Was Karna defeated by Drupada?

Was Karna defeated by Drupada - Featured image - Picture of arrows surrounding a common target. Representing the invasion of Panchala.

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 defeated by Drupada?

Karna is present in the army that Duryodhana takes to invade Panchala when Drona asks his students to bring him Drupada as Guru Dakshina. The Kauravas and Karna are defeated soundly by Drupada, who leads the Panchala forces in defense. After the Kauravas have failed, the Pandavas successfully complete the quest.

Read on to discover more about whether or not Karna was defeated by Drupada.

(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Guru Dakshina

Shortly after the Kuru princes have shown off their skills with weapons in an arena, Drona gives them a real test: fighting a real army. As his guru dakshina, he asks that his wards: (a) invade the kingdom of Panchala, and (b) bring back King Drupada alive to Drona.

Drona and Drupada have some history together. They grow up as best friends at the hermitage of Bharadwaja, and as a boy Drupada once utters a throwaway line that he will share his kingdom with Drona once he becomes king.

Drona remembers the promise, though, and years later, unable to bear witnessing his wife and child suffering in penury, goes to Drupada and asks for his share.

(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 7: Drona Becomes Acharya.)

Drupada laughs. ‘A king a pauper can never be friends, O Brahmin,’ he says. ‘If you wish, I will give you alms. But I will not give you half my kingdom.’

This humiliates Drona to the extent that he wishes to exact revenge upon Drupada. Therefore he asks his students to wage a war against Panchala and bring Drupada back.

The Kauravas First

It is who Arjuna who suggests that the Kauravas should be allowed to go first at this game. He tells Bhima that the Kauravas are certain to fail. The Kauravas, along with Karna, try their luck at invading Panchala but are soundly beaten.

(An aside: As written, this event leaves the reader feeling a little incredulous. It is scarcely believable that Bhishma would allow the Kuru princes to undertake such a dangerous quest all by themselves. Waging an actual war with a kingdom as powerful as Panchala is not something you would wish to leave to your young princes.

Some theorists claim that this story has been changed over time, that this is actually an invasion event that Bhishma and Drona led against Panchala with the Kuru princes helping them.)

(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 9: Invasion of Panchala.)

After the shameful return of the Kauravas from their failed quest, the Pandavas take a division of the army out to challenge Drupada again. This time, Arjuna and Bhima play an important role in routing the Panchala army.

They bring Drupada back to Drona, who ‘magnanimously’ offers Drupada half his kingdom back in the name of ‘friendship’. Needless to say, this gesture humiliates Drupada in turn. He prays for a son who would destroy Drona, and receives Dhrishtadyumna.

The birth of Draupadi also occurs as a direct consequence of Drupada’s anger toward Drona.

Karna is Defeated

Karna is part of the force that Duryodhana puts together to fight Panchala. This is not because Karna is one of Drona’s disciples (he likely isn’t), but because Karna is now one of Duryodhana’s henchmen.

This invasion of Panchala by the Kuru princes happens only a short while after the graduation ceremony. And yet Karna does not distinguish himself at the battle.

During the ceremony, however, Karna displays enough skill with bow and arrow to be thought of as Arjuna’s equal. Why?

One possible explanation is that Karna may have been as skilful as Arjuna at target-practice but not so when it came to real-world battle situations. After all, the target doesn’t shoot back. We may conclude that by this time, Karna is quite a skilled archer but not so skilled at combat.

By the time of Draupadi’s swayamvara, we must note, Karna manages to give Arjuna a run for his money in a duel with bow and arrow. We can therefore guess that between the Panchala invasion and Draupadi’s swayamvara, Karna has improved his battle sense enough to be a match for Arjuna both in terms of skill and tactics.

Other explanations

We can think of other reasons why Karna – despite being a skilled bowman – does not succeed in helping Duryodhana capture Drupada. Here are a few:

  • Karna fights as one of the many heroes in Duryodhana’s army, whereas Arjuna leads the Kuru force. Thus, Karna may have not fought in a prominent enough position that allowed him to exercise his skills to the fullest.
  • This is Karna’s first proper battle. So far, he has only learned strategy and theory under Parashurama, but he has not felt the visceral sensations of war. The Kuru princes, on the other hand, may have had more practical training with animals and soldiers and so forth.

(Related Article: Why and when does Karna remove his armour?)

  • The Kauravas went first, so they were strangers to how Drupada fought and what strategies he employed. Arjuna and the others would have learned plenty of lessons – chiefly what not to do – by watching their cousins get trounced. Karna does not have that luxury.
  • Karna has recently given up his kavacha-kundalas to Indra. He is still getting used to the idea that he is no longer invincible, and that he can be killed. This knowledge does not affect his skills when there is nothing at stake – like at an archery competition – but in an actual conflict, he finds himself paralyzed with fear.

Karna’s Behaviour Pattern

Karna displays this same behaviour multiple times in the Mahabharata: while placed in a situation that requires him to fight a real enemy and perform the act of a hero, he invariably acts like a coward and flees from the battlefield.

But when he is required to participate in a competition where the primary skill is shooting arrows at targets, Karna excels. That is why he would have probably been able to win Draupadi’s hand had he been allowed to do so.

(Related Article: Was Karna the greatest warrior?)

The only battles he appears to be confident of winning are those in which he is fighting Arjuna. This dichotomy – his fear when facing other enemies but confidence when facing Arjuna – is noticed and mocked by Bhishma, who calls him an ardha-ratha and insults him unnecessarily before the Kurukshetra war.

But what Bhishma does not realize is that this pattern of behaviour is consistent with a man who has license to use a devastating weapon against an enemy of his choice on precisely one occasion. Since he had been saving the Vasava for Arjuna, he is confident – almost arrogantly so – of his ability to defeat him.

His defeat to Drupada – albeit as a small part of Duryodhana’s army – further reinforces how much Karna has lost by giving up his kavacha-kundalas.

Further Reading

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