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 Karna Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
And despite the anger of Ashwatthama, they were unable to fight back and claim the life of any significant Pandava warrior as revenge.
In the council of kings in his tent, Duryodhana throws open the floor for advice. The son of Drona says the following words:
‘Enthusiasm, opportunity, skill and policy – these are the four means declared by the learned to be capable of accomplishing all ends, O King. Those foremost of men on our side who have led us over the last fifteen days have been slain.
‘But that does not fill us with despair. We still have the means to win this war. If all these four elements are properly adopted by the remaining heroes in our army, victory will certainly be yours.
‘To this end, O Bharata, install Karna as our leader. Powerful as Yama himself, the king of Anga will annihilate the sons of Pandu and all their followers.’
Karna Becomes Commander
Duryodhana looks around the room for voices of dissent, and when he sees nothing, he rises to his feet and summons Karna to the forefront. Hands placed on his friend’s shoulders, he says:
‘Bhishma and Drona were our best warriors, O Vaikartana, but they were also our oldest. They had deep feelings of kinship toward the Pandavas, so they never fought this war in order to win.
‘With you as our commander, however, I am certain that we will do all that is necessary to destroy the Pandava, Srinjaya, Somaka and Panchala forces.’
Karna replies, ‘O son of Gandhari, I have said this before in your presence, and I will say it again. I will vanquish all the Pandavas along with their sons, and even Janardana.
‘I will become your General. Becalm yourself, for at this moment, the sons of Pritha are already to be considered slain.’
The Armies Prepare
The following morning, Karna arranges the Kaurava forces in the shape of a makara. (The word is often used to mean a crocodile or an alligator, but precisely speaking, it is a mythical amphibious creature that has thick scaly skin, a serrated tail and the head of a bird.)
At the tip of the beak of this creature stands Karna, the new commander of the army. Shakuni and his son Uluka occupy the positions that denote the makara’s eyes.
Ashwatthama and the brothers of Duryodhana, along with their armies, make up the head and neck respectively.
In the middle of the formation, guarded on all four sides, is Duryodhana, supported by a large unit. At the left foot of the beast is Kritavarma, at the head of what is left of the Narayanas and the Gopalas.
The right foot is made up of Kripacharya surrounded by the Trigartas and the Southerners. The right hind-foot is guarded by Sushena, with a thousand cars and three hundred elephants.
At the tail are the two brothers Chitra and Chitrasena, each commanding a large force.
The counter-array that the Pandavas use is in the shape of a crescent moon. The two corners of this array are taken up by Bhimasena (left) and Dhrishtadyumna (right).
In the middle are Yudhishthir and Arjuna fighting side by side, with Nakula and Sahadeva guarding the rear of their king’s chariot. Yudhamanyu and Uttamaujas, as always, are stationed at Arjuna’s wheels.
Karna versus Nakula
During the sixteenth day, Karna and Nakula happen to challenge each other to a battle.
the Pandava says, ‘After a long time the gods have favoured me, O Vaikartana. You are the root of all these evils, this hostility, this quarrel. It is through your fault that the Kauravas are seeing their numbers dwindle thus.
‘Killing you in battle today, I will regard myself as one who has achieved his life’s object. Come, O Radheya, and fight with me.’
Karna smiles at his younger brother’s bravado. ‘Strike me, O hero,’ he says, leaning on his bow. ‘I desire to witness your manliness. Only after having achieved something do you earn the right to boast, O son of Madri.
‘Those that are the best of warriors do not indulge in bragging; they allow their actions to speak for them.’
A long and fierce battle ensues then between the two, and they succeed in breaking each other’s bow. The Somakas come up to support Nakula, whereas some forces of Duryodhana arrive to fight alongside Karna.
Nakula is Spared
The two warriors alternate between fighting each other and the armies that are arrayed in front of them. But little by little, Karna inches ahead in the duel, and the number of arrows he shoots into the sky seems to rise every moment.
Nakula tries to flee from this encounter now, having lost his weapon again, but Karna chases him and places his bow around the neck of the Pandava. ‘The words you have uttered are futile, O Prince,’ he tells him.
‘Can you say them again now, while your life is at my mercy? Do not fight those who are superior to you, child. Run away to where Janardana and Falguna are fighting, for that is your place.’
Nakula is, needless to say, ashamed beyond reason for having lost to Karna, and going to where Yudhishthir is fighting, ascends his elder brother’s chariot and sighs repeatedly like a snake.
The Sixteenth Day Ends
Toward the end of the sixteenth day, Karna and Arjuna almost fight. Karna leads a counterattack against the Pandavas.
Such is the counterattack that Karna leads that the Panchalas, led by the sons of Drupada, flee from the field. With the atirathas of the Dhartarashtra army supporting Karna in his fight against Yuyudhana, large ranks of the Pandava forces break and run in fear.
Seeing this, Krishna and Arjuna arrive there to engage with Karna.
As the Gandiva bends into a semicircle with Arjuna seemingly dancing on top of his chariot, a number of heavy arrows fill the sky, and they fall with unerring aim upon the soldiers surrounding the son of Radha.
Like a tempest destroying the clouds, Arjuna scatters the thousands of men fighting for Duryodhana, severing their limbs, killing their horses, demolishing their chariots, and taking their lives.
Seeing his supporting warriors thus fall to Arjuna’s skill, Karna abandons the Varshneya and turns toward his oncoming arch-enemy. A number of Pandavas now rally around Satyaki to strengthen the attack on Karna.
These include Shikhandi, the Upapandavas, Uttamaujas, Yuyutsu, Dhrishtadyumna and Yudhishthir.
With them circling Vaikartana from all sides, the latter still manages to hold his own, first defending himself and then disempowering each warrior in turn.
At the end of the day, in a consultation with Duryodhana, he analyzes his strengths and weaknesses as a warrior relative to Arjuna, and comes to the conclusion that the only point of difference between them is that Arjuna has the superior charioteer.
‘So if you give me a charioteer,’ he tells Duryodhana, ‘that is as capable as Krishna, I shall defeat Arjuna.’
Duryodhana looks around him at the assembled heroes. ‘Who among us can claim to be as skilled as Krishna?’ he asks.
‘The king of the Madras,’ replies Karna, ‘is said to be deeply acquainted with equine lore. There is also none among our live atirathas who can match him in strength or skill.
‘If he holds the reins of my chariot and leads me into battle against Arjuna, I will have risen to equal the son of Kunti in every way.’
Shalya is not too amused at Duryodhana’s request that he should drive Karna’s chariot. Or he is only pretending to be hurt because of his prior promise to Yudhishthir – that he will weaken Karna in his battle against Arjuna.
One can think of two reasons for Shalya’s reaction:
- Shalya is an atiratha. No one in their right mind would use a warrior of his prowess to drive a chariot. When he could be fighting and killing thousands of warriors, why should he hold the whip instead?
- There is also a class angle to Duryodhana’s request. Remember that Karna himself is the son of a charioteer. In a just world (just according to Shalya), Karna should be the charioteer and Shalya the hero. The fact that he is being asked to drive a chariot is demeaning enough, but that he is going to serve under Karna of all people – that would have really rankled Shalya.
However, after much persuasion, Shalya does accept. But he places a condition that he should be allowed to say whatever he pleases to Karna during the day of battle.
Duryodhana does not spot the catch, and enthusiastically agrees.
Discord Between Brothers
However, Karna’s chariot is not the only place where there is discord brewing. Arjuna and Yudhishthir – quite uncharacteristically, because Arjuna is one of Yudhishthir’s staunchest supporters – argue with one another during the mid-afternoon.
What happens is this: Yudhishthir retreats from the battle after losing a fight with Karna. While he is in his tent nursing his wounds (and his pride), Arjuna and Krishna arrive to see if he is all right.
Yudhishthir mistakes the intention of their visit; he thinks that Arjuna has already vanquished Karna. He launches into a few sentences of praise before he is stopped by Krishna. Disappointed, he then insults Arjuna.
‘Why do you still hold the Gandiva, Arjuna,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘when you’re unable to kill your arch-enemy? If you give it to another warrior, they may do a better job than you.’
Arjuna, of course, is miffed that after all this, Yudhishthir has vented his frustration on him. He raises a weapon and stands up to strike his elder brother, shaking in rage.
Krishna separates the two brothers and makes peace between them. But Arjuna says, ‘I have taken a vow that anyone who tries to snatch the Gandiva away from me will be killed by me. How do I fulfill this vow?’
Krishna Gives an Idea
Krishna says, ‘Arjuna, it is said that when a younger brother harshly speaks to his older brother, the latter has already died. So set aside your weapon and insult Yudhishthir to your heart’s content. That will ensure that your vow does not remain forsaken.’
Arjuna now lets loose. He points out each of Yudhishthir’s many lapses of judgement – the dice game, Draupadi’s disrobing, the killing of Drona – and tells him that the title of Dharmaraja is nothing but a lie.
He cites Yudhishthir responsible for all the troubles in their life. He gives voice to all the internal turmoil of the last twenty-odd years, and by the end of it he is visibly shaking with emotion.
Krishna is right by his side to console him. Yudhishthir, for his part, accepts his younger brother’s words humbly.
Now, Krishna guides Arjuna through a ritual of respecting Yudhishthir: washing his feet, embracing him, asking for his forgiveness and so on. With the brothers reconciling with each other, Arjuna finally asks Yudhishthir for his blessing.
‘I am going to meet that Sutaputra in battle now, Brother,’ he says. ‘And I am going to return only after killing him.’
Meanwhile, a battle breaks out between Duhsasana and Bhimasena.
Duhsasana dominates the early part of this duel, cutting off Bhima’s bow, and then with six shafts injuring Visoka, the Pandava’s charioteer. Bhima, consumed with rage, hurls a dart at his sworn enemy, but sees it being shattered to pieces by nine well-aimed arrows.
While the soldiers witnessing this battle applaud Duhsasana for his skill, Bhima addresses his cousin and says, ‘Pierced I have been, O hero, deeply by your arrows. But bear now once more the stroke of my mace!’
With those words, a fierce dart resembling the mace of Yama flies from Bhima’s hand toward Duhsasana. It strikes its target on the head, and carries him a distance measured by the length of ten bows away from his chariot.
Picking up a sword and slicing open the chest of his enemy, Bhima then pounds the heel of his foot down on Duhsasana’s throat, not paying attention to whether he is alive or dead.
Crazed with rage, he straddles the son of Dhritarashtra and drinks his warm lifeblood before chopping off his head with two swipes of his sword.
‘I regard my enemy’s blood to be tastier than my mother’s milk, or honey, or clarified butter, or even ambrosia or nectar that the gods drink.’
While the soldiers surrounding him look on in shock, and whisper to one another that he is not a human being, Bhima looks down at his blood-ridden hands, and realizes for the first time that Duhsasana has been dead.
He laughs softly and says, ‘What more can I do? Death has rescued you from my hands.’
Soon after Karna and Arjuna begin their long-awaited duel, a Naga by the name of Aswasena emerges from his burrow. He happens to be the son of a Nagini who loses her life during the burning of Khandava.
The son has been plotting revenge on Arjuna all these years, and now he thinks his opportunity has arrived.
Disguising himself as an arrow, therefore, he takes his place in Karna’s quiver. At a particularly crucial moment of the battle, the son of Radha draws him and places him on his bow.
At this moment, all the watchers of heaven become alert, because they all know that this arrow has the power to kill Dhananjaya.
Shalya tries his best to dissuade Karna from using the weapon. ‘This shaft will not succeed, O Vaikartana,’ he says, ‘in cutting off the head of Arjuna. Return it into your quiver and shoot instead a stronger one.’
But Karna does not listen. ‘The day on which I take fighting advice from my charioteer lies mercifully long into the future, O Shalya,’ he says. ‘I will never aim an arrow twice upon my bow. People like me can never be crooked warriors.’
With these words, he lets the shaft fly in Arjuna’s direction. As it whizzes through the air and zeroes in on its target, Karna is filled with an almost ethereal confidence. ‘You are slain, O Partha,’ he whispers.
But Krishna resorts to yet another of his tricks to save his friend. By suddenly pressing down on the chariot with his big toe, he causes the vehicle to sink into the earth an inch or so, causing the arrow to hit Arjuna’s diadem instead.
The Same Arrow Twice
With the crown that earned him the name Kiriti no longer adorning his head, Arjuna covers his hair with a white cloth, and stands unhurt. Aswasena is understandably forlorn at this course of events, so he returns to Karna and asks the latter to shoot him once again.
‘You shot me the first time without knowing of me, O Karna,’ the Naga says. ‘And that is why I was unable to hit the son of Pandu. This time, take me once again onto your bow, and shoot me with full knowledge of what I can do to your enemy.’
Karna is slightly taken aback at the way his arrow has assumed a fearsome form. ‘Who are you?’ he asks. ‘And why are you so eager to defeat my foe?’
‘Know me, O Vaikartana,’ replies Aswasena, ‘as one who has been wronged by Partha many years ago. My enmity toward him is on account of his slaying my mother.
‘Even if the wielder of the thunderbolt is to protect Arjuna today, he will have to go to the domain ruled by the Pitris. Do not disregard me. Use me on your bow one more time and I promise you – I shall see to his death!’
But Karna refuses this offer of help. ‘A true Kshatriya does not shoot the same arrow twice. Nor do I want or need help in vanquishing my sworn enemy. So go away from here, O Naga, and witness me using my other weapons in slaying the ambidextrous one.’
