Karna and Krishna are two of the most important characters of the Mahabharata.
Karna is the firstborn son of Kunti. By rights he should be a Pandava, but Kunti abandons him at birth, and he becomes Duryodhana’s friend. Krishna is the Yadava prince who founds the kingdom of Dwaraka.
In this post, we will examine the relationship between Karna and Krishna.
(For a comprehensive resource on Karna, see Karna: 40+ Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Krishna and Karna first see each other during Draupadi’s swayamvara.
This is the first time that Krishna appears in the story. A number of important characters – Draupadi, Arjuna and Duryodhana among them – get their first glimpse of Krishna at this event.
Krishna comes here accompanied by Balarama. The two brothers announce immediately upon their arrival they do not intend to compete for Draupadi’s hand. They have come merely to watch.
Karna, on the other hand, is part of Duryodhana’s entourage. Perhaps under instructions of his friend (or perhaps acting of his own volition), he tries to participate in Drupada’s archery test.
But he is rejected publicly by Draupadi.
Later, Krishna witnesses the duel between Karna and Arjuna. He tries to calm down the frustrations of the assembled kings, and helps the Pandavas take Draupadi away from there.
Despite all this, there is no record of Krishna actually speaking directly with Karna.
(Suggested: What happens during Draupadi’s Swayamvara?)
During the Pandavas’ Rule
Soon after Draupadi’s wedding to the Pandavas, Yudhishthir becomes king of Khandavaprastha. For twelve years following that, while Arjuna goes on his exile, there is not much interaction between Karna and Krishna.
Indeed, Krishna only welcomes Arjuna to Dwaraka toward the end of the third Pandava’s exile. That is the first time the two of them get to know each other, and the foundation of their lifelong friendship is laid.
Krishna’s impressions of Karna – if he had any at this point – would have been influenced by two things:
- By what Arjuna says about him: after all, Arjuna and Karna have met much earlier, and Arjuna had already had some altercations with Karna – during the Varanavata incident most notably.
- By the fact that Karna is Duryodhana’s main man: Krishna would have observed that the lynchpin of the Kaurava-Pandava conflict is Duryodhana, and that Karna is the man Duryodhana is relying on to quash the threat of Arjuna.
Besides this, Krishna would have also been privy to news and updates about Karna and that are publicly known. As king of Anga, Karna makes a bit of a reputation for himself as a kind and wise king.
The incident of Draupadi’s disrobing would have darkened Krishna’s opinion on Karna. A part of him would have known that Karna is merely acting as Duryodhana’s enabler, but it remains true that much of what happens at the event is Karna’s doing.
It is Karna who calls Draupadi a prostitute. It is he who suggests that she should be disrobed in public because she ‘deserves it’.
However, though Krishna does not like Duryodhana or Karna, he is compelled by political reasons to maintain good relationships with them both.
Why? Because the Pandavas are sent away for thirteen years into the forest. During this time, Anarta, the kingdom of Balarama, has to operate on friendly terms with Kuru.
And friendly terms with Kuru are only possible if Krishna and Balarama do not stoke enmity with Duryodhana.
During the Pandavas’ exile, therefore, Krishna bides his time and remains civil with both Duryodhana and Karna – while keeping track of all their misdeeds.
During Karna’s Expedition
As the Pandavas’ exile approaches its end, Karna completes a successful expedition of conquest on Duryodhana’s behalf. As part of this excursion, Karna arrives in Dwaraka.
There is no record of any violence happening in Dwaraka. He is welcomed with open arms into the capital. Balarama and Krishna attend to him as an honoured guest. They assure him that they continue to support Duryodhana.
(An aside: it is clear that Krishna has always intended to turn the tables on the Kuru empire once the Pandavas return. What is not clear is how much of Krishna’s plan was known to Balarama.)
Once the Pandavas return, and once the marriage of Uttara and Abhimanyu is finished, Krishna makes a bid to ensure that Yudhishthir and the Pandavas are returned to their previous stature.
At this juncture, Krishna openly makes a move against Duryodhana. It is here that Krishna and Karna become public enemies.
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.
Karna is considered one of the most skilful and powerful archers of the world, second only to Arjuna. 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 is also described as a great wrestler: he kills Kamsa’s court wrestlers when he is a young man, and later prepares to fight Jarasandha during Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya. Karna’s hand-to-hand combat skills, by contrast, are nonexistent.
The only time in the Mahabharata that Krishna speaks of battling an enemy is when he tells Yudhishthir about the invasion of Dwaraka by a king called Suvala.
Krishna gives an account of avenging this slight by killing Suvala in a great war – but all of this is provided to the reader as Krishna’s narration.
We do not know how reliable a narrator Krishna is – especially when recounting tales of his own heroism.
With all of this considered, we must conclude that Krishna is still likely powerful enough to defeat Karna in most situations. The only scenario in which Karna may have an upper hand is if the two warriors are fighting with bows and arrows alone.
(Suggested: Can Krishna defeat Karna?)
Before the War
At the beginning of the war, Karna is the only warrior on either side that is both capable of and willing to kill Arjuna. Krishna therefore intends to persuade Karna to fight on the Pandavas’ side.
As bribe, he offers Karna the throne of Indraprastha to rule, and the possibility of Draupadi becoming his wife – and also bearing him sons.
During his visit to Hastinapur to make one last attempt to broker peace between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, Krishna visits Kunti and (presumably) discovers her secret regarding Karna.
Just before he leaves the city, he seeks a private audience with Karna and tells him about his birth. ‘Yudhishthir is your younger brother, Vasusena,’ he says. ‘If you fight with him, he will laud you as his king. The throne of Indraprastha is yours.’
Just to make the deal sweeter, Krishna even promises Draupadi to Karna, knowing full well that Karna had once tried to win her at the swayamvara and had been rejected.
He also suggests that Draupadi will bear him sons, which means of course that Karna’s sons will become kings after him.
This is all an attempt by Krishna to bring Karna over to the Pandava side. The intention here is to protect Arjuna and to ensure the defeat of Duryodhana.
(Suggested: Why did Krishna offer Draupadi to Karna?)
Why did Karna refuse to leave Duryodhana?
When Krishna offers Karna the throne of Indraprastha in return for leaving Duryodhana, Karna refuses. He says that it was Duryodhana who had given him everything.
And in return, he had only asked for one thing: to kill Arjuna when the time arrived. ‘Now that the moment is here, Krishna,’ Karna says, ‘I cannot leave his side.’
It is Duryodhana who takes Karna under his wing and gives him everything he wants – a kingdom to rule, wealth to enjoy and give away, and status as Kshatriya while remaining a Suta by ‘birth’.
Though Duryodhana never says this explicitly, it is understood by both him and Karna that all these gifts are being given him in expectation of a price to be paid. And that price is for Karna to kill Arjuna.
It is almost as if Duryodhana employs Karna as a mercenary to perform this one act – and in return he is willing to give him everything.
Karna recognizes this, and when Krishna makes his offer, finds the moral fortitude to reject it. He also (rightly) remarks that the world will think less of him for opportunistically forsaking Duryodhana in his dire moment of need.
All the glory that Krishna promises him, Karna says, will in fact be tainted by this one choice.
(Suggested: Why did Karna refuse to leave Duryodhana?)
How did Krishna know about Karna?
It is not mentioned in the Mahabharata just how Krishna knows the truth about Karna. But the most likely explanation is that Kunti tells him her secret when he comes to Hastinapur.
Krishna then tries to use this information – in vain – to lure Karna away from Duryodhana onto the Pandava side.
Besides Kunti, only Surya and Vyasa know about the truth regarding Karna’s birth. Of these two, Surya never divulges the information to anyone. Vyasa is also a good secret-keeper; he tells Bhishma just before the war begins about who Karna really is.
(How Vyasa comes to know of this is also a mystery. We can only surmise that Kunti confides in him at some point. Or maybe he does have magical powers by which he can see and know everything.)
When Krishna arrives in Hastinapur before the war with the intention of brokering peace between the two sides, he stays at the house of Vidura for a few nights, where Kunti is also staying.
A long conversation develops between aunt and nephew, at the end of which Kunti relays personalized messages to each of her sons through Krishna.
We’re not told this explicitly, but it is likely that Kunti tells Krishna about Karna during these meetings. Right afterward, Krishna summons Karna and tries to bribe him with this information.
He tells Karna that as the eldest Pandava, his true place is by his brothers, and that he will be worshipped as a god by the Pandavas. Krishna even promises Karna that Draupadi will become his wife, and that she will bear him sons.
There is no indication of Krishna knowing of Karna’s secret before this moment.
(Suggested: How did Krishna know about Karna?)
