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). Kunti was overjoyed at first but soon realized that she was now an unmarried mother, looked down upon by society and the royal family. So as any young person would, she panicked, floated the kid on the river, and forgot about him.
Lucky for the infant, he was discovered by Adhiratha, a 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. In those days, only Kshatriyas and Brahmins were allowed to stay with and learn archery from a teacher. 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 with dexterity and concentration.
Parashurama hated the Kshatriyas. Therefore he 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 exhausted and rested his head on Karna’s lap. He fell asleep. At that time, a bee flew in from somewhere. It settled on Karna’s thigh and began to sting Karna’s thigh. Karna couldn’t attempt to drive it away because it would disturb his master. Despite the increasing pain, Karna remained still. Blood began to seep from his 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.
He was constantly insulted and cursed, living most of his life trying to overcome these. He eventually sacrificed his Dharma for 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.
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 as his innocent cow had died.
A small girl once carried a bowl of ghee to her mother when she accidentally spilled it on the ground. She was terrified that her mother would scold her for this. Karna decided to help her by invoking powerful incantations to get 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 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 were 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 aid Duryodhana throughout his life and in all conditions, good or bad. This is why he did not side with the Pandavas even when Lord Krishna exploded with the truth that he is one of the Pandava brothers and the 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, or Digvijaya Yatra, conquering kings in every direction, subjugating their kingdoms, and making them swear allegiance to Duryodhana as the king of Hastinapur.
Karna waged wars worldwide in this military adventure and made submissions of entire kingdoms worldwide. 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.
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 Yajna 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 becomes the most powerful and wealthy man in the world. Duryodhana made plans to conquer Indra with the help of Karna, 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 wanted a wise husband with strong moral values who was physically strong, skilled, good-looking, and intelligent. Karna was the only character in Mahabharata who possessed all of these qualities.
The gods knew of Draupadi’s desire long in advance and gave all these qualities to one man. Furthermore, they distributed these qualities evenly among the 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 publicly disrobed, 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 get 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 age, caste, or creed restrictions.
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.
During the Vastraharanam episode, Karna passed some lewd comments, which many have justified to provoke the Pandavas to do something. He said, “Draupadi, you should leave the Pandavas, who are cowards and don’t know how to protect you, and instead marry the Kauravas.”
Hurt by the Sutaputra comment during her Swayamver, it looks like Karna had no soft corner for Draupadi. It was he who suggested Dusshasana disrobe her (Sabha Parva, 68) and 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. Indra approached Karna, disguised as a poor Brahmin, and asked for his Armor and Earrings.
Karna’s father, Surya, warned him against Indra, but Karna decided to honor his commitment without second thoughts. Indra was so impressed with Karna that he gave him Vasava Shakti or Indrastra or Amogh Shakti, a powerful weapon. Karna could use this weapon once to kill anyone, after which the weapon would return to Indra.
Krishna was aware of this Amogh Shakti and its danger to Arjuna. Ghatotkacha was ordered to attack the Kaurava’s Army as the battle continued into the night.
Ghatotkacha got mighty and unconquerable in the wee hours of the night as he was part of 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.
Karna even promised Kunti he wouldn’t kill his brothers except for Arjuna. As promised to Kunti, he aimed to kill 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 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.
Karna requested Arjuna to follow war’s ethics and wait until 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. Arjuna slew Shatrunjaya, Vrishasena, and Dvipata. 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 do it every 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 force doing Adharma towards hundreds of thousands of men? Do you know that your presence in the Kaurava camp ensures 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 teaching 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 ask everyone 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.
After all, it was a war between good and evil, and the good side won.