A birth in the haste of youth, Karna had to bear the runt of his birth throughout his life. Karna’s life was unfair from the beginning, a warrior, a faithful friend, and an outcast. Daanveer, Vasusena, Radheya, Angaraja, Rashmirathi, Suryaputra, etc., were the names he was known by, and he did justify every one of them.
Seen as the anti-hero who, despite his goodness, was ruined due to his bitterness and loyalty to the Kauravas, this is his story.
Birth and childhood of Karna
Kunti was excited after the boon provided by Rishi Durvasa decided to summon Surya dev – the Sun God and was handed a son with Kawach (armor) and Kundala (earring). Jubilant at first, the truth soon dawned on Kunti that she was now an unwed mother, looked down upon by the society and royal family. So as any young person would, she panicked and floated the kid on the river and forgot about him.
Lucky for the infant, he was discovered by Adhiratha, royal charioteer for The king of Hastinapura (his mother would soon be wed into the same house). Addhiratha and his wife Radha pined for the child and were happy to foster the child.
Karna grew up to be a boy. He was brighter than his friends, stronger and more determined. Even as a boy, he liked bows and arrows. He was far ahead of others in archery and in marksmanship. He wished to improve his mastery of archery. He longed to become an outstanding archer and a great warrior.
Karna thus approached Dronacharya, an established teacher who taught the Kuru princes. But he refused to take Karna as his student since he was not a Kshatriya. However, according to some versions of the tale, appreciating Karna’s boldness, Drona tells Adhiratha to call his son “Karna. After being refused by Drona, Karna wanted to learn advanced skills of archery, and hence he decided to learn from Parashurama, Drona’s own guru.
Parashurama observed Karna’s humility and love of learning, Karna gladly demonstrated his skill and surprised him by his dexterity and concentration. But in those days only Kshatriyas and Brahmins were allowed to stay with and learn archery from a teacher. Parashurama hated the Kshatriyas. Therefore he had decided to teach archery only to Brahmins. He thought Karna was a Brahmin. And Karna refrained from telling him that he was not a Brahmin. This would lead to Parashurama cursing Karna following his education.
One afternoon Parashurama was tired and rested his head in Karna’s lap. He fell asleep. At that time a bee flew in from somewhere. It settled on Karna’s thigh and began to bore Karna’s thigh. Karna could not attempt to drive it away as it would disturb his master. Despite the increasing pain Karna sat still. Blood began to ooze from the thigh. When Parashurama woke up and saw the blood oozing from Karna’s wound, he at once deduced that Karna was not a Brahmin. Enraged, Parashurama accused Karna of stealing knowledge and cursed Karna that he would forget all the knowledge required to wield the Brahamastra.
Upon Karna’s pleading, Parashurama relented and modified his curse, saying that Karna would only lose the knowledge when he needed it most while fighting against an equal warrior. This curse would come to haunt him in his final fight. Parashurama rewarded Karna’s diligence and gave him his celestial weapon Bhargavastra which no one else possessed. Repenting over a curse made in anger, and to nullify said curse, Parashurama also gave Karna his personal bow Vijaya to be ever victorious in battle and blessed Karna with greatness.
His was a life with insults and curses and lived most of his life trying to overcome them and eventually sacrificing his Dharma for the sake of loyalty and gratitude.
Karna and the Curses
After the curse of Parashurama that he would forget his knowledge of the Brahmanda Astra the moment he needed it the most, he was cursed twice Furthermore.
A Brahmin also cursed him as he practiced with arrows and bows and accidentally killed a Brahmin’s cow. The Brahmin got angry and cursed him that he would die helplessly in the same way his innocent cow had died.
It is said that once, a small girl was carrying a bowl of ghee to her mother, and she accidentally spills it on the ground. She was very afraid that her mother would scold her for this. Karna decided to help her by invoking powerful incantations to squeeze ghee out of Earth itself. This caused great pain to Mother Earth, and she cursed him, that when he would be the most vulnerable, she would abandon him.
Thus, his chariot wheel could not be taken out of the mud it was stuck in.
Karna and Duryodhana
Karna’s weakness was his insecurities, constantly being taunted and deprived of opportunities because he belonged to a lower caste. Dronacahrya organized a contest to assess the Kuru prince’s prowess in which Karna wanted to participate. Kripacharya didn’t let him, as only princes were allowed to participate. Bheema even managed to insult him and compare him to a stray dog. But it was Duryodhana who went against the caste system and embraced him.
Duryodhana saw his capabilities, and when everybody disowned him and even insulted Karna, Duryodhana stood by him not only by considering him as an equal but also by bestowing him as a commander of his Army for his capabilities in the great Mahabharata.
For the first time in his life, he was accepted by royalty, and his deeds well for his conscience, ego, and soul.
He never forgot this gesture of his friend Duryodhana. To show his gratitude towards this unconditional friendship, he vowed to aide Duryodhana all through his life and in all conditions, good or bad. This is why he did not side with Pandavas even when Lord Krishna exploded with the truth that he is one of the Pandava brothers and son of non-other than Lord Surya himself.
He took up the task of establishing Duryodhana as the Emperor of the World. He embarks upon a worldwide military campaign, otherwise called Digvijaya Yatra, conquering kings in every direction and subjugating their kingdoms, and making them swear allegiance to Duryodhana as the king of Hastinapur.
In this military adventure, Karna waged wars all over the world and made submission of entire kingdoms in the world. Among these include the Panchals, the kings of the Himalayas, the Angas, the Kalingas, the Magadhas, Chedi, Yavana, etc. Having thus conquered and brought the entire world under his subjection, Karna returned to Hastinapura with immense wealth and power the world had never witnessed before.
King Dhritarashtra praised Karna, comparing him favorably to Bhishma and Drona. Bringing tribute and allegiance from all the world’s kings, Karna helped Duryodhana to perform the Vaishnava yagna to please Vishnu and crown Duryodhana as “Emperor of the World”, as Yudhishthira did with the Rajasuya Yagna.
No person in the entire universe, except Lord Vishnu and Indrajit, the son of Ravana had performed this Vaishnava sacrifice before. Duryodhana thus becomes the most powerful and wealthiest man in the world. Duryodhana even made plans and preparations to conquer Indra, the lord of the heavens and the father of Arjuna, with the help of Karna in order to become the sovereign ruler of both heaven and earth.
It is said that Duryodhana never shed a single teardrop for any of his real brothers who were killed on the battlefield, but when his beloved friend Karna was slain, he was inconsolable.
Karna and Draupadi
Draupadi longed for a husband with wisdom and moral values, strength, ability, good looks, and intelligence. Karna was the only character in Mahabharata who had 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 had 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).
But Draupadi herself prevented him from participating in the Swyamvar, calling him a Suta Putra. (This insult by Draupadi was one of the reasons for her downfall in the courtroom where she was disrobed in public, leading to the humiliation of Pandavas, reaping the seeds of war).
Drona had defeated and humiliated King Draupad and he organized a Yajna to sire a son to make that wish come true. A son and a daughter appeared during the Yajna, and God Yajna promised King Darupad that these siblings would avenge his loss.
King Draupad after the fallout of Kauravas and Pandavas thought that if he could make a permanent alliance with Arjuna, he could revenge on Drona through him. So he arranged for this elaborate Sayamvar for Draupadi’s marriage. Still, the task he set for the competitors was so ridiculously difficult he was sure that no one else other than Arjuna would succeed. As the Pandavas at that time were in hiding, living as poor Brahmins, he kept the competition open for all with no restriction on age, caste, or creed.
Draupadi had nothing personal against him, and she was not prejudiced against his caste; it was just an excuse thought of in haste. She wanted to marry only Arjuna as she believed that he was the only one who could help her accomplish her destiny.
Draupadi felt terrible for doing what she did and noticed how handsome and a perfect gentleman Karna was. This incident created a soft spot in Draupadi’s heart for Karna. Draupadi always favored Arjuna, Arjuna, on the other hand, favored Subhadra. Draupadi knew this too, which is why she started having a soft corner for Karna. But during the Vastraharanam episode, Karna too passed some lewd comments, which have been justified by many to provoke the Pandavas to do something.
He tried to do it by saying things like, “Draupadi, you should leave the Pandavas who are cowards and don’t know how to protect you and instead marry the Kauravas.” All this was actually said to anger the Pandavas and push them into doing something to stop the horrible injustice on Draupadi. Alas, they just fell on deaf ears.
But according to another school of thought, hurt by the Sutaputra comment during her Swayamver Karna had no soft corner for Draupadi. In fact, it was him who enjoys the most when Draupadi is dragged onto the court, it was him who suggests Dusshasana disrobe her (Sabha Parva, 68), and it was Karna who hurls the harshest of the abuses at her – “select another man [one of us] as your husband now”.
Karna the Daanveer
Karna’s pledge of never returning anyone empty-handed was known to all. Abusing this, Indra approached Karna, disguised as a poor Brahmin, and asked for his Kavach (armor made of gold) and Kundal (earrings). Karna’s father Surya warned him against Indra, so Karna decided to honor his commitment without second thoughts. Impressed, Indra gave him Vasava Shakti or Indrastra or Amogh Shakti, a powerful weapon that Karna can use once to kill anyone, after which the weapon will return to Indra.
Krishna very well knew of the Amogh Shakti that Indra gifted to Karna and the ever-lurking threat it possessed for Arjuna. After a strategic but remorseless decision, Ghatotkacha was sent to attack the Kaurava’s Army as the battle continued beyond sunset one day.
Ghatotkacha got very mighty and unconquerable in the wee hours of the night as he was part Rakshasa. When Duryodhana saw that the rakshas was indefatigable and courageous, he asked Karna to kill him. After fighting a long ferocious duel, Karna also realized Ghatotkacha’s power might. He then used Amogh Shakti or Indrastra, which killed Ghatotkacha and returned to Indra.
He even promised Kunti that he wouldn’t kill his brothers except for Arjuna. As promised to Kunti, he aimed at killing only Arjuna. On the sixteenth day, he fought with all the Pandava brothers, defeated them in direct combat, and spared each of them after insulting them with harsh words.
The Death of Karna
After a balanced battle went between Karna and Arjuna on the seventeenth day of the war, Karna’s chariot’s wheel was stuck in the soil of Kurukshetra (cursed by the Earth Goddess), which was wet with the blood of slain soldiers. Frustrated, he decided to invoke Brahamastra to attack Arjuna mortally. But as cursed by Parashurama, he forgot the mantras to conjure Brahmastra, for he needed it most desperately at this moment. He requested Arjuna to follow the ethics of war and wait till he fixes his chariot wheel. But under Krishna’s aegis and influence, Arjuna ignored Karna’s plea and decapitated him using the weapon called Anjalika. This was the final act of misfortunes in the scheme of things for Karna.
According to the Mahabharata, Karna was married to Vrushali. He had ten sons: Vrishasena, Sudama, Vrishaketu, Chitrasena, Satyasena, Sushena, Shatrunjaya, Dvipata, Banasena, and Prasena; eight of them took part in the Kurukshetra war.
Sudama was killed by Arjuna at Draupadi’s swayamvara when he was nine years old. Prasena was killed by Satyaki. Shatrunjaya, Vrishasena, and Dvipata were slain by Arjuna. Bhima killed Banasena; Nakula killed Chitrasena, Satyasena, and Sushena. Vrishakethu was his only son who survived the war. After the war, when Pandavas were made aware of Karna’s lineage, Vrishakethu was under the patronage of Arjuna and took part in various battles that preceded the Ashvamedha yagna. Vrishakethu was killed by Arjuna’s son Babruvahana during the battle fought during Ashvamedha Yagna.
The Mahabharata mentions that after his death in the Kurukshetra war, Karna’s soul ascended to Suryalok (the abode of his father, Sun god), and along with his sons and “attained” the “state” of a god.
A conversation between Shri Krishna and Karna
Krishna –: Do you know that you are the eldest Kunti Putra. You deserve to be the king of Hastinapura. Come, join us. All the Pandavas will welcome you. Draupadi will become your queen, why are you fighting with Duryodhana?
Karna –”They are not my brothers. And I have no wish to become the king. Thank you for telling me that I am the eldest Kunti Putra, I have been searching for this answer all my life.
Krishna – Now that you know who you are, why don’t you join the camp of Dharma?
Karna – With all due respect to you, who are you to define what is my Dharma?. I am aware of my Dharma and I am doing it every single day.
Krishna – And what is your Dharma, may I know?
Karna – My Dharma is to protect my friend when he needs me the most.
Krishna – Even at the cost of siding with a force that is doing Adharma towards hundreds of thousands of men? Do you know that your presence in the Kaurava camp ensures that Dharma has to fight harder for victory?
Karna – the force has its own reasons, I have my own reasons. Where were you when Drona denied me to teach lessons because I do not belong to a royal family? Where was Dharma when I was not allowed to compete in the Swayamvar of Draupadi and I was insulted for being a person from a lower caste? Where was Dharma when I had to answer every single person how a suta putra became the king? Dharma or righteousness for that matter has never been my friend. I have only one friend and only one Dharma. It’s called Duryodhana.
Krishna – Do you agree that Duryodhana is wrong and that he is the only one responsible for this war?
Karna – I do.
Krishna – What is your motivation for fighting this war? Pandavas have their reasons, and Duryodhana has his, what is your reason? What will you gain from this war?
Karna – I am not fighting this war to gain anything. After Ganga Putra Bheesma, I am the most unfortunate lone warrior on this battlefield. Fighting for nothing. He has his Pratigya and hence he is helpless. But I am not helpless. I can walk away from the war. But No, I won’t. I cannot leave my friend when he needs me the most. I know he is wrong but that has nothing to do with my gratitude.
Such was the loyalty of the eldest Pandava, who died being faithful to his friend, who endured a lifetime of insults and was cheated of the rightful name and title.(Last Updated On: June 25, 2022)