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 student of Drona?
The Mahabharata mentions that Karna is a student of Drona, but only in passing. No significant mention is ever made of him, nor is there an explanation for: (a) why Karna trained under Parashurama, (b) why he appears as a stranger at the graduation ceremony, and (c) how Drona accepted a Sutaputra as a disciple.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
At the outset, we must say this: Karna is mentioned in passing as a childhood friend of Duryodhana and as a fellow student of all the Kuru princes. For instance, he is said to have had a hand in the poisoning of Bhima, during which the third Pandava visits the kingdom of the Nagas.
However, these are only one-line mentions. The text does not describe any of his activities in great detail. Nor is there any sign of the Karna-Arjuna rivalry that will develop into a constant theme after the two boys grow up into adults.
At first glance, this presence of Karna seems to unequivocally answer the question raised by this post: Yes, Karna was a student of Drona.
But it also raises many more questions, some of which we will explore below.
The ‘Drona’ Question
Karna appears to be the only non-prince among Drona’s students. This makes sense: Drona has been hired by Bhishma to become the preceptor to the Kuru princes alone. For these services he is more than adequately compensated: with a house within the royal compound, a place in the Kuru court, and the prestige that comes with being the royal teacher.
It is highly irregular for someone hired to be a personal tutor to then accept other students, especially if they belong to a lower caste.
Bhishma would consider it unprofessional if Drona had brought someone like Karna into the fold and taught him alongside the Kuru princes. Bhishma would have said, ‘I do not pay you to teach Sutaputras.’
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 7: Drona Becomes Acharya.)
Also, we know from Drona’s character alone that he is not forgiving of low-born archers that show promise. We only need to remember his treatment of Ekalavya to see evidence this.
How, then, did Drona come to accept Karna as one of his disciples? And when he witnesses that Karna is as skilled and as dedicated as Arjuna, why does he not actively sabotage Karna’s career?
Training under Parashurama
If Karna is already training under Drona along with the Kuru princes, why does he feel the need to lie about himself in order to gain access to Sage Parashurama?
With Ekalavya, we know that Drona rejects him, so he builds a mud idol of the preceptor and trains in front of it. But Karna is already learning under the royal teacher, no less. He is getting a prince’s education. Why does he still need Parashurama?
Even if we concede that he felt he would like to train under both Drona and Parashurama, where does Karna find the time? He is a charioteer’s son; he would still need to attend to matters of his own life. How is he able to train under Drona, serve Parashurama and help his parents out with making a living for themselves?
(Related Article: Why was Karna cursed by Parashurama?)
Each one of them is a full time vocation. How does Karna manage all three?
We know that Karna lies about himself to Parashurama, serves him with utter devotion, and earns a curse from the sage for his trouble. This is consistent with a low-born boy without access to privileged education.
It is difficult to accept that a young man who is already training under Drona will also have the same burning desire to train under Parashurama – especially considering that Drona knows everything that Parashurama does.
The Graduation Ceremony
When Karna appears at the graduation ceremony, he is described as a stranger to the Kurus. Duryodhana is about to walk out from the arena in protest that the Kuru elders are partial to Arjuna, and at the gate he meets this young man who is ‘as resplendent as the sun’.
No one among the assembled royals recognize him. The only person who does is Kunti, who swoons at the knowledge that her long-lost son is still alive.
The conversations that develop during this scene suggest that this is the very first time the Kurus are setting eyes on Karna.
Kripa asks him about his lineage. Arjuna and Bhima call him a Sutaputra after seeing Adiratha come up to hug him. Duryodhana springs to his rescue and makes him king of Anga. And so on.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 8: Karna Arrives.)
If Karna had been the Kuru princes’ fellow student all along, he would have been a known entity. His name, his identity, the fact that he can match Arjuna with bow and arrow – none of these would have come as surprises.
In fact, the whole thematic thrust of the graduation ceremony is the fact that Karna is making his first appearance here. Karna is revealing himself to the world, after having trained under Parashurama in secret. He is making a bid to break out of the confines of the Suta caste and to participate in the world inhabited by Kshatriyas.
(Of course, over the course of the next thirty years, he comes to embrace his Suta caste and becomes unashamed of it enough to declare himself a Sutaputra. But that is another matter.)
In the spirit of debate, I will now list counterpoints to each of the above questions. I hope that you will see that these not only contradict one another but are also irreconcilable with the rest of the story.
- One might say that perhaps Adiratha is a charioteer who works in Bhishma’s employ, and that as a child Bhishma had taken Karna under his wing. On Bhishma’s special instructions, Drona accepts Karna as a student. But he always makes sure that he gives Karna ‘inferior’ training compared to what he gives the Kuru princes.
- One might argue that it is possible that Karna trained under both Drona and Parashurama. Perhaps he trained under Drona as a little boy, but once the princes were slightly older (eight or nine), he was jettisoned by Drona. Karna then sought the tutelage of Parashurama. In effect, therefore, Karna trains under both men, but one after the other.
- About the graduation ceremony, one might insist that if the above is true – i.e.: Karna only trained under Drona for a short while – he is indeed a relative stranger to them all. The princes may have forgotten all about him. Kripa, on the other hand, may have been asking Karna’s lineage just to insult him publicly despite knowing who he is.
Despite the above points – all of which are plausible but also speculative – I am comfortable with concluding that Karna was not one of the students of Drona.
Believing that Karna trained under Drona – even for a short amount of time when he was young – robs the graduation ceremony of the dramatic impact that it otherwise has. It denies Karna an entry point into the story where he arrives as a stranger to everyone, a mysterious hero who is as powerful as Arjuna.
For this, I am happy to ignore the few mentions of Karna during the princes’ childhoods as mistakes made by later interpolations.
But if you form a different opinion, I am not going to argue.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
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- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered