Arjuna is the most powerful warrior in the Mahabharata universe. He is the third of the Pandavas in order of seniority, born after Yudhishthir and Bhimasena.
He is the last of Kunti’s children. After his birth, Kunti decides that she will summon no more gods and bear no more sons. Nakula and Sahadeva, the fourth and fifth of the Pandavas respectively, are born to Madri, Pandu’s second wife.
In this post, we will answer the question: Can Arjuna defeat Karna without Krishna?
Arjuna faces Karna on two occasions without Krishna’s help, and wins both times. One of these battles – during the Gograhana Parva – is conclusive: Arjuna defeats an entire division of the Kuru army by himself. The other battle – during Draupadi’s swayamvara – ends with Karna withdrawing from the duel mid-way, giving Arjuna a victory.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Arjuna can defeat Karna without Krishna’s help.
(For answers to all Arjuna-related questions, see Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Battle 1 – At the Graduation Ceremony
The first time Karna and Arjuna pit their skills against each other is at the graduation ceremony of the Kuru princes. Here, Drona showcases the talents of his wards to an assemblage of elders (Bhishma, Kripa, Vidura, etc.) and to a large crowd of common citizens of Hastinapur.
It is customary in these events to leave the stage open to young people in the stands who may want to display their weapon-wielding abilities.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 8: Karna Arrives.)
No announcement to this effect is made on this occasion, but tradition demands that if one such warrior made his appearance, he will not be denied a platform.
This is the moment in the Mahabharata where it becomes common knowledge that Arjuna is not the most skilled archer in Hastinapur. He has an equal – and his name is Karna.
Karna makes use of this facility and puts on a show after the Kuru princes have all had their turn. Since he is an archer, he chooses all of Arjuna’s feats to replicate, and does so with aplomb.
Karna and Arjuna do not fight each other here, but this battle of skills sets up their life-long rivalry.
(Suggested: Was Karna a Pandava?)
Battle 2 – At Draupadi’s Swayamvara
The second time Karna and Arjuna meet is at Draupadi’s swayamvara. In many ways, this duel is the most balanced in terms of respective advantages available to each warrior:
Arjuna has not yet received the Gandiva or any of his divine weapons; he does not have the services of Krishna. He does not even have a chariot.
Karna also has had time after his ascension of the throne of Anga to get used to life as a Kshatriya. He is no longer overawed by being surrounded by kings. He still has his kavacha-kundalas.
(Suggested: Why and when does Karna remove his armor?)
Both heroes fight each other on foot, with their bows and arrows. This is a single combat, which means there aren’t any other strategic variables (that arise in a battle) to consider.
In this duel, Karna and Arjuna fight each other for a long time without either of them gaining a significant upper hand. At last, Karna withdraws his challenge, claiming: ‘Kshatriya energies cannot be relied upon to defeat Brahmanic energies.’
Strictly speaking, this is forfeiture. But one must also admit that Arjuna’s victory here is not a comprehensive one.
(Suggested: Why did Arjuna choose Krishna?)
Battle 3 – The Virata Parva
The next time Karna and Arjuna fight each other is at the end of the Virata Parva, when – dressed as Brihannala – the third Pandava takes on the mantle of facing the entire Kuru army on his own in order to protect Matsya’s cattle.
This, we must remember, occurs a good twenty five years after Draupadi’s swayamvara. In the interim:
- Arjuna has grown from strength to strength, and has earned a number of divine weapons that – combined with his considerable skill – have made him unequivocally the best archer in the world.
- Karna, on the other hand, has been king of Anga and has lived the life of a Kshatriya. He has also, by this time, given up his kavacha-kundalas, and has no divine weapons to speak of – except perhaps the Vasava of Indra.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 30: Brihannala Defends Matsya.)
In this battle, Arjuna also freely uses his divine weapons. We are not given explicit details, but it is strongly hinted that he uses magic (the Sammohana Astra – which puts its targets to sleep) to win this challenge.
Even Arjuna isn’t powerful enough to defeat Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, Ashwatthama and Karna on his own without using divine help.
From the above examples, it is reasonable to conclude that Arjuna can defeat Karna without Krishna’s help. This is not a hypothetical scenario: on two separate occasions, he actually does fight against Karna in Krishna’s absence – and wins.
(Suggested: Why was Arjuna Invincible?)
Battle 4 – At Kurukshetra
The final battle between Karna and Arjuna happens late on the seventeenth day of the war. A few facts need to be mentioned about this meeting:
- Arjuna’s chariot is being driven by Krishna, who offers his friend unconditional support and love at all times. In contrast, Karna’s charioteer for the day is Shalya, who makes it a point to insult and discourage him at every turn.
- Arjuna has vowed not to use any divine weapons during the war. That evens the scales a little bit toward Karna.
(Suggested: Why does Indra approach Karna?)
- Karna is without his Vasava Dart, which he has used already to kill Ghatotkacha. Karna therefore has no means with which to kill Arjuna. All the weapons in his possession are known quantities, and Arjuna can counter them all.
- This fight occurs with the Kauravas struggling to hold ground against a rampaging Pandavas. The swing of the overall war, therefore, is in Arjuna’s favour. He has the strength of confidence of knowing that they’re about to win.
With all of this in place, it should actually be a foregone conclusion that Arjuna should win. But a Naga called Aswasena changes it all.
(Suggested: Was Karna jealous of Arjuna?)
Aswasena is one of the few survivors of the massacre at Khandava. Ever since that day, he has been seething for revenge against Arjuna and Krishna, because they have killed several of his relatives.
On this day, with the battle in progress, Aswasena appears to Karna and offers to become an arrow in his quiver. ‘Shoot me in the direction of Falguna,’ he says, ‘and I shall see to it that he dies.’
Karna accepts this proposal. He shoots Aswasena at Arjuna, and the Naga – in the form of an arrow – traces a path straight toward Arjuna’s forehead. But just as he is about to hit him, Krishna stamps down on their chariot, causing the wheels to sink into the mud.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 51: Arjuna Kills Karna.)
Aswasena thus misses his target. Instead of slicing Arjuna’s head off, he merely knocks off the Pandava’s crown.
Aswasena returns to Karna and implores him to shoot him again, but Karna refuses. He says that it is improper to ‘shoot the same arrow twice in the same battle against the same enemy.’
Therefore, it is important to note that in this final battle with Karna, Arjuna would have lost his life but for the presence of Karna.
(Suggested: Why did Karna suffer so much?)
Arjuna is capable of defeating Karna without the help of Krishna. On two occasions – at Draupadi’s swayamvara and during the Virata Parva – he meets Karna in battle and wins easily.
However, this is also a probabilistic affair: in the final battle between the two warriors, with Karna shooting Aswasena, it requires the intervention of Krishna to protect Arjuna.
So we must conclude that Karna is also capable of killing Arjuna in the absence of Krishna. The odds are with Arjuna, but Karna is not a pushover either.
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