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: What was Karna famous for?
Karna is most famous in the Mahabharata for being the only warrior who is as skilful as Arjuna at archery. He is also famous for his generosity – he is known never to say no to a Brahmin who asks for alms – and his steadfast adherence to loyalty as the highest virtue.
Read on to discover more about what Karna was famous for.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Famous for Skill
Early on in Karna’s life, he establishes himself as one of the most skilful archers of the world. He appears at the Kuru princes’ graduation ceremony and deliberately repeats all of Arjuna’s feats, thus setting up the narrative that he is a match to Arjuna.
Until the Pandavas leave on their exile, Karna keeps up with Arjuna in this matter. The general observer often thinks of them both as about equally powerful when it comes to fighting with a bow and arrow.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 8: Karna Arrives.)
In the Kurukshetra war, Karna has the Vasava dart, which makes him the only warrior on either side with at least a theoretical ability to kill Arjuna. None of the weapons held by any of the other Kuru warriors are capable of harming Arjuna. The Vasava is the only weapon that neither Krishna nor Arjuna knows how to counter.
Karna, therefore, makes his name and his fortune on the promise that he is skilful and powerful enough to defeat Arjuna.
Famous for Generosity
Karna has made a name for himself as being generous and kind to a fault. His feelings of tenderness are not reserved just for those who are more unfortunate than he is; he is equally generous with people who are more powerful than him.
Here are a few examples of his generosity:
- When approached by a Brahmin who asks him for his divine armour and earrings, despite knowing that the Brahmin is none other than Indra in disguise, Karna peels off his gifts and gives them away.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 26: Karna is Defanged.)
- When Kunti reveals to Karna the secret of his birth, he does not accept her as his mother. But he gives her an unsolicited promise that he will not attack any other Pandava in the war besides Arjuna.
- During his twenty five years as Anga’s king, he earns for himself the reputation as a wise and generous king. He is said to have undertaken numerous projects for the benefit of the downtrodden in his kingdom.
Famous for Loyalty
Karna’s finest and noblest moment comes when he rejects the offer of Krishna to accept the throne of Indraprastha in return for betraying Duryodhana and fighting on the Pandavas’ side.
Krishna tells Karna that he is a Pandava, and that his ‘true’ place is on the throne with Draupadi by his side and with the Pandavas serving him. Karna, however, rejects the trade and affirms to Krishna that he was born a Sutaputra and that he will die one.
In making this decision, Karna displays loyalty of the finest sort toward Duryodhana – who gave him everything and allowed him to become a king while also staying true to his adoptive tribe – and toward Adiratha and Radha – who saved him from certain death and raised him as their own.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 35: Karna Rejects a Bribe.)
He also rejects the notion that he could rewrite history by a mere decision. With this one choice, will he stop being a Sutaputra and become a Kshatriya? Will the Pandavas magically become his family members? And will he need to forsake those people who have loved him as he was all these years for the sake of his ‘true’ family?
Karna does not think so. He chooses to remain a Sutaputra, and to remain loyal to Duryodhana to the end.
Famous for Pride
Karna displays an arrogant streak every now and then during the story, especially when he is accompanying or advising Duryodhana. He is prone to make outrageous claims about Duryodhana’s nobility, the Pandavas’ cruelty, or his own ability to easily defeat Arjuna.
This arrogance leads him to sometimes give Duryodhana advice that feels misguided in hindsight. For instance, during the final year of the Pandavas’ exile, he tells Duryodhana that going into the forest with the precise aim of pointing and laughing at the Pandavas is a good idea.
Duryodhana listens, and finds himself captured by Gandharvas. Eventually, he has to rely on Bhima and Arjuna to rescue him.
(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 23: Duryodhana is Rescued.)
This boastful nature also rubs Bhishma up the wrong way. After listening to his self-aggrandizement for a long time in silence, Bhishma finally erupts and quarrels with him on the eve of the war. This also leads directly to the grandsire giving Duryodhana an ultimatum: either he fights or I fight.
Whether or not this is a natural part of Karna’s personality or whether he feels the need to put on an act in Duryodhana’s presence, we do not know. But since we most see Karna and Duryodhana together in the story, his impetuosity is often in plain view.
Famous for Meanness
This is perhaps an extension of the previous section, but a big part of Karna’s character – as the reader sees it – has to do with how mean his acts are toward Draupadi – especially during her disrobing.
Even if we allow that Karna is performing a role here under Duryodhana’s instructions, we must admit that his overblown bluster becomes the main reason for much of Draupadi’s continuing vengefulness. It is not an exaggeration to claim that but for him, Draupadi would not have been disrobed.
(Related Article: What Happens during Draupadi’s Swayamvara?)
He insists that Draupadi is an unchaste woman (because she married five men) and that she should therefore be disrobed in public. That leads directly to Arjuna and Bhima making vows to kill Karna and Duryodhana respectively.
Famous for Misfortune
More than anything, Karna is known to be ‘basically a good man’ who is ‘caught in the wrong situations’. He is often depicted as someone trying to do his best with the forces of destiny arrayed against him.
- He is abandoned at birth by his biological mother, and he is found by a family that belongs to an unimportant caste.
- He is cursed by his teacher and by a Brahmin whose cow he inadvertently kills.
(Related Article: Why did Karna suffer so much?)
- He is wooed and exploited by Duryodhana for his potential to kill Arjuna. Duryodhana heaps wealth and status on Karna to purchase from him his loyalty.
- Though his kavacha-kundalas make him invincible as a warrior, Indra takes advantage of his generosity and strips him of them.
Thus, a man who is born with the world at his feet and who should deservedly become an emperor ends up living most of his early life being denigrated as a Sutaputra.
He does become king, but in return he is forced to give up his sense of ethics in order to be loyal to his benefactor. At the end, he chooses to die for his adoptive life even when a choice is offered to him to return to his ‘real’ one.
Karna’s enduring image, therefore, is that of a tragic hero who suffers much undeserved hardship during his life.
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered