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 more powerful than Bhishma?
In sheer skill and experience alone, Bhishma is much more powerful than Karna. However, Karna’s desire to win the war for Duryodhana is much stronger than Bhishma’s. Duryodhana, therefore, would have been better off with Karna as his first commander.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Karna was more powerful than Bhishma.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Bhishma and Karna both have divine blood in them: Karna’s father is Surya the sun god, while Bhishma’s mother is Ganga, the river goddess. The human parent in both cases is a person of royal lineage.
If Karna had been allowed to keep his kavacha-kundalas, he would have been far more powerful than Bhishma. Indeed, he would have been the most powerful warrior of the age – bar none.
But without the kavacha-kundalas, Karna is no match for Bhishma. Bhishma is older, more experienced and more skilled. During the quarrel regarding Amba, Bhishma fights and wins against Sage Parashurama, his own preceptor.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 38: Amba and Shikhandi.)
During the swayamvara of Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, Bhishma singlehandedly challenges and defeats all the assembled kings of that time. In contrast, during Draupadi’s swayamvara, Karna fails to adequately challenge Arjuna.
Karna also displays a cowardly streak on several occasions, running away from battles, withdrawing challenges and so on. Bhishma, on the other hand, is sturdy as a rock. The only time he is defeated is when he runs into a red hot Arjuna at the end of the Virata Parva.
While the two never fight one another, the above analysis is sufficient to conclude that Bhishma is far superior to Karna when it comes to overall fighting ability.
But Karna possesses a special ability that Bhishma does not: he has precisely one use of Indra’s Vasava dart, with which he can kill one warrior of his choosing.
No one is immune to the power of the Vasava, not even Arjuna. We know this because of the care with which Krishna steers their chariot away from Karna while he has the weapon.
This is a potentially game-changing ability. Arjuna is the lynchpin of the Panchala and Somaka army. If Karna manages to use his dart successfully against Arjuna, and if this happens early on in the war, the Kauravas have won. Pure and simple.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 26: Karna is Defanged.)
Also, we must remember that Duryodhana’s entire reason behind taking Karna under his wing is in the hope that Karna would – when the time is ripe – neutralize the threat posed by Arjuna.
On the other hand, Bhishma – great as he is – is not powerful enough to match Arjuna. And there are doubts as to whether he can summon his customary ruthlessness against his beloved grandchildren.
Therefore, within the context of the Kurukshetra war, from Duryodhana’s point of view, it is not blasphemous to suggest that Karna is a better strategic asset to have than Bhishma. Here are the reasons:
- The Kuru army already contains many ‘leaders’ who know how to command forces. There is Drona, Shalya, Kritavarma, Kripacharya – and Karna himself. Bhishma’s skills as commander are not indispensable.
- In terms of loyalty alone, Karna far outshines Bhishma. Karna hates the Pandavas as much as Duryodhana, and will exert himself to the fullest extent. Bhishma, on the other hand, is almost certain to go soft.
(Related Article: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Udyoga Parva.)
- Duryodhana can put in place strategies and tactics whose sole intention is to maximize the likelihood that Karna faces Arjuna as many times as possible.
- All the other warriors and all the soldiers in the army will fight with this one purpose: put Karna in front of Arjuna and hope that the former will use the Vasava dart.
Duryodhana, therefore, should have insisted that Karna fight in the war from the beginning. Knowing that Karna is the only person capable of killing Arjuna, allowing him to be left out is a daft move.
Why does Duryodhana choose Bhishma?
After Bhishma is made commander of the army, he gives Duryodhana an ultimatum that either he or Karna will fight at a time in the war. For a reason he cites the fact that they never get along with each other.
But unbeknownst to Duryodhana, it is entirely possible that Bhishma is secretly protecting Arjuna as well. He knows that if Karna fights from the beginning, it is only a matter of time before Arjuna is killed. It is Bhishma’s intention, therefore, to keep Karna out of action as long as possible.
(Related Article: Why did Bhishma not allow Karna to fight?)
Duryodhana, for his part, concedes this point due to the following reasons:
- He does not believe that Arjuna is invincible. He thinks that if Bhishma and Drona can be persuaded to fight at their best, even Arjuna cannot hold them back.
- Bhishma is Duryodhana’s grandfather as well. He is the oldest living patriarch in the Kuru line, and he is also the most venerated warrior of his time. Duryodhana might have felt some pressure to agree with him.
But if Duryodhana had taken some time to think about this, he would have realized that between Karna and Bhishma, it is the former who adds most value at the beginning of the war.
Of course, the ideal scenario would be to have both of them on the field together, but failing that, if only one of them can fight at a time, then it is Karna and not Bhishma that gives Duryodhana the best chance of success.
Consider: Karna can be given a first-rate charioteer and left as a free agent, much like how the Panchala army gives Arjuna a free rein. Karna can be given protection from all sides, and be told to relentlessly pursue Arjuna. Karna has only one job: to find and kill Arjuna with the Vasava dart.
Meanwhile, the rest of the army can be led by Drona. With Arjuna marked by Karna, Drona can focus on Bhima, Satyaki and the rest of the Pandava warriors. He can even attempt to capture Yudhishthir alive so that Duryodhana can bring the war to a premature close.
With this strategy, Duryodhana has Karna going after Arjuna and Drona seeking Yudhishthir. As long as Bhima can be kept busy – by the likes of Ashwatthama, Alambusha and Bhagadatta – there is a high chance of success.
And above all, Duryodhana has Bhishma sitting on the sidelines, ready to step in if and when Karna falls.
Karna is definitely an inferior warrior to Bhishma overall, but because of his special ability to kill Arjuna and his passionate loyalty to Duryodhana, the Kauravas would have been better off choosing to begin the war with him in the army and Bhishma sitting out.
Despite being much better than Karna in ability, Bhishma ends up being a liability for the Kuru army during the Kurukshetra war due to his partiality toward the Pandavas.
His desire to protect Arjuna leads him to sabotage Duryodhana’s cause by ousting Karna from the army. In terms of value provided, therefore, Karna is better suited than Bhishma to fulfil Duryodhana’s ambitions.
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