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 the question: Was Karna better than Arjuna?
Karna is considered the only warrior that can match Arjuna’s skill with bow and arrow. He gives proof of this during the graduation ceremony, where he repeats all of Arjuna’s feats. However, as the story progresses, Arjuna surpasses Karna comfortably. There is never an instance in the Mahabharata where Karna actually defeats Arjuna.
(In Karna: Your Ultimate Guide to the Mahabharata’s Antihero, we delve deeper into the character of Karna. We also answer all Karna-related questions in Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
At the beginning
When Karna is born, he is blessed with divine armor that makes his skin impenetrable to all weapons. In addition, he also has natural earrings that suffuse his face with a soft glow and gives him an ethereal appearance.
The armor and the earrings together are called kavacha-kundalas. (‘Kavacha’ means ‘armor’, and ‘kundala’ means ‘earring’.)
With the kavacha-kundalas on, Karna may be considered the most powerful defensive warrior in the world. If your skin is impenetrable, and if you’re capable of being wounded, your aim and deftness of hand does not need to be out of the world for you to win duels.
(Suggested: Was Karna jealous of Arjuna?)
The kavacha-kundalas give him such an edge that Karna needed to be only a passable shooter of arrows in order to become the strongest chariot-archer in the world.
Karna, though, goes much further than passable. He trains under Parashurama and learns the art of shooting all the main celestial weapons. Parashurama is so impressed with his ward that he gifts him the Vijaya, a bow he has received from Shiva.
So at the moment of Karna’s graduation from Parashurama’s hermitage – with the Vijaya slung around his shoulder and the knowledge of wonderful weapons coursing through his mind – Karna is no doubt the most skillful archer in the world.
(Suggested: Why does Arjuna hate Karna?)
At the Graduation Ceremony
Now we arrive at the graduation ceremony, where the reader catches his first glimpse of Karna. It should be noted that in this scene, Duryodhana describes the young man saying, ‘Look at the scars on his body left behind after he had peeled off his armor!’
This suggests that by this time, Karna has already been paid a visit by Indra, and that he has already given away his kavacha-kundalas.
However, there are other passages that suggest that this is not the case. For instance, his earrings are described as two little suns which bathe his face in an incandescent light.
(Suggested: Was Arjuna son of Indra?)
So there is some doubt as to whether Karna – by the time he appears at the graduation ceremony – has the kavacha-kundalas or not.
But that matter aside, Karna proceeds to perform all of Arjuna’s feats himself, proving himself to be at least as good as the prince.
We may conclude, therefore, that at the time of the graduation ceremony, Karna is at least as skillful as Arjuna with respect to the bow and arrow.
We must also remember that skill at shooting a target is not quite the same as skill at fighting a real live opponent. While Karna has shown himself to be a match at shooting targets (both moving and otherwise), he is yet to prove his battle skills.
(Suggested: Why and when does Karna remove his armor?)
In this respect, Arjuna is in a more privileged position than Karna. Arjuna has the benefit of being a prince – which means that from a young age, he is schooled in matters of diplomacy, politics, battle strategy and rhetoric.
He will also have been trained from an early age to spar with real life opponents in court – from among his own cousins and from volunteers picked out of the army.
Karna, on the other hand – at the hermitage of Parashurama – will have sorely lacked all of these facilities.
(Suggested: Was Arjuna the best archer?)
While he will have trained to be a good marksman, his knowledge of all the other things that make a good warrior – let’s call it ‘battle sense’ – will have been much poorer compared to Arjuna’s.
At the time of the graduation ceremony, therefore, we may not be incorrect in assuming that Arjuna is a far better warrior than Karna, though Karna may have been a better at target practice.
Arjuna Proves Himself
Soon after the graduation ceremony, Drona puts the Kuru princes through a proper test. While the ceremony was about displaying some tricks for the crowd’s benefit, now he wants them to actually invade Panchala and bring back King Drupada as prisoner.
In this battle, Arjuna – and his four brothers – proves himself as a strong all-round warrior who can be trusted upon in a live battlefield.
(Suggested: How did Arjuna get the Pashupatastra?)
Karna also gets this same opportunity: he is part of Duryodhana’s army which has first go at fulfilling Drona’s quest. But this army gets routed by the Panchalas.
This is yet another data point which tells us that at this point in the story, Karna is severely undercooked when it comes to real life battle situations, though he can hold his own in controlled environments like tournaments and ceremonies.
At Draupadi’s Swayamvara
Between the invasion of Panchala and Draupadi’s swayamvara, at least a couple of years pass in story-time. Karna and Arjuna face each other in a man-to-man duel after Arjuna has won Draupadi’s hand.
