Karna and Arjuna: The Story of their Relationship

Karna and Arjuna - Featured Image - Picture of two human figures joined together, one bigger and one smaller. Representing brothers

Karna and Arjuna are two of the most important characters in the Mahabharata.

Karna is the firstborn son of Kunti, but is estranged at birth and later becomes Duryodhana’s friend. Arjuna is the third Pandava, widely considered the most accomplished bowman of his times.

In this post, we will study in detail the relationship between Karna and Arjuna.

(For a comprehensive resource on Karna, see Karna: 40+ Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

First Meeting

Karna and Arjuna first meet when the former arrives unannounced at the Kuru princes’ graduation ceremony, and proceeds to repeat – in front of an awestruck crowd – all of Arjuna’s previously-accomplished archery feats.

Kunti immediately recognizes the youth as her firstborn (presumably from his earrings and armour, or if he had already given them up, with maternal instinct), and faints out of shock.

Karna challenges Arjuna to a duel in order to prove his mettle as a competent warrior. But the Kuru elders stop this by ridiculing Karna as a lowborn man undeserving of fighting against a prince.

Duryodhana then rises to Karna’s support. He instinctively notices that this boy – if nurtured – could turn out to be the perfect nemesis for Arjuna. So he makes Karna the king of Anga on the spot, thus earning Karna’s loyalty for life.

Thus, through a sequence of unconnected events, Karna and Arjuna start upon a path of enmity.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 8: Karna Arrives.)

Was Karna better than Arjuna?

Karna is often considered the only warrior who can defeat or kill Arjuna in battle. He shows proof of his skill during the Kuru princes’ graduation ceremony.

But as time passes, Arjuna comfortably surpasses Karna in skill. There is never an instance in the Mahabharata where Karna defeats Arjuna.

During his early life, Karna is definitely more than a match for Arjuna because of his kavacha-kundalas (armour and earrings). During the graduation ceremony, he performs all of Arjuna’s feats and proves himself equal in skill.

But in actual battle, Karna displays persistent weakness. He does not distinguish himself in the quest to invade Panchala and imprison Drupada. In the battle against Gandharvas when Duryodhana is captured, Karna flees from the fight in fear.

At the end of the Virata Parva, he loses to Arjuna. During the Mahabharata war, he loses small battles to a number of Pandava warriors – Abhimanyu and Bhima to name a couple.

Arjuna, on the other hand, never loses a single battle. So he is definitely the more skillful warrior.

Despite all this, Karna remains the only man with at least a theoretical chance to kill Arjuna because he possesses the Vasava Dart, given to him by Indra.

(Suggested: Was Karna better than Arjuna?)

Why was Arjuna invincible?

Arjuna was invincible because of four main reasons:

(1) He was the most skilled archer in of his time, (2) He was blessed with many divine weapons that belonged to gods, (3) He was not burdened by responsibilities of a king, and (4) He enjoyed the numerous benefits that came with being the best friend of Krishna.

By the time of the beginning of the Kurukshetra war, Arjuna is indeed the most powerful warrior of the two sides.

When asked to classify him as a ratha or an atiratha, Bhishma chooses to refrain from classifying Arjuna altogether, stating that he is in an unattainable class of his own.

At the beginning of the story, during his graduation as prince, Arjuna is merely the most skilled of the Kuru cousins. But as the story progresses, he gradually transforms into the world’s most powerful warrior.

How does this happen? A number of factors come together to propel him from promise to greatness. Namely:

  • He performs a number of quests for gods – the clearing of the Khandava forest, the killing of the Nivatakavachas and so on – and he is gifted several divine weapons as gifts. Examples include the Gandiva, two inexhaustible quivers, a chariot that cannot be damaged, and some destructive missiles like the Pashupatastra.
  • Because he is not a king and does not have to attend to a king’s responsibilities, Arjuna is able to continually work at his craft and hone it. He continues to improve as an archer without distractions.
  • He is undoubtedly blessed with skill and dedication, qualities that catch the eye of Dronacharya early on, who then makes it his mission to make Arjuna the best archer ever.
  • Last but not the least, Arjuna becomes the best friend of Krishna – and is fortunate enough to have Krishna serve as his charioteer during the war.

Despite all of this, Arjuna is only near invincible – not actually so. The only chink in his armour is that he does not have a counter to Karna’s Vasava dart.

This is why Krishna tries his best to bribe Karna into fighting for the Pandavas, and later sacrifices Ghatotkacha to Karna’s deadly missile in order to protect Arjuna.

Once Karna is deprived of the Vasava – which happens on the night of the fourteenth day – Arjuna becomes truly invincible.

(Suggested: Why was Arjuna invincible?)

Was Arjuna stronger than Karna?

Yes. Arjuna defeats Karna on three separate occasions during the Mahabharata:

(1) at Draupadi’s swayamvara, after a lengthy battle, Karna withdraws from fighting Arjuna; (2) during the end of the Virata Parva when Arjuna defends Matsya’s cattle against the Kuru army; (3) during the final man-to-man duel on the seventeenth day of the war.

Karna is often called Arjuna’s equal in terms of skill with bow and arrow, but over the course of the story Arjuna’s achievements far outshine Karna’s.

Several times, Arjuna completes a task or a quest at which Karna has just failed. At other times, Arjuna pulls off unbelievable victories when the odds are stacked up against him. Karna has no such victories to his name.

For instance:

  • After Karna and Duryodhana try in vain to capture Drupada as Drona’s Guru Dakshina, Arjuna succeeds in doing so.
  • At Draupadi’s swayamvara, Arjuna gains a victory over Karna after the latter’s forfeiture.
  • During the Pandavas’ exile, Arjuna travels to Amaravati and wages a successful battle against the Nivatakavachas.
  • When Karna flees in fear at the prospect of fighting a Gandharva army to free Duryodhana, Arjuna succeeds.
  • During the end of the Virata Parva, Arjuna secures a victory while fighting single-handedly against the Kuru army – which includes Karna.
  • In the final battle, Arjuna wins several key battles on the way to finally killing his arch nemesis Karna.

The weight of evidence suggests, therefore, that Arjuna is stronger than Karna.

Why did Karna hate Arjuna?

The main reason Karna hates Arjuna is jealousy.

Since Karna’s prime ambition in life is to move up the social ladder and be counted among the greatest Kshatriyas, it is important for him to be seen as Arjuna’s equal. But throughout his life, he loses to Arjuna. Draupadi also rejects him but accepts Arjuna as husband.

But is jealousy enough of a reason to explain the obsessive behaviour that Karna exhibits with regards to Arjuna? Some may argue not.

We must also remember Duryodhana’s prime motive behind helping Karna is because he sees Karna as the ideal foil against Arjuna.

Since Karna knows this, it is possible that he makes it his mission to get the better of Arjuna at every available opportunity – to show Duryodhana that his trust is not misplaced.

At least a portion of Karna’s antagonism toward Arjuna, therefore, is Karna’s desperation to please Duryodhana. Every time he insults Arjuna or the Pandavas, it is as if he’s saying, ‘Look, I am on your side. I hate them as much as you do.’

(Suggested: Why did Karna hate Arjuna?)

Why did Arjuna hate Karna?

Arjuna hates Karna because of Karna’s active involvement in the abuse and humiliation of Draupadi during the dice game.

Karna argues that Draupadi’s enslavement is valid, and that she is a prostitute for having married five men. He recommends that Draupadi should be publicly disrobed. For this, Arjuna vows to kill Karna.

Arjuna and Karna share a mutually fractious relationship throughout the story. Right from the beginning when Karna appears at the graduation ceremony and repeats all of Arjuna’s feats, the two are locked in a battle for supremacy.

Arjuna’s ambition is to become the best archer of all time. Karna keeps proving that he is Arjuna’s equal. One can understand Arjuna’s frustration at this.

Until the dice game, though, the enmity between Arjuna and Karna is purely professional. The Pandavas have not interacted with Karna for a period of twelve or so years, and they have become the most powerful men in the world.

It is at the dice game that Arjuna’s dislike for Karna turns into hate. Karna takes on the mantle of chief antagonist during this scene, and accuses Draupadi of being no better than a prostitute. He commands Duhsasana to disrobe Draupadi publicly and ‘show her her place.’

If Karna had not spoken up at all during this incident, it is likely that Draupadi would never have had to defend herself in so shameful a manner.

Arjuna therefore rightly concludes that Karna is the man most responsible for what has happened. So he takes a vow that he will kill Karna to avenge Draupadi’s humiliation. And he fulfils the vow fourteen years or so later in the Kurukshetra war.

(Suggested: Why did Arjuna hate Karna?)

Was Karna jealous of Arjuna?

Karna’s enmity with Arjuna has more to do with his loyalty to Duryodhana than with jealousy.

But as someone who matches Arjuna’s skill at the graduation ceremony, to see his once-equal opponent grow beyond recognition into the world’s greatest archer must have been difficult. Karna also feels envious of Arjuna for having won Draupadi.

The main thrust of Karna’s enmity toward Arjuna is his undying fealty toward Duryodhana. More than anything, Karna wants to defeat Arjuna because he wants to prove himself a worthy aide to Duryodhana.

However, we can surmise that jealousy must also be present in there somewhere. We know that Karna matches Arjuna in skill during the graduation ceremony, thus setting up the narrative that he is Arjuna’s equal.

To then repeatedly lose to him over the rest of the story must be difficult for any man. This would have certainly bred envy.

Also, we know that Karna is rejected by Draupadi publicly at her swayamvara, and then Arjuna proceeds to win her for himself. That is also bound to have caused some envy in Karna.

Despite all this, though, Karna gets a chance to ‘make Arjuna his slave’ by accepting Krishna’s offer to fight on the Pandavas’ side.

If his jealousy had been overpowering, Karna would have said yes – and he would have won Arjuna’s eternal subservience along with Draupadi as his main wife.

But the fact that he says no, and that he chooses Duryodhana, suggests that it is Duryodhana that is most important to him in his life – even more than his need to overcome Arjuna.

(Suggested: Was Karna jealous of Arjuna?)

Did Arjuna know Karna was his brother?

Arjuna does not know that Karna is his brother until after Karna’s death. Krishna, Kunti and Bhishma are the only three people to know the secret of Karna’s birth (besides himself).

After Karna’s death, Kunti reveals the information to her sons. The Pandavas, including Arjuna, are distraught at the thought that they have killed their elder brother.

At the beginning, only Kunti knows about the true identity of Karna. When she first spots Karna at the graduation ceremony, she faints because she recognizes the marks on her son’s body.

As time passes, though, more and more people are brought in on the secret. Krishna, when he arrives in Hastinapur, reveals that he knows.

But the reader is not told how. One assumes that Kunti tells Krishna about it at Vidura’s house in the hope that Krishna can then leverage it for Arjuna’s benefit.

Bhishma, on the night of the tenth day of battle, admits to Karna: ‘I know that you are Kunti’s firstborn.’ His source of information is Vyasa.

How Vyasa came to know, we do not know. Either he has been told by Kunti on some prior occasion, or he has been told by Surya, or he just knows because he is Vyasa.

Karna, of course, hears of it for the first time from Krishna’s mouth. And he hears it for a second time from Kunti, which is then corroborated by a divine voice that belongs to Surya.

Besides these five characters, as long as Karna lives, no one knows the truth about his birth.

Krishna keeps this truth purposefully from Arjuna and the others out of fear that they would refuse to fight their elder brother if they knew. Kunti tells her sons about her secret only after the war has ended.

The Pandavas are stricken by despair at the thought that they had not only killed their grandfather and their preceptor but also their elder brother. They perform all of Karna’s last rites with respect.

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.

This does not mean, of course, that Arjuna can defeat Karna on every occasion they fight – whether or not in Krishna’s presence. If one is able to simulate a hundred Arjuna-Karna confrontations, Karna will probably win ten or more of them.

Also, we must remember that what we call ‘skill of a warrior’ is not a constant quality. It ebbs and flows.

It is affected by a number of controllable factors: the amount of deliberate practice the hero has put in, the amount of thought he has given to strategy – and uncontrollable ones: like the mood of your charioteer, the number of divine weapons you have, etc.

All said, Arjuna and Karna are considered near equals in terms of skill. So if one were to neutralize all the other factors – meaning we ask them to fight with normal bows and arrows while on foot – we may expect about a fifty-fifty share of the spoils.

By the time of the Kurukshetra war, though, Arjuna is incredibly powerful (through a combination of his skill and his acquisitions). Karna, on the other hand, is severely handicapped because of Shalya’s machinations.

There is a moment in the final battle where Karna shoots an arrow (the Naga Aswasena) at Arjuna – and it only misses because Krishna stamps down on the chariot with enough force to sink its wheels in the mud.

So if Krishna had not been Arjuna’s charioteer in the battle with Karna, Arjuna would have died.

(Suggested: Can Arjuna defeat Karna without Krishna?)

Was Arjuna the best archer?

When he is young, Arjuna is the best archer among all the Kuru princes. Two other men display comparable amounts of skill to him. One is Karna, who appears at the graduation ceremony and repeats all of Arjuna’s feats.

The other is Ekalavya, a Nishada prince who learns archery on his own and surpasses Arjuna.

Being a good archer and being a good warrior in battle aren’t always the same. While all good warriors are necessarily good archers, not all good archers are necessarily good warriors.

Fighting in a battle requires more skills than those that go into making a good archer. These may include strategic nous, an ability to learn the right lessons from past experiences, and an ability to improvise on the spot.

Also, many uncontrollable factors go into whether you win on the battlefield or not: chiefly, it is important to fight with the right people, in the right environment, with the right weapons.

With Karna and Ekalavya, we only know that they are as skilled as Arjuna is only to the extent of archery. In the case of Ekalavya, Drona sees to it that the boy never competes with Arjuna even on that front.

As he grows into youth and then into adulthood, Arjuna becomes a better archer, yes, but more importantly he becomes a powerful warrior. He gets given weapons that make him invincible.

He fights with Krishna as his charioteer, and he is supported in most battles ably by Bhimasena – himself a great atiratha.

One may conclude, therefore, that Arjuna is only one of the greatest archers of his time (the others being Karna and Ekalavya, as far as we know), but he is the most powerful warrior of his time because of all the other factors that work in his favour.

(Suggested: Was Arjuna the best archer?)

Did Arjuna regret killing Karna?

Arjuna does not immediately regret killing Karna, but he encounters a feeling of unease when Karna dies. He asks Krishna how a warrior of Karna’s ability had been defeated, and Krishna gives a list of all of Karna’s misfortunes.

Later, when Kunti reveals her secret, Arjuna – along with his brothers – deeply regrets having killed his elder brother.

Immediately after Karna’s death on the battlefield, Arjuna does not feel the elation in his heart that he might have expected from finally killing his nemesis. He finds himself sympathetic to Karna’s situation.

‘How did a warrior of such ability lose to me on this day, Krishna?’ he asks. To which Krishna replies, ‘A number of people across space and time have united to make this victory of yours possible, Dhananjaya.’

And he names himself, Arjuna, Kunti, Indra, the goddess Earth, and Shalya among the chief killers of Karna.

In contrast, when Bhimasena kills Duhsasana, the other main character to have caused Draupadi’s disrobing, there are much more animalistic emotions in view. Bhima tears open Duhsasana’s chest and drinks his blood – as he had promised.

Later, when the Pandavas are performing the last rites of all the ‘good’ men they have lost in the war, Kunti arrives and says, ‘Include Karna among those you honour.’ And then she tells them her long-held secret.

The Pandavas – including Arjuna – are struck by shock and grief at this revelation. Yudhishthir goes so far as to curse womankind with the ability to keep secrets. Afterward, the Pandavas perform all of Karna’s rituals with respect.

Was Karna in love with Draupadi?

It is sometimes suggested that Karna, Arjuna and Draupadi are locked in a love triangle, and that Karna’s antagonism toward Arjuna is at least in part because he is in love with Draupadi.

But there is no evidence in the Mahabharata that Karna loves Draupadi.

He does desire her for a wife, which is why he attempts to complete the archery task at Draupadi’s swayamvara. After Draupadi’s public humiliation and rejection of him, he comes to detest her.

Karna and Draupadi do not spend all that much time in each other’s presence to develop an emotion as strong and complex as love.

Though we know that Karna must have desired Draupadi for a wife, we do not know if he was acting of his own volition or under Duryodhana’s instructions at the swayamvara.

Once Draupadi rejects him publicly, though, Karna harbours anger for Draupadi. He takes his revenge at the dice game, where he brands her a prostitute for having taken five husbands.

This, in turn, angers Draupadi and Arjuna against Karna – to the extent that Arjuna vows in that same hall to kill him.

The Pandavas reserve special hatred for Karna after the events of the dice game. Draupadi is heard on multiple occasions naming him among the people who have wronged her.

There is simply no reason for Karna, therefore, to love Draupadi.

(Suggested: Was Karna in love with Draupadi?)

Final Meeting

Karna and Arjuna meet for the final time on the seventeenth day of the Kurukshetra war, when they challenge one another to single combat with bow and arrow.

Karna is, by this time, one of the last Kaurava stalwarts standing. Bhishma and Drona have already been defeated. It is notable that Krishna allows this fight to take place only after Karna has used up his Vasava missile in killing Ghatotkacha.

The two brothers tussle with each other for a long while. The deadlock breaks when Karna’s chariot-wheel sinks into the earth and Shalya, Karna’s charioteer, refuses to repair the vehicle.

It is left to Karna to leap off the chariot and rescue his buried wheel, while at the same time staving off arrows from Arjuna.

In this moment, while Arjuna hesitates to shoot, Krishna implores his friend to show the enemy no mercy. He inflames Arjuna’s rage by recounting all of Karna’s indiscretions from the past – especially his treatment of Draupadi during the dice game.

Arjuna thus beheads Karna and brings their long-standing rivalry to a close.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 51: Arjuna Kills Karna.)

Further Reading

If you liked this post, you will probably also enjoy: Arjuna: 50+ Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.