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Can Krishna defeat Karna?

Can Krishna defeat Karna - Featured Image - Picture of Krishna holding up the Sudarshana Chakra

Krishna is considered by many as the hero of the Mahabharata. He is the eighth son of Devaki, the princess of Mathura, and Vasudeva, the prince of Shurasena.

Krishna is raised in a cowherd settlement in Vrindavan for the first fifteen years of his life. Later, along with Balarama, he founds the seashore city of Dwaraka and builds a kingdom for the Yadavas – named Anarta.

He enters the Mahabharata story at Draupadi’s swayamvara, and quickly establishes friendly relations with the Pandavas – in particular with Arjuna. This friendship lasts all the way to the Kurukshetra war and beyond.

In this post, we will answer the question: Can Krishna defeat Karna?

Krishna is described in the Mahabharata as the incarnation of Vishnu. As such, he is powerful enough to defeat anyone – including Karna. However, Krishna is never seen fighting anyone in person throughout the story, which means there is no evidentiary proof of his prowess as a warrior.

Read on to discover more about whether or not Krishna can defeat Karna.

(For answers to all Krishna-related questions, see Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Second only to Arjuna

Karna is considered one of the most skilful and powerful archers of the world, second only to Arjuna. He trains under the sage Parashurama after lying to him about his parentage. (He pretends to be a Brahmin boy.)

He is born with the kavacha-kundalas (divine armour and earrings) that make him impossible to injure with any known weapon. However, Indra intervenes in this matter and deceitfully steals these gifts from Karna in order to protect Arjuna.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 26: Karna is Defanged.)

During the time of the Kurukshetra war, he possesses the Vasava dart, which gives him the power to kill any one of his foes. After that one use, the Vasava will return to its original owner, Indra.

Karna’s chief weapons are a bow and arrow. He learns all the tools of the trade from Parashurama, but with the caveat that he will not be able to recall any of the chants readily in the midst of battle.

Krishna’s Prowess

Krishna’s chief weapon, on the other hand, is the Sudarshana Chakra. His skills with bow and arrow – though considerable – are seldom displayed in the story.

Krishna resorts to violence on three occasions in the entirety of the Mahabharata:

  • Soon after the wedding of Arjuna and Subhadra, Krishna assists Arjuna in burning the Khandava forest, during which the two friends defeat an entire army of celestials led by Indra.
  • During Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya, Krishna uses his Sudarshana Chakra to behead Shishupala in the middle of the holy ceremony.
  • At the time of Draupadi’s disrobing, Krishna is supposedly away from Dwaraka on a military mission to attack and kill a king named Suvala – in order to avenge an invasion of Dwaraka.

(Suggested: Why did Krishna allow Draupadi Vastraharan?)

Of these three, the third is described in Krishna’s own words to Yudhishthir at the beginning of the exile. The reader does not actually ‘see’ him perform the deed.

During the first and second incidents, Krishna primarily uses the Sudarshana Chakra.

Even in the final war, when he descends from Arjuna’s chariot twice to advance toward Bhishma, Krishna holds aloft his discus. It is clearly his preferred weapon.

A Great Wrestler?

Krishna begins his career in politics by overthrowing Kamsa, the king of Mathura. During this scene, he and Balarama first participate in a wrestling tournament, in which they defeat two of Kamsa’s prize fighters

Later, during the expedition to Magadha to kill Jarasandha, Krishna offers the king a choice between himself, Arjuna and Bhima as opponents in a public wrestling match.

This can mean one of two things: either that Krishna thinks any of the three can be relied upon to defeat Jarasandha, or that he is confident in Jarasandha’s ego leading him to pick the strongest of the challengers.

Even if we favour the latter explanation, one must also allow for the possibility that both Arjuna and Krishna are no pushovers either when it comes to unarmed hand-to-hand combat.

Karna’s skills in this field, on the other hand, are nonexistent. At the very least, they are never mentioned.

Some Battle Scenarios

Unfortunately for our purposes, Krishna and Karna do not fight each other even once during the Mahabharata. All of the following scenarios, I hasten to add therefore, are speculative and imaginary in nature.

Whether Krishna or Karna will win any given matchup will depend on three main factors:

  • When the battle takes place.
  • What format is adopted.
  • What weapons the warriors are allowed to use and what they aren’t.

(Suggested: Why and when does Karna remove his armour?)

For instance, if the battle happens before Karna loses his kavacha-kundalas to Indra and before Krishna has received his Sudarshana Chakra, then it is very likely that Karna will win.

If the battle happens before Karna loses his kavacha-kundalas and after Krishna has received his Sudarshana Chakra, the fight will be much closer. Krishna may not lose, because the Sudarshana Chakra is very powerful, but Karna will not lose either because of his impenetrable armour.

Format and Weapons

If it is a wrestling match, then it is probably self-evident that Krishna will win hands-down. On the other hand, if they are fighting from atop chariots with only bows and arrows, Karna will give much more of a fight.

If Karna has the Vasava dart with him during this duel, he can – at least theoretically – use it at any moment, kill Krishna, and claim victory. That is the trump card in Karna’s hand: with the kavacha-kundalas and with the Vasava, he is a dangerous opponent.

However, if the Karna of this challenge is the Karna of the seventeenth day of the war – deprived of both the kavacha-kundalas and the Vasava – then Krishna will win almost all of their battles regardless of what format is adopted.

Psychology

One final aspect of the question to consider is this: Are the warriors fighting one another in a true battle? Or as part of a sporting event?

A sporting event will have more rules and restraints around the behaviour of the participants. For instance, you will be asked to wield only one kind of weapon, you will be assured that you can focus completely on your opponent, your life is not on the line, so courage is more easily summoned – and so on.

A battle is much more visceral, so the psychological aspect of violence comes to the fore.

(Suggested: Was Karna a Coward?)

How ruthless can you be? Can you count on more presence of mind than your opponent? Can you be alert to non-traditional and ethically grey options to gain an upper hand? Can you fight equally well with and without a chariot, and with and without weapons?

In all of these respects, Krishna has a clear upper hand. Karna struggles throughout the story to summon the right mental fortitude to fare well in actual battle scenarios.

While he displays plenty of skill in sporting events and tournaments, he also repeatedly fails to give a good account of himself when the stakes are higher.

Conclusion

Whether or not Krishna is powerful enough to defeat Karna in a single combat depends, therefore, on several contextual factors:

  • Does Karna have access to his kavacha-kundalas and the Vasava dart? If yes, he will win against Krishna.
  • Does Krishna have access to his Sudarshana Chakra? If yes, he will have a slight upper hand – especially if Karna does not have his divine weapons with him.
  • Is it a battle to the death? If yes, Krishna will probably defeat Karna because his psychological makeup is more suited to high-stakes situations.
  • Is it a tournament or a skill-display event? If yes, Karna will do well with bow and arrow while Krishna will do well with the discus.

Overall, if it is a fight to the finish and we do not know beforehand what weapons and format the battle is going to adopt, Krishna will be the odds-on favourite. Out of a hundred simulated challenges, Krishna will probably win eighty.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!