Mahabharata Episode 8: Karna Arrives

Karna Arrives - Featured Image - Picture of a warrior with downcast eyes, representing Karna

In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 7: Drona Becomes Acharya. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Here’s what we will cover in this episode:

The Graduation Ceremony

When the education of the princes ends, Drona comes to Dhritarashtra and takes permission from the king to arrange for a tournament of sorts where the Pandavas and the Kauravas could demonstrate their acquired skills.

A suitable plot of land is identified, and a stage is erected so that all manners of weapons could be stored in it. A hall is built for lady spectators, and a viewing gallery is constructed for the general public.

Here is a quick summary of what happens on the day of the ceremony:

  • The princes hurl spears while riding horses at full gallop at targets bearing their names. Yudhishthir is the proficient one with a shaft, so he is among the winners of this event.
  • This is followed by sword-and-shield events where the princes perform various feats, sometimes facing one another in mock events, and at other times facing dummy enemies.
  • Bhimasena and Suyodhana face each other in a mace battle, and it gets so heated that they have to be separated by Ashwatthama on the behest of Drona.

Arjuna Impresses

The main draw of the ceremony is Arjuna, Drona’s favourite pupil. He rides into the arena on a chariot with a quiver full of arrows tied to his shoulder, bow in hand.

Amid roars of delight and cheer from the spectators, Arjuna creates fire with the Agneyastra, water with the Varunastra, wind with the Vayavyastra, and clouds with the Parjanyastra.

With the Bhaumastra he makes land, and with the Parvatyastra he brings mountains into being on the dusty plains. And to end the performance, he uses the Antardhanastra to make all the previous effects disappear.

Then he displays his skill, dexterity and speed in handling a chariot while dismantling various targets with five arrows shot together from his bow. And to finish, he uses a sword and a mace as well.

Karna Arrives

Sensing that the ceremony had descended into being an ‘Arjuna show’, Duryodhana and his brothers (and Ashwatthama) get up from their seats and proceed to leave the arena. The spectators give way to the princes, and the gate is opened for their exit.

But at the head of the gate stands a warrior that none of them recognize, resplendent like the sun but without any adornments that the Kshatriyas are used to wearing.

He holds in his hand a bow, and his quiver is filled with arrows. He steps into the arena and addresses Arjuna, even as spectators whisper among themselves as to who this man is.

‘Partha,’ he says, ‘I shall perform all the feats that you have performed, and I shall do them better.’

And before anyone can think of responding, he strides to where Arjuna had been standing, and places the first arrow onto his bow.

Karna Matches Arjuna

The warrior introduces himself as Karna, and proceeds to perform, with stupendous ease, all of Arjuna’s feats. The Pandava, unable to bear the loss of face, addresses Karna and says, ‘I shall confine you to the path of all unwelcome visitors, O Karna. You shall be slain by me today in full view of all our respected elders.’

To which Karna replies, ‘Falguna, this arena is meant not just for you but for all of us to display our skills. Why speak in words when your arrows do a better job? Step forward where I can see you better, and who knows? It might be I who prevails in our battle today.’

As the two of them ready themselves, we’re told that Kunti – having recognized Karna with the markings on his body – swoons at the utter surprise of seeing her long-lost son turning up unannounced. She is also saddened that her two sons are fighting one another.

Before the duel begins, though, Kripa stands up and asks Karna to describe his lineage.

This is considered normal according to the social mores of the day: especially when a prince is challenged to a duel, he is well within his rights to refrain from fighting if the challenger does not possess comparable pedigree.

Karna pales at the question, though. Though he is grateful to his adopted parents Adiratha and Radha, he is not proud of them. (At least not yet. Over the course of the story, Karna will learn to embrace his identity.)

As he is puzzling over what answer to give Kripacharya, Karna receives support from an unexpected person: Duryodhana.

Support from Duryodhana

Duryodhana has seen enough of Karna’s skill to realize that this young man could be the ideal foil against Arjuna if his loyalty can be secured. Now that Kripa has given him an opportunity to do just that, he springs up on his feet and says:

‘Acharya, there are three classes of men that can claim to royalty: those of royal blood, heroes that perform valorous deeds by the sheer power of their will, and those that lead armies. If Arjuna is not willing to fight this man who is clearly a hero, then let me right at this moment install Karna as the king of Anga.’

(There is some debate on whether Duryodhana, in his capacity as a mere prince, has the authority to make Karna king of Anga. But since no one objects to this, we can surmise that (a) Anga is probably already a vassal state under Kuru’s control, and (b) it is not significant enough politically to matter in the large scheme of things.

This appointment, therefore, is largely ceremonial. Duryodhana is making Karna a king just so that he’d be allowed to fight Arjuna. And by making the gesture, he will purchase the loyalty of Karna.)

And right there, Duryodhana calls for some Vedic scholars to chant some verses so that Karna can call himself king. As this happens, Adiratha the charioteer hobbles over to his adopted son and embraces him.

This is when it becomes clear to everyone present there that Karna is in fact the son of a Suta.

