power of withdrawing it, for I desire to fight Arjuna. Without doubt, the affection you bear to every one of your pupils is equal to what you bear to your own son. I pray that all the masters of the science of weapons may, through thy grace, regard me as one accomplished in weapons!”
So Karna’s rivalry with Arjuna was there even when both of them were Drona’s students in his gurukula.
Drona however refuses to give brahmastra to Karna – the epic gives two reasons: because of Drona’s partiality for Arjuna and because he knew Karna was wicked. Drona tells him that only one who lives fully the brahmana way of life, i.e. practicing self-mastery, non-violence, peace, love for all and so on, or a kshatriya who has practiced austere penances, is qualified for acquiring the brahmastra and no one else. When Drona refuses the brahmastra to him, Karna prostrates before him and with his permission goes to Parashurama who was at that time living on the Mahendra Mountains.
When Karna later enters the arena, looking the most majestic of all the people present there, glorious beyond words, who is described by the epic as glowing like the sun, the moon and fire, who is compared by the narrator of the story to a royal palm tree, tamala, Karna slightly bows to Kripa and Drona. It is the ritual bow to men for whom he is bound to show some respect because they are gurus and were his own gurus, but for whom he has no great respect because they had denied him the higher knowledge he had asked for. He announces loudly that he can do all that Arjuna did and do them all better than Arjuna. And in the next few minutes he proves he really can, making the entire audience in the arena divided into two groups – one supporting him and the other, Arjuna.
He then calls Arjuna to a one to one combat. It is then that Kripa gets up asks for his identity, saying that only a prince can fight with another prince, which was the rule in those days. The question is asked with full knowledge of who Karna is. Duryodhana takes Karna’s side and gives an inspiring speech there, telling that in the case of great heroes birth should not be looked into, as in the case of great sages and rivers. As for his not being royalty, that is something that can be rectified instantly, he says – and right there, in the presence of the excited multitude, Duryodhana crowns Karna king of Anga, a small kingdom that personally belonged to him.
Karna is so moved by this act of Duryodhana that on the spot in the presence of the entire assembly he promises him lifelong friendship.
But in spite of his childhood friendship with Duryodhana and his being a part of his evil plans, Karna is essentially a man of high ethical values and great nobility. In the rest of this study we shall take a close look at the long journey of this friendship between a ruthlessly ambitious man willing to sacrifice all ethics at the altar of his ambition and another man for whom principles are the highest thing – one of those principles being his loyalty to his wicked friend. We shall also see the depths of evil Karna travels to with his friend and how the essential nobility of the man finally pulls him out of evil.