The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Kundala Harana Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Surya Warns Karna
Vaisampayana now tells Janamejaya about the incident of Indra coming to Karna and asking for his natural kavacha kundalas (armour and earrings).
He states that this happens toward the end of the Pandavas’ twelfth year of exile, just as the thirteenth year is about to set in. Knowing of Indra’s intentions, Surya appears to Karna as a Brahmin and warns him of what is about to come.
‘A Brahmin will arrive at your door in a short while, O Karna,’ says Surya, ‘and ask for the armour and earrings that have adorned your body since your birth. He knows that your character is such that you will never reject a Brahmin’s request.
‘I have come to tell you, therefore, that you should deny this man at all costs.’
‘Who are you, good sir?’ asks Karna, welcoming his guest. ‘Why are you so kind as to warn me? And who is this man intent on robbing me of my gift? What need does a Brahmin have, indeed, for a coat of mail?’
Surya reveals his true identity, but does not, of course, tell Karna that he is his father. ‘I am the Sun God, the being that bathes Earth in light and warmth every day. And the person about to come to you is Lord Indra himself.
‘He wishes to take your armour away from you because that will allow Arjuna, his son, to vanquish you in battle. Use your power of words and your knowledge of the science of morality to convince him that it is wrong to ask that gift of you.’
Karna is pleased that two gods have seen it fit to visit him. ‘Am I not truly blessed that the god of light himself cares about me so much? And my lord, has it not been said that the actions of this life give us rewards in the next?
‘Keeping that in mind, if Indra himself asks me for my kavacha kundalas, perhaps I am destined to fight in the great battle without them. How can I deny the king of the gods himself?
‘If I perform this act of charity, I am certain that it will give me great fame in the three worlds.’
‘Fame is of no use to dead men, my son,’ says Surya. ‘Remember that people wish for lasting fame in heaven without sacrificing their bodies. What need for fame has a man who has been reduced to ashes?
‘You are one of my staunchest devotees, and I must protect you from all harm. So listen to my suggestion.
‘When Indra comes to you and asks for your armour, you must say that you will hand them over only in exchange for the Vasavi dart, which will make you invincible.
‘There is no way Sakra will part with that weapon to take your kavacha kundalas. But even if he does, you will have nothing to worry because you will become a stronger warrior than you are now.’
This strikes Karna as a good bargain. ‘So be it!’ he says, and salutes Surya once again, even as the latter disappears.
A short while later, Indra appears at Karna’s house in the garb of a Brahmin. Karna, of course, knows who this is, but he feigns innocence and welcomes the man into the main hall.
‘A necklace of gold, a beautiful damsel, a thousand cows, a village teeming with cattle – of these, what shall I give you, Venerable One?’
‘I want none of those, O King,’ says Indra. ‘I have come here for the coat of mail that covers your body, and the rings that hang off your ears. These I will consider superior to every other form of wealth in the world.’
‘This armour has been given to me by the gods on the occasion of my birth, O Sage,’ replies Karna. ‘It has been treated with the nectar of youth, which grants immortality to the celestials.
‘It therefore protects me from all manner of weapons, and it renders me invincible in battle. I cannot give it to you, therefore. I will give you my entire kingdom if you wish it so, but not this.’
‘I shall take your mail and earrings, or I shall take nothing at all,’ says Indra.
Karna joins his hands and bows to his guest, now. ‘I know that it is Sakra, the god of gods, that stands before me. I shall give you my kavacha kundalas, O Lord. But I only ask that you confer upon me a boon in return.’
A Boon in Return
Indra, knowing that his secret is up, sheds his human form and smiles at Karna. ‘You can ask me for anything, Karna, except for the Vajrayudha.’
‘I do not seek the thunderbolt, O Indra,’ says Karna. ‘But I wish to have an invincible dart that will render me fearsome to all my enemies, whom I can slay by the thousands.’
Indra brings out the Vasava dart and presents it to Karna. ‘In my hands, this dart kills thousands of Daityas at a time, and I can use it on as many occasions as I want. When you use it, though, you will be able to kill just one powerful enemy, after which it will return to me.’
Karna thinks about it for a moment, and decides that it is worth it. ‘I wish to kill but one enemy of mine. Grant me this weapon in return for my armour and earrings.’
And thus the trade happens. Karna peels off his armour, plucks off his earrings, and presents them to Indra, his whole body bruised and bleeding.
With the god’s blessing, all his wounds heal immediately, and he procures the Vasava dart, which he preserves for use against Arjuna in the battle of Kurukshetra.
As it turns out, the weapon ends up killing Ghatotkacha, so this intervention by Indra is successful in hindsight.
The Kundala Harana Parva ends on this note.