This is by no means a pushover for Arjuna. Karna gives an excellent account of himself, and for a long time the two archers are locked in an evenly matched battle.
Karna is aghast that he is parrying so long with a mere Brahmin. (Arjuna, remember, is in disguise.) He asks Arjuna who he is, and the latter lies, ‘I am a mere Brahmin who has the blessings of his preceptor.’
(Suggested: Why did Draupadi Reject Karna?)
Karna takes this to mean that his opponent is using spiritual powers that are available only to Brahmins. Proclaiming that it is impossible to combat such energies with mere weapons, he withdraws from the challenge.
Now, this is technically a victory for Arjuna – because when an opponent lays down his weapon, it means you have won. But it is also not a conclusive win. It is not as if he made short work of it.
Of course, one may also argue that Karna’s stated reason for withdrawing is only to save his face, and that his real reason is that he foresaw he cannot win against this man.
(Suggested: What Happens during Draupadi’s Swayamvara?)
But working in Arjuna’s favour is the fact that he knew whom he was fighting. Karna thought he was fighting a no-name Brahmin.
Taking all these factors into account, we may consider that at the time of Draupadi’s swayamvara, Karna and Arjuna are about equally matched – both in marksmanship and in battle nous.
At the Dice Game
In these thirteen years, Karna is presumably ruling over Anga as king. By all accounts he is a wise and generous ruler, well-loved by his subjects. But the responsibilities of being king must have come in the way of his practice of archery.
(Suggested: What Happens during Draupadi’s Disrobing?)
Arjuna, on the other hand, is free from all worldly distractions during his exile. Yes, he gets married three times and has three sons during this period, but it is not a stretch to suggest that he would have had much more time and clarity of mind to stay in touch with his weapons than did Karna.
Arjuna has also been given the Gandiva and two quivers brimming with celestial arrows during the burning of Khandava.
So by the time of the dice game, we can peg Arjuna significantly ahead of Karna in terms of skill. Karna may have caught up on worldly wisdom, though, by virtue of his being king.
(Suggested: How did Arjuna get the Gandiva?)
During the Exile
Twelve more years pass after the dice game, during which Karna resumes being king of Anga. The Pandavas retreat into the forest to serve the terms of their exile.
Consider the relative journeys of Karna and Arjuna during these twelve years. Arjuna spends much of this time collecting divine weapons and performing quests. He acquires the Pashupatastra and the Brahmastra. He defeats the Nivatakavachas and frees Hiranyapuri from captivity.
In Amaravati, all the gods of the pantheon – from Varuna to Yama – shower him with extremely powerful weapons. Arjuna also has enough time to practice these skills, knowing that they are going to prove invaluable in getting their kingdom back.
(Suggested: Why was Arjuna Invincible?)
What about Karna? After the Pandavas have been sent into exile, like Duryodhana, Karna must have thought that they have dispensed with their enemies for good. A bit of complacency must have set in.
He would have become more comfortable in his skin as ruler; after all, he has been king for almost twenty five years.
Even if we allow that Karna has kept up with his archery and weapons practice, Arjuna is by now miles ahead.
(Suggested: Is Karna overrated?)
Fighting the Gandharvas
During the twelfth year of the Pandavas’ exile, a group of Gandharvas capture Duryodhana. Karna flees from the battle without even mounting a challenge against them.
Arjuna and Bhima, meanwhile, defeat the Gandharvas and rescue Duryodhana.
This is another small piece of evidence that the last twenty five years have not been equally kind to Karna and Arjuna. Fate has blessed the latter with divine weapons and time in which to practice their use.
(Suggested: Was Karna a Coward?)
The former has received a kingdom to rule, but he has not been put into enough hardship to incentivize constant honing of his craft.
It is instructive of the human condition that when material comforts become abundant, one loses one’s edge.
So when he had nothing, Karna was able to keep up with Arjuna the prince. But after he had gained everything, Arjuna kept improving while Karna remained stagnant – or perhaps even regressed.
The Defense of Matsya
It is during the single-handed battle that Arjuna wages successfully against the Kuru army during the Virata Parva that clinches matters once and for all in the Arjuna versus Karna debate.
Arrayed against Duryodhana, Drona, Bhishma, Karna, Kripa and Ashwatthama, Arjuna manages to fight on his own and protect Virata’s cattle from being raided.
Bhishma and Drona repeatedly remark about how astonishing Arjuna’s rise as a warrior has been during his exile. They refer not just to the weapons he has at his disposal but also at the more technical elements: his fleetness of hand, his sharpness of mind, his awareness of space…
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 30: Brihannala Defends Matsya.)
But these words do not strike Duryodhana and Karna as sincere. They believe that Drona and Bhishma are blinded by partiality for Arjuna.
Their explanation for this defeat is that the stakes are much higher for Arjuna (he is fighting to defend a kingdom) than they are for them (they’ve come just to raid some cattle).
It is at this point that Karna should have seen the writing on the wall that is apparent to everyone: Karna is no longer in the same league as Arjuna. In fact, no one is in the same league as Arjuna.
By the time of the end of the Virata Parva, Arjuna is in a league of his own.
(Suggested: Was Karna defeated in Virata Parva?)
But Karna refuses to acknowledge this fact. Whether he truly believes his words is up for debate, but he continues to harp on that he is the only warrior in the world that can take on and kill Arjuna.
With the likes of Bhishma and Drona – who were actually stronger than Arjuna at the start of the Pandavas’ exile – admitting that they themselves can no longer match Arjuna, here is Karna bragging away.
(Suggested: Was Karna good or bad?)
If anything, this stubborn refusal to see the truth prompts Bhishma to mock him, and their quarrel results in Karna boycotting the first ten days of war.
Where does this come from? Probably from a place of fear. And from the desperate need to go back to a time when things were different.
Insisting that he is still as good as Arjuna feels a lot better than admitting that Arjuna has improved beyond recognition while he has not.
(Suggested: Was Karna killed fairly?)
Without the Kavacha-kundalas
Despite everything that we have considered in the rest of this post, if Karna had kept his kavacha-kundalas, would he still have had a good chance of beating Arjuna?
He may have been able to withstand Arjuna’s power, because after all the kavacha is said to be impenetrable. (Though one must ask: is it impenetrable even to the likes of the Pashupatastra?)
But in order to defeat Arjuna, Karna would have had access to at least some weapons comparable to those in Arjuna’s quiver.
(Suggested: Why does Karna hate Arjuna?)
In any case, Karna gives away the kavacha-kundalas to Indra, further weakening his position. Incidentally, the fact that Indra makes this visit suggests that he thinks Karna stands a reasonable chance against Arjuna with them.
Yes, in return he gets a weapon that will kill Arjuna, but it comes with a ‘use once only’ condition. The Vasava dart therefore is a poor replacement for the kavacha-kundalas.
Arjuna gets even more gifts that add to his power. Hanuman, the brother of Bhimasena, sits on top of Arjuna’s chariot and imbues it with the power of the wind. The chariot itself is given to Arjuna by Agni during the burning of Khandava.
Allied with the Gandiva and the two inexhaustible quivers, these two are enough to make Arjuna invincible.
But raising him to an unreachable point is the fact that Krishna becomes his charioteer. As Bhishma and Drona repeatedly exclaim:
(Suggested: Why did Arjuna have to fight the war?)
‘Who can withstand the combined effect of Arjuna’s skill, the power of his weapons, the sturdiness of the Gandiva, the chariot of Agni, the mast of Hanuman, and the strategic abilities and wisdom of Krishna?’
And what does Karna have besides Parashurama’s bow?
Karna tries to redress the balance somewhat by enlisting the services of Shalya as charioteer. But Shalya turns out to be a spy, and he ends up causing Karna a whole lot of harm.
(Suggested: Can Arjuna defeat Karna without Krishna?)
Death of Ghatotkacha
Despite everything, the one weapon that can tilt the scales in Karna’s favour is the Vasava dart. If Karna manages to use it against Arjuna during their duel, it will neutralize all of Arjuna’s advantages and kill him.
So the death of Ghatotkacha turns out to be a rather crucial event in the Mahabharata war. In a moment of preoccupation, Karna kills the son of Bhima with the Vasava dart.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 49: Karna Kills Ghatotkacha.)
This elicits a yell of triumph from Krishna because at that precise moment, the victory of Arjuna over Karna has become certain.
At this point on, therefore, Karna is absolutely no match for Arjuna. There is simply no way for him to defeat his arch enemy.
The question of whether Karna is as skillful as Arjuna needs to be put in proper context in order to be answered properly.
- To begin with, Karna is definitely as skillful as Arjuna with technical matters of archery – like marksmanship, steadiness of hand etc.
- But Arjuna is more powerful than Karna when it comes to live battle situations, as evidenced by the successful invasion of Panchala.
- At the time of Draupadi’s swayamvara, the two warriors are about equally matched.
- In the twenty five years following the wedding of Draupadi, Arjuna improves as an archer and a warrior almost beyond recognition. Karna’s improvement – if present – is less drastic.
- At the start of the war, the only edge that Karna has is the Vasava dart. In all other respects, Arjuna is far superior.
- The moment Karna uses his Vasava dart on Ghatotkacha, Arjuna becomes invincible.
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered