Karna was one of the mightiest warriors to have fought in the battle of Kurukshetra, a warrior feared and respected by all who fought in the battle. Raised as a charioteer’s son, he was actually of royalblood.
Karna’s true father, according to the epic Mahabharata, was the Sun god Surya and his mother’s name was Kunti. Karna was born before his mother’s marriage to prince Pandu. While Kunti was still a young woman, she served the sage Durvasa with utmost care when he visited her father Kunti-Bhoja’s palace. Pleased by her hospitality, the sage foreseeing the fact that Kunti would have difficulty having a child after her marriage to Pandu, granted her a blessing. By the aid of this blessing she could call upon any god of her choice, and receive a child through him. Out of curiosity, Kunti, while still being unmarried, decided to test the power of the mantra and called upon the god Surya. Compelled by the power of this mantra, Surya appeared before her and handed her a son, who was as radiant and powerful as Surya himself. The baby was wearing armour (known in Hindi as ‘Kavacha’) and a pair of earrings (known in Hindi as ‘Kundala’). Though Kunti had not physically given birth to the baby, she was unwilling to be accused of being an unmarried mother and be looked down upon in the society. So, with the help of her maid Dhatri, she placed the baby Karna in a basket and set him afloat on Ashwa, a tributary of the river Ganges.
The child was found by Adhiratha, a charioteer working for King Dhritarashtra of Hastinapur. Adhiratha and his wife Radha raised the boy as their own son and named him Vasusena. He also came to be known as Radheya, the son of Radha. The name Karna, however, denoted ‘ear’, because Karna was born with divine earrings.
Karna became interested in the art of warfare and approached Dronacharya, who was a reputable teacher and taught the Kuru princes, but refused to take Karna as his student, as Karna was not a Kshatriya. After being refused by Dronacharya, Karna with his brother Shona’s help started his own’s schooling and selected the sun god as his guru.
Karna was able to learn various martial arts in a very short time. But, Karna wanted to learn all the advanced skills of archery including the use of divine weapons. After being refused by Dronacharya, Karna decided to learn from Parashurama, Dronacharya’s own guru.
How Karna gets cursed
As Parshurama only taught Brahmins, because he had a grudge against Kshatriyas, Karna appeared before him as a Brahmin and requested that he be taken on as his student. Parashurama accepted him and trained him to such a point that he declared Karna to be equal to himself in the art of warfare and archery.
On a day towards the end of his teaching, Parashurama requested Karna to bring a pillow for him to lay his head on. Karna offered his teacher his own lap, but while Parashurama was asleep, a bee stung Karna’s thigh. Despite the pain, Karna did not move, so as not to disturb his guru’s sleep. As the bee bore deeper into Karna’s thigh, the wound began to bleed. Parashurama was woken up by the blood and deduced at once that Karna was a Kshatriya and not a Brahmin, since only a Kshatriya could have endured such pain. Parashurama, who had sworn vengeance against all Kshatriyas, laid this curse upon Karna that he would forget all the mantras required to wield the divine weapon Brahmastra, the most destructive weapon in archery, at the moment of his greatest need.
Karna pleaded that he was actually the son of Vasusena, a mere charioteer and not a Kshatriya. But while Parashurama regretted cursing him in a moment of anger, his curse was irrevocable. So, as a consolation, he gave him the celestial weapon called Bhargavastra, along with his personal bow called Vijaya, for being such a meticulous student.
According to the original scripture written by Veda Vyasa, Karna was cursed by a Brahmin for killing his cow. While practicing his skills with bow and arrows near the ashram of Sage Parashurama. One of his arrows accidentally killed a cow which belonged to a poor Brahmana. The Brahmana got angry and cursed him that he would become helpless in the same way the innocent cow had become, by his chariot wheels getting stuck in the ground.
