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 Pandava?
Karna is born of the union between Kunti (when she was unmarried) and Surya, the sun god. Later, she marries Pandu. According to social norms of the day, when a woman weds a man, her existing children are considered to have been fathered by her new husband. Therefore, Karna is technically a Pandava – a son of Pandu.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Two Kinds of Sons
During his private conversation with Karna after his peace talks have failed, Krishna speaks of two kinds of sons a woman can have.
Krishna meets Karna in his chariot and takes him to the outskirts of the city. Once they are out of earshot of anyone important, Krishna says, ‘You have studied the scriptures as deeply as I have, O Vasusena. You will know, therefore, that there are two kinds of sons that a maiden might have.
‘One is called the Sahoda, who are the sons born to her fathered by her husband. The other kind is called the Kanina, children born to her of other men from before her marriage. On both occasions, the sons are considered morally to be the children of the maiden’s wedded husband.’
‘Why do you tell me all this, Krishna?’ asks Karna.
Socially a Pandava
Krishna replies, ‘I do so because you are one of the kanina sons of Kunti, O Karna, and by the declaration of the scriptures, you are also the moral heir to Pandu. On the side of your father, you have the five Pandavas as your younger brothers.
‘On the side of your mother, you have the Vrishnis for kinsmen. Balarama and I will be happy to serve you as regents. If you come with me, I shall let the Pandavas know that you were born of Kunti before Yudhishthir. They, along with Draupadi and Subhadra, will embrace your feet.’
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 35: Karna Rejects a Bribe.)
Krishna comes to know the secret behind Karna’s birth only during his visit to Hastinapur, and he immediately tries to use this as a bribe to pull Karna over to the side of the Pandavas.
Because if Karna forsakes Duryodhana, Arjuna is safe.
Socially speaking, therefore, Karna is a Pandava. If Kunti reveals to the world that he is her son, then he automatically comes to be considered the son of Pandu.
But what about biologically?
We must remember here at the outset that none of the Pandavas are biologically Pandu’s children. The first three of them – Yudhishthir, Bhima and Arjuna – are brought forth by Kunti. The last two – Nakula and Sahadeva – have Madri as their mother.
Neither Kunti nor Madri have these sons with Pandu. They summon gods (if you believe the magical version) or they unite with sages (if you prefer an earthier story) using a process called niyoga.
All that is required is that Pandu – Kunti and Madri’s legally wedded husband – consents to this practice and accepts the resulting sons as his own.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 5: Pandavas and Kauravas.)
The process of Karna’s birth is exactly the same as that of the other five Pandavas. He is born of the union between a princess (in this case Kunti) and a god (in this case Surya).
If anything, Nakula and Sahadeva are in no way related by blood to Yudhishthir, Bhima and Arjuna – because they’re born of Madri. Karna, as Kunti’s firstborn, has a deeper biological connection to the first three Pandavas than do Nakula and Sahadeva.
Should Kunti have told Pandu?
This of course begs the question: should Kunti have told Pandu the whole truth about her incantation? When Pandu expresses a desire for sons during their stay at Gandhamadana, Kunti reveals to him only part of her secret.
She tells him about the power she has received from Sage Durvasa, but chooses to omit the fact that she had already called on Surya and had a son with him.
Why? One possibility is that she may have thought her first son dead. After all, one cannot expect a babe to survive after being abandoned on a riverbed. Only when Kunti sees Karna at the graduation ceremony does she realize that he is alive.
Another possibility is that she may have thought that admitting to a premarital sexual liaison would cheapen her image in her husband’s eyes. Kunti, at this stage, thinks that her mistake has been buried in the past; she has no reason to dredge it up again.
This gives rise to an interesting scenario: Pandu gives his informed consent to father the five children that Kunti and Madri bear. But he does not know about the other son of Kunti. And by the time he arrives on the scene, Pandu is dead.
Krishna is right in saying that when a man marries a woman, all the children that the woman has at the time of marriage automatically become the new husband’s sons. But there are certain conditions to this:
- Generally, the biological father of the child is dead in such cases. The new husband therefore adopts the child as his own and promises to raise it.
- The new husband has to consent officially – through a ceremony or some such – that he is willing to take the responsibility of being the child’s father.
- This is less of an issue if the woman in question was married to another man when she conceived her child. If she was an unwed maiden, and if the biological father is alive, the new husband is likely to take a dim view of the matter.
In Kunti’s case, the biological father is Surya. Though a god, he is very much alive. And he impregnated Kunti when she was a maiden. This means that Pandu’s consent cannot be taken for granted.
Would Pandu have adopted Karna?
There is no way to know for certain whether Pandu would have adopted Karna as his son. From the fact that he had no trouble accepting the five Pandavas as his sons, perhaps he would have taken in Karna as well.
But Kunti clearly does not think so. Whether this is because she thinks that Karna no longer lives or because she thinks that Pandu will not accept him, we do not know. Nor is it relevant. The fact remains that she does not tell him.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 6: Pandu Dies.)
By the time it is revealed to Kunti that Karna is not only alive but is also going to play an important role in the lives of her other children, Pandu is long dead. And if Kunti were to admit that Karna is actually her son, the world would perhaps make Pandu’s decision for him and accept him as one of the Pandavas.
But it would also judge Kunti to be a woman of loose moral character. Not only did she get pregnant before her marriage, but she also hid it from her husband throughout his life.
To conclude, therefore, it is fair to say that Karna is in all respects one of the Pandavas. As long as the five sons of Kunti and Draupadi accept him as the son of Pandu – and Krishna would have ensured that they do – Karna could have become the king of Indraprastha and Draupadi’s husband if he had accepted Krishna’s offer.
Both biologically and in accordance with the social norms of the time, Karna is the eldest Pandava – and probably would have been the most powerful of them all but for some strikes of destiny.
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered