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 25: Jayadratha Abducts Draupadi. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
Surya Visits Karna
Toward the end of the Pandavas’ twelfth year of exile, Surya appears to Karna as a Brahmin and warns him of what is about to come.
As a bit of a prelude, Karna is born with natural armour and earrings that make him indefatigable in battle. These are called kavacha-kundalas. (‘Kavacha’ means armour, and ‘kundala’ means earring.) As long as he has these, conventional wisdom of those times held, he cannot be defeated – as long as stays on the field and fights.
‘A Brahmin will arrive at your door in a short while, O Karna,’ says Surya, ‘and ask for the armour and earrings that have adorned your body since your birth. He knows that your character is such that you will never reject a Brahmin’s request. I have come to tell you, therefore, that you should deny this man at all costs.’
‘Who are you, good sir?’ asks Karna, welcoming his guest. ‘Why are you so kind as to warn me? And who is this man intent on robbing me of my gift? What need does a Brahmin have, indeed, for a coat of mail?’
Surya reveals his true identity, but does not, of course, tell Karna that he is his father. ‘I am the Sun God, the being that bathes Earth in light and warmth every day. And the person about to come to you is Lord Indra himself.
‘He wishes to take your armour away from you because that will allow Arjuna, his son, to vanquish you in battle. Use your power of words and your knowledge of the science of morality to convince him that it is wrong to ask that gift of you.’
Karna is pleased that two gods have seen it fit to visit him. ‘Am I not truly blessed that the god of light himself cares about me so much? And my lord, has it not been said that the actions of this life give us rewards in the next?
‘Keeping that in mind, if Indra himself asks me for my kavacha kundalas, perhaps I am destined to fight in the great battle without them. How can I deny the king of the gods himself? If I perform this act of charity, I am certain that it will give me great fame in the three worlds.’
‘Fame is of no use to dead men, my son,’ says Surya. ‘What need for fame has a man who has been reduced to ashes? You are one of my staunchest devotees, and I must protect you from all harm. So listen to my suggestion.
‘When Indra comes to you and asks for your armour, you must say that you will hand them over only in exchange for the Vasava dart, which will make you invincible.
There is no way Sakra will part with that weapon. But even if he does, you will have nothing to worry because you will become a stronger warrior than you are now.’
This strikes Karna as a good bargain. ‘So be it!’ he says, and salutes Surya once again, even as the latter disappears.
A short while later, Indra appears at Karna’s house in the garb of a Brahmin. Karna, of course, knows who this is, but he feigns innocence and welcomes the man into the main hall. ‘A necklace of gold, a beautiful damsel, a thousand cows, a village teeming with cattle – of these, what shall I give you, Venerable One?’
‘I want none of those, O King,’ says Indra. ‘I have come here for the coat of mail that covers your body, and the rings that hang off your ears. These I will consider superior to every other form of wealth in the world.’
‘This armour has been given to me by the gods on the occasion of my birth, O Sage,’ replies Karna. ‘It has been treated with the nectar of youth, which grants immortality to the celestials. It therefore protects me from all manner of weapons, and it renders me unslayable in battle. I cannot give it to you, therefore. I will give you my entire kingdom if you wish it so, but not this.’
‘I shall take your mail and earrings, or I shall take nothing at all,’ says Indra.
Karna joins his hands and bows to his guest, now. ‘I know that it is Sakra, the god of gods, that stands before me. I shall give you my kavacha kundalas, O Lord. But I only ask that you confer upon me a boon in return.’
Karna Procures the Vasava
Indra, knowing that his secret is up, sheds his human form and smiles at Karna. ‘You can ask me for anything, Karna, except for the vajrayudha.’
‘I do not seek the thunderbolt, O Indra,’ says Karna. ‘But I wish to have an invincible dart that will render me fearsome to all my enemies, whom I can slay by the thousands.’
Indra brings out the Vasava dart and presents it to Karna. ‘In my hands, this dart kills thousands of Daityas at a time, and I can use it on as many occasions as I want. When you use it, though, you will be able to kill just one powerful enemy, after which it will return to me.’
Karna thinks about it for a moment, and decides that it is worth it. ‘I wish to kill but one enemy of mine. Grant me this weapon in return for my armour and earrings.’
And thus the trade happens. Karna peels off his armour, plucks off his earrings, and presents them to Indra, his whole body bruised and bleeding. With the god’s blessing, all his wounds heal immediately, and he procures the Vasavi dart.
He intends to use this dart, of course, against Arjuna in the battle of Kurukshetra. However, as circumstances unfold, Karna ends up using the weapon against Ghatotkacha. So this intervention by Indra proves successful in hindsight.
(For more detail on the death of Ghatotkacha, see: Stories from the Drona Parva – Part 3.)
A Question of Timing
The Mahabharata places this scene at the end of the Pandavas’ twelve-year exile. But this raises a few questions that are difficult to answer:
- If Karna has his mail and earrings until this point in the story, how did he come to acquire the name of Karna? We’re told that Karna is known by that name because he has ‘peeled himself’ in order to fulfill a Brahmin’s request.
- Despite having his kavacha-kundalas, why does Karna repeatedly lose in battles of key significance? He loses to Arjuna during Draupadi’s swayamvara, and he flees from battling the Gandharvas when Duryodhana is captured.
The only explanation that answers the above questions satisfactorily is that the visit by Indra happens early on in Karna’s life, when he is still a young boy being raised by Adiratha and Radha.
But that, of course, raises the point of why he did not use the Vasava dart to vanquish Arjuna during their battle at Draupadi’s swayamvara.
Unfortunately, this appears to be one of those unanswerable questions in the Mahabharata. We just have to make peace with it.
Thoughts on Karna’s Power
The other question that may be interesting to ask is whether Karna is better off with the kavacha-kundalas or with the Vasava dart.
Surya, the sun God, seems to think that Karna is more powerful with the Vasava dart, whereas Indra clearly believes that trading the kavacha-kundalas in for the Vasava dart makes Karna a weaker warrior overall. Which is true?
The kavacha-kundalas, we must remember, are defensive tools. As long as Karna wears them, no weapon can injure him.
Before acquiring the Vasava, we can view Karna as a defensive warrior, secure in the knowledge that no matter what happens, he cannot be hurt. His fighting style, one assumes, would have been built around this foundation, favouring long-drawn, attritional battles designed to wear down an enemy.
(This is not unlike how defensive sportsmen play, with patience, waiting for a mistake from the opponent.)
But after the exchange, Karna is suddenly granted a significant boost to his offensive power while his defenses are rendered virtually ineffective.
This means that not only does Karna have to keep consciously thinking of when (not) to use his secret weapon, he also needs to restructure his entire combat strategy to become more attacking. As a result, he may have become less instinctive and more deliberate as a fighter, always second-guessing himself.
This costs him vital moments in the thick of action, and makes him an overall less powerful warrior.
But from Karna’s point of view, it gives him one sure shot at his nemesis. If he takes this shot, Arjuna is assuredly dead. That promise of certain reward and success – that is what makes the trade worthwhile.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story
- 300+ Mahabharata Stories to Thrill, Delight and Enchant You
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered