Question: What is the importance of Arjuna’s elder brother Karna?
Oh, Karna is extremely important. Of course he is the elder brother, he is the sixth of the Pandavas. And Karna of course, he led a very sorrowful life. He had much suffering in his life. And we’ll talk more about that in the Swami Purana, in the stories about why everybody assumed the positions that they did in the cast of characters of the Bhagavad Gita.
Karna was the first son of Kunti, who was the mother of the first three, Yudhishtra, Bhima, and Arjuna. Of course, Madri, was the second wife and she was the mother of Nakula and Sahadeva.
But when Kunti was a young girl, she did seva for the Rishi Durvasa. And Durvasa came to stay in the palace, and Kunti said, “I’m going to serve him.” And she cooked all his meals and she served him the food. And she said, “Please, tell me, what is dharma?” And she listened to his discourses and in this way he was very pleased with her seva.
And he was very pleased with her demeanor, and her behavior and her thirst for knowledge. And he said, “I’m giving you a boon, choose from me a boon.” And Kunti said, “You know what, Rishi, you are a seer of past, present and future and I am an ignorant little girl, and I’ve never been outside the palace. How will I know what boon will be beneficial to me? You give me the boon that you think is the most appropriate for me.”
And Durvasa went into meditation and he came out and he said, “I give you the boon that when you call on any God, and you will become pregnant immediately.” And Kunti said, “What? What kind of a boon is that to give to a little girl who is unmarried, never been outside of the palace?” Durvasa got up and he left.
Kunti said, “Wait a minute, how could that possibly be the boon that the Rishi gave to me. I mean I did so much seva, and I respected him so highly? Is it true if I use this mantra any Deva will come and give me a baby?” And she looked at the Sun, she didn’t even think, she just looked at the Sun and she said the mantra. And immediately she became in a motherly way. And she said, “Oh my God, what am I going to do? I don’t have a husband, I’m a princess, if my father finds out I’m really up the creek without a paddle. I’m in deep doo doo.”
So she hid herself for awhile, and finally she gave birth to the baby. And she said, “Oh baby, you please excuse me, but there is no way you can be brought up in my household.” And she put the baby in a basket just like Moses, and she put the basket in the river and gave it a push.
Well, the basket floated down the river. And Adhiratha was the king’s charioteer, he use to drive the chariot for Dhritrashtra, the king of the country of Hastinapura. And Adhiratha didn’t have a child, and one day his wife went down to the river to bathe, and she was bathing and taking a bath and up comes floating this basket. And from inside the basket came the crying sounds of a child. And she said, “Certainly God has blessed us with a child.”
They took the child home, and Adhiratha began to raise the child as his own. And when the child grew a little bigger he went to the king and said, “Dhritrashtra, king, my lord, I’ve got this baby now, I found him in the river, I kept him as my own and I can’t drive your chariot anymore. I got to stay home, I’m a house-daddy, I became a soccer pop. (I’ll tell the story my way, it’s my privilege to update the story to every culture and civilization) So, I got you a new charioteer to take my place, and I hope you don’t mind, but I brought you Sanjaya. And he will be your charioteer. Of course later were going to find out that Sanjaya became endowed with Divine Vision, and he narrated the entire story and the entire Bhagavad Gita to Dhritrashtra. So, the first verse of the Bhagavad Gita is, “Dhritrashtra said, “Hey, what happened?” And Sanjaya says (Sanjaya Uvaca). And Sanjaya narrates the entire Gita to Dhritrashtra.
Well, Karna grew up in a house of a chariot driver and said, “I don’t want to drive a chariot, I want to be a warrior, I want to be an archer.” And his father said, “Oh son that’s silly, you can’t be a warrior, you can’t be an archer, you were raised in the family of a charioteer.” And Karna said, “Ability doesn’t know any caste. I won’t accept that I’m socially stigmatized, I want to learn archery.” And he went off and found a Guru. His Guru was Parashurama, the finest Guru he could ask for, he was the same Guru who taught Bhishma.
And there was a graduation ceremony for all the students of the academy. And when Arjun shot his arrows in different ways, Dronacharya, the teacher of all the students of Hastinapura, of the kingdom of the kingly families. He said, “I declare that Arjuna is the finest archer.” And Karna came into the arena and said, “Wait, you haven’t seen me shoot an arrow yet. How can you say Arjuna is the best acher?”
Well, Arjuna said, “Who are you?” And Karna said, “Just see my arrows, and you’ll know me, my arrows are my introduction.” And Arjuna said, “Well, what is your parentage, what is your lineage, by what authority are you a member of this royal assembly?” And Karna said, “I am the son of a charioteer.”
And nobody but Kunti recognized him. And Kunti was ashamed to say, “that that’s my son.” The oldest son of Kunti. How could she say, “I was unmarried, and I had this baby and he grew up.” So, Duryodhana said, “Well, If he is an enemy of the Pandava brothers, he is a friend of mine.” And Duryodhana said, “I’m making you a member of the royalty and I’m giving you a kingdom of your own.”
And so, without his knowing that he was fighting against his own family members, Karna joined the supporters of Duryodhana, and became a defender for the defender of evil. Great story.
And every one of the characters in the Mahabharata, in the great war for light, every one of the characters had their own restrictions and their own compulsions which required them to join one side or the other.
And in this way, the armies lined up to do battle. And in the midst of the battlefield when everyone was ready to blow the conch shells and pronounce the declaration of war, Arjuna said, “One moment. Krishna, drive my chariot into the middle of the battlefield. I want to see the faces up close of who will be fighting with whom.” Krishna drove into the middle of the battlefield and Arjuna opened his eyes, and saw his Grandfather and his uncles and his cousins, and his cousin’s brothers. And then he turned around and he saw his brothers and his uncles and he said, “This is the destruction of our family, this is our family that’s fighting each other.”
“I mean in theory it sounds a lot different than it appears when we’re in the battlefield looking at each other. And saying, “Hey, I’m going to lift up my arrows against my Grandfather, against my Guru who taught me to shoot, against my family priest, against my cousins, my brothers, my uncles, how can I face my aunts when I go home and I say I killed your children. And I won the kingdom, what kind of kingdom would that be? How many of my own brothers, my own cousins, my own well-wishers, our friends and family will die in this battle? For what?! For a few particles of dust of the soil of this country, I’m going to destroy my family and proclaim myself the king?”
And he dropped his bow.
And he said, “Krishna, you are the charioteer, you drive my vehicle and maneuver it in the war, tell me how do I maneuver my vehicle in this inner battle. What is Dharma? And what is right? And what should I do in these circumstances? Can you tell me what is action, and what is appropriate action, and how did we come to this situation, and what is the way out.”
And that’s the dilemma of the Gita. And that’s the role that Karna plays.