Bhimasena Ridicules Karna

Leading the charge against the newly appointed king of Anga is Bhimasena.

‘So you are a Sutaputra!’ he says. ‘As befits your race, you should drop these weapons and pick up the whip, so that one day you might become an accomplished charioteer. You deserve the kingdom of Anga as much as a dog deserves to taste the butter placed in front of the sacrificial fire.’

This is unnecessarily vitriolic, but perhaps Bhima has seen through what Duryodhana is trying to do. And like Duryodhana, perhaps Bhima has also noted that the skill of Karna is a threat to Arjuna. So his words are more intended for public consumption, an attempt to show up Duryodhana as falsely generous.

However, this allows Duryodhana to double down on his support for the new arrival.

Incidentally, this small exchange forever seals the relationship between Karna, the Pandavas and Duryodhana. Right to the very end, Karna will remember these early barbs from Bhimasena, and he will use them as fuel for his hate.

Origin of Heroes

Duryodhana, for his part, takes a noble stance in this debate. ‘Vrikodara,’ he says, ‘the true origins of heroes, like true sources of great rivers, are always secrets.

‘Did not Agni, the lord of fire, arise from the depths of the ocean of milk? Did not the thunderbolt, that slew the Danavas, arise from the backbone of a Brahmin? Did Kshatriyas not become Brahmins, like Vishwamitra? Did people born as Brahmins not adopt the Kshatriya mode of life, like our very own Dronacharya?’

And then he gives the conversation a more personal twist.

‘And what of you?’ he asks. ‘The sons of Pandu, we are told. Pandavas. And yet we know that King Pandu had been cursed by Sage Kindama to be impotent. Then where have you and your brothers come from?’

He points a grand arm in Karna’s direction. ‘Cast a glance upon this youth. Look at the markings on his body, each one of them auspicious. They say he was born with natural armour that he peeled off so that he might give it in alms to a Brahmin. His body still bears those scars, behold!

‘Can a man of low birth shine with such lustre? If there is anyone in this arena that deserves to be the king of Anga, then it is he!’

Who wins the argument?

A murmur arises among the spectators at this monologue from the eldest Kaurava, some in support and others in dissent. The sun, however, sets at this point, and Duryodhana leads Karna out of the arena as lamps are being lit.

And the people came away to their homes, talking among themselves about the happenings at the ceremony, some saying it was Arjuna that won, others saying it was Karna’s day, and yet others claiming Duryodhana’s victory for his noble words toward the end.

One thing is for certain; it is today that Duryodhana – having pitted himself against the might of Bhimasena and yearning for a warrior that would take on Arjuna – feels for the first time that he has enough power on his side to match the Pandavas.

So after all the posturing, the battle between Karna and Arjuna does not happen. They do not pit their skill against each other on this day. Karna only proves himself as capable as Arjuna at performing feats of archery.

This is an important point because skill is only a small part of an archer’s repertoire. When it becomes to battle, he needs strategy, luck and support from his charioteer.

Karna departs from this scene believing that he is as skilled as Arjuna, and that therefore he will be able to defeat Arjuna. While the premise is correct, the conclusion is not.

Did Karna have his earrings on?

The words in the text that accompany Karna’s entry into the graduation hall (‘Sahajam kavacham vibhrata kundalodyo titaananaha’) suggest that he has his kavacha-kundalas still on his person at this point.

But that raises a question: why is he then called Karna and not Vasusena? Why does Duryodhana, in his description of Karna, describe the peeling of his armour?

The Mahbharata is vague about the timing of the armour incident. Did Indra strip Karna of his armour and earrings just before the war because he feared for Arjuna’s safety? If this is true, then Karna should not be called by that name until then.

Or did the incident happen before Karna enters the story? If it did, then it makes sense that he has already earned the title of Karna, and that he bears on his body the scars of having cut himself. But in this case, the description should not have included the words: ‘sahaja kavacham’.

Was Karna a stranger?

The second question that strikes one about this episode is whether Karna – at this point of the story – is a complete stranger to the Kuru princes or whether they know of him from before.

There is a small passage in an earlier chapter in the Mahabharata that Karna is also one of Drona’s students. And yet when he comes to the arena, he is considered a stranger by everyone.

This is again a contradiction that the text does not attempt to explain, so I am tempted to dismiss the earlier inclusion of Karna’s name among Drona’s disciples to be an error, or a careless later addition.

Because given what we know of Drona’s distrust of the lower castes (see his treatment of Ekalavya), it is difficult to imagine him accepting Karna as student.

Also, how does Karna, the son of a low-born, gain access to the rarefied royal palace and play among the Kuru princes? The suggestion seems unbelievable.

Having said this, it cannot be that he is a complete stranger either. My belief is that the manner of his birth and rearing (especially with the kavacha-kundalas)has attracted a certain amount of attention in Hastinapur, and his name as Karna has come to be known.

So they may have known of him, but this is likely the first time they’ve had a close run-in with him.

I hasten to add that these are my interpretations alone. As I have said before, the text is inconsistent and vague on these matters, so it is entirely possible to build arguments that go the other way.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!