Karna and Kunti: The Story of their Relationship

Karna and Kunti 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. Kunti is the first wife of Pandu, and she bears Karna out of wedlock.

In this post, we will examine the relationship between Karna and Kunti.

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

First Meeting

Technically, Kunti and Karna meet for the first time when Karna is born to Kunti. But since Kunti abandons her son soon after he is born, they meet only after Karna has grown into an adult.

For all practical purposes, therefore, the first time they meet is when Karna appears at the Kuru princes’ graduation ceremony and challenges Arjuna to a duel.

Kunti recognizes Karna. She laments privately that two of her sons are about to fight one another – probably to the death. But instead of owning up to her secret, and nipping the enmity of Arjuna and Karna in the bud, she is overcome by emotion. She faints.

(How Kunti manages to identify Karna is debatable. One possibility is that Karna is wearing his kavacha-kundalas at this point. Another possibility is that Kunti relies on maternal intuition and instinct.)

During this first meeting between the two characters, it bears noticing that Karna does not know that Kunti is his mother.

In fact, Karna only realizes this truth about himself many years later, just a few days before the Kurukshetra war begins.

How did Kunti recognize Karna?

There is some uncertainty about when exactly Karna peels his divine armour and earrings, his kavacha-kundalas.

Common wisdom places the visit of Indra to Karna’s place immediately before the Kurukshetra war. But strong arguments can be made that Karna had already given up his kavacha-kundalas by the time he appears at the graduation ceremony.

If Karna is wearing his armour and earrings, then the question of how Kunti recognized him is an easy one. She remembers that her son – the boy she abandoned – was born with Surya’s ornaments. She now recognizes him through them.

If Karna has already given away his kavacha-kundalas and is now shorn of them, it is possible that he is bearing scars from the act of peeling them off for Indra. In fact, Duryodhana refers to these scars while arguing Karna’s case in front of the Kuru elders.

Kunti, therefore, may have seen the scars and would have made the connection between them and the armour that had been removed to cause them.

Finally, it is possible that Kunti just relied on maternal instinct and intuition to recognize her long-lost son.

Something about Karna – the way he held himself, the way he spoke, the way he matched Arjuna’s efforts – would have signalled to Kunti that this is the boy she had left on the Yamuna all those years ago.

After having recognized Karna as her son, Kunti immediately faints, unable to bear the shock of seeing her firstborn clash with her other sons.

(Suggested: How did Kunti recognize Karna?)

How did Kunti give birth to Karna?

Kunti gives birth to Karna after uniting with Surya, the sun god. There is some debate on the nature of this union: some contend that it is physical whereas others claim that it is purely spiritual.

Regardless, Kunti gives birth to a baby boy as an unmarried woman, and therefore takes the difficult decision to abandon him.

Kunti’s later pregnancies – with Yama, Vayu and Indra – appear to be full-term affairs that you would expect if the fathers of the babies were human. From this, we can surmise that her pregnancy with Karna also extended over ten months.

Kunti receives a boon from Sage Durvasa – a reward for her unblemished devotion during the rishi’s visit to Kuntibhoja’s palace – that she can summon any of the gods of the pantheon and compel them to give her a son.

While there is no explicit mention of the nature of Kunti’s union with the gods, there are enough hints in the text that suggest that it happens much the same way as it does between a human man and woman.

However, some readers claim that these unions are not physical in nature but are merely spiritual, aided by magic. Though this sounds inconsistent to me, I also concede that one cannot know for certain.

There is also another theory that is propounded by readers who enjoy stripping the Mahabharata of all its supernatural elements, and to unearth the story ‘as it may have happened’.

According to this, it is the union between Durvasa and Kunti that yields the boy to whom she gives birth after the sage’s departure. There is no magic boon, and there is no Surya’s secret visit to Kunti’s bedchamber.

This, of course, also means that Kunti’s other children also had mundane births, fathered by sages that lived on the Gandhamadana and later adopted by Pandu as his own.

Regardless of how Kunti obtained Karna, the key detail is that she has him while she is still an unwed maiden. And fearing social censure, she decides to abandon him. This incident has a profound effect on how the Mahabharata story eventually unfolds.

(Suggested: How did Kunti give birth to Karna?)

Why did Kunti abandon Karna?

Kunti gives birth to Karna due to a misguided use of Durvasa’s magical incantation to summon Surya, the sun god. Since Kunti is an unwed maiden at the time, she requests Surya to leave without giving her a son. But he replies that he cannot do so.

Therefore, afraid of social censure, Kunti decides to abandon her baby.

Did Kunti have any choice other than giving up Karna? If it is a secret known only to her, one assumes she could have given her son to a waiting woman with instructions to foster him within the kingdom of Kunti, where she can keep an eye on her.

She could have found a family of high birth within the court of Kuntibhoja and requested them to raise Karna. But this would have required taking her adoptive father into confidence, and winning his trust.

But both these solutions would have kept her tethered – however tenuously – to the boy. They would have further risked the possibility of her secret becoming common knowledge. And how would that affect the reputation of Kuntibhoja?

It is quite possible that in the moment, all Kunti desired was a clean break from the past so that she can make a fresh start. As long as the baby is in the same kingdom, she would have found it incredibly difficult to cut herself off completely.

So she decides to abandon him.

(Suggested: Why did Kunti abandon Karna?)

Who knew about Karna’s birth?

Judging by the nature of Kunti’s other pregnancies – with Yudhishthir, Bhima and Arjuna – we can surmise that she carries Karna through a full term before she gives birth.

