Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered

Karna All Questions Answered - Featured Image - Picture of a double spiral representing Karna's complex personality

Karna is the first son of Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata.

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.

In this post, we will answer all the questions you’ve ever had about this fascinating character.

(This post is great supplemental reading to: Karna: Your Ultimate Guide to the Mahabharata’s Antihero.)

How was Karna born?

Karna was born of the union between Pritha – princess of Kunti and the adopted daughter of King Kuntibhoja – and Surya, the sun god. Pritha summons Surya using a magical incantation given her by Sage Durvasa. Because Pritha is unmarried at this time, she abandons her son soon after his birth.

After her marriage to Pandu, Pritha takes on the name of Kunti. She later becomes mother to the five Pandavas – Yudhishthir, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva.

Karna is born with natural armor – that makes his skin impenetrable by weapons – and earrings which are so bright that they leave his face bathed in a soft white glow at all times.

He is put in a basket and left on the river Yamuna. He is found by a charioteer (of the Suta caste) named Adiratha, who takes him home and raises him as his own child, along with his wife Radha. Karna thus comes to be known as a Sutaputra.

Detailed Answer: How was Karna Born?

Why was Karna cursed?

Karna is cursed a total of three times during his adult life – first by Sage Parashurama for having lied about his lineage; second by an unnamed Brahmin for the sin of killing his cow; third by the earth goddess Bhoomi for physically hurting her with his hands while once squeezing spilled oil out of mud.

As a young man, Karna approaches Sage Parashurama to become his disciple. In order to get accepted by the sage, he lies that he is a Brahmin lad.

He succeeds in his ruse, and for a time he learns everything that Parashurama has to teach. But toward the end of his term, the sage comes to know quite by accident that Karna has been lying.

For this sin, Parashurama curses him that he will forget all that he has learned ‘at the moment you need it the most’.

Later, after he becomes king, Karna inadvertently kills a Brahmin’s cow. The Brahmin places a curse on Karna saying, ‘When your own death comes, it will be as harrowing and unfair as this poor beast’s.’

On another occasion, while attempting to squeeze spilled oil out of mud, he hurts the earth goddess Bhoomi with the pressure of his hands. She tells him that his chariot’s wheel will sink into the earth when he least expects it.

Detailed Answer: Why was Karna Cursed?

Was Karna better than Arjuna?

Karna is often considered the only warrior who can defeat or kill Arjuna in battle. He shows proof of his skill during the Kuru princes’ graduation ceremony. But as time passes, Arjuna comfortably surpasses Karna in skill. There is never an instance in the Mahabharata where Karna defeats Arjuna.

During his early life, Karna is definitely more than a match for Arjuna because of his kavacha-kundalas (armor and earrings). During the graduation ceremony, he performs all of Arjuna’s feats and proves himself equal in skill.

But in actual battle, Karna displays persistent weakness. He does not distinguish himself in the quest to invade Panchala and imprison Drupada. In the battle against Gandharvas when Duryodhana is captured, Karna flees from the fight in fear.

At the end of the Virata Parva, he loses to Arjuna. During the Mahabharata war, he loses small battles to a number of Pandava warriors – Abhimanyu and Bhima to name a couple.

Arjuna, on the other hand, never loses a single battle. So he is definitely the more skillful warrior.

Despite all this, Karna remains the only man with at least a theoretical chance to kill Arjuna because he possesses the Vasava Dart, given to him by Indra.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna better than Arjuna?

Why does Karna hate Arjuna?

The main reason Karna hates Arjuna is jealousy. Since Karna’s prime ambition in life is to move up the social ladder and be counted among the greatest Kshatriyas, it is important for him to be seen as Arjuna’s equal. But throughout his life, he loses to Arjuna. Draupadi also rejects him but accepts Arjuna as husband.

But is jealousy enough of a reason to explain the obsessive behaviour that Karna exhibits with regards to Arjuna? Some may argue not.

We must also remember Duryodhana’s prime motive behind helping Karna is because he sees Karna as the ideal foil against Arjuna. Since Karna knows this, it is possible that he makes it his mission to get the better of Arjuna at every available opportunity – to show Duryodhana that his trust is not misplaced.

At least a portion of Karna’s antagonism toward Arjuna, therefore, is Karna’s desperation to please Duryodhana. Every time he insults Arjuna or the Pandavas, it is as if he’s saying, ‘Look, I am on your side. I hate them as much as you do.’

Detailed Answer: Why does Karna hate Arjuna?

Why does Karna remove his kavacha?

When Indra disguises himself as a Brahmin and asks Karna for his kavacha-kundalas, despite knowing the identity of his visitor, Karna does not say no. This is because he does not wish to be known forever in the future as someone who once refused an offering to the king of the gods.

Ultimately, Karna’s need to be known as a generous Kshatriya who ‘never said no to anyone’ turns out to be far greater than his desire to keep the kavacha-kundalas.

There is also the possibility that this incident happens much earlier in Karna’s life than is usually depicted. If we imagine Karna being thirteen or so during this exchange, he may not have realized the significance of what was being asked. With the bravado of youth, he may not have foreseen the extent to which he will need the kavacha-kundalas in the future.

Some sources have suggested that Karna’s trade with Indra is a conscious one – i.e.: he wishes to trade the kavacha-kundalas for the more powerful Vadava dart.

But we must note that Indra gives the dart away as a gift. While Karna was giving away his armor, he could not have known that Indra would grant him a boon.

Detailed Answer: Why and When does Karna Remove his Armor?

Why does Karna kill Abhimanyu?

Karna, along with five other warriors (Kritavarma, Ashwatthama, Drona, Kripa and Shalya), kill Abhimanyu inside the Chakravyuha on the thirteenth day. But Karna is the one who breaks Abhimanyu’s bow from behind and disarms him. He does this on the advice of Drona, after Karna approaches the preceptor for help.

