If Mahabharata has two characters who have received the most humiliation for no fault whatsoever, one is Draupadi and the other is Karna.
Draupadi has longed for a husband who will have wisdom and moral values, will be strong and well built, a good archer, handsome and intelligent.
Karna is the only character in Mahabharata who has all these qualities. The gods knew Draupadi's wish well ahead of time and gave all these qualities to one man.
Also, all these qualities have been equally divided in Pandavas (Yudhistira for moral values, Bhima for physical strength, Arjuna for archery, Nakula is handsome and Sahadev is the most intelligent).
Now lets understand Karna.
Karna is the best archer (next to Eklavya) and Arjuna is no match for him. Dronacharya knew that Karna is far superior than Arjuna, hence he denies to teach him archery lessons. Bhisma knew that Karna is superior to Arjuna and thus prevents him from entering the war during initial days.
Its fate or destiny which parted Draupadi and Karna. He would have been a better 'only' husband for her than the five she got as he was as good as any of the pandavas when it came to virtues and valour.
But from the political and "Dharma's" point of view, she has to be married with Pandavas. Thats the plan. Karna negates Arjuna, which creates a balance.
Draupadi herself prevented Karna from participating in the Swyamvar, calling him a Suta Putra (This insult by Draupadi was one of the reasons for her downfall in the court room where she was disrobed in public, leading to humiliation of Pandavas, reaping the seeds of war). Karma is a bitch!
Many years later, she learned from Krishna that Karna is not a suta putra but the eldest son of Kunti. To this, Draupadi regrets saying,
"If I had married him, I would not have been gambled away, publicly humiliated and called a whore. For he has all the qualities possessed by my 5 husbands."
So she ended up marrying a man who shared her with his brothers and failed to protect her when she needed him the most. (Lesson: Give credit where it is due, for Karma shall get you in due time.)
There is another legend which says that its Karna who prevented the rape of Draupadi by Vasuki (Page on Boloji). Vasuki could only be pacified by the eldest Kunti-putra (Karna).
Draupadi has always favored Arjuna but alas, Arjuna was not happy with the fact that he has to share the prize he has won with 4 brothers. Arjuna, on the other hand, favored Subhadra. Draupadi knew this too, which is why she starts having a soft corner for the next best archer, Karna.
Karna and Bheesma
When the war started, Bheesma was appointed the commander in chief of Kaurava Army. This is because Bheesma is the greatest warrior and cannot be defeated by anyone (he had the power of "Ichhyamrityu"). So logically, Bheesma's presence ensured that Kauravas cannot be defeated.
However, here is a twist. Bheesma won't allow Karna to enter the war, as long as he is leading the army.
Duryodhana analyzed the situation and concludes that Arjuna has to be pacified first or they can never win against Pandavas. He needs Karna from day one, because only Karna can kill Arjuna. The logic here is that Bheesma won't kill Pandavas, for he loves them dearly. Drona won't kill Arjuna because Arjuna is his favorite student.
If there is anyone who can kill Arjuna, its Karna.
But Bheesma prevents Karna from entering the war giving this reason.
You have insulted Kulvadhu Draupadi in the court room by calling her a "Whore". You have insulted a Goddess, you have violated the norm of a "Khstatriya" (a Khsatriya's duty is to protect and respect women). Hence, you cannot enter the battle under my command.
On the 10th day of the battle, Arjuna slays Bheesma with the help of Shikhandi.
Then Karna goes to Bhisma and asks for forgiveness, that he insulted Draupadi and he should have prevented his "wicked" friend Duryodhana from insulting thekulvadhu, who represents the pride and glory of Kuruvansh. He tells Bheesma that he was taken aback, that he was burning inside because Draupadi prevented him from entering his Swyamvar and denied him the glory he deserves. He continues telling Bheesma that by calling Draupadi a "Whore", he has committed a grave "sin" and he begs for forgiveness.
To this Bheesma says
"Hey Karna, jyesth Kunti putra Karna, you have finally realized your mistake.
Ghayal nagin, ghayal sherni aur apamanit stree se daro.Yasaswi bhava..!"
Karna was taken by a shock. He didn't knew that Bheesma knows his real identity. He asks Bheesma that if he knew that he is the eldest Kunti Putra, why did he prevented him from entering the war? What is his fault?
"Karna, my son, you and Arjuna are the greatest warriors Kuruvansh has seen after me. Duryodhana, Yudhistir, Bheema, Dushasana... they don't have the merit of being a guardian of Kuru throne.
My goal in life is is to ensure Hastinapur's throne is in safe hands. I cannot leave this planet until and unless Hastinapur is protected from all sides.
Only you and Arjuna has the power of protecting Hastinapur from foreign intrusion.
Hence, I prevented you from entering the war. I want to see both you and Arjuna alive, you are brothers and I know one day, Dharma shall win. I can see that day, when Arjuna will know who you are, and he will come running to you, take you in his arms and beg for forgiveness. I can see that day, when you will forgive Arjuna too, and you will take him in your arms, for you my son, you two are brothers. You are the student of Parashurama, if you enter the battle and use your Vashava shakti, Arjuna's death is certain. If Arjuna uses his Divyaastra against you, your death is certain.
After me, Hastinapur has two worthy guardians. Arjuna and Karna. Hence, it is my duty to ensure that the guardians don't fight with each other. I have done my duty, I am now laying in my death bed. Now it is upto time and destiny, I have done my part"
Karna replies "Hey Pitamaha Bheesma, both me and you are helpless. You are tied with your vow of protecting Hastinapur's throne and I am tied with the debt of Duryodhana's salt. Even if he is wrong, I have to fight for him, for that is my duty"
Karna, however enters the war because he is in-debt of his "wicked" friend (Duryodhana) for life, as it is Duryodhana who has given him identity in the society.
Karna gives back to Draupadi
In the 12th day of the battle, Arjuna had made a vow to kill Jayadratha (Duryodhana's brother in law). This is because Jayadratha was instrumental in holding off all the other 4 Pandavas in the first gate of "Chakravyuh" , which caused the death of Arjuna's brave son, Abhimanyu.
Since Arjuna has made the vow that either he will kill Jayadratha or he will take "Agni Samadhi", Drona laid out this plan that by the time Arjuna is busy fighting Jayadratha, he can capture Yudhistira.
Bheema was appointed the defence of Yudhistira and hence Duryodhana asks Karna to involve Bheema, so that Drona can capture Yudhistira.
Karna challenges Bheema and fights bravely. He holds him through out the day. Bheema is superior to Karna in Gada (the mace) and Karna is superior to Bheema in archery. Hence, both of them decide to use a neutral weapon - the spear.
At the end of the day, Karna succeeds in defeating Bheema and there comes a point when Bheema is armless and Karna holds his spear towards Bheema's neck. But Karna decides not to kill Bheema. There are two reasons why he doesn't kill Bheema, despite having all the options to do so.
1. Karna has given his word to Kunti, that his 5 sons will remain alive. If he kills Bheema, he can't kill Arjuna.
2. If Karna kills Bheema, he would do injustice to Draupadi's unstrangled hair. Draupadi has taken a vow that until and unless someone brings the blood of Dussasana's heart and wets her hair, she will never tie her hair. Bheema has made a vow that he will kill Dussasana and bring his hearts blood to Draupadi. If he kills Bheema in this battle, he will do injustice to Draupadi.
Furthermore, Karna had earlier protected Draupadi from Vasuki and then Draupadi had touched his feet saying
"Hey Angraj Karna, please forgive me for my innocence for unfairly denying you participation in my wedding competition and calling you "Suta Putra", I take back my words and today you have protected my modesty. After Shree Krishna, it is you who have protected my modesty and hence, you have risen to a Godly level in my heart. I, panchali, the wife of Pandavas, the daughter of Drupad, the sister of Dhristadhumnya, the mother of 5 brave sons, respect you to equal level of my husbands."
To this Karna had said
"Hey Devi, hey Annapurna, hey Kalyani, forgive me too, for I had insulted you in the courtroom. I was blind in the agony of revenge and I didn't realize your worth. Please forgive me too. I will ensure justice is done to your hair."
Karna decides to walk away and not kill Bheema.
When Draupadi learns that Karna had spared the life of Bheema, her love and respect for Karna is magnified.
Karna and Arjuna
Karna and Arjuna are the most talked about rivals in Mahabharata. I use the terms "rival" (competitor) not enemy. Both hold respect for each other. Karna knows that Arjuna is the best student of Drona and that he has Divyaashtra. Karna knows how Arjuna has single handedly defeated the entire Kaurava army in the battle of "Virat". Karna knows what Arjuna really is.
Arjuna also knows that Karna is the student of Parashurama and after Bheesma and Drona, only Karna can fight with him in equal levels.
In the 15th day of the battle, Karna is the commander in chief of Kaurava army. During their face to face combat, Karna makes Arjuna helpless. He tied Arjuna with his arrows and just when he is about to launch the final one, the sun sets.
The war ends for the day.
In the camp, Arjuna is restless and says that he cannot live with the fact that Karna did mercy to his life. Arjuna says
"Hey Janaradan, hey Narayan... this guy has waited his entire life for this moment. He entered the war only because he wants his glory of "sharwasrstha dhanurdhar", which he will obtain only when he kills me. Today, he had the chance. I agree the sun had set but now, nobody is following the rules of the war. We have killed Drona and Bheesma by forgery. On that ground, he could have fired his arrow and killed me too. But he didn't. Why? I cannot live with this indirect insult"
Vasudev Krishna then tells Arjuna that Karna is a noble spirit and he had sent a message. The message is this
"As long as I am the commander in chief of Kaurava army, all the rules of the war will be maintained and upheld. Yes, we have broken the rules of war while killing Abhimanyu. Yes, you have broken the rules while killing Bheesma, Drona. But I am a man of my words and I will not use any unfair means to kill you, o Arjuna. Because I have never got my due and I will not give history this chance to say that Karna had killed Arjuna through unfair means. My glory is greater than my life.
When Duryodhana asks Karna
"I am here to win a war. You had the chance of finishing Arjuna today, why didn't you fire your weapon? What for? I never relied on Bheesma and Drona, when it comes to killing Arjuna but I have always relied on you. You have disappointed me Karna, you have disappointed me."
"My friend, you are fighting this war for the throne. Arjuna is fighting for Dharma, for Indrapratha, for Panchali. But what am I fighting for? I am fighting for my glory. Yes, we are participating in the same war but the reasons are different. I will not gain or lose anything, no matter which side wins. But I am not ready to lose my glory, I will not let history point fingers towards me saying that I was a "Coward". Hastinapur's throne is important to you, I am aware of that. But my friend, learn to respect the reason and cause of your peers. We are all fighting our own wars and I am the loneliest warrior here after Bheesma, fighting for nothing."
How Karna Was Tricked Time And Again
Here are some instances which shows how Karna was tricked of his glory
Karna was the greatest warrior of Mahabharata, after Bheesma. He could only be defeated by the curses that were intentionally staged against him. Politics was played on him time and again but he stood his ground and never took evil means (except once when he was involved in the group that killed Abhimanyu by unfair means, the only sin which caused his "unfair" death in the hands of Arjuna)
1. Indra went to Karna disguised as a sage and tricked him. He took his Kavach Kundal, the protective shield which no weapon can pierce. Indra protects his son Arjuna by weakening Karna's defence mechanism.
2. Kunti went to Karna and tricked him too.
Karna promised Kunti that he will not kill any other Pandava except Arjuna. So Kunti improved the defence of Pandava, since Karna could have easily killed Bheema, Nakula, Sahadeva and Yudhistir. Whenever Karna encountered these Pandavas, he spared their life because of the word he had given to Kunti.
3. Karna was tricked by Dronacharya, when he was a child.
When Karna's father went to the Royal school, requesting Drona to teach his son the art of Archery, Drona asked the name and identity of this young lad.
The charioteer (Karna's father) said that his name is "Radhey" and that he is his son. Drona said that from his face, I can see the glory of "Sun". Hence, call him "Karna" ( It was Drona who coined the name "Karna". Drona was a learned Brahmin and he immediately grasped the glory that lies ahead of "Radhey" from his face)
This school is for royal prince and Khastriyas. Karna fails to qualify in both disciplines ( he is neither a Khastriya nor a prince in the society but in reality he is both).
Karna then asks what is your son Ashwathamma doing in the school then? He is your son, the son of a Brahmin and hence not a Khastriya. Neither he is prince.
To this Drona has no reply but still he does not accept Karna in his school (the great Indian caste system in action centuries ago).
Later, Karna by his efforts makes himself a worthy warrior and takes guidance from Parashurama. Parashurama had two disciples, Bheesma and Karna.
4. Karna was tricked by Krishna.
Krishna intelligently asked Ghatotkacha, Bheema's asura son to mercilessly destroy Kaurava army.Karna had to use the Vasava Shakti, which had been gifted to him by Lord Indra in return for his divine armour (Kavach Kundal). Using this weapon, Karna killed the Asura Ghatotkacha, which was reserved for Arjuna.
5. When Krishna revealed the truth to Karna that he is the eldest Konteya (Kunti Putra), that he holds the right to be the king of Indraprastha and sleep with Draupadi, Karna denies.
Karna says that he cannot leave his friend, Duryodhana at a time when he needs him the most. This is because it is Duryodhana who has given him identity in the society and he is in-debt of his "wicked" friend for life.
6. Draupadi insults Karna and prevents him from participating in her wedding competition.
To this Karna replied -
"Hey Devi, you called me a Suta putra, a person of lowerly caste. One day, you shall live the life of a lowerly caste and you will need my help. Just give me a call, I will be thy savior"
Many years later, Draupadi was Sairandhri in the Kingdom of Virata, the servant of the queen Sudeshna. She was molested by Kichak (Bheema kills Kichak). Later, Vasuki tries to rape Draupadi and was saved by Karna (on Arjuna's request.. what a terrible shame).
7. Karna's arrows are far more powerful than Arjuna's.
During their face to face combat in Kurukshetra, Krishna begins to praise Karna infront of Arjuna ("Aho Karna ...Great going Karna").
To this Arjuna says
"Hey Madhusudan, my arrows are moving his chariot by 10 steps while his arrows are moving my chariot only two steps. But you are still praising him..!".
"Hey Partha, I am sitting in your chariot, my mass is so huge that Karna's arrows are not able to show their full impact. Had I not been here, you would have been thrown into the vast chasm of this universe, thanks to the arrows of someone who hails from "The Sun" (Karna is the son of "Surya")
8. Krishna tricked Karna a second time by requesting Shalya to be his Chariot rider, well before the war even started. Shalya was given instructions to be a "Spy" andnot do quick maneuvers in the battlefield.
9. On 17th day of the battle, when Parashurama's curse fell on Karna, he descended from his chariot to remove the wheel.
He requested Arjuna
"Hey Partha... Hey Sreshtha dhanurdhar, kunti putra Arjuna, hold your Gandiva for a while. My chariot needs my attention, I am getting down unarmed to raise the wheels"
Krishna tricks Karna a third time telling Arjuna that Karna has no right to refer to etiquette at this point, having violated those same rules himself when killing Abhimanyu.
"Kill him immediately. For you will never get s second chance to kill your biggest competitor."
10. Karna is the only personality in the epic whose final rituals were performed by God himself (Krishna). Because it is the God who tricked him every single time.
Karna fought against his misfortunes throughout his life without a single pause. He never got his due, but never gave up his efforts, his courageous spirit led him to brave impossible odds in his life and he died with unique courage, valour and honour.
In the Mahābhārata, Bheeshma and Lord Krishna concede that Karna was a noble spirit who rarely appears in the human race. Karna is especially adored for his generosity. He is idealized as an inspiration for struggling humanity not to lose heart. He is also considered an example of how misjudgment can render all the finer qualities of an individual futile.