Karna is the first son of Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata.
He is also a close friend of Duryodhana, the eldest of the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra who are together called the Kauravas. Duryodhana is the story’s prime antagonist, and Karna becomes his prime ally in his machinations against the Pandavas.
Using a magical incantation gifted her by Sage Durvasa, Kunti bears Karna out of wedlock, before her marriage to Pandu. Fearing social censure, she abandons him soon after his birth. The baby Karna is found and raised by a charioteer named Adiratha, and his wife Radha. Karna therefore grows up as a member of the ‘Suta’ caste, and earns the derogatory name: Sutaputra.
Read on to discover more about the birth of Karna.
In the kingdom of Kunti, ruled by King Kuntibhoja, a young princess named Pritha is being fostered at the royal palace. Her true father is Shurasena, a king who rules a neighbouring kingdom – also called Shurasena.
(King Shurasena has a son called Vasudeva, who later marries Devaki of Mathura and becomes father to Krishna and Balarama. Pritha, therefore, becomes the paternal aunt of Krishna.)
Kuntibhoja receives a visit from Sage Durvasa, and he assigns to his foster daughter the task of looking after him. Over a period of a few months, young Pritha (she is past puberty and yet to be married, so we can place her age around fourteen or fifteen) tends to Durvasa’s every need.
Durvasa is happy with the girl’s attentiveness, and as a parting gift, he gives her a boon that allows her to summon any number of gods – one at a time – to her side and have sons by them.
After the sage’s departure, Pritha is almost disbelieving of her luck: could it be true? Could she actually call upon the gods? Or was the sage merely playing with her?
In order to test the boon, then, Pritha calls upon the sun god, Surya – and is properly shocked when he does appear before her.
‘Go away!’ she pleads with Surya. ‘I meant this only as a test.’
But Surya would not leave. ‘I am bound by the sage’s power, Princess,’ he says. ‘I can leave only after giving you a son.’
The son that is born to Surya and Pritha is said to be adorned with natural armour and earrings that emit a golden glow. These are called kavacha (for ‘armour’) kundalas (for ‘earrings’).
The kavacha kundalas of Karna are meant to make him invincible in battle. As long as he wears these, no weapon can penetrate his skin.
(To read about how Indra tricks Karna into giving up his powerful weapons, see: Mahabharata Episode 26: Karna is Defanged.)
Surya of course leaves as soon as Karna is born, and Pritha is left to deal with the baby on her own. News of the princess having become pregnant before her marriage is bound to cause scandal, so Pritha exercises the only choice she has – of abandoning her son.
She calls for a waiting woman and asks her to put the boy inside a basket, and to let it slide downstream on the Yamuna. The basket is then found by a childless charioteer named Adiratha, who takes it to his wife Radha.
Together, they give him the name Vasusena (‘he who is born of wealth’), and undertake to raise him themselves.
Kunti and Karna’s paths diverge at this moment. From here, Kunti goes onto become queen to Pandu and mother to the five Pandavas. Karna begins his new life as a poor man’s son.
The Nature of Union
The nature of Kunti’s union with Surya has become the subject of some speculation. Specifically: did Surya and Kunti unite sexually, in the manner or mortals? And did Kunti carry Karna through a full-term pregnancy?
Or was their union of a spiritual nature and the boy born instantaneously?
Instantaneous births happen elsewhere in the Mahabharata: when Parashara seduces Satyavati on a fog-covered island on the Yamuna, their son Dwaipayana is brought forth in a matter of hours, and he grows to maturity on the same day.
(For more detail on the birth of Vyasa, see: Mahabharata Episode 2: Satyavati Marries Shantanu.)
There is also the concept of ‘returning a woman’s virginity’ after getting her pregnant. Parashara assures Satyavati that she will remain a virgin after giving birth to their son. (By this we must assume that the woman’s hymen will grow back.)
A similar sort of arrangement might have been at work in Kunti’s case as well.
However, we know that in the cases of Yudhishthir, Bhima and Arjuna, the births are separated from one another by a year. So the implication is that Kunti carries each of the three boys to term in her womb. (Though this is by no means certain. She may just have waited a year after each delivery to ease the burden of child-rearing.)
Using these two incidents as illustrative examples, we can surmise that (a) the union of Kunti with Surya was a sexual one, (b) Kunti has her virginity returned to her after her delivery, and (c) she carries the boy in her womb to term.
So the birth of Karna happens, in reality, ten months or so after Durvasa leaves the palace of Kuntibhoja. Which leads us to ask another logical question.
Is Durvasa the father of Karna?
If one wears the hat of rationality and rejects the notion of gods and demons in the Mahabharata universe, one may be forgiven for asking whether Karna is the father of Sage Durvasa himself.
Circumstantial evidence points squarely at him. With Kunti attending to him throughout his visit, he certainly had access to her. Besides, the balance of power tilted in his direction. If he propositioned the princess, she could hardly bring herself to reject him.
(The most she might have done is ask for assurance that her ‘virginity’ would remain intact. And Sage Durvasa would grant it readily.)
In this scenario, the entire fable – of a magical chant, summoning of gods, and having sons by them – is only a contrivance to ensure that Kunti remains virginal in the eyes of the world.
The story may have been suggested by Durvasa to Kuntibhoja. Or the king – with all the resources of propaganda at his disposal – might have come up with it himself. After all, if we agree that Kunti carried Karna to full term, the king would have certainly known of his daughter’s illegitimate union with Durvasa.
Why does Kunti Abandon Karna?
The birth of Karna is often depicted as Kunti’s secret alone. The image in the average reader’s mind is of a girl carrying the burden of separation and pain deep in her heart. She is a lone sufferer.
In films and plays, Kunti herself places the basket containing Karna on the river’s surface. The implication is that no one else in Kuntibhoja’s palace knows of this.
But if we accept the premise that Kunti carried Karna to full term, this is impossible. Even if by some elaborate ruse the pregnancy is kept secret, when it comes time for her to deliver the baby, a nurse’s presence is inevitable.
More reasonably, we may assume that Kuntibhoja knows about his daughter’s pregnancy right from the moment signs of it becomes visible. And knowing that Durvasa is the likely father, he is left with no choice but to keep it all under wraps.
For those in the know, Kuntibhoja furnishes them with a fantastic story concerning gods and magical chants. This is to ensure that even if the secret is spilled, Kunti’s ‘virginity’ remains intact and her prospects wouldn’t unduly suffer.
As for the baby? What other option does the king have but to abandon it?
One may argue that he could have been more humane about it – perhaps he could have sent for a poor couple and given the baby to them to rear – but the most important thing to do was to sever all links between the baby and Kunti.
Now you know everything about the birth of Karna. Summing up:
- Karna is born to Kunti out of wedlock, before her marriage.
- His father, according to the official version of events, is the sun god, Surya. Kunti summons him out of curiosity using a magical chant given her by Sage Durvasa.
- Whether Karna is a full-term baby or an ‘instantaneous’ one is up for debate. But evidence from other similar events suggests the former.
- The decision to abandon Karna was likely not taken by Kunti alone. Kuntibhoja and other elders of his court almost certainly had a say in it.
- Some rational theorists posit that the true father of Kunti is not Surya but Durvasa. If one is to reject all magic in the Mahabharata, this is a reasonable assumption given the circumstances.
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