On the thirteenth day of battle, after Abhimanyu has been isolated inside the Chakravyuha, he displays rare courage and valour in destroying an entire akshauhini of troops that belong to Duryodhana.

Soon after a battle in which Abhimanyu defeats Karna (and kills his son), the latter goes to Drona for advice on how to defeat Abhimanyu. Drona says, ‘He fights with such skill that the only way might be if you break his bow from behind.’

Karna proceeds to do exactly this. Other warriors take a cue from this – for example, Kritavarma kills Abhimanyu’s rear attendants – and soon force the son of Arjuna to fight on foot. Once separated from his chariot, it is only a matter of time before Abhimanyu succumbs.

Detailed Answer: Why does Karna kill Abhimanyu?

Why does Karna go to hell?

Karna, in fact, does not go to hell. At the very end of the story, after Yudhishthir has passed all his tests and gained entrance to the hall of Indra, Karna is present there. This is an admission on part of the Mahabharata that Karna’s sins were all committed at Duryodhana’s behest – and are therefore pardonable.

It is interesting that after all the wickedness that Karna exhibits toward the Pandavas, he is granted a seat in heaven while Duryodhana alone is banished to hell. A few reasons suggest themselves:

  • By the time the Mahabharata war ends, the Pandavas come to know the true identity of Karna, and perform various soul-purifying rites in his name. Perhaps the fact that he had been forgiven by his enemies lessen the weight of his wrongs?
  • Ultimately, Karna is the son of Surya, a god. One may expect that all kinds of strings will have been pulled in heaven to keep him out of hell.
  • Karna’s wrongful deeds – though highly visible – are overshadowed by the large number of good and generous deeds he performs as king of Anga. His ledger, therefore, is still black despite his villainy.
  • Karna’s wicked acts can be explained away as motivated by loyalty to a friend, and not out of selfishness or a sinful heart. Thus, the powers-that-be (Yama and his cohorts) might have found it easier to pardon him.

Detailed Answer: Why did Karna go to Hell?

Why did Karna dislike the Pandavas?

There are three reasons why Karna dislikes the Pandavas. One: the Pandavas are the enemies of his benefactor, Duryodhana, so to show his loyalty, he has to hate them too. Two: Bhima and Arjuna call him a Sutaputra at the graduation ceremony. Three: the Pandavas represent the status and wealth that Karna aspires to achieve.

A big factor in Karna hating the Pandavas is the fact that Duryodhana – who has given him everything – considers them his enemies. In order to repay Duryodhana’s favour, Karna must dislike the Pandavas – or signal publicly that he does – as much as Duryodhana.

True, Bhima and Arjuna do insult him and call him a Sutaputra on the day of the graduation, but that is not a big enough slight for the enduring hatred that he displays toward them.

As for status and wealth, after Duryodhana makes him king of Anga, Karna acquires all of the trappings of a Kshatriya that he has always desired. For twenty five years (or so) he rules Anga. His thirst for material wealth must have been quenched during this period.

So in all, one must conclude that the only primary force behind Karna’s hatred for the Pandavas is his burning desire to pay his debt to Duryodhana for all that he has done for him.

Detailed Answer: Why did Karna dislike the Pandavas?

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.

Detailed Answer: Why does Karna refuse to leave Duryodhana?

Why did Krishna offer Draupadi to Karna?

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.

Detailed Answer: Why did Krishna offer Draupadi to Karna?

Why did Karna abuse Draupadi?

During the dice game, after arguing against Vikarna that Draupadi has indeed been lost by Yudhishthir, Karna calls her a prostitute for the ‘sin’ of taking five husbands. His anger for Draupadi stems from the fact that she rejected and publicly humiliated him during her groom-choosing ceremony.

The main antagonist during the dice game between Yudhishthir and Shakuni is Karna. He takes special umbrage against Vikarna – one of Duryodhana’s brothers – for suggesting that Draupadi may not have been pledged fairly by Yudhishthir.

Not only does Karna argue that Draupadi is now a slave to Duryodhana, he also calls her a prostitute for having taken five husbands.

(Interestingly, Kunti refers to this same rule – that a woman taking five lovers is unchaste – and stops using Durvasa’s incantation after three uses: with Yama, Vayu and Indra. Since Pandu is one of her lovers too, she is seen by the world as having had four paramours in total.)

There may have multiple motivations for Karna’s behaviour here:

  • He may have been posturing for Duryodhana’s benefit, showing everyone how much he hates the Pandavas and Draupadi too.
  • He may have some lingering distaste from Draupadi’s swayamvara, where she publicly rejected him.
  • He may also have been exercising his newfound status as king and Dharma-expert in front of the assembly that once ridiculed him as Sutaputra.

Detailed Answer: Why does Karna Abuse Draupadi?

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.

Detailed Answer: Why did Kunti abandon Karna?

Why does Indra approach Karna?

Indra is in the enviable position of knowing right from the beginning that the Kurukshetra war is inevitable. He knows that the only warrior capable of and willing to kill Arjuna – his son – is Karna. Therefore, in order to weaken Karna, Indra approaches him in the garb of a Brahmin and asks for his divine armor and earrings.

The exact timing of Indra’s visit to Karna is debatable. One possibility is that Karna is quite a young man – perhaps thirteen or fourteen – when this happens. At such an impressionable age, Karna may have been too naïve to understand the significance of what is being asked of him.

Another possibility is that Indra waits until just before the war begins to approach Karna. This is tougher to reconcile with all the defeats that Karna experiences at the hands of Arjuna.

Though Karna receives the Vasava dart in return from Indra, it is important to note that Karna does not expect it. Indeed, he gives the kavacha-kundalas as alms. Indra is then moved enough by Karna’s nobility to grant him a gift.

Another aspect of this incident is that Karna knows of Indra’s identity and motive. Despite that, he does not say no because he believes that being asked for anything by the king of the gods is in itself a huge honour.

Detailed Answer: Why does Indra approach Karna?

Why did Bhishma not allow Karna to fight?

As the start of the Mahabharata war is imminent, after Bhishma is made commander, he tells Duryodhana that if he and Karna fights on the battlefield at the same time, it will cause unnecessary quarrels and loss to the Kuru cause. By thus removing Karna from action, Bhishma also protects Arjuna.

Bhishma and Karna have a couple of arguments in the lead up to the war. Bhishma’s main complaint with Karna is that he is a braggart with no substance.

When asked by Duryodhana how he would rate Karna’s ability as a warrior, Bhishma mockingly refers to him as a ‘half-ratha’. Karna, in return and with some justification, accuses the grandsire of being partial to the Pandavas.

So it is possible that Bhishma’s motivation to expel Karna from the battle is as stated – i.e.: he wishes the Kuru army to remain united. But one can also surmise that if Bhishma wished to protect Arjuna, the best way is to somehow prevent Karna from fighting.

Bhishma’s intention at the start of the war is to eliminate the army of the Pandavas so that the war will be brought to a stalemate. He wishes to keep the Pandavas unharmed. For this, he has to make sure that Karna does not fight.

He therefore uses his past quarrels with Karna as justification to keep him away from the battlefield. 

Detailed Answer: Why did Bhishma not allow Karna to fight? For more detail and context on this answer, see: Why did Bhishma and Karna Quarrel?

Why was Karna cursed by Parashurama?

Parashurama curses Karna for the sin of lying about his identity. Parashurama thinks that Karna is a Brahmin boy, but one day, he sees evidence of Karna’s pain-bearing ability, and concludes that he must be a Kshatriya. Outraged at this deception, Parashurama curses Karna that he will forget everything he has learnt when he most needs it.

Sage Parashurama is known for his enmity toward Kshatriyas. Indeed, he is famous all over the world for having eliminated the race of Kshatriyas twenty one times before he finally hangs up his axe.

So when Karna decides to approach Parashurama as a prospective disciple, he cannot (a) go as he is, because he is a low-born, and (b) lie that he is a Kshatriya because Parashurama hates Kshatriyas.

He therefore presents himself as a Brahmin boy to the sage.

For a while this strategy works perfectly, but toward the end of his tenure, one day when Parashurama is sleeping with his head on Karna’s lap, a worm crawls onto the boy’s thigh and begins to suck blood out of it.

Karna doesn’t so much as flinch until his preceptor’s nap is complete. When Parashurama wakes up and sees what has happened, he concludes that a man with such incredible ability to withstand pain must be a Kshatriya.

‘For the sin of lying to your preceptor, I am giving you this curse,’ says Parashurama. ‘In that very moment when you most need all the knowledge you have acquired from me, you will forget it all.’

Detailed Answer: Why was Karna cursed by Parashurama?

Why did Karna suffer so much?

Karna’s suffering is caused primarily by acts of destiny: Kunti’s abandonment, Parashurama’s curse and Indra’s intervention are examples. Karna also suffers inordinately for choices he makes in order to transcend his destiny: his loyalty to Duryodhana, his rejection of Krishna’s bribe, and his promise to Kunti being cases in point.

Karna’s destiny in the Mahabharata appears to be that of a sufferer. He is the classic example of someone who is punished for no fault of his own. Indeed, on many occasions, his best intentions lead to agony and despair.

He is born of the union between a god and a princess. In the world of humans, there is no higher form of birth. Despite that, because of Kunti’s decision to abandon him, he is raised a Sutaputra – and he knows that he is adopted.

Similarly the curse of Parashurama, Indra’s visit to take his kavacha-kundalas away from him, Duryodhana’s choice to shower him with kindness – all of these are external agents acting on him without his volition.

He tries to respond in the best way possible within his limitations, but that leads to further suffering – as we see with his continued loyalty to Duryodhana. In fact, at the end when Krishna promises him the world, Karna chooses suffering instead of comfort saying, ‘I was born a Sutaputra. I will die a Sutaputra.’

Karna is therefore often called a ‘tragic hero’. He is also the most relatable of the Mahabharata characters because all of us ultimately view ourselves as ‘tragic heroes’ locked in an unfair fight against the world.

Detailed Answer: Why did Karna suffer so much?

Was Karna good or bad?

Karna is often depicted as a good man struggling to do his best while under the influence of bad forces. His loyalty to Duryodhana pits him against the Pandavas – against whom he does not have enmity otherwise. However, some of his behavior in the Mahabharata – like at Draupadi’s disrobing – is morally questionable.

In the final analysis, Karna does earn for himself a place in heaven, so the Mahabharata seems to consider him ‘good’ overall after his acts have been weighed and judged in the proper context.

His main ‘fault’ is his inability to be a true friend to Duryodhana. He seems to always consider himself Duryodhana’s servant who will do anything that is asked or expected of him. A true friend would have perhaps guided Duryodhana from all his wickedness; Karna, on the other hand, abetted it in the name of allegiance.

His other main flaw – where he displays a particularly mean streak – is his unnecessary goading of Draupadi during the dice game. Even if we allow that he is acting as Duryodhana’s stooge here, it is hard to shake off the impression that at least some of his anger is directed at Draupadi personally.

On the other hand, he shows strength of character in several instances. When Indra asks him for the kavacha-kundalas, he could have said no. When Krishna offers him the throne and Draupadi for forsaking Duryodhana, he could have accepted. But he doesn’t.

During his many years as king of Anga, he garners a reputation as just, wise and generous. So we may conclude that Karna is an interesting mix of good and bad depending on how you look at it.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna good or bad?

Was Karna a student of Drona?

The Mahabharata mentions that Karna is a student of Drona, but only in passing. No significant mention is ever made of him, nor is there an explanation for: (a) why Karna trained under Parashurama, (b) why he appears as a stranger at the graduation ceremony, and (c) how Drona accepted a Sutaputra as a disciple.

Whether or not Karna was a student of Drona has been a matter of much debate. On the one hand, the Mahabharata does mention his name among Drona’s students at the Kuru court. On the other, it is utterly inconsistent with the rest of the story.

Consider: when Karna appears at the graduation ceremony, for all intents and purposes, all the characters act as if they were seeing him for the very first time. Arjuna, Bhima, Kripa, Duryodhana – none of them have met him before. That much is obvious from the interactions.

Further, we know from the Ekalavya incident that Drona is ferociously parochial when it comes to his students. He does not entertain low-born young men who wants to compete as archers – especially against Arjuna.

In addition, we already know that Karna trained under Parashurama. Did he train under both sages at the same time? Or did he go to one after he had finished with the other?

Keeping all this in mind, I am comfortable to conclude that Karna was not known to any of the royal characters until he makes a surprise appearance at the graduation ceremony. Therefore, he cannot have been Drona’s student.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna a student of Drona?

Was Karna a Pandava?

Karna is born of the union between Kunti (when she was unmarried) and Surya, the sun god. Later, she marries Pandu. According to social norms of the day, when a woman weds a man, her existing children are considered to have been fathered by her new husband. Therefore, Karna is technically a Pandava – a son of Pandu.

During his private conversation with Karna after his peace talks have failed, Krishna speaks of two kinds of sons a woman can have.

One is called the Sahoda, who are the sons born to her fathered by her husband. The other kind is called the Kanina, children born to her of other men from before her marriage. On both occasions, the sons are considered morally to be the children of the maiden’s wedded husband.

Socially speaking, therefore, Karna is a Pandava as well. But what about biologically?

If the other five Pandavas – Yudhishthir, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva – had been fathered by Pandu biologically, one may consider Karna’s status as being inferior to the others. But since the Pandavas themselves have been fathered by other men through the process of niyoga, Karna is as much a Pandava as are his brothers.

The process of his birth is exactly the same (via Kunti’s magic), and he is born to the same mother. If anything, he is more closely related to the first three Pandavas than are Nakula and Sahadeva.

So in all respects of the word, Karna is the eldest Pandava.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna a Pandava?

Was Karna a Kshatriya?

Karna’s mother is Kunti, who is a Kshatriya woman. His biological father is Surya, who is a god but not a Kshatriya. However, through her marriage to Pandu, Kunti’s son from before her marriage – Karna – also becomes Pandu’s son. So Karna is a Pandava and a Kshatriya.

On numerous occasions, we see examples of Kshatriya women begetting sons through Brahmin fathers. These sons become known as kings and Kshatriyas. This is a process called niyoga. Though the children are biologically fathered by the Brahmin ‘surrogate’, they’re considered the progeny of the mother’s wedded husband.

For example, Ambika and Ambalika give birth to Pandu and Dhritarashtra with Vyasa offering his seed.

Now, when the same Brahmin begets a son through a lower-born woman, the resulting child is not considered a Kshatriya. Returning to the Ambika-Ambalika incident, Vyasa also impregnates a Sudra woman who gives birth to Vidura.

Vidura assumes the caste of his mother and her future (or current) husband. He remains a Sudra his entire life.

So for a Kshatriya woman to ensure that her son is also a Kshatriya, she must (a) have him with a high-born man, and (b) get married to a Kshatriya. Karna fulfills both these criteria: he is born of Surya, who is a literal god. And Kunti marries Pandu, who is a Kshatriya.

Therefore, Karna is a Kshatriya.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna a Kshatriya?

Was Karna a Maharathi?

Before the war begins, Bhishma classifies Karna mockingly as an ardha-ratha (half-ratha), thus claiming that he is inferior to a ratha. But later, while lying on his bed of arrows, he privately confides in Karna that he is indeed a maharatha.

The words ‘maharatha’ and ‘atiratha’ are used interchangeably in the Mahabharata to describe a great warrior who is eight times as good as a ‘ratha’.

At the beginning of the war, owing to a previous quarrel, Bhishma garrulously calls Karna an ‘ardharatha’, and calls him someone who is not even as good as a ratha.

But on the night of the tenth day of battle, after he has been consigned to his bed of arrows, Bhishma gets visited in private by Karna. In the conversation that follows, the two men put aside their differences. Bhishma then tells him that he was wrong in calling him an ardharatha. ‘You are in fact an atiratha,’ he says.

The only time outside of the war that the Mahabharata gives evidence of the fact that Karna is an atiratha is when he conquers the world on Duryodhana’s behalf.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna a Maharatha?

Was Karna a coward?

In the Mahabharata, Karna often displays cowardly behavior. During Draupadi’s swayamvara, he withdraws from challenging Arjuna. When Duryodhana is captured by Gandharvas in the Vana Parva, Karna flees the battle without fighting. During the war as well, Karna runs away on several occasions from duels.

In saying this, displaying occasional cowardly behavior is not the same as ‘being a coward’. In the same war, Karna wins significant battles against the likes of Yudhishthir, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva while fighting bravely.

Elsewhere in the story, Karna makes difficult choices and demonstrates incredible moral courage. The unwavering nature of his fealty to Duryodhana – in the face of enormous gifts offered to him by Krishna – is an example of this.

It would therefore be unjust to judge Karna on two or three occasions during which he displays a lack of physical courage. This is especially true of the Kurukshetra war because during it, many heroes run away from battles to save their lives.

On the whole, therefore, Karna is a courageous man – in more ways than one – who finds himself overcome by cowardice occasionally.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna a coward?

Was Karna killed fairly?

During the Mahabharata war, Arjuna kills Karna while the latter is on the ground digging out his sunken chariot wheel. The rules of battle forbid a chariot-warrior from attacking an opponent when he is on foot. However, by this time, that particular rule has been broken several times. So Krishna considers it not unfair to break it once more.

At the beginning of the war, both the Pandava and the Kaurava sides agree on certain ‘rules’ that define what is just and what isn’t on the battlefield.

One of these is the rule that when two chariot-warriors are fighting and one of them is forced by whatever reason to fight on foot, the chariot-borne warrior will refrain from attacking his disadvantaged opponent.

But this is a rule that is drawn up at the beginning of the war, on Day 1. By the time Karna and Arjuna face off on Day 17, the Mahabharata war is no longer ‘fair’ or ‘just’. It is no longer a Dharma Yuddha.

Bhishma is defeated by Arjuna’s arrows shot from behind Shikhandi. Abhimanyu is killed after his chariot is systematically dismantled by six Kaurava atirathas. Bhurishrava is beheaded after he renounces his weapons. Drona is killed while he is meditating. And so on.

By this time, so many unrighteous acts have been committed on the battlefield that Krishna no longer thinks it is improper to shoot at your opponent – especially after you’ve defeated him in fair fight and forced him onto his feet.

So when Karna asks Arjuna for a short respite, Krishna refuses and commands Arjuna to shoot at him immediately.

Is this fair? By the book of regulations drawn up at the beginning of the war, it isn’t. But in the context of all that has happened in on the first seventeen days, it is.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna Killed Fairly?

Was Karna jealous of Arjuna?

Karna’s enmity with Arjuna has more to do with his loyalty to Duryodhana than with jealousy. But as someone who matches Arjuna’s skill at the graduation ceremony, to see his once-equal opponent grow beyond recognition into the world’s greatest archer must have been difficult. Karna also feels envious of Arjuna for having won Draupadi.

The main thrust of Karna’s enmity toward Arjuna is his undying fealty toward Duryodhana. More than anything, Karna wants to defeat Arjuna because he wants to prove himself a worthy aide to Duryodhana.

However, we can surmise that jealousy must also be present in there somewhere. We know that Karna matches Arjuna in skill during the graduation ceremony, thus setting up the narrative that he is Arjuna’s equal.

To then repeatedly lose to him over the rest of the story must be difficult for any man. This would have certainly bred envy.

Also, we know that Karna is rejected by Draupadi publicly at her swayamvara, and then Arjuna proceeds to win her for himself. That is also bound to have caused some envy in Karna.

Despite all this, though, Karna gets a chance to ‘make Arjuna his slave’ by accepting Krishna’s offer to fight on the Pandavas’ side. If his jealousy had been overpowering, Karna would have said yes – and he would have won Arjuna’s eternal subservience along with Draupadi as his main wife.

But the fact that he says no, and that he chooses Duryodhana, suggests that it is Duryodhana that is most important to him in his life – even more than his need to overcome Arjuna.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna jealous of Arjuna?

Was Karna more powerful than Bhishma?

In sheer skill and experience alone, Bhishma is much more powerful than Karna. However, Karna’s desire to win the war for Duryodhana is much stronger than Bhishma’s. Duryodhana, therefore, would have been better off with Karna as his first commander.

Bhishma is the unanimous choice for commander of the Kuru army. And why not? He has been the regent of Hastinapur for decades. In skill, strategy and experience, he has no peer. Not even Arjuna matches up to him.

But in giving Duryodhana an ultimatum that he will not fight alongside Karna, Bhishma betrays his fidelity toward the Pandavas. Though we speak with the benefit of hindsight here, Duryodhana may have been better off making the unpopular choice of appointing Karna as his first commander.

Consider: with Karna leading the Kauravas out on the first day and with Bhishma sitting out, Duryodhana gets to pit Karna against Arjuna right from the start.

Arjuna, on the other hand, must always be wary of Karna because of the presence of the Vasava dart. And with Karna, Duryodhana will never have to doubt his commander’s intentions.

If the Karna experiment succeeds and Arjuna is killed, the battle is over. Duryodhana does not need Bhishma. If Karna gets killed, however, Bhishma can step in and lead the battle in its second phase.

Therefore, although Karna is not as powerful as Bhishma as a warrior, he might have made a better commander for Duryodhana because of his special ability against Arjuna.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna more powerful than Bhishma?

Was Karna stronger than Bhima?

Karna is stronger than Bhima with bow and arrow. But Bhima is the better all-round warrior. Bhima and Karna clash repeatedly during the war, and on occasions that Bhima wins, he does so by converting the bow-and-arrow duel into a hand-to-hand combat. When the battle stays strictly archery-based, Karna wins.

During his pre-war appraisal of the two sides, Bhishma classifies Bhimasena as an atiratha, and also states that he is the best all-round fighter among all the assembled heroes. He is good with bow and arrow, with a mace, sword, spear, and with his bare hands.

Bhima’s fighting strategy during the war reflects this ability. He is routinely jumping out of his chariot to accost his enemies with other weapons, like a mace or a sword or a lance. Sometimes, he pummels elephants to the ground with his fists. He picks up chariots and tosses them aside. He wrestles. He punches. He does everything.

While Arjuna is the chariot-warrior with exceptional bow-and-arrow skills, Bhima is the man you’d vote for if you did not know the format of the battle beforehand.

Karna, therefore, is more powerful than Bhima – but only if they’re going to be fighting from their chariots. If Bhima is allowed to improvise, he is skilled enough to defeat Karna.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna stronger than Bhima?

Was Karna unlucky?

Karna is definitely unlucky in some respects. But he also displays a streak of cruelty against the Pandavas and Draupadi. He makes a conscious choice to stick with Duryodhana despite knowing he is in the wrong. The consequences Karna reaps, therefore, are a combination of his luck and his choices.

In this particular sense, he is no different to any of us. We’re all shackled by luck, by forces outside of our control. But we also possess agency to make choices and prioritizations of our own.

Do we choose justice or loyalty? Identity or self-preservation? Selfishness or generosity? And do we make these choices regardless of the context and situation?

It is a combination of the cards we’re dealt and the choices we make that add up to what we’re ultimately given. Our harvest will be abundant in some respects but fallow in others. Whatever the world thinks of it, as long as we are happy with what we have reaped, it is a life well-lived.

Despite Karna’s tragedies (as the world sees them), he gives the impression of someone who has made his peace with his lot in life. Indeed, at the very end, he embraces his identity and willingly chooses to fight on the ‘wrong’ side in order to fulfill his promises to Duryodhana.

If he is unlucky in some respects, he is also lucky to have been given that rare gift: a clear and unswerving moral compass that allows him to say no to untold riches, fame, status and power – only to keep his word to a friend.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna unlucky?

Was Karna in love with Draupadi?

There is no evidence in the Mahabharata that Karna loves Draupadi. He does desire her for a wife, which is why he attempts to complete the archery task at Draupadi’s swayamvara. After Draupadi’s public humiliation and rejection of him, he comes to detest her.

Karna and Draupadi do not spend all that much time in each other’s presence to develop an emotion as strong and complex as love. Though we know that Karna must have desired Draupadi for a wife, we do not know if he was acting of his own volition or under Duryodhana’s instructions at the swayamvara.

Once Draupadi rejects him publicly, though, Karna harbours anger for Draupadi. He takes his revenge at the dice game, where he brands her a prostitute for having taken five husbands.

This, in turn, angers Draupadi and Arjuna against Karna – to the extent that Arjuna vows in that same hall to kill him.

The Pandavas reserve special hatred for Karna after the events of the dice game. Draupadi is heard on multiple occasions naming him among the people who have wronged her.

There is simply no reason for Karna, therefore, to love Draupadi.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna in love with Draupadi?

Was Karna married?

Karna was definitely married. The Udyoga Parva of Vyasa’s Mahabharata describes him as being married to a woman chosen for him by Adiratha, his adoptive father. Her name is not mentioned. Some recent adaptations have claimed that he has two wives – Vrushali and Supriya.

When Krishna offers Karna Draupadi and the throne of Indraprastha as bribe to switch allegiance from Duryodhana, Karna says, ‘Duryodhana has allowed me to be king without violating the boundaries of my caste.’

What he means by this, one presumes, is that Karna has been living as per the modes of the Suta caste. That means that he has married a Suta women, and his sons are all members of the Suta tribe. Though he is the ruler of Anga, he does not have any pretensions of being a Kshatriya.

This lends further support to the school of thought that the events of the Mahabharata are in fact a small part of Karna’s life. For large swathes of time, he is engaged in the rule of Anga as a member of the Suta tribe, with his wives and children and adoptive parents.

Was Karna the greatest warrior?

Karna is classified by Bhishma as an atiratha, so he is one of the greatest warriors to fight in the Mahabharata war. However, Bhishma also cites Arjuna as the greatest warrior of all, placing him in a league of his own. But what makes Karna a threat is that he has the Vasava dart, which is powerful enough to kill Arjuna.

Though he classifies Karna as half-a-ratha at first out of spite, Bhishma later relents in private and corrects himself. He admits that Karna has enough skill to be known as an atiratha.

However, he is some distance from being the greatest warrior among those who fight in the Mahabharata war. His feats during the war are quite pedestrian, and are sometimes eclipsed by the likes of Ashwatthama and Bhagadatta.

In saying this, it is also true that Karna is the only warrior on either side of the battle that possesses a weapon – the Vasava dart – to which Arjuna has no counter.

Therefore, at least in theory, Karna is the only warrior with the ability to kill Arjuna. Not even Bhishma and Drona have this power.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna the greatest warrior?

Was Karna defeated by Drupada?

Karna is present in the army that Duryodhana takes to invade Panchala when Drona asks his students to bring him Drupada as Guru Dakshina. The Kauravas and Karna are defeated soundly by Drupada, who leads the Panchala forces in defense. After the Kauravas have failed, the Pandavas successfully complete the quest.

This invasion of Panchala by the Kuru princes happens only a short while after the graduation ceremony. This is interesting because during the ceremony, Karna displays enough skill with bow and arrow to be thought of as Arjuna’s equal.

And yet during this battle against Panchala, he fails to distinguish himself. Why?

One possible explanation is that Karna may have been as skillful as Arjuna at target-practice but not so when it came to real-world battle situations. After all, the target doesn’t shoot back. We may conclude that by this time, Karna is quite a skilled archer but not so skilled at combat.

By the time of Draupadi’s swayamvara, Karna manages to give Arjuna a run for his money in a duel with bow and arrow. We can therefore guess that between the Panchala invasion and Draupadi’s swayamvara, Karna has improved his battle sense enough to be a match for Arjuna both in terms of skill and tactics.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna defeated by Drupada?

Was Karna defeated by Abhimanyu?

Karna is one of the warriors defeated by Abhimanyu on the thirteenth day of the Mahabharata war. After being isolated inside Drona’s Chakra Vyuha, Abhimanyu goes on a rampage and defeats six atirathas and their troops. After this defeat, Karna asks Drona for advice, and together they hatch a plan to kill Abhimanyu.

Drona creates the Chakra Vyuha in order to fulfill his promise to Duryodhana that he will kill at least one Pandava atiratha on that day. Arjuna is lured away by the Samsaptakas to a remote place on the battlefield, and after Abhimanyu enters the array, Jayadratha puts in the performance of his life to keep Bhima and other reinforcements at bay.

However, faced with certain death, Abhimanyu unleashes a torrent of destruction upon the Kaurava forces. He fights and defeats six atirathas, and lays to waste an entire akshauhini of forces.

Karna is one of the heroes to suffer the pain of Abhimanyu’s arrows. He approaches Drona and despair and says, ‘But for the promise I have given Duryodhana, Acharya, I would have fled the battlefield. How do we stop this boy?’