Krishna, then, swooping in on the moment, tells Arjuna to kill Aswasena without delay.
Aswasena is about to flee in a hurry back to his burrow, but six keen shafts released from the Gandiva seek him out, and his body is sliced into seven pieces.
Krishna then descends to the ground and raises Arjuna’s chariot from the earth back to its original height.
Karna and Arjuna resume their battle. After a short while, Kala arrives on the scene, gentle as a breeze.
He whispers into Karna’s ear that his time has come. ‘Your death will shortly devour you, O King of Anga,’ he says, ‘and the earth will swallow your left wheel.’
No sooner does the son of Radha hear these words than he senses his chariot tilt to one side. Losing balance momentarily, Karna strives to remember the chant of the Brahmastra as taught him by Parashurama, but true to the curse of the Brahmin, he forgets it.
He jumps off his chariot and falls to his knee by the sinking chariot wheel. For a moment this shrouds him from Arjuna’s arrows, but Krishna is quick to advise Partha to get closer.
‘Your enemy is hiding behind his vehicle, O Kiriti,’ he says. ‘I shall steer our horses so that you get a better view of him. Once we get close to him, rain all your superior weapons upon his person and eliminate him.’
Sensing Arjuna approach, and watching his wheel sunk into the earth, Karna raises his voice and appeals to his opponent. ‘You are the bravest warrior in the world, O Partha,’ he says. ‘And you have gained a reputation for being among the most righteous.
‘Do not shoot at a man whose armour has been displaced, and whose chariot has broken. Allow me a moment to bring my wheel out of the ground, and we can fight once again as equals.
‘Recollect all that you have been taught by Dronacharya, O Falguna, and excuse me for just long enough so that I may ascend my chariot once again.’
The response to Karna’s request comes from Krishna. ‘It is indeed a matter of great fortune, Karna,’ he says, standing up in his seat and brandishing the whip, ‘that you remember virtue today.
‘It is generally the case that men, when they sink into distress, rail at Providence and Fate, but never at their own misdeeds. It is indeed fortunate, too, that I am here to remind you of them.
‘When Shakuni played the dice game and deceitfully robbed Yudhishthir of his kingdom, O Radheya, where did your virtue go? When Duhsasana dragged Panchali to the middle of the assembly while dressed in a single garment, this virtue you speak of – where was it?
‘When the period of the thirteen years of exile had elapsed, you did not follow the virtuous path and return Indraprastha to the sons of Pandu. When Duryodhana plotted to trap these five brothers in a house of wax in Varanavata, did anyone mention virtue?
‘And when Draupadi was undressed, O Karna, you laughed the loudest. You said that the Pandavas were sesame seeds without a kernel. You invited her to elect Duryodhana as her husband, and to enter the court of Hastinapur as his wife!
‘And in this very war, when six warriors hunted down Abhimanyu like a pack of wolves, first disarming him and then attacking him all at the same time, did you stop even for a moment thinking about virtue?
‘You are now speaking in the language of Dharma only because you think that you will appeal to Dhananjaya’s good side, O Sutaputra, but it will not. He will not spare you today.’
With Karna’s face reddening with shame, Krishna turns to Arjuna and commands him to draw his most powerful weapons.
‘This is your moment, Partha,’ he says. ‘A quiver full of arrows rests on your shoulder. Your foremost enemy stands in front of you. The Gandiva is in your hands. Victory is in our sight. Draw the bow. Pull the string. Let the arrow fly.’
Arjuna does not disappoint. He fits the Anjalika weapon to his bow. It resembles the thunderbolt of Indra. It measures three cubits and six feet in length.
Seeing him preparing to release this arrow at Karna, the mobile and immobile creatures of the world huddle together in part anticipation, part fear.
With his eyes closed, Arjuna says, ‘Let this shaft of mine be endued with the power of Truth, and may that Truth slay Karna. May this accord me the victory that I deserve.’
Karna throws down his bow and adopts a stance of welcome, as if he can see a message of doom written on the Gandiva. The Anjalika cuts through the air and pierces him in the throat. The next moment, his trunk is separated from his head.
There are no celestial lamentations at Karna’s death. For the son of a god, reactions to his passing are quite muted. Surya does not bathe the earth in a shower of golden rays; nor does he carry his son away on a bed of light.
He dies just like any other human being, amid wails of despair of friends, and cheers of enemies.
Shalya steers the deprived chariot back to Duryodhana and relays him the news. With Duryodhana mourning his friend and companion, the seventeenth day of the Mahabharata war comes to a close.
The Karna Parva ends with Karna’s death.