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 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.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Niyoga is a process by which a married couple can gain children by arranging for the wife to unite biologically with another man who acts as a sperm donor. The resulting children will be considered – legally, morally and socially – to be fathered by the husband in the marriage.
This process is generally used in the following cases:
- When a wife is widowed before she has had a chance to have children with her husband.
- When a man is unable to – or has lost the power to – bear children with his wife due to a curse or any other physical health issue.
- When a man is unable to approach his wife sexually due to some other reason, such as a curse.
We must note here that this is a practice that is used as the last resort, when there is no other way in which the married couple in question can bear children.
Examples of Niyoga
In the Mahabharata, multiple examples of niyoga exist:
- Vyasa the sage impregnates three women at the behest of his mother Satyavati. With Ambika he has Dhritarashtra. With Ambalika he fathers Pandu. And with an unnamed Sudra waiting woman, he has Vidura.
- The Pandavas themselves are the products of niyoga. Since Pandu is cursed by Sage Kindama against sexual pleasure, he consents to Kunti and Madri summoning gods and bearing children with them.
- After Parashurama eliminates all the Kshatriyas of the world, the queens of the dead kings bring forth sons into the world by uniting with numerous Brahmins using this practice. It is said that Parashurama destroys the Kshatriya race a total of twenty one times. But it keeps regenerating thanks to niyoga.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 3: Amba, Ambika and Ambalika.)
When niyoga is used, there are a few rules concerning the caste (or ‘varna’ to be precise) of the child that is born. Here are a few scenarios:
- If the husband of the woman bearing the child is dead, the child inherits the caste of the dead father. Therefore, in the case of Dhritarashtra and Pandu, they become Kshatriyas at birth despite being born to a Brahmin.
- If the husband of the woman bearing the child is alive, the child inherits his caste. Therefore, the Pandavas – despite being born to gods – are considered Kshatriyas.
- If the woman is a maiden at the time of giving birth, the child inherits the caste of her future husband, provided that he does not disown it. Vidura, therefore – assuming the waiting woman was not married at the time of Vyasa’s visit – remains a Sudra all his life.
- If a woman is a maiden at the time of giving birth and she never marries, the child inherits the caste of the maiden’s father.
In the case of Karna, he is born to Kunti before she gets married. But at the moment of her marriage to Pandu, all her premarital children automatically become his.
Even if Pandu had been alive and had for some reason disowned Karna, he would have inherited the caste of either Kunti’s adopted father, Kuntibhoja, or her biological father, Shurasena. Both of these men are kings – and therefore Kshatriyas.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 4: Kunti, Madri and Gandhari.)
Therefore, Karna is a Kshatriya – by birth. However, the story gets a little bit more complicated hereon.
Importance of Actions
Even though Karna is definitely a Kshatriya by birth, the Mahabharata also tells us that one’s birth is only a small factor in determining one’s order. What carries much more importance is how one lives one’s life.
For instance, a Brahmin who commits several sins is not ‘really’ a Brahmin despite being born in that order. A king who is pious, nonviolent and fearful of battle may be born in the Kshatriya race, but will never be called a ‘true’ Kshatriya.
Similarly, members of a ‘lower’ order can also attain the status reserved for higher orders by moulding their behaviours accordingly.
All three of these men, though, chose their behaviours consciously. With Karna, a life in the Suta tribe was thrust upon him because Kunti abandoned him as an infant.
Karna is found by Adiratha and Radha, a married and childless couple who belong to the Suta caste. Adiratha adopts Karna with due rites and rituals as his own son. They raise him as a Suta.
Throughout his life, Karna is caught in the dilemma: he is by all appearances and qualities a Kshatriya, but he is also by the activities of his daily life a Sutaputra. For the longest time he suffers underneath the label – and for many years his detractors insult him with the word.
However, as he grows older, after his anointment as the king of Anga, Karna experiences the life of a Kshatriya as well. He is now a Kshatriya by birth and by his living.
But two things happen after his ascension to Anga’s throne:
- His past detractors still do not consider him a Kshatriya. They still denounce him. Case in point: Draupadi, at her swayamvara, stops him from competing for her hand by announcing to the assembly that she does not wish to be married to a Sutaputra.
- He realizes himself that he cannot become a Kshatriya just by acquiring the trappings of one.
Karna’s Chosen Order
Karna’s journey, therefore, can be summed up thus: During the first few years of his life, he is raised as a Sutaputra while being painfully being aware that he is by birth a Kshatriya.
He is therefore simultaneously resentful of being a Suta and desirous of becoming a Kshatriya at all costs. It is this desire that pushes him to lie to Parashurama and to appear at the graduation ceremony.
At the graduation, though, contrary to his wildest expectations, Karna becomes king of Anga because of Duryodhana’s intervention. Karna thus gets everything that he has ever wanted. He is now a Kshatriya.
But over the years of being a Kshatriya, he actually grows closer to his adoptive parents. Adiratha and Radha live with him. He marries a Suta girl. He makes sure that his sons are raised as Sutaputras, not Kshatriyas.
This leads us to speculate. Perhaps he saw through the emptiness of the Kshatriya life and preferred the earthy nature of being a Suta? Perhaps he needed to have all of his wishes fulfilled in order to realize that he didn’t want them after all? We don’t know.
Regardless of the reasons, Karna articulates this when he rejects Krishna’s offer to fight on the Pandavas’ side. He says, ‘I am grateful to Duryodhana for having allowed me all these years to rule Anga without giving up my Suta caste.’
And then he says, ‘I was born a Sutaputra. I will die a Sutaputra.’
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 35: Karna Rejects a Bribe.)
Karna is by birth a Kshatriya. This is because his biological father is Surya the sun god. His legal father is Pandu, the king of Hastinapur. And his maternal grandfather is Kuntibhoja, another king. By all considerations, therefore, he is a Kshatriya.
However, Karna is raised a Suta. His adoptive parents are members of the Suta tribe, and they raise him as a Suta. One may say, therefore, that Karna was assigned the Suta caste the moment Adiratha adopted him.
By choice, Karna is a Kshatriya as a young man. But after he becomes king of Anga, and after he has had a chance to experience life in both orders, at the end he chooses to be a Sutaputra.
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