During the War
During the war, for the first ten days, it is indeed fortunate for the Pandavas that Karna does not take to the battlefield. But from Day 11 onward, his presence is a constant threat to Arjuna’s safety.
Krishna is keenly aware of this. Of all the warriors on the Kaurava side, Karna alone possesses the weapon (and he can only use it once) to which neither Arjuna nor Krishna has a counter.
So while Karna has the weapon, Krishna ensures that the two warriors only rarely come face to face on the battlefield. And when they do, he clouds Karna’s mind just enough so that the hero forgets about his Vasava weapon.
Krishna also clouds the judgements of the Kaurava strategists (the likes of Drona, Kripa and Duryodhana) so that they neglect to use Karna as the primary force against Arjuna.
On the night of the fourteenth day, Krishna sends Ghatotkacha to fight Karna in the hope that the Rakshasa would entice Karna into using his weapon. To Krishna’s delight, this very thing happens – and Arjuna is saved.
From this moment onward, Krishna knows that it is only a matter of time before Arjuna kills Karna.
Did Krishna cry when Karna died?
Krishna does not cry when Karna dies. But he tempers Arjuna’s celebration by reminding him that Karna was a great warrior, and that he was only vanquished because of several circumstantial forces pulling together.
Though he knows that Karna is Arjuna’s brother, he does not reveal the secret because he believes it is Kunti’s prerogative to do so.
Krishna is never seen crying over anyone’s death in the Mahabharata. Karna is no exception. As someone who knows the cycle of birth and death like the back of his hand, Krishna knows that mourning over someone’s death is meaningless.
However, after doing everything in his power to ensure that Karna dies at the hands of Arjuna, once the moment passes, he cautions Arjuna to temper his emotions. ‘Karna is a great warrior, a man who deserves our respect,’ he says.
When Arjuna asks how someone of Karna’s talents had been defeated in the war, Krishna lists a number of circumstantial events that have contributed to Arjuna’s eventual victory. They are:
- Kunti’s asking of a boon from Karna that he will not harm any Pandava other than Arjuna.
- The deceitful manner in which Indra stripped Karna of his divine armour and earrings.
- Shalya’s constant goading of and refusal to cooperate with Karna on the seventeenth day.
- The curse of Parashurama which ensured that Karna would always struggle to remember the chants to summon his weapons in the thick of battle.
- Krishna himself, who plotted the death of Ghatotkacha precisely so that Karna would waste his Vasava dart.
Having gone thus far, Krishna refrains from telling Arjuna that Karna was actually his brother. He appreciates that the secret is Kunti’s to reveal, and that she should have the freedom to do so at a moment of her choosing.
(Suggested: Who killed Karna?)
What does Karna think of Krishna?
From Karna’s point of view, during the initial years, his view of Krishna matches that of Yudhishthir: that Krishna is nothing more than a Pandava stooge who will stop at nothing to achieve his means.
Karna therefore thinks of Krishna as a deceitful, power-hungry man. But over the years, as he exercises his own discernment, he realizes that Krishna is more powerful than any other man in the world.
During the conversation between the two men just before the war, Karna admits to Krishna that the war was going to be won by the Pandavas, and that Duryodhana will die.
He says that he knows how powerful Krishna is, what has already been written into the book of fate. And yet, for the sake of loyalty alone, he decides to remain with Duryodhana.
Overall, therefore, despite their enmity, there is a lot of mutual respect between the two men.
Krishna’s relationship with Karna evolves during the many years the two men know each other.
- In the beginning, Krishna is only perfunctorily aware of Karna’s existence. Until Draupadi’s vastraharan happens, Krishna does not have any yardstick by which to judge Karna’s morality.
- Krishna knows that Karna is aligned with Duryodhana’s interests. He also knows that Karna is a great archer, comparable to Arjuna in skill. Finally, from spies and other networks, he knows that Karna is a wise, just and generous king.
- Just before the war, he learns that Karna is Kunti’s firstborn. He tries to bribe Karna into defecting on Duryodhana and to fight at the head of the Pandava army. But Karna refuses.
- During the war, Krishna brings forth all his ruthlessness to corner Karna and to kill him.
- But when Arjuna asks Krishna how Karna was vanquished, he answers that a number of factors came together to kill Karna. His reply suggests that he has enormous respect for Karna.
From Karna’s perspective, he initially sees Krishna – like Duryodhana does – as a devious pest, by the time war approaches, he sees how powerful Krishna is.
The two men, therefore, carry a lot of respect for one another despite being opponents.
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