But, popular Andhra folklore narrates that Karna was riding his chariot in his kingdom of Anga once when he encountered a child who was crying over her pot of spilt ghee. On asking her the reason for her dismay, she stated that she feared that her stepmother would be angry over her carelessness. Refusing to take new ghee from Karna, the child insisted that she wanted the same ghee. Taking pity on her, Karna took the soil mixed with ghee in his fist and squeezed it with all his might, so that the ghee dripped back into the pot. During this process, Karna heard the agonized voice of a woman. When he opened his fist, he realized that the voice was that of Bhoomidevi, the goddess of the earth. She wrathfully penalized Karna for inflicting enormous pain on Mother Earth for the sake of a mere child and cursed him that at a very crucial moment in battle, his chariot wheel would be trapped as tightly as he had held that fistful of soil.
Karna’s Relationship with Draupadi
Karna had also attended Draupadi’s “Swayamvar”, which was basically a ceremony where she got the opportunity to choose her husband from a considerable amount of suitors. But, Draupadi refused to let Karna be a part of it as he was the son of a charioteer and royal blood did not course through his veins. Ironically though, he was the eldest brother of the Pandavas and actually, he was of royal birth. But that was of little relevance now, as Draupadi had immensely hurt his pride and humiliated one of the greatest warriors of that time in front of everyone.
The Mahabharata war started soon after the disputes between the Pandavas and the Kaurvas. Though Krishna tried to lure Karna into the Pandava camp, Karna stood by his friendship for Duryodhana. He told Lord Krishna that though he knew Duryodhana was wrong, and the Kauravas would probably be defeated in the war, still, he could not desert the only friend that stood by him in his troubled times. He just could not leave the side of the man who took his side when the whole world turned against him. Most of the people humiliated him because he was a charioteer’s son, but Duryodhana was the one who respected his true potential and provided him the much required solace that no one else did.
As the war began, Karna came out to be one of the most formidable warriors on the battlefield. The Pandavas found him to be one of the most important characters in the Kaurvan army. They needed to devise a way to defeat him. Krishna told Arjun to ask his father Indra for assistance. When Arjun did so, Indra appeared before Karna in a mortal form and asked him to give him his Armour and his earrings. Seeing such a poor Brahmin begging for his amour and his earrings, he could not refuse as firstly he was very generous and noble, and secondly, he had a custom that after he took a bath, he would grant the first person to ask him anything that the person desired. So on his request, he took a knife and tore off the armour that he was born with from his body. We could imagine how much pain he must have inflicted upon himself while doing so.
But Karna was still proving to be a formidable opponent. Also, he was saving his Brahmastra so that he could use it on Arjun. It being one of the most lethal weapons, Lord Krishna was worried about Arjun’s safety. He then told Bhima to call upon his rakshas(demon) son Ghatotkacha. The arrival of Ghatotkacha at the battlefield hugely impacted the course of the battle. Ghatotkacha could grow in size and inflict immense casualties upon the Kaurvan army. Duryodhana turned to his most trusted general, Karna, for help. Once again, Karna did not disappoint him.
The fight between Karna and Ghatotkacha began in the middle of the night. They were hell-bent upon killing each other. Satyaki, another warrior was assisting Ghatotkacha. Seeing this, Duryodhana sent Dussasana to help Karna. In the meantime, a rakshas, who was the son of Jatasura came and requested Duryodhana that he wanted to fight from his side to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Bhima. Duryodhana very gladly welcomed him and said that there was Ghatotkacha, the son of Bhima, in the battlefield. He could start his revenge against Bhima by killing his son first. The rakshas went to fight against Ghatotkacha. He was a ruthless fighter and well versed in the art of maya tactics. After a gruelling fight Ghatotkacha was able to cut the head of his foe. He threw the head of the raksha in the chariot of Duryodhana, and then, he resumed his fight against Karna. Karna was very much impressed by the fighting skill of the son of Bhima. He was quite an expert in maya tactics. He was able to neutralize many of the astras (weapons) of Karna. Ghatotkacha was destroying the Kaurava army at an alarming rate. He was causing such havoc that wherever he turned his face the Kaurava army ran away screaming. Another rakshas name Alayudha came to Duryodhana and offered his help. He had come along with a huge army. This pleased Duryodhana very much, and he asked the rakshasas to kill Ghatotkacha first.
It was clear to all that Karna was better than Drona, Kripa, Ashvatthama and Kritavarma. Now Ghatotkacha faced Karna as well as Alayudha. Bhima came to help his son. Now seeing Bhima, Alayudha rushed to kill him. A duel between them took place and went on for a long time. Yudhisthira asked Arjuna to go help Bhima and Ghatotkacha. But Ghatotkacha was able to kill Alayudha.
Ghatotkacha’s war cry filled the sky. He attacked the Kaurava army with all his might and he put his maya tactics to utmost use. His fury was such that everyone thought, he would single-handedly bring the war to an end. No Kauravan warrior could face him for long. All the terror stricken soldiers went to Karna and pleaded with him to save them from Ghatotkacha. Karna tried all his astras like vayavastra, but failed to kill Ghatotkacha. Duryodhana came up to him and pleaded him to use the Brahmastra which he had been saving for Arjun against Ghatotkacha, as the sight of his army being decimated at such a fast pace had made him nervous.
At first, Karna hesitated, but then eventually he agreed. He took the Brahmastra in his right hand and sent it towards Ghatotkacha. The Brahmastra entered his chest and the son of Bhima knew his end had come. He fell down on the Kauravas army dead, crushing hundreds of their soldiers under his body. Duryodhana and the Kauravas were jubilant.
Before the final face-off, Kunti went up to Karna and revealed to him the truth about his birth. She told him that he was the eldest Pandava and thus he should fight alongside his brothers and not against them. Karna, though shocked, refused. He chose to stick by the only man who had always supported him-Duryodhana. But, he did promise Kunti that he would spare all her sons except Arjuna, such as, no matter what would be the outcome, she would be left with five sons alive.
Karna vs Arjuna – Final War
On the seventeenth day of the battle, Karna faced and defeated Bhima and Yudhishtira in the battle. Keeping his promise to Kunti, Karna didn’t kill them. Enraged by the death of his young son, Karna defeated Nakula as well and spared his life too though fully aware of the fact that Nakula was instrumental in Vrishasena, his son’s death. Karna finally comes face to face with his most intense rival, Arjuna in the battlefield. Deprived of his impregnable earrings (Kundal), armour (Kavach) and his most powerful weapon, the Brahmastra Karna has to face the widely equipped Arjuna on the basis of his skills alone. Putting up a dazzling display of archery, Karna pins Arjuna to the chariot with a rain of arrows. Arjuna, too, lives up to his name and the intense fight continues with both the heroes, matched equally for skill and bravery, are unable to overcome each other.
During the course of the battle, the earth is pressed deep due to the weights of the chariots and the elephants. And Aswasena, a snake who was hostile to Arjuna for having killed its mother at Khandava, rises from the nether region. Recollecting the death of his mother and the enmity that he had harboured against Arjuna, the brave snake rises to the skies and thinking that it was the right time for gratifying his animosity towards the wicked Arjuna, enters Karna’s quiver assuming the form of an arrow, the Naga Astram. Karna, though, is unaware and when he shoots that arrow at Arjuna, Krishna recognizes the Naga-Astram and he plunges the chariot into the ground as a desperate measure. The arrow strikes Arjuna’s diadem instead, saving Arjuna from sure death.
The snake returns to Karna and says, “You sped me, O Karna, without having seen me. It was for this that I could not strike off Arjuna’s head. Please shoot me once again, after seeing me well. I shall then slay your foe and mine too.”
To which Karna asked, “Who are you to have possessed such fierce form?”
The snake answered, saying, “Know me as one the one who has been wronged by Arjuna. My enmity towards him is due to his having slain my mother. Do not disregard me. Do my bidding. I will slay thy foe. Shoot me without delay.”
Hearing those words, Karna said, “Karna never desires to have victory in battle today by relying on another’s might. Even if I have to slay a hundred Arjunas, I will not still shoot the same shaft twice.”
Aswasen implores Karna, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Krishna exhorts Arjuna to slay the snake. Deprived of Karna’s mighty bow, the brave snake perishes.
The fierce combat continues until Karna’s chariot wheels get stuck in the ground. Karna tries to remove the wheel from the ground. Krishna exhorts Arjuna to attack Karna. Arjuna lets out a powerful volley of arrows at Karna.
