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 stronger than Bhima?
Karna is stronger than Bhima with bow and arrow. But Bhima is the better all-round warrior. Bhima and Karna clash repeatedly during the war, and on occasions that Bhima wins, he does so by converting the bow-and-arrow duel into a hand-to-hand combat. When the battle stays strictly archery-based, Karna wins.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Karna was stronger than Bhima.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Ten Thousand Elephants
Bhima has always been the strongest (physically) of all the Pandavas. Some of the anecdotes that are told about his early childhood reflect this. For instance, Kunti apparently drops him by mistake when he is a mere infant onto a rock from a height, only to see that the rock has been shattered and Bhima unharmed.
After the Pandavas and Kunti return to the palace, Bhima quickly takes on the mantle of chief tormentor of the Kaurava brothers. He hurls uprooted trees at them. He picks them up and throws them against walls. And so on.
While the Mahabharata describes these events in a loving tone, the modern reader will not miss the tell-tale signs that Bhima is in fact a bully.
In addition, when Duryodhana and his brothers hatch a plot to him some poison and throw him into the river, Bhima gets rescued by the Nagas who live underwater. Their king gives him a potion to drink.
This not only detoxifies him and saves his life, but also gives him – reportedly – the ‘strength of ten thousand elephants’.
During his pre-war appraisal of the two sides, Bhishma classifies Bhimasena as an atiratha, and also states that he is the best all-round fighter among all the assembled heroes. He is good with bow and arrow, with mace, sword, spear, and with his bare hands.
Bhima’s fighting strategy during the war reflects this ability. He is routinely jumping out of his chariot to accost his enemies with close-combat weapons, like a sword or a lance.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 37: Rathas and Atirathas.)
Sometimes, he pummels elephants to the ground with his fists. He picks up chariots and tosses them aside. He wrestles. He punches. He does everything.
While Arjuna is the chariot-warrior with exceptional bow-and-arrow skills, Bhima is the man you’d vote for if you did not know the format of the battle beforehand.
On the other hand, Karna is known to be a chariot-warrior only. He does not exhibit any particular fondness for fighting on his feet. Also, while his skill with bow and arrow is good enough to match Arjuna during his younger days, by the time the Kurukshetra war arrives, he is only one of those ‘better than ratha but less than atiratha’ heroes.
Bhishma once says about Ashwatthama that while he has the potential to be an atiratha, his temperament holds him back. The same can be said of Karna.
In other words, it depends very much on a given day whether Karna is fighting at a ‘ratha’ level or an ‘atiratha’ level. And this is liable to change over the course of a day with his mood.
With that said, if the battle between him and Bhima is strictly archer-based, Karna is skilled enough to defeat Bhima on most days. If a hundred such duels took place, Karna will win ninety of them.
If the duel were to be strictly close-combat based, Bhima will defeat Karna hundred times out of hundred. Only four other characters in the Mahabharata universe are said to be comparable to Bhima in foot-fighting: Jarasandha, Kichaka, Duryodhana and Shalya.
Even with these men, Bhima can be expected to win eighty of hundred challenges. But with Karna he will win all hundred.
This is not a criticism of Karna. Bhima will even consign Arjuna to the same fate.
But real battle is not a simulation: there are no rules preventing participants from using their environment to their benefit, and from mixing up the format of the fight every now and then.
What if we start off Bhima and Karna on chariots on an arid plain (no trees or rocks for cover) but with the choice of changing up the format as they see fit?
Karna will prefer to fight from atop his chariot the whole time, because that is his strength and comfort zone. His strategy will be to keep Bhima from leaving his chariot for as long as possible. The longer they both fight from their respective vehicles, the likelier Karna’s victory becomes.
However, Bhima knows this too. His strategy will be the reverse: to leave his chariot at the first opportunity and to use as many different weapons as he can.
In such a simulation, the scales will even out a little. Karna will perhaps win seventy of these duels out of a hundred.
During the war of Kurukshetra, Bhima and Karna clash on several occasions. The scenario in a real war is much like the last simulation we discussed above, where both heroes have the choice to mix up things.
However, there is one important distinction. In a real war, Karna and Bhima are not going to be alone going at each other on a deserted plain. There is plenty of noise surrounding them. Animals and foot-soldiers abound everywhere they look. Bhima’s potency as a close-combat fighter therefore increases dramatically.
He can now use soldiers of his own army for cover. He can duck behind an elephant to dodge Karna’s arrows. He can even pick up an elephant or a horse and directly hurl it at Karna.
In such a chaotic environment, Bhima’s versatility is as precious as Arjuna’s marksmanship. The odds increase enormously in his favour. Out of a hundred ‘real battles’ of this sort, Bhima will perhaps win seventy.
Bhima and Karna face off against each other four times during the Kurukshetra war. Bhima wins two of these battles, one of them ends without a result, and one goes in favour of Karna.
It is instructive to note that on both the occasions that Bhima wins against Karna, he uses unconventional methods – like running around the side and beating Karna’s horses into submission with a mace – while on the one occasion he loses, Karna manages to keep him on the chariot the whole time.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 35: Karna Rejects a Bribe.)
This victory against Bhima allows Karna to keep his promise to Kunti – that of not wishing to kill any of the Pandavas besides Arjuna. After he strips Bhima of his armour, he hooks his bow around Bhima’s neck and says:
‘Go and fight alongside Arjuna, you glutton. You do not belong on the battlefield.’
(Incidentally, these words by Karna exemplify his generous-yet-vain nature. He is being generous to Kunti – and to Bhima – by sparing his life, but he also utters words of contempt while displaying this generosity. Karna’s mean streak is always bubbling under the surface.)
In conclusion therefore, Karna is more powerful than Bhima – but only if they’re going to be fighting from their chariots. If Bhima is allowed to improvise, he is skilled enough to defeat Karna.
This is by no means a certainty, though. Karna does defeat Bhima on one occasion during the Kurukshetra war and spares his life to honour his promise to Kunti.
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