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 in Virata Parva?
Karna is one of the warriors defeated by Arjuna during the Virata Parva. Fighting in the garb of a eunuch named Brihannala, Arjuna takes on the entire might of the Kuru army on his own and wins. Along with Karna, other Kuru stalwarts such as Bhishma, Drona, Ashwatthama, Kripa and Duryodhana are also beaten.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Karna was defeated during the Virata Parva.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
The Killing of Kichaka
The story of Kuru’s raid on Matsya’s cattle begins with Bhima killing Kichaka because the latter makes unsavoury passes at Draupadi. Kichaka is the commander of Matsya’s army, the brother-in-law of Virata, and his abilities as a fighter and leader in battle are respected all over the world.
This man’s death results in an immediate power vacuum in Matsya’s army. Kuru – with the urging of the Trigarta ruler Susharma – decides to use this vulnerable moment to steal some of Matsya’s cattle.
Susharma pitches the idea to Duryodhana as easy wealth-grab. He proposes that he will attack Matsya from the northwest with his own Trigartan army to divert Virata’s attention and forces.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 29: Kichaka is Killed.)
Then Duryodhana can walk in through the kingdom’s northeast border at the head of a small division of Kuru’s army.
The plan works well – up to a point. At the northwestern border, Virata’s army acquits itself well against the Trigartans, chiefly because of the services rendered by Bhima, Yudhishthir, Nakula and Sahadeva in their respective disguises.
At the northeastern border, Arjuna alone – in his garb as the eunuch Brihannala – fights off the entire Kuru army and saves Matsya’s cattle.
The Pandavas, thus, protect the kingdom of their benefactor despite the fact that the predicament is of their own causing.
Fighting with Bhuminjaya
Accompanying Arjuna and serving as his charioteer is Bhuminjaya, the son of Virata who is also sometimes called Uttara Kumara. (He is not to be confused by Virata’s daughter Uttara, whom Arjuna teaches dance and who later bears Parikshit, the future king of Hastinapur.)
The battle actually starts off with Bhuminjaya vowing to fight the Kuru army on his own with Brihannala as charioteer. But when Brihannala points out each of the Kuru warriors to his ‘master’, the prince loses his courage and runs away from the battlefield with Brihannala in pursuit.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 30: Brihannala Defends Matsya.)
Brihannala then drags Bhuminjaya back to the chariot, assigns him the role of charioteer, and asks him to take them to the old tree in the cemetery, where ‘the Pandavas had hidden their weapons’.
At the cemetery, under the tree, Brihannala reveals his true identity to Bhuminjaya. When they return to the battlefield, Arjuna is wielding the Gandiva and blowing on his conch.
This is the moment that everyone in the Kuru army recognizes Arjuna. Duryodhana cackles in glee. He says, ‘The foolish Pandavas have revealed themselves before their year of incognito is up!’
But Bhishma makes a few calculations and reveals that the thirteen years of the Pandava exile ended on the previous day.
‘The wheel of time,’ he says, ‘revolves with its many divisions – kalas and kashtas and muhurtas – with days and fortnights following the movement of the constellations and planets.
‘Taking all the deviations into consideration, there is a two-month increase every five years. In thirteen years, there is an excess of five months and twelve nights. Calculating it in that way, the thirteenth year of the Pandavas’ exile ended yesterday.
‘This means they are no longer required by the terms of agreement to remain in hiding.’
Then, addressing Duryodhana, Bhishma makes a plan of action. ‘Take a fourth of the army and retreat to Hastinapur, O Prince,’ he says. ‘Let half the army remain with us so that we may drive back the advances of Partha.
‘And allow the remaining fourth of our force to be engaged in driving the cattle back to our city. We have come with a purpose. Let us ensure that we fulfil it.’
But the plan proves to be quite ineffective, as Arjuna expertly manoeuvres his chariot to seek out each of the Kuru heroes in turn and defeating them in a series of single combats.
He fights Kripa first and makes that whole section of the army flee in terror. Then he fights Ashwatthama, Karna, Dronacharya and Bhishma one after the other, crippling each division of the Kaurava force in turn and making them retreat from the battlefield.
Then, after driving Duryodhana away as well, he rounds up the cattle and single-handedly guides them back to Matsya.
Regardless of how powerful Arjuna has become during the exile years, it is unbelievable that he so easily overpowers an entire array of great Kuru heroes – and the Kuru army – by himself.
Here are a few probable explanations as to how this happened:
- Arjuna does not engage much with the Kuru army itself, concerning himself only with defeating the leaders. The foot soldiers in the army are of course forbidden by law from attacking a chariot warrior.
- The six main heroes in the Kuru army – Drona, Kripa, Bhishma, Karna, Duryodhana and Ashwatthama – do not fight Arjuna at once even though they could. This is again in obedience of battle guidelines, that one warrior should always engage with one other warrior.
- Arjuna does not use earthly weapons but creates some magical illusions with his divine weapons. Some versions of this tale describe him using the Sammohana Astra to put the Kuru army to sleep before quietly driving the cattle away.
- The Kuru army itself is probably not at its full strength. In all likelihood, the six heroes bring along only a small division of the army.
Regardless of how it is achieved, this is a remarkable feat by Arjuna. And it serves the Kauravas a reminder on just how powerful he has become in the intervening years.
This is another incidence of Karna’s powerlessness with regards to Arjuna. Despite tall claims that his skill as archer is equal to Arjuna’s, Karna is not able to hold off Arjuna even as part of a force that includes Bhishma and Drona.
Later, on the eve of the war, when Bhishma reminds Karna of this and asks why he was not able to subjugate Arjuna that day, Karna replies: ‘We were fighting then only to steal some cows, Grandsire, whereas Arjuna was fighting to defend his kingdom. In this war, we will both be fighting for equal stakes.’
Needless to say, Bhishma laughs off this explanation and proceeds to heap Karna with insults.
(Related Article: Why did Bhishma and Karna Quarrel?)
Why is Karna so ineffectual?
What is not clear to the objective reader is this: why is Karna so ineffectual? When they were both younger men, Karna had not only matched Arjuna at archery during the graduation ceremony, but he had also given him a good fight at Draupadi’s swayamvara.
How come he is not even able to stop Arjuna here as part of an ensemble cast?
At this point in the story, Karna either should have had the kavacha-kundalas – which would have made him invincible – or the Vasava dart – which he could have used to kill Arjuna. But he does neither.
(Related Article: Why and when does Karna remove his armour?)
One can only guess why. Perhaps Karna is waiting for a grander stage upon which to use the Vasava dart on Arjuna. Or – if he does not have the Vasava yet and he is fighting with his natural armour and earrings on him – the kavacha-kundalas are not as powerful as they are said to be.
Maybe they offer some level of protection against some weapons, but against Arjuna in this sort of mood they’re not of much help.
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