Duryodhana and Karna: A Friendship that Never was

The first episode of a series analysing the nature of the relationship between Duryodhana and Karna.
Duryodhana and Karna: A Friendship that Never was

— 1 — 

A UBIQUITOUS LINE that appears in small print at the bottom of invitation cards for auspicious occasions has always intrigued me: 

With best compliments from Friends and Well-wishers.

The source of my intrigue is the use of the conjunction that separates “friends” from “well-wishers.” Wishing well for its own sake for another person is one of the purest forms of the value known as Ahimsa. 

A friend is first a well-wisher and everything else later. When its scope is expanded to accommodate the cosmos itself, it is known as Lokasangraha, a philosophical kernel that the Bhagavad-Gita delineates so profoundly.  

A mere alignment of ideas or goals or a shared worldview or emotional necessity maketh not true friendship. The cement that bonds all these bricks is stake… or what is known today as “shared interests.” This is not friendship but transaction. Indeed, the transactional element is present bang in the word, “interest,” which is paid on the principal. 

One of the immortal and universal instances of the abuse of friendship is the miscasting of the transactional relationship between Duryodhana and Karna. 

This miscasting is a great disservice done on three planes. 

One, it insults the genius of Bhagavan Veda Vyasa. 

Two, it injures the spirit of the Mahabharata.

Three, it subverts the fundamental tenets of Indian Aesthetics.

The durability of the myth of the “pure” and “ideal” friendship between Duryodhana and Karna is comparable to the myth that Mohandas Gandhi singlehandedly got India her freedom. Thankfully, over the years, the Gandhi myth has pretty much exhausted its shelf life. 

But the Duryodhana-Karna myth continues to endure not on its own merit but for a variety of extraneous reasons. We can mention three. 

The foremost reason is the universal magnetic power of the Mahabharata itself. If you sunder it from the protective and accommodative embrace of the Mahabharata, the Duryodhana-Karna “friendship” will resemble an ancient version of the Jai-Veeru friendship in Sholay. Emotionally appealing as drama but intrinsically vacuous on the plane of values. Or to cite a more ridiculous example, it will resemble the “friendship” between Surya and Devaraj in Maniratnam’s prolonged sojourn of dullness known as Dalapathi. By his own admission, Dalapathi was Maniratnam’s “interpretation” of the story of Karna. An interpretation which is entirely consistent with the Duryodhana-Karna myth.

The second reason is the voluminous literary, dramatic and folk tradition that was captivated primarily by the emotional and passionate appeal in Karna’s character. This was then imputed to his relationship with Duryodhana, and a nonexistent version of “true” friendship was concocted. But this came at the cost of violating the spirit of Bhagavan Veda Vyasa — to cite just one example, the wildly popular story of Karna and Bhanumati (Duryodhana’s wife) does not occur in the original. Thus, even today, there are any number of Yakshagana and other dramatic forms that extol Karna as a tragic hero and an ideal friend. The worst offender in this entire corpus of literary licentiousness is the 1977 Telugu movie, Daana Veera Shoora Karna. 

The third reason flows from its predecessors. In recent times, the Duryodhana-Karna myth has acquired greater power owing to the sustained ideological perfidy of capsizing our epics by transforming villains into heroes and vice versa. Thus, Ravana has become the wronged hero of Srimad Ramayana and Duryodhana’s spotless hands have been forced to become bloody due to the obstinacy of the Pandavas. The same “logic” also alleges that Draupadi was secretly lusting after Karna. The motive — as I have written elsewhere — behind all such distortions is to sever our cultural roots and to thereby denationalise the Hindu society. The same motive has also produced reams of “literary criticism” primarily aimed at dissuading people from reading the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in their originals. The spurious claim that “there is no original Ramayana and Mahabharata,” is part of the same ideological charlatanism. 

But in all such cases of derision, denial and distortion, a handy formula has evolved itself: in our verified experience, the truth is the exact opposite of what these ideological merchants spew. Thus, if the claim is that Karna is a tragic hero, the opposite is true. If the claim is that the Duryodhana - Karna relationship is a paragon of true friendship, the truth is that it was anything but friendship. 

We have Bhagavan Veda Vyasa’s word for it.

Also Read

Also Read
A Short History of the Premeditated Leftist Slaughter of the Indian Literary and Aesthetic Tradition
Duryodhana and Karna: A Friendship that Never was
Also Read
The Destruction of the Indian Aesthetic Tradition has Culminated in Artistic Famine in Indian Cinema
Duryodhana and Karna: A Friendship that Never was

— 2 — 

IF A LAUNDRY LIST of the traits that define the Duryodhana-Karna relationship is made, its contents will reveal the following. 

From start to finish, it is a friendship of unequals, which instantly negates the very definition of friendship. Politics and utilitarianism are the immovable anchors of Duryodhana’s friendship with Karna. In Duryodhana’s eyes, Karna’s status is slightly higher than that of a human weapon. Indeed, Bhagavan Veda Vyasa, in a pithy verse, declares Duryodhana’s remorseless political deployment of Karna in their maiden meeting in the Astrapradarśana episode.

duryodhanasyāpi tadā karṇamāsādya pārthiva |

bhayamarjunasanjātaṃ kṣipramantaradhīyata ||  

Duryodhana, who found Karna, was freed from his fear of Arjuna.  

This verse is akin to a sūtra or a preface to the rest of the vicissitudes of their relationship. Among other things, haughtiness, impudence, entitled behaviour, an exaggerated sense of self-importance and impropriety are traits common to both Duryodhana and Karna. 

Karna reveals his sense of entitlement and impropriety when he barges into the Astrapradarśana pavilion. He is a brash intruder at an event in which he should have ideally been a spectator. This is akin to a random postgraduate gatecrashing into a University exam hall and challenging the students out there that he’s better than them. And the elders of the Kuru clan react to Karna’s impudent behaviour exactly as a University Examiner would. “Literary critics” and self-obsessed messiahs like N.T. Rama Rao who miscast the Astrapradarśana episode in casteist terms conveniently ignore Karna’s boorish behaviour.  

It is entirely consistent with Duryodhana’s character that he is swayed by Karna’s bluster and arrogant exhibitionism. His sleepless jealous eye unerringly spots a kindred spirit. But the actual root of his instant attraction for Karna was his long-term potential as a weapon against Arjuna. 

What follows is the familiar farce where Duryodhana anoints Karna as the king of Anga-Desa. It is akin to a spot lottery for Karna. It is also a shackle of lifelong servility that Karna gladly wears and gives it the hallowed label of loyalty and friendship. However, Duryodhana’s coronation of Karna is wholly illegitimate because it violates the most fundamental principles of Rājya-śāstra or Statecraft. Duryodhana is not the sovereign of the Kuru Empire, and his father is only a caretaker king — a trustee, not an executor. It is thus a double illegitimacy. Karna’s coronation resembles the democratic coronation of Manmohan Singh by Sonia Gandhi.

Dhritarashtra was blind. 

Manmohan Singh was mute. 

Quite naturally, Duryodhana and Karna indulge in riotous celebration and take oaths of lifelong friendship after the coronation. But beneath this outer layer of affection, the ultimate stakes are clear to both. It is a friendship forged exclusively on a shared hatred against the Pandavas. Like how the mutually warring Pakistani dictators and Islamic sects are united by their common hatred against India. 

This is the subliminal message that the origins of the Duryodhana-Karna friendship gives us: Duryodhana recruited Karna but did not befriend him. His fundamental nature — jealousy and spite — disallowed even the notion of friendship for jealousy abhors an equal. 

Thus, if politics is the anchor of Duryodhana’s friendship, a tearing desperation to overcome his inferiority complex, and to make the world pay what he was owed, underscores Karna’s friendship. It is therefore unsurprising that Karna subordinated himself to Duryodhana at every step with an earnestness that is truly repulsive. He always addressed Duryodhana as “my lord” and variants thereof. This abject behaviour is glaringly absent in the friendship between — for example — Sri Krishna and Arjuna or Sri Krishna and Kuchela.

To be continued      

The Dharma Dispatch is now available on Telegram! For original and insightful narratives on Indian Culture and History, subscribe to us on Telegram.

The Dharma Dispatch