Struck by the arrows, Karna falls down to the ground. Wounded, but not dead. Arjuna continues to fire arrows at Karna but the arrows don’t pierce Karna’s body. They become a garland of flowers and fall on his head. Puzzled, Arjuna seeks to Krishna for help. Krishna smiles and shows Arjuna that it is the Goddess of Righteousness who is protecting Karna. Krishna says that Karna has been so righteous throughout his life that the Goddess herself seeks to protect him. Krishna concludes that the only way to slay Karna would be to deprive Karna of all his righteousness.
Assuming the form of a poor Brahmin, Krishna walks upto the fallen warrior and says that he came all the way to meet Karna to ask for a favor. Karna, ever the generous says, “The only thing I have now is my life. If you want, I’ll happily give it to you”
Krishna laughs and says “I do not seek your life. What good will it do to me?”
Karna implores the Brahmin, “Ask for anything you want.”
Waiting for this moment, Krishna says, “I have sinned greatly and I need the fruits of your good deeds to save myself from hell. I want all the righteousness that you have in yourselves. All the Dharma you have.”
Without thinking Karna slices his navel and spills his righteous blood on the poor Brahman’s hands remarking that the Brahman has given the lowly born Karna an opportunity to redeem himself. Karna finally is deprived of the one last thing that set him apart from mortals. Krishna, touched by his generosity grants him vision of his Viswaroopa. Krishna asks him to ask for a boon.
Karna replies, “Please make my pyre on the most Barren place on earth, so no man may suffer the pain I did in case it’s reborn.”
Arjuna Kills Karna
Having done that, Krishna walks back to Arjuna and tells him to kill Karna. Dutifully Arjuna fires a volley of arrows upon Karna and the Great Warrior finally dies.
After Karna’s Death
Upon his death, Karna’s wife Vrushali, his Mother Kunti and the Goddess of Righteousness mourn his death.
Arjuna asks Krishna “Why is the Goddess mourning Karna’s fall?”
To which the Goddess replies, “In this World of greed, power and betrayal, Only Karna has followed the path of righteousness. And I am mourning the death of my only son in all the three worlds.”
Thus, we see how not only misfortune and deceit, but Karna’s own obsession with righteousness guaranteed his fall. If he had not given his armour away, he might have survived and prevailed over Arjuna. If he had not helped that little girl, he would not have been cursed and his chariot wheel would not have been stuck at a crucial time. All his life, he was righteous and generous while the whole world around him never did the right thing by him. Torn between morals and righteousness while selecting sides between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, he chooses the Kauravas just because Duryodhana was the only one who had never mocked Karna and thus Karna felt as if he owed him something.
After his death, Kunti, in her grief, reveals that Karna was her eldest son and the true heir to the throne.
Arjuna realizing the gravity of his action laments that he killed his own brother. To which Krishna replies that Karna was not killed by one man alone. Six other people were involved in killing Karna.
Krishna explains to an inconsolable Arjuna, “Parushuram’s curse ensured that Karna would forget the incantation of the most powerful Brahmastra when he would require it the most. A poor Brahman, whose son he had killed mistaking it for a deer, had cursed Karna saying that the wheels of his chariot would get stuck in the ground during battle. Your father, Indra disguised himself as a Brahmin and asked for Karna’s invincible Kavach (Armor) and Kundal (Earrings) thereby rendering him vulnerable to death. Your mother Kunti, extracted a promise out of him that he would not kill any of your brothers except you. And that he would use a divine weapon only once against you. Shalya, Karna’s charioteer refused to help him when his Chariot wheels get stuck into the ground. And finally when all this failed to kill the Great Man, I myself, robbed Karna of all his righteousness left him to the dead. You have killed a man already killed six times by his own people.” And these words by Krishna, quite properly sum up Karna’s fall. Used and manipulated by people, unknowingly enraging powerful personalities and getting cursed by them, his own generosity and righteousness; everything had eventually led to this event. To his death, at the hands of his own brother Arjuna.
If the youth of today would have even the slightest hint of Karna’s righteousness embedded within them, it would surely make this world a better place to live in.