Before the Kurukshetra war commenced, Queen Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, came to Karna, the dearest friend of Duryodhan, the crown prince of the Kauravas, and a most formidable kshatriya in the land. She came to Karna at mid-day, immediately after he performed a daily prayer to the sun god Surya, to make a favor of him, because Karna never refused a favor asked of him on such an occasion. Not long ago, Karna had granted a boon asked of him by the god Indra, the father of Arjuna his arch-enemy, and given up his own magical armor, effectively giving away his own safety and life, in the upcoming war.
Yet, this time, the absurdly generous Karna who never refused anything asked of him upon his sun-worship ritual, refused the strange but strangely familiar lady who came to ask for a boon.
Karna was Kunti's first and illegitimate son with the sun god. One could easily imagine a realistic version of this scenario: An aristocratic young woman got herself pregnant at fourteen with a moment of indiscretion. When she gave birth to a boy, shame, panic, and fear of disgrace induced her to throw the infant away. The child grew up in a lower class family, ignorant of his origins, and suffered terribly for his mother's moment of weakness and selfishness. On the other hand, his mother went on to a respectable life, a suitable marriage, and five sons born within wedlock, seemingly suffering no consequence for her abandonment. Now, her five legitimate sons were about to fight their bastard brother in a life-or-death battle, while none of the six brothers knew of this looming family train wreck.
Mother Kunti's motive for approaching her first-born with the truth in this critical juncture may be interpreted as an attempt to dissuade Karna from endangering her other sons. Her request to Karna could be boiled down to this: "You are by blood the brother of your best friend's enemies. I ask you to leave the Kauravas' side for the Pandavas' side."
One could argue that Kunti loved her legitimate sons more than her first-born, because she went to Karna rather than the Pandavas with the secret. If she had told the Pandavas, the war would have dissolved into their instant defeat (at least in her mind). Instead she wanted to dissolve the war with their victory. Yet another component of her wish is to ensure the survival and unification of all six of her sons, because the pending conflict presented a threat to Karna as well, considering that he was at least outnumbered five to one. In other words, what she wanted was to "have it all," not just for herself but for her sons.
Karna clearly understood her intentions, both the spoken and unspoken aspects. As a son who had lived with his mother's rejection all his life, he took revenge. She had not given him what he had wanted, so now he would not give her what she wanted. After denying her request, he granted her something different from what she asked for: "I would not kill any of your other sons, but I will battle Arjuna to the death. Either him or me, but one of us will surely die. So that in the end you will still have five sons." It is as if he was directly denying his mother's unspoken demand --- You can't have six sons and will only have five. His revenge is to turn the table completely on her: You had not wanted six, and now you cannot have six.
One could, of course, argue that Karna rejected Kunti's request because he loved his sworn brother (ie, Duryodhan) more than newly discovered birth brothers, who indeed had had a few run-ins with him previously. Yet, if Karna were so deeply invested in the victory of the Kauravas' cause, he seemed to have a funny way of showing it, by giving away his invincible armor and earrings so easily and by spontaneously promising Kunti to never harm four of the Pandavas. Therefore, his loyalty to Duryodhan seems but an excuse, yet his revenge to frustrate the mother who had disappointed and frustrated him rings true.
(This rather crude analysis is inspired by Adam Phillips' essay "On Frustration" in his book "Missing Out." In the essay he pointed out the symmetry between King Lear and Cordelia, who both withhold something from each other. The same can be said of Kunti and Karna. Phillips wrote, "All love stories are frustration stories. As are all stories about parents and children, which are also love stories.")
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