And Drona admits that Abhimanyu is invincible if fought by fair means. ‘See if you can break his bow or cut his bowstring from behind, Radheya,’ he says, starting off the process of Abhimanyu’s death.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna defeated by Abhimanyu?

Was Karna defeated in Virata Parva?

Karna is one of the warriors defeated by Arjuna during the Virata Parva. Fighting in the garb of a eunuch named Brihannala, Arjuna takes on the entire might of the Kuru army on his own and wins. Along with Karna, other Kuru stalwarts such as Bhishma, Drona, Ashwatthama, Kripa and Duryodhana are also beaten.

This is another incidence of Karna’s powerlessness with regards to Arjuna. Despite tall claims that his skill as archer is equal to Arjuna’s, Karna is not able to hold off Arjuna even as part of a force that includes Bhishma and Drona.

Later, on the eve of the war, when Bhishma reminds Karna of this and asks why he was not able to subjugate Arjuna that day, Karna replies: ‘We were fighting then only to steal some cows, Grandsire, whereas Arjuna was fighting to defend his kingdom. In this war, we will both be fighting for equal stakes.’

Needless to say, Bhishma laughs off this explanation and proceeds to heap Karna with insults.

What is not clear to the objective reader is this: why is Karna so ineffectual? In this battle, he should have either had the kavacha-kundalas (which should have made him invincible) or the Vasava dart (which he should have used to kill Arjuna). But he does neither.

One can only guess at the answers. Perhaps the kavacha-kundalas, while making him immune to injury, do not enhance his skill in any way. And if he has the Vasava dart, he may have thought this occasion to not be grand enough for its use.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna defeated in Virata Parva?

What was Karna famous for?

Karna is most famous in the Mahabharata for being the only warrior who is as skillful as Arjuna at archery. He is also famous for his generosity – he is known never to say no to a Brahmin who asks for alms – and his steadfast adherence to loyalty as the highest virtue.

Karna’s first claim to significance in the Mahabharata is as a warrior who can replicate all of Arjuna’s archery skills at the Kurus’ graduation ceremony. This does not mean – though he will make the claim often – that he is as powerful as Arjuna in battle; only that he is as good as Arjuna at hitting a target.

When it comes to battle, as the story proves again and again, Arjuna is far superior.

Karna is also famous for his generosity. As king of Anga, he gains a reputation for never saying no to a Brahmin who asks for anything. It is this quality of his that Indra exploits to rob him of his kavacha-kundalas.

Lastly, Karna is famous for his unrelenting love for loyalty no matter what the cost. He is loyal to Radha and Adiratha, his adoptive parents. He is loyal to the Suta tribe, though he riles at being called a Sutaputra.

More than anything, he is loyal to Duryodhana who gives him wealth and status beyond his wildest dreams.

Detailed Answer: What was Karna famous for?

Was Karna involved in Draupadi vastraharan?

Karna is one of the main characters involved in Draupadi vastraharan. He argues with Vikarna – one of the hundred Kauravas – that Draupadi has been won fairly by Duryodhana, and that now she is his slave. He also calls Draupadi a prostitute for having taken five husbands, and commands Duhsasana to unclothe her in public.

The main question that arises during the dice game is whether Yudhishthir was within his rights to pledge Draupadi as a stake after having lost himself previously.

Vikarna argues that Yudhishthir no longer had a right over Draupadi since he pledged and lost himself first. But Karna argues that even a slave has rights over his wife, so Draupadi was rightly pledged and lost even if Yudhishthir was already a slave.

After having presented the counterpoint, Karna goes one step further and brands Draupadi a prostitute in accordance with the scriptures that proclaim: Any woman who takes five or more paramours in her life is a prostitute.

And since she is a prostitute, claims Karna, she does not deserve to be treated as anything but one. He tells Duhsasana to disrobe her in full view of the court.

This is, of course, despicable behavior even toward a prostitute. Only Vidura has the sense to stop matters from getting out of hand, but this is enough for the Pandava-Kaurava rivalry to reach boiling point. From here on, there is no turning back.

Detailed Answer: Was Karna involved in Draupadi Vastraharan?

Is Karna the real hero of the Mahabharata?

Karna is one of the important heroes of the Mahabharata. In a classic good-versus-bad tale, Karna dons the garb of a tragic antihero. If Krishna is the god and Yudhishthir the ideal man, Karna is man as he is: flawed, capricious, frustrated, uncertain, and forever oscillating between hubris and self-loathing.

While it is impossible to tell who the ‘real’ hero of the Mahabharata is, Karna is definitely its most relatable. No other character in the story paints a picture of the human condition as vividly as does Karna.

Like him, each of us is born deserving everything in the world. As we grow first into children, then into youth and finally into adulthood, the world progressively exerts its force upon us, making us yield in a thousand ways.

Like him, we have moments where we are generous and kind and noble, but also moments where we are cruel, spiteful and selfish. Like him, we feel that we’re better than the world thinks of us, that we deserve more than we’re given. But we also wonder if that’s true after all.

Like him, we can give plenty and want nothing in return, but give our everything to those from whom we have taken. Like him, we can spend our whole lives wanting something and then give it up when it is handed to us.

If Karna has captured imaginations of storytellers down the years, it is because of this quality: he seems like he’s one of us trying his best to make the most of what he is given.

In a story full of memorable heroes, he is the most real.

Detailed Answer: Is Karna the real hero of the Mahabharata?   

Is Karna overrated?

There is a huge chasm between what Karna says he can do and what he does. Despite his reputation as being as skillful as Arjuna, Karna rarely gives any evidence of his prowess. There is not even one scene in the entire story where Karna fights the odds single-handedly and wins. So yes, Karna is overrated as a warrior.

Much of the narrative of what Karna is capable of on a battlefield comes from Karna himself. On numerous occasions, he reminds everyone around him about that day of the Kurus’ graduation when he replicates all of Arjuna’s feats.

Save for that one instance – and another one where he gives Arjuna a good fight during Draupadi’s swayamvara – Karna gives no evidence of his so-called powers. In fact, all of the evidence that does appear is contrary.

He is part of the losing side against Drupada when the Kaurava princes invade Panchala. He flees without fighting against the Gandharvas who capture Duryodhana. He is part of the losing side against Arjuna during the Virata Parva.

Even in the war of Kurukshetra, Karna’s record is sketchy. He loses to Abhimanyu, to Bhimasena, and to Satyaki. But then, he does score victories over his brothers as well.

There is not even a single instance in the Mahabharata where Karna single-handedly wins a battle against the odds. Arjuna does this sort of thing repeatedly – against the Nivatakavachas, to capture Hiranyapuri, during the Virata Parva, and during the final war.

The only time Karna does anything of note battle-wise is when he conquers the world as Duryodhana’s emissary. But we must note that in this case, he has the support of the Kuru army and the strength of Bhishma and Drona’s word behind him.

So all in all, yes, Karna as a warrior is overrated – mostly by himself.

Detailed Answer: Is Karna Overrated?

How was Karna killed?

Karna is killed by Arjuna on the evening of the seventeenth day of the Mahabharata war, just before sunset. Karna’s chariot-wheel sinks into the earth and he gets off his vehicle to attend to it. He asks Arjuna for some time to repair the wheel, but Arjuna – on Krishna’s advice – refuses. He shoots an arrow straight at Karna’s neck, beheading him.

Shalya, Karna’s charioteer for the day, refuses to help him with the wheel. Shalya also spends the entire day taunting Karna and singing the praises of Arjuna and Krishna.

A Naga called Aswasena makes an appearance at the scene during the fight, and becomes an arrow in Karna’s quiver. The arrow is well-shot, and makes for Arjuna’s head. But Krishna stamps down on his chariot in the nick of time, causing the wheel to sink into the earth so that the arrow knocks off Arjuna’s crown instead.

Aswasena goes back to Karna and asks to be shot again. But Karna refuses, saying, ‘It is improper to shoot the same arrow at the same enemy twice.’

At the end of it all, when Arjuna asks Krishna how Karna was killed, Krishna replies, ‘Due to me and you, due to Kunti who asked him for a boon, due to Parashurama and Bhoomi who cursed him, due to Indra who robbed him of his armor, and due to Shalya who promised to fight for Yudhishthir pledging allegiance to Duryodhana – due to all these people was Karna killed, O Partha.’

Detailed Answers: Mahabharata Episode 51: Arjuna Kills Karna | Who killed Karna?

How was Karna and Duryodhana’s friendship?

Karna and Duryodhana are often called friends. But the relationship was more like that of a master and his aide. Duryodhana is Karna’s benefactor; he gives Karna wealth and status. And in return he expects Karna to take up his cause of defeating the Pandavas. Their entire friendship is characterized by this transaction.

Karna and Duryodhana are never equals, so there is never friendship between them the way we understand the term. Indeed, when Drona claims friendship with Drupada, Drupada tells him: ‘A king and a pauper can never be friends, Drona. If you want alms from me, ask and I shall give. But don’t pretend that we’re friends.’

Similarly, Duryodhana’s motive behind helping Karna is a selfish one. The moment he sees Karna display his skill at the graduation ceremony, he thinks of him as nothing but a mercenary that can assist him in dismantling the Pandavas.

Arjuna is the most visibly powerful of the Pandava brothers. Duryodhana wants Karna to be Arjuna’s nemesis.

In order to achieve this, Duryodhana essentially buys Karna’s loyalty: by making him king, by giving him status, and by improving his quality of life beyond measure. In return, Duryodhana wants Karna’s help in destroying the Pandavas.

Karna knows that this is a transaction, not friendship. That is why he never goes beyond station to correct Duryodhana, as true friend might have done so. He knows that his expected role is to obey and support – and to kill Arjuna when the moment arises.

That is the entirety of Karna’s brief. Duryodhana may have magnanimously called him his friend on occasion, but Karna never allows himself to believe it. He is merely a slave fulfilling his duty to his master.

Detailed Answer: Karna and Duryodhana: What was their friendship like?

How was Karna as a king?

During their private conversation just before the war, Krishna mentions off-hand that Karna has gained a reputation as a great king of Anga. His subjects think of him as wise, just and generous. He is known – during his reign – to have never said no to a Brahmin who asked him for anything.

By all accounts, as king of Anga, Karna distinguishes himself. The true story of Karna may lie not on the battlefield but in his court and hall, where he developed from a Sutaputra into a praiseworthy king.

During the twenty five years (or so) between the graduation ceremony and the end of the Pandavas’ exile, Karna rules Anga prosperously and well. He also makes himself available to Duryodhana whenever the prince needs him, to fire salvos at Draupadi and the Pandavas on demand. But the brunt of his work is done in Anga.

Here he lives with his adoptive parents Adiratha and Radha. He marries a Suta woman picked out for him by his father. He lives the life of a member of the Suta caste. He rules over Anga, but never takes on the mantle of a Kshatriya.

How old was Karna when he died?

Assuming that Karna is eighteen at the time of the graduation ceremony, he is fifty years old when he dies on the eighteenth day of the Mahabharata war.

The text does not give us exact ages of characters at various points in the story. We’re also not told the exact lengths of interludes that happen between the main events. So all estimates of the ages of various characters are merely guesses.

I have assumed that three years pass between Kunti’s giving birth to Karna and her giving birth to Yudhishthir. This is of course an arbitrary number that seems reasonable to me. The ‘actual’ number can be lower or higher.

What we know with more certainty is that around thirty two years pass between the graduation ceremony and the start of the Kurukshetra war. So depending on your assumption for Karna’s age at the time of his first appearance, just add thirty two to get his age at death.

Detailed Answer: How old was Karna when he died?

Further Reading

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