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 the greatest warrior?
Karna is classified by Bhishma as an atiratha, so he is one of the greatest warriors to fight in the Mahabharata war. However, Bhishma also cites Arjuna as the greatest warrior of all, placing him in a league of his own. But what makes Karna a threat is that he has the Vasava dart, which is powerful enough to kill Arjuna.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Karna was the greatest warrior.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Ardha-ratha or Ati-ratha?
During his classification each assembled hero of the Kurukshetra war as either a ratha or an atiratha, Karna invents a new group for two warriors:
- First, he claims that Arjuna is so powerful and skilful that he transcends classification. He inhabits a higher exalted plane all by himself. One may call him an ‘ati-maharatha’ – or ‘an extreme Maharatha’.
- Then, when Duryodhana asks him about Karna, Bhishma laughs and derisively classifies him as an ‘ardha-ratha’, implying that the son of Radha is only half as good as a ratha.
As a matter of context, Bhishma opines that all the sons of Dhritarashtra – some of whose names we hear only in passing during the story – are rathas. In effect, therefore, he is saying Karna is only half as good as any randomly selected Dhartarashtra.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 37: Rathas and Atirathas.)
This, of course, is a result of Bhishma’s irritation at Karna’s exuberance. The fact that even such an experienced soldier cannot keep his emotions in check while assessing battle formations is telling.
However, on the night of the tenth day, as he lies on the bed of arrows, Bhishma gets a private visit from Karna. During this conversation, Bhishma admits that he was wrong earlier, and that Karna is no less than an atiratha.
Since Arjuna is considered without doubt the best archer of this time, we may adopt a criterion for every contender for ‘most powerful warrior’ by examining whether or not he can match Arjuna.
Karna does this admirably, at least during their early years. When he appears at the graduation ceremony (he may have been twenty at this time, Arjuna perhaps fifteen), he repeats all of Arjuna’s feats in front of a watching crowd and the royal assembly.
But one must hasten to footnote this by saying: this is only a display of target practice, not battle skill. A target – even if it moves, rotates, swerves and revolves – does not strike back.
Shortly afterward, Karna – along with Duryodhana – fails in earning a victory over the Panchala army led by Drupada. Arjuna and Bhima immediately have their go at it and become successful.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 9: Invasion of Panchala.)
(This also may not be as conclusive as it first sounds. Arjuna’s victory here might have been down to the fact that he had Bhima fighting alongside him.)
And then, Karna matches Arjuna in a one-on-one battle during Draupadi’s swayamvara. He gives Arjuna a good fight, and both warriors parry for a long time before Karna withdraws his challenge.
Of course, Arjuna pulls ahead of Karna as they grow into adulthood and middle age. Starting from the time of the burning of Khandava and ending at the Kurukshetra war, Arjuna becomes almost invincible.
But Karna is the only warrior to have ever matched Arjuna – both at hitting lifeless targets and also in single combat.
At the Kurukshetra
If we take performance at the Kurukshetra war as a parameter to judge a warrior’s skill, we have to conclude that Karna does not exactly set things alight.
For one, he is not even present on the field (not his fault) for the first ten days. For another, even after he enters the fray, he does not come into his own until after the death of Drona.
Many other warriors display more skill and courage that Karna. On the Pandava side, Arjuna, Bhima and Satyaki are constantly at the enemy’s throat. Even on the Kuru side, Bhishma, Drona, Bhagadatta and Ashwatthama put in performances that surpass Karna’s.
In fact, Ashwatthama’s final act – that of killing all of the Panchala and Somaka forces by himself on the night of the eighteenth day – may be considered the most influential of all acts in the war.
Duryodhana certainly thinks so. ‘Where the likes of Bhishma, Drona, Shalya and Karna have failed, O Drauna,’ he says, ‘you have succeeded. You have given me peace in the dying moments of my life. May god bless you!’
(Related Article: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Sauptika Parva.)
If we consider special abilities as a criterion while judging a warrior, we may once again have to conclude that Karna is the most powerful warrior on the Kaurava side.
This is because he possesses the Vasava dart, which is capable of killing Arjuna. Despite the many talents of Drona, Bhishma and Ashwatthama, none of those men have the ability to defeat Arjuna. For every weapon in their arsenal, Arjuna has an equal and opposite astra in his quiver.
(The above is not strictly true. Ashwatthama does possess the Narayanastra, for which Arjuna has no counter. But he does have Krishna for his charioteer, who – as the incarnation of Narayana – knows everything about how to quell it.)
Capturing the Pandavas
Karna is also the only one among the assembled Kuru heroes to capture every single one of the Pandavas – not Arjuna – during the course of his time on the battlefield.
He not only defeats Bhima, Yudhishthir, Nakula and Sahadeva each in turn, but he also reduces them to a state where he could kill them if he wanted. Then he chooses not to do so, in order to honour the promise he has made to Kunti.
He also plays an important role in the killing of Abhimanyu, shooting the arrow that breaks the bowstring of the young man. He does shoot him from behind, so he violates the rules of war, but he is the one who disarms Abhimanyu.
No other hero – not Bhishma, not Drona, not Ashwatthama, not Bhagadatta – succeeds in performing this feat of defeating all the Pandava brothers. If this were one criterion, Karna should be considered the most powerful of them all.
During the course of his life, Karna displays a streak of timidity when he is challenged in battle. The most striking example of this is when Duryodhana is captured by Gandharvas and requires Karna and Shakuni to rescue him.
Granted, Karna does not have an army to fight with. Granted, he may have thought that fighting the Gandharvas on his own is foolhardy. But he does flee without even trying. This may be understandable, even sensible. But it does not become a warrior.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 23: Duryodhana is Rescued.)
Similarly, in the Kurukshetra war, when Abhimanyu is on a rampage, Karna admits to Drona that he wishes he could run away. ‘But for my loyalty to Duryodhana, I would have fled long ago,’ he says.
No other hero fighting in Kurukshetra would make this admission – not even Ashwatthama who is not a Kshatriya by birth. This tendency to run away from battles severely dents Karna’s claim to be the greatest warrior.
In favour of Karna’s contention as the greatest warrior are the following points:
- He is the only warrior who has – at some point in his life – matched Arjuna both at target practice and at one-on-one battles.
- He is the only warrior who has the ability to kill Arjuna in the Kurukshetra war, because he possesses the Vasava dart.
- He is the only warrior to have conclusively defeated, in turn, all the Pandava brothers with the exception of Arjuna.
The following may be said against him:
- His general performance at Kurukshetra does not stand out. He is overshadowed by the likes of Arjuna, Bhima, Satyaki, Bhagadatta, Bhishma, Drona and Ashwatthama.
- Bhishma’s opinion of him is that he is an atiratha, which puts him in the same league as a number of other warriors but not above them.
- Karna displays an often-recurring cowardly streak in the middle of combat. On more than one occasion, he either flees the battlefield or withdraws his challenge.
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