Karna in the "Mahabharata"

Author: 
Adarkar, Aditya
Year: 
2001

     This dissertation examines several aspects of the character of Karna in the Mahabharata. It begins by arguing that Karna's choice of which side to fight on in the epic battle reveals a courageous response to a deep ethical dilemma. Through the story of Karna's choice, the epic authors both undermine the claim of completeness of any human knowledge-system about dharma and extend the range of what dharma can encompass. The epic does and does not subvert its ethical systems through alternative framing analogies which allow for multiple ethical perspectives on a single narrative thread.
     The epic authors use the myths correlated to the Karna narrative to explore the twin themes of self-invention and its impossibility. Karna reinvents himself in social rank only to return to what he was originally, through instances of unveiling and gift-rituals that go awry through excessive generosity.
     With respect to psychological paradigms, Karna is an exception to the Rankian cross-cultural heroic paradigm; the Karna narrative centers on not an Oedipal complex but a tension between loyalty (to family) and duties prescribed by dharma. Moreover, Karna's character develops not by rejecting a previous identity but clinging to it. Instead of following the Freudian model of individual growth through change, the Mahabharata's Karna seems to manifest his psychological growth through heroic steadfastness.
     Through crystalline-like parallels and mirrorings, Karna's character reflects and is reflected upon by three other characters, Yudhisthira, Arjuna, and Bhishma. Several aspects of Yudhisthira's personality (his blinding hatred, his adherence to his worldview) emerge in the context of his hatred of and grief over Karna. The archrivals Karna and Arjuna both aggressively cling to their worldviews; while Arjuna is the idealized devotee, Karna embodies some of the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, but without devotion (bhakti). In the reconciliation between Karna and Bhishma, neither character denies the power of destiny, but Karna allows for and believes in human initiative.
     In interpreting the Karna narrative this way, this dissertation hopes to encourage a conversation about Karna which will help us appreciate the subtle design and conscious artistry of the Mahabharata's characters.

Advisor(s): 
Doniger, Wendy, Friedrich, Paul