This means that the nature of Karna’s birth is quite unlike what Satyavati experiences with Vyasa. In that incident, Satyavati is able to unite with Parashara, get pregnant with Vyasa, give birth to him, and watch him grow into a youth – all in the matter of one evening.

But with Kunti, it appears that her pregnancies and births happen much the same way as those of regular humans. This means that at least a small number of confidants at Kuntibhoja’s palace must have known that the princess is with child.

Kuntibhoja himself must have known. It is inconceivable that such significant news concerning his daughter could possibly be kept hidden from him.

The decision, therefore, of what to do with the child eventually would have been taken over a period of months, after multiple consultations between the king and his trusted ministers.

They would have evaluated other options: can the boy be given in secret to a nobleman at court so that he can be raised in Kunti’s view?

Can the boy be acknowledged as Kunti’s publicly, and people’s opinions managed through cunning use of propaganda? Can the boy be raised as one of the many low-born children at court whose fathers’ identities are never known?

Though all these choices have merits, it must have seemed to Kuntibhoja that his daughter would be best served by severing herself completely from the scandal. Kunti can then move into her future, untethered to the past.

Why did Kunti not accept Karna?

Kunti does not accept Karna because of three reasons:

(1) she does not have any matronly affection for him, (2) admitting to the truth would amount to lowering her character in front of the world, and (3) Duryodhana would then use Karna as a tool to defeat the Pandavas, knowing that they would not fight him.

By all appearances in the Mahabharata, Kunti does not actually consider Karna to be her son. She does not entertain any matronly feelings toward him.

He is an unwanted child born out of an unwanted union, and as soon as she abandons him, she puts him out of her mind and moves on with her life.

When Karna bursts forth into her life at the Kuru graduation ceremony, she faints – but only out of shock, and perhaps out of worry that the new entrant will harm Arjuna.

For her, he is an inconvenience that she had tried to eliminate from her life but is now persistently present in it. Admitting to the truth after the Pandavas have grown up would amount to tarnishing her own character in front of the world.

Also, by the time Kunti realizes who Karna is, he has already been rescued by Duryodhana and has already pledged loyalty to the Kauravas. Even if Kunti had admitted to the truth, would Karna have accepted her as his mother?

On the other hand, the Pandavas would have become increasingly reluctant to fight against Karna because he is their elder brother. Duryodhana would have then easily used Karna as a tool to emasculate the Pandavas.

All of these factors would have weighed on Kunti’s mind, and she would have thought it prudent to keep the secret to herself.

(Suggested: Why did Kunti not accept Karna?)

Karna’s Promise to Kunti

Toward the end of the story, Kunti tries to lure Karna away from Duryodhana onto the Pandavas’ side only to ensure that all of the Pandavas remain safe.

She visits Karna on the day after Krishna tries in vain to get Karna to fight against Duryodhana. And she tells him the truth about his birth. By this time, Karna already knows that Kunti is his biological mother.

He tells Kunti exactly what he has told Krishna the day before. He says that it is simply impossible for him to even consider fighting against Duryodhana in the war.

Karna then asserts himself as a Sutaputra. ‘It is Adiratha and Radha who have reared me, my lady,’ he says. ‘They are my parents. I cannot think of you as my mother. I am the son of Radha, not the son of Kunti.’

But at the end, Karna does give Kunti a promise. He says, ‘I will give you my word that I shall not try to kill any of the Pandavas other than Arjuna. At the end of the war, therefore, you will still have five living sons.’

This is a significant promise because essentially, Karna is assuring Kunti that he will underperform during the war.

As it turns out, in the Kurukshetra battle, he does gain upper hands in duels with all four Pandavas but chooses to let them go. Kunti, therefore, directly diminishes Duryodhana’s chances of victory.

Who killed Karna?

Though it is Arjuna who shoots the arrow that kills Karna, six people are cited by Krishna as most responsible for Karna’s death. They are:

Arjuna, Krishna, Kunti (for the promise she extracts), Indra (for stealing the kavacha-kundalas), Bhoomi (for swallowing Karna’s chariot-wheel), and Shalya (for refusing to help Karna during battle).

It is altogether tragic that Karna’s own biological mother plays an important role in getting him killed.

(Suggested: Who killed Karna?)

Did Kunti betray Karna?

It is difficult to escape the conclusion in this matter that Karna, on the whole, is betrayed by Kunti on multiple occasions.

First, Kunti inflicts the ultimate injury on Karna by abandoning him as an infant. While some poets have speculated that Kunti was compelled to do this, we must acknowledge that Kunti did have other options. She just did not wish to take them.

Second, Kunti does great harm to Karna – and to the Kuru kingdom at large – by choosing to keep the information about Karna to herself.

Despite knowing at the graduation ceremony about Karna’s existence, and the role he is playing in enabling Duryodhana’s hatred toward the Pandavas, Kunti chooses to keep her secret to herself – for thirty years.

Third, Kunti again twists the knife in Karna’s back by approaching him without shame just before the war begins. Here she is motivated not by love for Karna but by fear for her own sons’ safety.

Karna is astute enough to realize this, and noble enough to grant her half her wish. He does not assure her of Arjuna’s safety, but he does promise her all the other four Pandavas will be unharmed by him.

In these three ways, Kunti betrays Karna, and shirks her own duty as his mother. One must conclude from her actions that she never truly thought of herself as his mother.

Further Reading

If you liked this post, you will probably also enjoy: Kunti: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.