The Karna Parva of the Mahabharata begins on the sixteenth day of the Mahabharata war. It ends with the death of Karna on the seventeenth day.
Following on from the Drona Parva Post – Part 3, I have put together a dozen Mahabharata stories from the Karna Parva, which will add to our growing repository of Mahabharata stories.
And here it is! Beginning with Karna’s investiture as commander, ending with his death. Enjoy!
Kaurava Death Toll
The Karna Parva begins at the end of Day 17, with Sanjaya arriving at Dhritarashtra’s palace on horseback, and breathlessly delivering the news that Karna has been killed. The events of the battle are then told in flashback.
Sanjaya gives Dhritarashtra a list of people who have all lost their lives in the first seventeen days. First, the Kauravas:
- Karna has been killed, O King (says Sanjaya), at the hands of Arjuna, along with all his sons and brother and other Suta warriors.
- Your son Duhsasana has also been killed by the second son of Pandu, and as was his vow, Bhima tore open his chest and drank his blood.
- Bhishma was slain, O King, after ten days of war, and Dronacharya, having slaughtered the Panchala divisions for four full days, died on the fifteenth day.
- Vivingsati the prince defeated hundreds of Anartas in battle, my lord, but now lies dead.
- Vikarna, your heroic son, deprived of his horses and weapons, stood face to face with Vrikodara, who slew him mercilessly.
- Vinda and Anuvinda, the two princes of Avanti, have also gone to Yama’s abode.
- The manner in which Jayadratha the Saindhava prince was slain by Arjuna is already known to the three worlds. Eleven akshauhinis of troops were killed by Partha on that day, O King.
- Lakshmana, the son of Duryodhana, has been despatched to the abode of Yama by Saubhadra, whereas the son of Duhsasana has been killed by the son of Draupadi. (We are not told here who, but it is most likely Prativindhya.)
- Somadatta and Bhurishrava have been killed by the ruthless Satyaki, whereas the grandsire Bahlika was crushed by Bhimasena’s bow.
- The son of Shalya, Rukmaratha, was killed by Sahadeva, and the son of Karna, Vrishasena, was shot to death by the keen arrows of Arjuna.
- Jayatsena, the prince of the Magadha kingdom and the son of Jarasandha, was killed by Abhimanyu, and the son of Bhagadatta was sent to Yama’s kingdom by Nakula.
- In addition to this, many thousands of Samsaptakas, Trigartas and Narayanas were slain by the ambidextrous one, even as Alayudha, the prince of Rakshasas, met his match in Ghatotkacha.
Pandava Death Toll
Dhritarashtra is struck by grief at Sanjaya’s words, and now asks for a list of Pandava warriors who died in the war. Sanjaya replies thus:
- Thousands of Narayanas, Valabhadras, and hundreds of other heroes devoted to the Pandavas were slain by Bhishma, O King.
- Satyajit, a hero equal in prowess to Arjuna, was killed by Drona of sure aim.
- Drona also killed Virata and Drupada, those leaders of the Matsyas and the Panchalas respectively.
- Under the watch of the preceptor, the killing of Abhimanyu also occurred, hunted down as he was by six atirathas. The son of Duhsasana landed the final blow on Saubhadra’s head with his mace.
- The son of Amvashtha, surrounded by a large force, fought with Lakshmana but was unable to prevail against him. The mighty bowman Vrihanta was sent to the land of Yama by Duhsasana, whereas the two kings Manimata and Dandadhara were killed by Drona.
- Ashwatthama killed Nila and Vyaghradatta, O King, while Chitrayudha and Chitrayodhin were slain by Vikarna.
- The chief of the Kaikeyas, equal unto Vrikodara in battle, was slain by Kaikeya, his own brother. Janamejaya of the hilly country was sentenced to death by your son Durmukha, even as the Rochamana brothers were killed by Drona’s shafts.
- Purujit and Kuntibhoja both met their deaths when they faced the preceptor, and Yudhamanyu and Uttamaujas, the guardians of Arjuna’s chariot-wheels, were also killed by your men.
- Shikhandin’s son, Kshatradeva, was killed by Lakshmana, and Senavindu, the foremost of Sutas, died when fighting Bahlika.
- Suketu, the son of Sisupala, was killed by Drona, and Virata’s sons – Sankha and Uttara – were sent to heaven by Bhishma. Similarly, Satyadhriti of the Matsyas and Madiraswa of great energy were both slain by Drona.
The full list of warriors who lost their lives is more comprehensive than this (of course). I have included here only the main ones so that we get a taste for the kind of details Sanjaya inserted into his narrative for Dhritarashtra.
Karna Becomes Commander
It is the night of the fifteenth day. Both armies have retreated to their respective camps. The Kaurava side is the more sombre one, understandably, because they have lost Drona.
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.’
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.’
Arjuna Defeats Ashwatthama
With Arjuna resuming his battle with the Samsaptakas, he is on the verge of destroying them completely when Ashwatthama rides up and challenges him to a duel.
Though Arjuna is a momentarily confounded as to whether to fight the Samsaptakas or to accept Ashwatthama’s challenge, Krishna makes the decision for him by inviting the son of Drona to fight. ‘Come, Ashwatthama,’ he says, ‘Partha is ready for you.’
The battle that develops between the two is a long and attritional one. On one side is Ashwatthama, with the Samsaptakas supporting. On the other is Arjuna, fighting alone from his chariot. Krishna suspects once again that Arjuna is not pushing himself to his full ability because of feelings of sympathy toward Ashwatthama.
‘Do you not know, Partha,’ he says, ‘that even this man can kill your entire race if left alive? Do not show mercy where none is warranted. Kill the son of Drona right now.’
Arjuna is spurred on by these words, but he stops short of killing Ashwatthama. Instead he shoots arrow after arrow at Ashwatthama’s horses so that the animals flee the battlefield, taking their master with him.
This act of kindness on Arjuna’s part will come back later to haunt him, because Krishna’s words do come true. It is Ashwatthama who, at the end, kills the entire Pandava army in one night. But more on that later.
Nakula is Spared
On the sixteenth day, Nakula and Karna find themselves facing one another. The Pandava is happy to have the opportunity.
He says, ‘After a long time the gods have favoured me, O Vaikartana. You are the root of all these evils, this hostility, this quarrel. 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.’
A long and fierce battle ensues then between the two, and they succeed in breaking each other’s bow. 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, 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.’
This is the second instance of Karna sparing one of the Pandavas in honour of the promise he made Kunti. Note that this flies in the face of his promise to Duryodhana at the dawn of Day 16, where he proudly says, ‘The Pandavas are as good as slain!’
At the end of the sixteenth day, Karna tells Duryodhana that on Day 17, he will ensure that he will kill Arjuna. He presents a thesis comparing his strengths and weaknesses with those of Arjuna. A short summary is as follows:
- The energy of my celestial weapons (says Karna) is equal unto the energy of Arjuna’s. In the art of counteracting one’s foes, in lightness of hand, in range of arrows shot, in skill and marksmanship, I am as good as, if not better than, the ambidextrous one.
- My bow, called Vijaya, is the foremost of its kind. It was crafted by none other than Vishwakarma, and it was used in battle by Indra to vanquish the Danavas. Its twang sent shivers down the spines of thousands of Asuras down the ages. It is in no way inferior to the Gandiva.
- However, the string of his bow is celestial in nature, and it cannot ever be broken by an arrow. His quivers are said to be inexhaustible, which means that he can never be made weaponless in the midst of battle.
- His chariot is decked with gold, and it has been given him by none other than Agni. It is imperishable to all weapons, earthly or divine. His horses are manned by Krishna, who is the creator and protector of the universe. Due to this, no warrior has managed to cripple him by wounding his charioteer or by destroying his vehicle.
- In order to neutralize these advantages, therefore, arrange for a number of weapon-laden carts to follow me at all times tomorrow, so that I may never be without a bow or an arrow when I need it. Also, arrange for a charioteer who is as powerful as Krishna.
And when Duryodhana wonders out loud who could be as skillful as Krishna at handling a chariot, Karna suggests the name of Shalya.
Thus, Karna signs his own death warrant.
When Duryodhana makes this request of Shalya, the Madra king laughs first, and then is moved to quiet rage.
‘In the garb of respect, O Duryodhana,’ he says, ‘you insult me. You seem to think that Karna is the only great warrior in your army. You might believe all the tall tales that come out of Vaikartana’s mouth, but not all of us do. I do not even regard him my equal.
‘If by your admission I am as great as Krishna is, you must mean that Karna is equal in prowess to Arjuna. That is simply the most outrageous claim, O King. Take a look around you at the akshauhini of forces that I have brought for you, Duryodhana. Take a look at this bow, at this mace, at these excellent horses yoked to my chariot.
‘I have been classified as an atiratha by the grandsire Bhishma on the eve of the first day of battle, and on the same occasion, he said that Karna is nothing but an ardharatha!
‘You are asking me to hold the reins of the chariot that belongs to a Sutaputra. Pray, when have you ever heard of a king driving a lowborn’s vehicle?’
Saying this, Shalya starts to call off his army and leave the battlefield then and there, but Duryodhana stops him with this clarification:
‘Neither I nor Karna think that you are inferior to the king of Anga, O Shalya. We know that you are superior to all of us in fighting ability. But today, it is your knowledge of horses that is the relevant measure, and in that, we consider you to be at least twice as proficient as that prince of Dwaraka.’
Duryodhana manages to convince Shalya to say yes, but the king of Madra imposes a condition. ‘Let it be understood by Vaikartana,’ he says, ‘that while I will drive his chariot, I will in his presence utter whatever words that I wish.’
And Duryodhana, not realizing the gravity of the request, says, ‘So be it!’
Discord Between Brothers
A strange incident happens during the afternoon of Day 17: Arjuna and Yudhishthir have a quarrel.
It all begins with Yudhishthir is chased back to the Pandava camp by Karna, and the Pandava is forced to actually retire from the battlefield and hide inside his tent. Here he is tended to by Nakula and Sahadeva.
He is battered and bruised in body, but also wounded in spirit. He does not understand why Karna is still not being killed by Arjuna.
Meanwhile, Arjuna and Krishna notice that Yudhishthir is nowhere to be seen, and worried for his safety, they come all the way to his tent to check on him.
But Yudhishthir thinks that Krishna and Arjuna have come to give him the good news that Karna is dead. So he gets up and welcomes Arjuna with the words: ‘You have finally killed your nemesis, Brother. Congratulations to you!’
When Arjuna replies that Karna still lives, Yudhishthir hits back with surprising spite. ‘Fie upon you, Arjuna!’ he says. ‘Fie upon your Gandiva, your celestial weapons, your chariot and your skill. With all the power in your hands to end this war, you still choose to draw it out and cause so many thousands of men to die. If you give your Gandiva to someone else, they may do a better job of it!’
This angers Arjuna to the point of wanting to take Yudhishthir’s life. Krishna intervenes, in fact, and makes peace between the brothers.
Arjuna Insults Yudhishthir
With peace restored between them, Arjuna still has a doubt. Years before, he had taken a vow that he would kill anyone who would threaten to take the Gandiva away from him. Now that Yudhishthir has committed that sin, Arjuna is meant to kill him. But he is his elder brother and equal unto his father.
‘How can I be true to my promise and still fulfill my duty as younger brother?’ he asks Krishna.
And Krishna replies, ‘Arjuna, whenever a younger person insults his elder, the latter is said to have sentenced to death by the former. So by insulting Yudhishthir, you will be true to your promise and still not harm him physically.’
Thus given the license, Arjuna goes all out, blaming Yudhishthir for all his past misdeeds. For taking Draupadi away from him. For sending him away on exile. For not listening to Sahadeva’s advice regarding the dice game. For the death of Bhishma. For having lied to Dronacharya. For everything the Pandavas and Draupadi had to endure. For the death of millions of men in Kurukshetra.
After getting all these matters off his chest, he then washes Yudhishthir’s feet and asks him for forgiveness. The two brothers embrace, and Krishna tells Arjuna that the time has come for his final battle with Karna.
They ride out with Yudhishthir’s blessing.
As he wheels the chariot toward Karna, Krishna reminds Arjuna of all of Karna’s misdeeds in a bid to rouse his passion. Here’s a quick list:
- Remember, Partha (says Krishna), that it was Karna who cut off the bow of Abhimanyu. Recall that he had fought your son fair and square at first, but having lost that battle, returned to shoot at him from behind.
- Also remember how Karna insulted Panchali on the day of the dice game. ‘The Pandavas will be of no help to you now, O Draupadi,’ he had said. ‘Enter now the abode of Duryodhana and choose him as your husband.’ These were his very words.
- He said that the Pandavas are now like sesame seeds without a kernel, that you have sunk into hell.
- Remember that it was Karna who argued against Vikarna as to whether Draupadi was won or not won during the dice game. Remember all the painful words he had uttered, and remember that you took your oath on that day to kill him.
- Remember that it is he who has always poisoned Duryodhana’s mind against the Pandavas. Without Karna, Duryodhana would never have had the courage to face up to the Pandavas.
‘May your arrows, Arjuna,’ finishes Krishna, ‘with the speed of lightning, speed across the battlefield of Kurukshetra and pierce that wretched son of Adiratha in his vitals. May Suyodhana feel the first painful darts of despair in his heart at the sight of Karna’s head rolling in the dust.’
We must note here that what Krishna cites as Karna’s ‘misdeeds’ here are not really misdeeds. They happen to be actions that are contrary to the Pandavas’ wishes.
In any case, once this short speech is given, Arjuna primes his Gandiva in order to kill Karna. And he says to Krishna, ‘Lead me to him.’
Aswasena is a Naga who used once live in the Khandava forest. Ever since Arjuna burnt it down and killed all his family members, Aswasena has been yearning for revenge.
Today, with the battle looming between Karna and Arjuna, Aswasena offers to become an arrow on Karna’s bow, with the promise that it will kill Arjuna for certain.
Karna agrees, and when he shoots Aswasena at Arjuna, the trajectory of the shaft is such that it will behead Arjuna. But right in the nick of time, Krishna stamps down on his chariot so that it sinks into the earth. This causes the arrow to hit Arjuna’s crown instead and to topple it.
Aswasena goes back to Karna and says, ‘Shoot me again. This time Krishna will not be able to rescue Arjuna.’
But Karna refuses, saying that it is against the rules of war to shoot the same arrow twice at the same enemy.
With Aswasena looking to run away from the battlefield now, Krishna urges Arjuna to shoot the Naga down and kill him. With six keen shafts, the Pandava slices Aswasena’s body into seven pieces, even as Krishna descends to the ground to pull Arjuna’s chariot out of the earth to its normal height.
In the duel with Arjuna, Karna gives a decent account of himself until his chariot wheel sinks into the ground. He tells Shalya, his charioteer: ‘Like Krishna pulled Arjuna’s chariot off the ground, please right my vehicle so that I may continue to fight.’
And Shalya replies, ‘I am a king, not your charioteer. If you wish to pull your vehicle out, do so yourself.’
So Karna is forced to fight from the ground while still trying to tend to his damaged chariot. He requests Arjuna for some time so that he can get back on his vehicle, but Krishna interrupts him and reminds him of all the times in the past where virtue had been forgotten with regards to the Pandavas.
He commands Arjuna to let his arrow fly, and Arjuna complies.
Karna’s head is separated from his trunk, and he falls to the ground in muted fashion. For a man who is the son of a god, no flowers rain over him. No music plays. Surya (the sun god) shows no signs of distress. He dies just like any other man, to the despair of his friends and delight of his enemies.
This brings to an end the seventeenth day of the Mahabharata war.
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