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.
In this post, we will answer the question: Is Karna overrated?
There is a huge chasm between what Karna says he can do and what he does. Despite his reputation as being as skillful as Arjuna, Karna rarely gives any evidence of his prowess. There is not even one scene in the entire story where Karna fights the odds single-handedly and wins. So yes, Karna is overrated as a warrior.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Karna is overrated.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Matching Arjuna’s Skill
The mythology of Karna’s great abilities as warrior begins when he appears out of nowhere at the Kuru princes’ graduation ceremony. Just as Arjuna finishes his performance to resounding applause from attending citizens, Karna steps up without invitation and repeats all of Arjuna’s feats with his own bow and arrow.
He then asks the Kuru elders for permission to challenge Arjuna to a one-on-one battle.
Bhishma and Kripa are quick to nip this in the bud. It is far too risky to allow an unnamed challenger to enter into a duel with a prince. Bhishma has had a bad experience with this sort of thing in the past – when Chitrangada died in a fight with a Gandharva.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 8: Karna Arrives.)
Kripa asks Karna to introduce himself, and as Karna is hesitating, Adiratha comes onto the stage to embrace Karna. Seeing this, Bhima and Arjuna ridicule Karna as being a Sutaputra.
Kripa explains to Karna that a challenger has to be of high birth if he is to be taken seriously. Duryodhana takes the opportunity to extend the hand of friendship to the new entrant, and to drive home the point, he even crowns him king of Anga.
All of this makes it obvious to onlookers that Karna is at least as skilful as Arjuna when it comes to archery.
Losing to Drupada
Almost immediately after the graduation ceremony, Drona gives his students a task: invade Panchala, and bring Drupada back to Hastinapur alive as a prisoner.
The Kauravas go first on Arjuna’s insistence, and Karna fights alongside Duryodhana. But the Panchalas rout the Kuru army in this battle, which raises questions on Karna’s abilities.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 9: Invasion of Panchala.)
How can a warrior who is ‘Arjuna’s equal’ fail so miserably in a proper battle against Panchala? A couple of possible explanations:
- Karna does not fight in a prominent or strategic spot in Duryodhana’s army. One-on-one battles are entirely different to wars in which entire armies go at one another.
- Karna’s skills so far are only limited to shooting arrows at targets, or at most one other opponent. He is still not quite adept at fighting effectively in a sea of armed men with weapons flying all over.
After the Kauravas return and admit their failure, Arjuna leads the remaining Kuru army back into Panchala and brings Drupada back as prisoner. This proves that Arjuna is a better all-round warrior than Karna – at this stage.
At Draupadi’s Swayamvara
The next time Karna and Arjuna meet is at Draupadi’s swayamvara. Karna gets publicly rejected by Draupadi, and Arjuna wins her hand by completing the task set by Drupada.
Immediately after, the suitors who attend the swayamvara rise up in revolt at the thought that they have all been defeated by a Brahmin. Shalya and Karna draw their weapons and challenge Bhima and Arjuna respectively.
In this battle, for a long time Karna and Arjuna prove to be evenly matched. Then, Karna asks Arjuna: ‘How are you so powerful, O Brahmin? Are you the son of a god or are you the incarnation of Parashurama?’
(Related Article: What Happens during Draupadi’s Swayamvara?)
Arjuna replies, ‘Neither, sir. I am just a regular man who has the blessings of his preceptor.’
Karna then withdraws his challenge, saying that Kshatriya energies cannot be expected to defeat Brahmanic energies. Though he does not make an explicit admission, it does appear that he is scared that he might lose.
By this stage, Karna has been king of Anga for two years or so. It would not be amiss to admit that he and Arjuna are still about equally powerful – especially when one-on-one battles are concerned.
Fleeing the Battlefield
The next time we see Karna in a battle situation is twenty four years later, during the final year of the Pandavas’ exile. During a trip into the forest, Duryodhana is captured by a band of Gandharvas, and instead of fighting them, Karna flees from the battle.
Duryodhana is then rescued by Bhima and Arjuna.
During these twenty four years, Karna has been king of Anga. He has largely gotten on with his life, marrying a Suta girl, being devoted to his adoptive parents, and building a reputation for himself as a wise and generous ruler.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 23: Duryodhana is Rescued.)
It is apparent that he has let his fighting skill deteriorate over this time – as kings are wont to do during periods of peace. But he continues to remind everyone around him that he once matched Arjuna.
Meanwhile, during these twenty four years, Arjuna has improved beyond recognition as a warrior. Not only has he gained favour from many gods, but he has also kept himself sharp by successfully completing several quests – both on Earth and in heaven.
At this stage, therefore, Karna is not much of a warrior. But his bluster and arrogance remain.
Conquering the World
A short while after this, Karna rides out at the head of a large military force to conquer all the kingdoms of the world and to establish Duryodhana as the supreme ruler.
He leads this expedition successfully. This suggests that while Karna’s skills may have deteriorated when it comes to fighting by himself, he has become quite an able tactician, strategist and commander of armies.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 24: Karna Conquers Everything.)
He has also developed the skill of negotiation and diplomacy, which he uses well to secure the world for Duryodhana.
This is an impressive feat, but one must remember that this is not proof of his fighting prowess. During this expedition, he has luxury of leading the Kuru army, and he also has the unspoken power of Bhishma and Drona behind him.
At the Kurukshetra
In the final war as well, Karna does little to distinguish himself until he becomes the commander of Duryodhana’s army. During the Karna Parva, with complete freedom at his disposal, he finally lives up to his reputation and wins many key battles – not least against the four sons of Kunti.
But until then, he does not impress one as a mighty warrior, though he always claims to be one. He loses to Abhimanyu, to Bhima, to Satyaki – and to Ghatotkacha. He flees after being defeated on several occasions.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 49: Karna Kills Ghatotkacha.)
His biggest moment comes on the night of the fourteenth day, when he uses the Vasava dart – a weapon he has been using for Arjuna – to kill a mountainous Ghatotkacha.
Even in the final battle against Arjuna, Karna does not come close to defeating his rival. The only time Arjuna gets nervous is when Karna shoots Aswasena the Naga at him.
Krishna protects Arjuna by stamping down the chariot into the Earth so that the arrow knocks off Arjuna’s crown instead of slicing his neck.
Taking all of the above pieces of evidence into consideration, Karna may be called a middling warrior at best – albeit with a special ability of taking a single fatal shot at Arjuna thanks to the Vasava dart.
However, the amount of braggadocio that he displays is irritating in the extreme to those around him. Bhishma, Shalya, Kripa and Ashwatthama are all fed up of his constant posturing despite not having the results to back up the big talk.
Bhishma tries to cut him down to size by quarrelling with him a few times, but Karna refuses to back down even then. His sense of loyalty to Duryodhana does not extend to putting his ego aside and to make peace with the grandsire.
So all in all, yes, Karna as a warrior is overrated – mostly by himself.
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