Karna: Your Ultimate Guide to the Mahabharata’s Antihero

Karna Mahabharata guide - Featured Image - Picture of a curly haired man's face, angry eyes. Representing Karna

Karna is the first son of Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata. Kunti bears him out of wedlock, before her marriage to Pandu. Fearing social censure, she abandons him soon after his birth.

The baby Karna is found and raised by a charioteer named Adiratha, and his wife Radha.

He is also a close friend of Duryodhana, the eldest of the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra who are together called the Kauravas. Duryodhana is the story’s prime antagonist, and Karna becomes his prime ally in his machinations against the Pandavas.

Karna is depicted throughout the Mahabharata as a character conflicted about his identity. His behaviour is multi-faceted and often contradictory – from cruel to generous, from brave to cowardly, from loyal to ungrateful. 

In this guide, we will cover everything you need to know about Karna.

(Note: This post is great in combination with: Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Contents

Birth

In the kingdom of Kunti, ruled by King Kuntibhoja, a young princess named Pritha is being fostered at the royal palace. Her true father is Shurasena, a king who rules a neighbouring kingdom – also called Shurasena.

(King Shurasena has a son called Vasudeva, who later marries Devaki of Mathura and becomes father to Krishna and Balarama. Pritha, therefore, becomes the paternal aunt of Krishna.)

Kuntibhoja receives a visit from Sage Durvasa, and he assigns to his foster daughter the task of looking after him. Over a period of a few months, young Pritha (she is past puberty and yet to be married, so we can place her age around fourteen or fifteen) tends to Durvasa’s every need.

Durvasa is happy with the girl’s attentiveness, and as a parting gift, he gives her a boon that allows her to summon any number of gods – one at a time – to her side and have sons by them.

After the sage’s departure, Pritha is almost disbelieving of her luck: could it be true? Could she actually call upon the gods? Or was the sage merely playing with her?

In order to test the boon, then, Pritha calls upon the sun god, Surya – and is properly shocked when he does appear before her.

‘Go away!’ she pleads with Surya. ‘I meant this only as a test.’

But Surya would not leave. ‘I am bound by the sage’s power, Princess,’ he says. ‘I can leave only after giving you a son.’

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Abandonment

The son that is born to Surya and Pritha is said to be adorned with natural armour and earrings that emit a golden glow. These are called kavacha (for ‘armour’) kundalas (for ‘earrings’).

The kavacha kundalas of Karna are meant to make him invincible in battle. As long as he wears these, no weapon can penetrate his skin.

Surya of course leaves as soon as Karna is born, and Pritha is left to deal with the baby on her own. News of the princess having become pregnant before her marriage is bound to cause scandal, so Pritha exercises the only choice she has – of abandoning her son.

She calls for a waiting woman and asks her to put the boy inside a basket, and to let it slide downstream on the Yamuna. The basket is then found by a childless charioteer named Adiratha, who takes it to his wife Radha.

Together, they give him the name Vasusena (‘he who is born of wealth’), and undertake to raise him themselves.

Kunti and Karna’s paths diverge at this moment. From here, Kunti goes onto become queen to Pandu and mother to the five Pandavas. Karna begins his new life as a poor man’s son.

(The story of Karna’s abandonment – and its implications – are considered in more detail in the post: How was Karna born?)

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Tutelage under Parashurama

Despite being a charioteer’s son, Karna does not spend much of his early life learning his father’s trade. Adiratha and Radha presumably tell him quite early on that he is adopted, because right from a young age he begins to seek ways to move up the social ladder.

His first teacher, by all accounts, is Sage Parashurama. But with him, Karna knows that he cannot pretend to be a Kshatriya (because Parashurama is a sworn enemy of the Kshatriya race).

Karna disguises himself, therefore, as a Brahmin, and presents himself before the sage. ‘I am a poor Brahmin youth, Holy One,’ he says. ‘I wish to learn the art and craft of using weapons.’

Parashurama is only too glad to take the young man under his wing, and treats him much like a son. But one day, owing to a worm that stings Karna on the thigh, Parashurama guesses that his young ward is not a Brahmin.

(The manner of this curse is described in more detail in the post: Why was Karna cursed?)

For this, he curses Karna. ‘In the very moment you need these skills most,’ he says, ‘you will forget them.’

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Dronacharya

Karna is then said to go on to secure a studentship under Drona. Along with the Pandavas, the Kauravas and Ashwatthama, he also (allegedly) learns his craft under the acharya.

I say allegedly because apart from a few throwaway mentions, he does not feature very strongly in this period. Also, we know from the Ekalavya incident that Drona is fiercely class-conscious. How did he agree to take a charioteer’s son into his exclusive club of princes?

Also, when Karna later appears at the graduation ceremony, all the royals in the arena act as if they’re seeing him for the first time. Indeed, Kunti faints upon catching sight of her long-lost son for the first time in years.

All of this suggests to me that Karna did not in fact practice under Drona. After his stint under Parashurama, he perhaps spent a year or two in the wilderness before choosing to go to the graduation ceremony.

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The Graduation Ceremony

It is important to note that by the time the Kuru princes are showing off their skills, Karna has already finished his training under Parashurama. Though he was cursed by the sage, all his skills and weapons are intact.

If we consider Yudhishthir to be around sixteen at this time, we can arbitrarily place Karna’s age at eighteen. (Please note that the Mahabharata does not give us actual ages of characters – we’re often left making educated guesses. So if you say Karna is nineteen or twenty one, I am not going to argue.)

At the announcement of the graduation ceremony, Karna might have thought to himself: If I have any chance of upgrading my status, this is it. Because if he presents himself as a challenger to one of the princes and gives a good account of himself, it is entirely possible that he will be given employment in the king’s army.

So his strategy would be to appear at the ceremony and match the skills of the most feted of the Kuru princes.

By this time, Drona’s infatuation with Arjuna is common knowledge in the city. Rumours also abound that Arjuna is the best archer among them all. So it becomes natural for Karna to aim to emulate all of Arjuna’s feats.

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The King of Anga

As it turns out, though, the trip yields much richer dividends for Karna than he anticipates. Not only does he turn heads by matching every one of Arjuna’s skills with the bow, he also earns the friendship of Duryodhana – who crowns him king of Anga.

For someone who was hoping to earn a position in the army as a best-case scenario, this is an embarrassment of riches.

But the manner in which he secures this status is a bit convoluted: when he finishes his show of prowess, Kripacharya (Drona’s brother-in-law, the Kuru princes’ first teacher) asks Karna to reveal the details of his birth.

Whether this is intended to be an insult or whether Kripa was just following standard social norms, we don’t know. The important thing is that Karna perceives this as an insult. And hesitates to answer.

Spotting this, Duryodhana rises to the support of this new warrior and says, ‘It doesn’t matter what this man’s birth is. If he needs to be someone in order to display his skill, I shall make him king of Anga.’

And right there, in the middle of the arena, Duryodhana crowns Karna king.

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Loyalty to Duryodhana

At this point, a question may occur to us: why does Duryodhana bestow upon a virtual stranger such a lavish gift?

One possible reason is that Duryodhana is simply a noble soul who does not like seeing injustice of this sort meted out to the unfortunate. By this theory, Duryodhana has a streak of magnanimity in him, of which this particular act is proof.

A more plausible reason, I think, is that Duryodhana – even in the few moments of watching Karna – understands that this young man will likely grow up to be the only warrior that will possess the skill to match Arjuna.

Since Bhima and Arjuna are the main pillars of Yudhishthir’s strength, and since Duryodhana fancies himself as the foil to Bhima, he may have thought that if he plays the game carefully enough, he can mould Karna into Arjuna’s nemesis.

We know that at the moment of Karna’s arrival, Duryodhana and his brothers are in the process of walking out of the arena in disgust as Arjuna’s performance draws raucous praise from everyone. So we know that the kernel of jealousy is already present in Duryodhana’s heart.

As for Karna, this is the moment that seals his friendship with Duryodhana. To be sure, this is not an equal friendship; this is a friendship between a pauper and his benefactor. It is characterized by loyalty, sycophancy and fear more than the usual bonds of trust and love that define friendship in its purest form.

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Ridicule by Bhimasena

It is at this point that Adiratha, Karna’s adopted father, enters the arena and blesses his son with tears in his eyes. Assuming this to mean that Karna is a mere son of a charioteer, Bhimasena, in a tone of voice intended to ridicule, says out loud enough for everyone to hear:

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

Duryodhana once again rises to his new friend’s defense. ‘Cast an eye upon this youth!’ he says. ‘Look at the splendour of his ornaments, his armour – can anyone doubt that he is of high birth?’

Duryodhana here makes a reference to Karna’s scars that have ostensibly been left behind after he peeled off his natural armour. This suggests that the visit by Indra to weaken Karna against Arjuna happens before his arrival at the graduation ceremony.

In any case, by this time, the sun begins to set, and the battle between Karna and Arjuna does not come to pass after all. Duryodhana leads Karna away, and the people of Hastinapur leave for their homes as well.

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At Draupadi’s Swayamvara

Karna is present at Draupadi’s groom-choosing. The archery test set by Drupada, the king of Panchala, is so difficult that Duryodhana does not bother to enter it. But Karna does.

However, just as he steps up to the podium and makes to string the bow, Draupadi addresses the gathering and says, ‘I do not wish to be wedded to a Sutaputra.’

Two questions arise here: first, does Draupadi have the right to prevent a suitor from trying his luck at winning her hand? (Answer: probably yes.) And second, is Draupadi morally right in insulting Karna as a Sutaputra even though he is now king of Anga? (Answer: probably no.)

(Read more about this interesting episode in our post: Why did Draupadi Reject Karna?)

After Arjuna successfully passes the test and wins Draupadi’s hand, Karna challenges the third Pandava to a duel. At the same time, Shalya, the king of Madra, also challenges Bhimasena with the mace. These are the two main battles that happen at the hall of Panchala after Draupadi has been won.

Arjuna, however, easily defeats Karna in this fight. Interestingly enough, Karna does not make use of his Vasava weapon, nor do his kavacha kundalas help him unduly.

This is the first time after the graduation ceremony that Karna faces Arjuna in a real-life fight. He loses.

(This prompts me to ask the question: Was Karna better than Arjuna? Read the post to find out.)

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The Dice Game

Despite being the king of Anga, Karna manages to be present by Duryodhana’s side at all the important events of the story. He accompanies the eldest Kaurava to Indraprastha during the Rajasuya. Along with Shakuni and Duhsasana, he makes up the ‘crooked foursome’ team that is always scheming against the Pandavas.

Whether he does this of his own volition or whether his presence is requested by Duryodhana, we do not know.

Also, to be fair to him, he is by no means a permanent fixture at Hastinapur’s royal court. By the time of the Kurukshetra war, many characters give off-handed accounts of how illustrious a king he has become of Anga.

At the dice game, though, he plays the role of chief antagonist – and becomes the main reason for Draupadi’s disrobing. He argues with Vikarna that Draupadi has been lost (with Vikarna taking the opposite view) by Yudishthir. He also goes the extra yard by suggesting that Draupadi is nothing but a whore for having wed five husbands.

(For more detail on this incident, see: What happens during Draupadi’s disrobing?)

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Enmity with Arjuna

It is often puzzling to work out exactly why Karna considers Arjuna his prime enemy.

At the beginning, before his arrival at the graduation, it is understandable that Karna views Arjuna as his main target to emulate. Only by matching the skill of the ‘best of Drona’s pupils’ can he hope to catch the eye of the public.

But after his appointment as the king of Anga, there is precious little that happens to justify the hatred he professes to feel for Arjuna. Yes, he loses a battle to him at Draupadi’s swayamvara. But that’s hardly a reason for hate. After all, everyone who fights against Arjuna in any kind of battle loses to him.

So, what gives? I can only imagine that Karna takes this mantle of being the designated Arjuna-killer from Duryodhana. Powered by his loyalty toward Duryodhana, and his eagerness to please him, Karna is always vocally signaling his intent to kill Arjuna.

If there is anyone that Karna personally despises, it must be Draupadi because of the humiliation she causes him by rejecting him. Karna avenges this (or so he thinks) during the dice game, but in return he earns the wrath of Arjuna.

From that moment onward, Karna becomes Arjuna’s enemy number one.

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The Gandharvas

Karna gets another chance to showcase his ability as warrior and loyalty as friend during the final year of the Pandavas’ exile.

Duryodhana goes to Kamyaka – partly on Karna’s encouragement – in order to ridicule the Pandavas for their miserable plight. But he locks horns with a group of Gandharvas and gets taken captive by them.

Karna does not attempt to free his king. Indeed, he flees the scene the moment he realizes just how dire the situation is. It requires a rescue act by Arjuna and Bhima to save Duryodhana’s life.

This is another example of a situation in which Karna’s skills are desperately needed – but he is found wanting.

(To read about the incident in full, see: Mahabharata Episode 23: Duryodhana is Rescued.)

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Conquering the World

However, immediately after returning from the forest after having been rescued by Arjuna, Duryodhana resolves to conquer the world – like Yudhishthir before him – and perform the Rajasuya.

He enlists the help of Karna to subjugate all the known kingdoms. This time, Karna steps up to the plate.

In an expedition of conquest and diplomacy that extends in all four directions, Karna establishes the supremacy of Duryodhana in all the great kingdoms.

Coming as it does so close at the heels of a cowardly act, one may wonder why Karna is so keen to run away when faced by Gandharvas – and yet perform the task so admirably when fighting other kings.

Alas, no explanations are forthcoming from the text itself. It is possible that when faced by Gandharvas, Karna thought that he would never be a match for them. Also, in that incident, he would have had to fight alone, with only a small division of the Kuru army for support.

On the other hand, during his expedition, he would have had the full force of Duryodhana’s army behind him. He would have also carried with him messages bearing the names of Bhishma and Drona in an official capacity.

In other words, the kings whom Karna visited during this quest would have received him as an emissary of the Kuru house, not as an individual warrior. This would have caused at least some of these kingdoms to fold without fighting – not because they were afraid of Karna but because of the thrust of Kuru’s name.

Would Karna have been the same warrior without the Kuru army behind him? Would he still have the skills to defeat the likes of Bhagadatta in a single man-to-man combat?

Evidence says no.

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During the Virata Parva

Karna gets another opportunity to put one across Arjuna during the cattle raiding that happens at the end of the Virata Parva. Duryodhana, Karna, Kripa, Drona and Bhishma attack the kingdom of Matsya with the intention of stealing their cattle. They also have some army with them.

But Arjuna single-handedly fights them off and defends Virata’s kingdom.

One may argue here that this is not just Karna’s inadequacy. After all, Drona, Bhishma and Kripa also lose to Arjuna on this day. We may excuse Karna saying that he simply ran into a hero at the top of his game on this day.

Still, for someone who insists on being known as Arjuna’s equal, this is another single combat that Karna loses. And it is not even a close call.

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Generosity to Indra

Karna’s given name is Vasusena. He comes to be known as Karna after it becomes common knowledge that he has peeled off his natural armour and earrings.

Indra’s motivations here are quite clear: as father to Arjuna, he wishes to protect his son from his most fervent enemy. What is not clear is why Karna – despite being warned by Surya that the Brahmin who is going to visit him is actually Indra in disguise – insists on giving away the one thing that makes him powerful enough to match Arjuna.

The ostensible reason is that Karna is a man given to generosity, especially to Brahmins. If a Brahmin asks him for something, he will not refuse.

So he gives up the kavacha kundalas, and Indra gleefully accepts them. In return, Indra is magnanimous enough to give Karna a dart that is powerful enough to kill anyone – including Arjuna.

But there is a catch. Karna can use this dart only once. After this one use, it will return to Indra.

So in essence, Karna trades the armour of invincibility for a devastating weapon that can only be used once. During the war, Krishna tricks him into using the Vasava dart on Ghatotkacha, thus freeing Arjuna from danger.

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Quarrel with Bhishma

One other aspect of the Karna story is how little Bhishma thinks of him. We must note that Bhishma’s complaint with Karna is not that he is a Sutaputra, but that he is a braggart with nothing to show for his tall claims.

Karna, for his part, does not back down when confronted by Bhishma like this. A humbler man might take the grandsire’s criticism on the chin and strive to prove him wrong, but Karna throws insults back at Bhishma. His chief grouse is that Bhishma has always been partial to the Pandavas – which, we should remember, is also Duryodhana’s pet peeve.

(This is the other confusing side to Karna’s character: the reader is never sure whether his words are his own or if he is speaking as Duryodhana’s proxy.)

As ill fortune would have it, Bhishma and Karna have their most serious run-in on the eve of the Mahabharata war. Bhishma goes to the extent of telling Duryodhana that he will not fight in the war at the same time as Karna.

(Is this desirable behavior on Bhishma’s part? I’d argue not. But perhaps he does this on purpose, to keep Karna out of action so that Arjuna is protected.)

In this moment, with Bhishma throwing down the gauntlet, Karna has the choice of setting aside his ego for the sake of his friendship with Duryodhana. He might have put up his hand and said, ‘You know what, I am sorry. Let’s put our quarrel aside for Duryodhana’s good.’

But he doesn’t. He says, ‘The grandsire is right, O King. Either he fights or I fight.’

And Duryodhana, placed in a predicament where he has to choose between Bhishma and Karna, opts for the former. Karna, therefore, ends up sitting out the first ten days of the war.

For a more detailed look at this issue, see: Why did Bhishma and Karna Quarrel?

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Finest Hour

Karna’s noblest moment, without a doubt, is when he rejects the bribe that Krishna offers him for defecting on Duryodhana.

In a private conversation, Krishna reveals to Karna the truth of his birth. ‘If you come to fight on the side of the Pandavas, Vasusena,’ he says, ‘you will be the emperor of the world. The world will sing your praises. Yudhishthir and the other Pandavas will become your slaves. And Draupadi will become your wife. She will bear your sons, who will become kings after you.’

This is just about everything that Karna has always wanted: status as king, brother, husband and father. But he says no, deducing correctly that the world will look upon all his unearned rewards with scorn.

‘I was born a Sutaputra, O Krishna,’ he says in a memorable line. ‘And I shall die a Sutaputra.’

This is Karna embracing his identity – and recognizing that a man cannot shed the weight of his past as easily as Krishna is suggesting. Arjuna will forever be his enemy. Draupadi will forever hate him after that day at the dice game.

Besides, there is also the small matter of being loyal to Duryodhana.

Incidentally, this is one of the rare instances where the reader gets to glimpse Karna in private, without the presence of Duryodhana. So if there is anything to the theory that Karna often speaks as Duryodhana’s proxy, we may consider this that rare moment where he speaks his mind with Krishna.

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Promise to Kunti

Soon after Krishna tries and fails to lure Karna over to the Pandava side, Kunti tries to do it as well.

Her method is less diplomatic than Krishna’s. She hopes to win over Karna emotionally, by claiming herself as his birth mother. ‘Must I see my sons fight one another in this war?’ she asks him, as if he has had anything to do with her choices.

Karna is wise to this. He explains that while she may have given birth to him, it is Radha the wife of Adiratha that fed and raised him. ‘I am the son of Radha,’ he says. ‘You’re not a mother to me – because you did everything to me that a mother shouldn’t.’

Still, Kunti comes away from this encounter with a bit of a victory, because Karna’s propensity to be generous gets the better of him. Without her asking, he gives her a promise.

‘Even if I have opportunity to do so, my lady,’ he says, ‘I shall not kill any of your other sons except Arjuna. So regardless of how the war ends, you will still have five sons at the end of it.’

This is, of course, tacit admission by Karna that though he does not acknowledge Kunti as his mother, he does acknowledge the fact that she thinks of him as her son. And that he is willing to make an allowance for that.

But – this conflicts with his promise of loyalty to Duryodhana. For all the accusations leveled at Bhishma for being partial, it is Karna who ends up pulling his punches during the war.

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Reconciliation with Bhishma

On the tenth day, after Bhishma has fallen onto his bed of arrows, Karna visits him late at night in private. The two men speak with each other without the anger and hatred that characterized their earlier interactions.

Bhishma says that he knows of Karna’s real lineage. (He reveals that Vyasa visited him just before the war and told him.) He admits that Karna is not half-a-ratha as he mockingly claimed before. Karna is, in fact, an atiratha.

Bhishma makes one last ditch attempt at using Karna to influence Duryodhana. ‘It is not too late to call off this war, my son,’ he says. ‘Speak to Duryodhana, because he will listen to you. Give the sons of Pandu half the kingdom, and live in peace.’

But Karna refuses to take this advice. He says that matters between the Pandavas and Kauravas have slid too far to be resolved with peace. ‘We are warriors, Grandsire,’ he says. ‘And we wish to fall on the battlefield like you have.’

Bhishma smiles resignedly, but finds it in his heart to bless Karna with all success.

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During the War

Karna’s entry into the war coincides with the appointment of Drona as the commander of Duryodhana’s forces.

While the first ten days with Bhishma at the helm saw cautious, protracted fighting, Drona brings with him a streak of mercilessness that goes well with Karna’s fighting style.

Karna finds himself in a number of key situations in the war. Here are a few of them:

  • He plays an important role in the killing of Abhimanyu, by breaking the bow of the son of Subhadra by shooting at him from behind.
  • He kills Ghatotkacha during the battle at midnight by using the Vasava dart that Indra gave him.
  • On four separate occasions, he wins battles against Yudhishthir, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva – but he spares their lives to honour his promise to Kunti.

On the flip side, he gets into an argument with Kripa, who seems to take on the mantle of ‘Karna-needler’ from Bhishma. This angers Ashwatthama, who gets into a war of words with Karna. The two heroes almost come to blows before being separated by Duryodhana.

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Asking for Shalya

On the evening of the sixteenth day of battle, Karna tells Duryodhana that the only factor separating him from Arjuna was the quality of their respective charioteers. While Arjuna has Krishna, he, Karna, has some unnamed Suta manning his steeds.

‘If only you can persuade Shalya to drive my vehicle tomorrow, O King,’ he says, ‘I shall become Arjuna’s equal.’

Whether Karna truly believes this or whether he is merely posturing for Duryodhana’s benefit is touch to discern. But if we take these words at face value, we have to ask: what of the day Arjuna defeated you in the garb of Brihannala, with Uttara Kumara as charioteer?

Duryodhana, of course, does not ask his friend this question. Even if he had, Karna would probably have said, ‘Arjuna was fighting to defend his master’s kingdom, O King, while we were merely looking to steal some cattle. The stakes are different now.’

In any case, Duryodhana gets Shalya to perform the role of charioteer for Karna on the eighteenth day.

But if Karna hopes that Shalya will be to him what Krishna is to Arjuna, he is to be severely disappointed. While Krishna guides, mentors, provokes, advises and helps Arjuna, all Shalya does is to taunt and discourage Karna.

By the end of the seventeenth day, Karna is wishing that he had fought with his regular charioteer.

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The Final Battle

Despite the years of anticipation built around the final Arjuna-Krishna battle, it ends up being quite one-sided when it happens.

The only moment of alarm for Arjuna occurs when Aswasena the Naga appears, and flies in the form of an arrow shot from Karna’s bow straight at his forehead. But for Krishna’s timely intervention by making the chariot sink into the earth, Arjuna will have lost his life instead of his crown.

After this, Krishna leaps off the vehicle and drags the wheel out of the mud onto firmer ground.

Later, when Karna’s chariot-wheel gets stuck, he asks Shalya to do so the same thing that Krishna so eagerly did for Arjuna. But Shalya refuses. It is left to Karna to try and lift his vehicle with his charioteer sitting in his seat.

Karna makes an appeal to Arjuna’s sense of righteousness at this moment: he says that if he can be granted a few minutes of respite, he will tend to his wheel and get back on the terrace of his car.

Arjuna considers this, but Krishna advises him to let his deadliest arrow fly. He recounts all of Karna’s many misdeeds, especially the harsh words he spoke against Draupadi on the day of the dice game.

His anger thus stoked, Arjuna shoots the fatal arrow at his longtime enemy and kills him.

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Recognition in Death

Karna’s death is not accompanied by flower rains or divine voices. But a few days later, when Yudhishthir and his brothers are paying their respects to the dead on the banks of the Ganga, Kunti tells them of the secret that she has been carrying.

The Pandavas are distraught at this knowledge. Yudhishthir in particular is horrified that victory in this war has required them to kill their own elder brother.

After a few minutes of grief, the Pandavas honour Karna as the first Pandava.

Two Karnas

Karna has captured the imagination of storytellers down the years. Popular culture tends to focus on the ‘tragic hero’ aspect of his story, dramatizing his abandonment, his suffering, his ill luck, and all the injustices that are meted out to him.

But the Mahabharata also gives us a glimpse of another Karna: a vile braggart, a bully, a man with all bluster and no substance, and someone who allows false loyalty to Duryodhana cloud his judgement on what is right and what isn’t.

Karna is therefore a mess of contradictions: he is generous yet selfish, cowardly yet brave, noble yet cruel, proud of his identity yet eager to escape it.

As readers, we may be frustrated by this. We may be forgiven to ask: who is Karna, really? Is he one of the good guys or one of the villains? Is he Kunti’s firstborn, Arjuna’s equal, Yudhishthir’s elder brother, the rightful king of Hastinapur? Or is he Duryodhana’s wicked henchman, Draupadi’s rejected suitor, a mouse of a man who runs away from battles, an upstart?

The answer of course, is that he can be – and is – all of the above.

We must resist the idea that Karna is all good, but equally, we must not vilify him as a monster either. Any portrayal of him that does just one of the two is being lazy, and it does an injustice to the most human of all the Mahabharata characters.

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Further Reading

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Enjoy!