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 Maharatha?
Before the war begins, Bhishma classifies Karna mockingly as an ardha-ratha (half-ratha), thus claiming that he is inferior to a ratha. But later, while lying on his bed of arrows, he privately confides in Karna that he is indeed a maharatha.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Karna was a Maharatha.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
As the Kurukshetra war nears, we learn from a conversation between Bhishma and Drona that all heroes of those times can be classified into two categories: a ratha, and an atiratha.
(The word ‘ati’ loosely means ‘extreme’ or ‘more’, and the word ‘ratha’ means ‘he who is on a chariot’. The word ‘ratham’ means ‘chariot’.)
Essentially, therefore, the terms loosely mean ‘chariot warrior’ and ‘great chariot warrior’ respectively.
This may give the reflective reader pause. Is this classification system not discriminatory toward all those heroes who may be bad at archery but good at combat-style weapons like maces and swords?
In two words, it is. But this is also emblematic of the environment in which warriors of ancient India conducted their battles. Invariably their wars happened on flat and arid plains where movement, speed and the ability to fight with bows and arrows were paramount.
If the terrain had been mountainous or filled with trees, people with close-combat skills will have been feted more than those who are archers. As always, it is the environment that picks who ‘wins’ and who ‘loses’.
Atiratha and Maharatha
The words ‘maharatha’ and ‘atiratha’ are used interchangeably in the Mahabharata to describe a great warrior who is eight times as good as a ‘ratha’.
When asked to classify Arjuna as one of the two types, Bhishma refuses to do so, citing Arjuna’s vast repertoire of divine weapons and his immeasurable skill with the Gandiva.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 37: Rathas and Atirathas.)
‘Arjuna was always the most skilful of all the Kuru princes,’ says Bhishma. ‘But during the course of his exile, he has become so powerful that not even the gods can stop him. He is beyond all classification. He is in an elevated league of his own, way above all of us.’
According to some sources, Bhishma invents a class called the ‘Ati-Maharatha’ and assigns it to Arjuna. He reiterates to Duryodhana that the only way for the Kuru army to prevail in this war is by killing Arjuna early.
Bhishma goes through the entire roster of warriors fighting on the Kuru side, giving his opinion about whether each one should be called a ratha or an atiratha.
Thus, the likes of Bhagadatta, Shalya and Drona are atirathas. Duryodhana, Duhsasana, and the rest of the sons of Dhritarashtra are rathas. Ashwatthama has the potential to be an atiratha but his volatile temperament holds him back. And so on.
When it comes time to classify Karna, Bhishma mockingly calls him an ‘ardha-ratha’, or ‘half a ratha’, implying that he is less of a warrior than even a ratha.
(Related Article: Why did Bhishma and Karna Quarrel?)
The reason for this is that Bhishma and Karna have by this time repeatedly clashed publicly on the subject of the latter’s misplaced arrogance and bravado which never translates to real valour in battle.
More than anything, Bhishma is irritated that Karna always fans the flames of Duryodhana’s hatred for the Pandavas. And he does this by giving false assurances that he will kill Arjuna.
And yet, all the times he has met Arjuna in battle, Karna has lost. So by the eve of the war, Bhishma is simply fed up of Karna’s posturing.
Whether Bhishma cannot help himself or whether he is being deliberately provocative toward Karna, we do not know.
But as a direct result of it, Karna does react with rebellion at Bhishma’s classification of him, and throws back a few choice insults of his own. He claims (not without reason) that the Kuru dynasty has come to this point in its history only because Bhishma has been unable to provide clear and stable leadership.
Bhishma then tells Duryodhana, ‘Either I or Karna has to fight for you on the battlefield at any given time. If we fight together, we will incessantly quarrel and hurt your cause.’
This is despite the fact that the battlefield of Kurukshetra is an enormous one. If he puts his mind to it, Bhishma can easily arrange the Kuru forces such that he and Karna will never be within shouting distance of one another.
Elsewhere on this website, we have speculated that this may be Bhishma’s ploy to protect Arjuna. (For more detail on that, see: Why did Bhishma not allow Karna to fight?)
Revision on Day 10
On the night of the tenth day of battle, after he has been consigned to his bed of arrows, Bhishma gets visited in private by Karna. In the conversation that follows, the two men put aside their differences.
Bhishma then tells him that he was wrong in calling him an ardha-ratha. ‘You are in fact an atiratha,’ he says.
But again, we cannot take Bhishma at his word here, because immediately after praising Karna as an atiratha, he requests him to ‘be a good friend to Duryodhana’ and advise him to call off the battle.
(Related Article: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Bhishma Parva.)
Karna responds in the same way he always has. He insists that ‘being a good friend’ means giving unconditional support. He also reminds Bhishma – correctly – that it is too late to withdraw the Kuru forces. The world will think of Duryodhana as cowardly if he does that.
What we can conclude from Bhishma’s two classifications is that Karna, as a warrior, sits somewhere between an ardha-ratha and an atiratha.
We must remember that all of the above is merely Bhishma’s opinion on Karna – coloured by his personal distaste for the man’s character.
We must also remember that Karna acts throughout his life as Duryodhana’s loyal deputy and slave, so when he is posturing on Duryodhana’s behalf, he is doing so only because he thinks that is the best way he can support Duryodhana in that moment.
Therefore, Bhishma is not wrong for judging Karna as vain. Karna is not wrong for wanting to unconditionally support his benefactor. They are both right. The path of Dharma, as Bhishma once said, is subtle.
Now, can a reader objectively assess Karna’s achievements and come to a conclusion as to whether he is in fact a ratha or an atiratha?
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 24: Karna Conquers Everything.)
Unfortunately, Karna’s recorded history as a warrior is extremely chequered. Consider:
- By skill levels alone, he is Arjuna’s equal – at least until the time of Draupadi’s swayamvara.
- If one includes battle performances, Karna drops off dramatically. He loses to Arjuna during the defence of Matsya (though everyone loses that day, including Drona and Bhishma), he flees the battle against Gandharvas, and during his many years as the king of Anga, there is no record of him winning a great war all by himself.
- Karna does win the world on Duryodhana’s behalf, but he does so at the head of the Kuru army. And the expedition he leads is part-diplomatic. This achievement, therefore, is not purely an indication of his valour.
- And then there is the matter of the Vasava dart, which makes Karna the only warrior with the ability to kill Arjuna.
To finish, one may say that Karna is – by skill alone – one of the atirathas. But his temperament is flaky, and he is prone to sudden attacks of fear and self-doubt while in the middle of an intense battle.
In this, he is not unlike Ashwatthama, who is a slave to anger which keeps him from becoming a true atiratha.
Both these men will have their share of brilliant days on which nobody can touch them, but they will not be able to achieve these days as consistently as an atiratha would. In short, you don’t quite know what you will get with them.
Karna, therefore, may be called – like Ashwatthama – an ‘atiratha by potential but a ratha by performance’.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story
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- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered