Karna is an important figure in the Mahabharata Epic, which reputedly took place at the start of the Kali Yuga. The Mahabharata tells the story about a war between the five Pandava brothers and the Kaurava brothers. Karna was born to Kunti, the mother of the five Pandava brothers, and the Sun god Surya. Karna was born with an impenetrable armor and golden earrings which made him invincible. At the time of Karna’s birth, Kunti was unmarried and a virgin. As Kunti was an unmarried princess when she had Karna, she abandoned him in the Asva River, where he was found by, and adopted by Adhiratha and Radha, who were a charioteer (suta) couple. The couple raised him as their own son and named him Vasusena (see McGrath 28; Adarkar 4).
While growing up, Karna always used to pray to the Sun god and was generous to brahmins. He made a vow that he would always give alms to brahmins who approached him regardless of what their requirements were. One day, while Karna was praying to the Sun god, Indra, the god of thunder, came to Karna disguised as a brahmin and asked Karna to give him his armor and earrings as a gift. Even though Karna knew that this was a trick by Indra, he kept his promise and submitted his armor and earrings to Indra. Due to his actions, he earned the name of Vaikartana, “the flayed”, and received an infallible spear from Indra which would kill anyone it hit, but could only be used once (see Bryant 26).
As a young man, Karna was an exceptional warrior whose skills were equal to that of Arjuna. To learn the arts of warfare, Karna approached Dronacarya, the famous teacher of Arjuna. Drona refused to teach Karna because of his status as a suta. As his attempt to be Drona’s student did not work out, Karna left in search of the great brahmin warrior sage, Rama Jamadagni (see McGrath 29). Afraid of being rejected as a student due to his status of a suta, Karna disguised himself as a brahmin and sought Rama Jamadagni’s guidance. Under Rama Jamadagni’s guidance, Karna learned all the arts of warfare. One day, while his master was taking a nap on his lap, Indra, in the form of a bee, stung Karna until he started bleeding. Upon waking, Rama Jamadagni found out that Karna was not a brahmin and cursed Karna, stating “may he forget the weapon at the time he will be killed”. During his training Karna mistakenly killed a brahmin’s cow and the brahmin cursed him, saying “may the earth swallow his wheel at a time of greatest peril” (see Bryant 26). Later in his life, these two curses played a major role during his time in the Mahabharata.
Even though Karna was an exceptionally strong warrior and the only one who could match Arjuna, his status of a suta came in the way of showing his prowess. As Karna grew, his hate for the Pandava brothers grew, especially Arjuna. During an archery contest, Karna decided that he wanted to challenge Arjuna and see who the better archer was. Instead of accepting the challenge, Arjuna insulted Karna by calling him a suta and refused to accept his challenge. Infuriated, Karna vowed to kill his step brother. Throughout the Mahabharata, Karna is shown to best Arjuna in battle even when Arjuna had Krsna as his charioteer. Karna’s charioteer, Salya, demoralized Arjuna, trying to demolish his will to fight (See Adarkar 202-203; De Bruin and Brakel-Papenyzen 52). Even Arjuna’s father, Indra, believed that Karna was a major threat to Arjuna. Indra aided his son, by obtaining Karna’s armor, which made him invincible, and by creating Ghatotkaca, son of Bhima, in whose presence Karna had to use his infallible spear (see Adarkar 202). Due to these events, Karna was far more vulnerable but still had the edge against Arjuna in their final battle. Due to Krsna’s unorthodox strategy, which was against the ksatriya code, Arjuna was able to slay Karna.
Before going to war, Karna was confronted by his mother, Kunti, who revealed the entire truth. Karna, listening to his mother, realized that the Pandava brothers were his own brothers. Karna was the eldest of the six brothers. Kunti pleaded that Karna join the Pandava side and fight alongside his brothers. According to dharma, Karna was supposed to obey his mother. Instead, he replied “by casting me away, the wrong you have done me, destructive of fame and glory, is irreversible….When there was time to act, you did not show me this crying out [anukrosha]. And now you have summoned me, whom you have denied the sacraments. You never acted in my interest like a mother, and now, here you are, enlightening me solely in your own interests!” (see Bryant 32-33). Even though Karna refused to obey his mother, he vowed that he would spare his four brothers, and only fight Arjuna with intentions of killing him. He promised that regardless of who dies, Kunti would be left with five sons (see Lama 50-52).
During the Mahabharata War, Karna’s and Arjuna’s battle decided the outcome of the war. Krsna played a crucial role in Karna’s death, as he encouraged Arjuna to break the ksatriya code, in order to kill Karna. Throughout most of their battle Karna had the upper hand. Krsna saved Arjuna’s life more than once during the battle. When Karna was dominating over the battle, his curses took effect and eventually led to his demise. The first curse, which he received from the brahmin whose cow Karna unintentionally killed, took effect resulting in Karna’s chariot getting stuck in the mud. As Karna was about to die, his second curse, which he received from his mentor, finally affected him. Karna lost knowledge of all his weapons and was left defenseless (see Adarkar 6; Bryant 26). Upon listening to Krsna’s advice, a reluctant Arjuna fired arrows at a defenseless Karna and killed him by breaching the codes of ksatriya conduct (see Lama 53-54).
Throughout the Mahabharata, Karna’s life was that of suffering and injustice. Nonetheless, Karna stood by dharmic values and believed in duty and loyalty. Karna, like Yudhisthira, was tested twice in order to see if he upheld to dharma. He was loyal to two types of people, “one elevated, one low” (See Adarkar 99). He was loyal to his suta parents who raised him with love, and to his close friend Duryodhana. Karna proved his loyalty when he decided to fight alongside Duryodhana, even when he found out that the Pandavas were his real brothers. Karna believed that “birth or class determines nothing”, and always knew that what mattered most were his parents who raised him and friends who believed in him and gave him another opportunity in life (see Adarkar 113)
Sources and Bibliography
De Bruin, Hanna M and Papenyzen, Clara B (1992) The Death of Karna: Two Sides of a Story. Hawaii: University of Hawai’i Press.
Lama, Mahendra P (1990) Review: Lucid and Profound. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.
Bryant, Edward F (2007) Krishna: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Adarkar, Aditya (2001) “Karna in the Mahabharata” PhD diss., University of Chicago
McGrath, Kevin (2001) The Sanskrit Hero: Karna in epic Mahabharata. Boston: Brill Publishers
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Article written by: Shreyas Dhokte (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.