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: Who killed Karna?
Though it is Arjuna who shoots the arrow that kills Karna, six people are cited by Krishna as most responsible for Karna’s death. They are: Arjuna, Krishna, Kunti (for the promise she extracts), Indra (for stealing the kavacha-kundalas), Bhoomi (for swallowing Karna’s chariot-wheel), and Shalya (for refusing to help Karna during battle).
Read on to discover more about who killed Karna.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
The duel between Arjuna is Karna is long-awaited. The Mahabharata makes a number of references that these two men are arch-enemies, and that their final battle is going to be the one that will decide the Pandava-Kaurava conflict.
However, there is also the underlying implication that while it might be a close fight, the final victor will be Arjuna.
We get this impression from a number of powerful secondary characters (like Shiva, Indra and so on) making bold predictions that the Pandava are destined to win the Kurukshetra war.
In any case, Arjuna and Karna do not challenge each other in earnest until the end of the seventeenth day. And when they do, for a long time, the fight is even.
It is only after Karna’s chariot-wheel gets stuck in a ditch that the battle swings Arjuna’s way. While Karna is engaged in pulling out his wheel, Krishna instructs Arjuna to shoot at his enemy without mercy.
Arjuna hesitates, but only for a moment. He lets fly an arrow which beheads Karna with no fuss.
As we have seen with the deaths of Bhishma, Drona and Abhimanyu, while the decisive action that takes the life of a character may be attributed to one person, plenty of other people also make important contributions.
This is true in the case of Karna as well.
In fact, soon after Karna dies, Arjuna asks Krishna how Karna – who is so powerful and gifted as a warrior – had been vanquished. Krishna then gives him a list of all the characters that have played a hand in Karna’s destruction.
The first person Krishna cites is, of course, Arjuna. The second, interestingly, is himself.
This may come as a surprise because before the war, Krishna makes a heartfelt attempt to recruit Karna for the Pandava cause. He even goes to the extent of telling Karna who he truly is, and to promise him Draupadi’s hand in marriage.
But once Karna refuses, Krishna detaches himself completely from the Sutaputra. Throughout the war, he makes sure that until Karna holds the Vasava Dart, Arjuna does not come face to face with him.
He also clouds the judgement of Karna and the Kauravas so that they do not use the Vasava Dart on Arjuna.
And finally, it is Krishna who decides to sacrifice Ghatotkacha to Karna’s divine weapon, thus protecting Arjuna from the only missile to which he does not have a counter.
Kunti plays a huge role in not only how Karna dies but also how he lives. If Kunti had been less afraid of societal pressures, she might have chosen not to abandon Karna. His life might have been different then.
If Kunti had been less constrained by familial considerations, she might have spoken up and claimed Karna as her son on the day of the Kuru princes’ graduation. Karna and the Pandavas may not have become staunch enemies in that case.
But leaving Kunti’s choices to one side, the fact that she exacts from Karna a promise on the eve of the war makes her a willing accomplice to his death.
What is the promise? Karna promises Kunti that in the upcoming war, he will only fight to kill Arjuna. Not the other four Pandavas.
In other words, Karna says that even if he finds himself in a position to capture or kill the other four Pandavas, he will spare them. ‘At the end of the war, my lady,’ he assures her, ‘you will still have five sons.’
As it happens, on four separate occasions, Karna gains an upper hand on Yudhishthir, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva respectively.
What if Kunti had not taken the vow from Karna? What if Karna had been true to Duryodhana in these moments and killed the Pandava brothers?
The war might have ended differently. Karna might not have died at all. Kunti therefore, by the act of extracting this promise from her firstborn, causes his death.
Shortly before the war (though there is some debate about the exact timing), Indra visits Karna with the sole intention of stealing from the young man his kavacha-kundalas.
The kavacha-kundalas are not explicitly described, so we do not know their actual powers. But we’re told that as long as he has those on him, Karna is effectively invincible.
The word ‘kavacha’ means ‘armour’. Karna is born with natural armour all over his body. So as long as he has this on him, Karna does not get hurt from injuries. Or his injuries heal fantastically fast.
Indra knows that the only way Arjuna will have a chance against Karna is if the latter is without his kavacha-kundalas.
So he pays him a visit. In the disguise of a Brahmin. And he takes advantage of Karna’s proclivity to be generous to Brahmins.
Karna, of course, gives up his armour and earrings with a smile on his face, this despite knowing that the Brahmin is Indra in disguise. He does receive the Vasava dart in return, but it is a tremendously unequal trade.
Indra, thus, plays his role in defanging Karna, and nudging him that much closer to his death.
Parashurama and Bhoomi
During the course of his unfortunate life, Karna collects a couple of curses. First, his preceptor, Parashurama, curses him in anger when he finds out that Karna has been lying to him.
Karna lies to Parashurama that he is a Brahmin boy, not a lowly son of a charioteer. As luck would have it, Parashurama witnesses Karna’s deep reserves of pain tolerance and guesses that he is a Kshatriya.
And because of his hatred for Kshatriyas – even more than distaste at being lied to – he curses Karna that all that he has learnt at his feet will forsake him in the biggest battle of his life.
A similar incident happens with Bhoomi, the Earth goddess. The story goes that Karna once squeezes oil out of the Earth with such force that Bhoomi gets annoyed. She curses him that she will fail him in the most significant battle of his life too.
That is why Karna’s wheel gets stuck in the Earth. And that is why Karna – despite matching Arjuna reasonably well – is not able to recall enough of his mantras to drive the advantage home.
Parashurama and Bhoomi, therefore, also play a hand in Karna’s death.
The last person Krishna cites in his answer to Arjuna as being directly responsible for Karna’s death – is Shalya.
Shalya gets assigned the role of Karna’s charioteer on the seventeenth day. This appointment happens as a result of Karna’s wish for Duryodhana: he thinks that if Shalya becomes his charioteer, he will be able to better match Arjuna.
Shalya, of course, disagrees with this. The notion of a king of a Great Kingdom (such as himself) driving the chariot of a charioteer’s son strikes him as absurd.
But for the sake of Duryodhana, he agrees to do this. Unbeknownst to Karna, Shalya is also acting as Yudhishthir’s spy in the Kaurava ranks.
He has already been spoken to Yudhishthir about this possibility – that he might be asked to play charioteer to Karna’s warrior. And Yudhishthir has already taken from him the promise that he will do all that he can to sabotage Karna’s chances.
Shalya’s duty – it mustn’t need to be said – is to be loyal to Karna. He is meant to do everything in his power to help Karna defeat Arjuna. That is his role.
But he does the opposite. He constantly goads Karna with taunts and insults throughout the day, while also praising Krishna and Arjuna to high skies.
During the battle, when Karna’s chariot-wheel gets stuck, it is actually Shalya’s job to jump off and rescue the chariot. Karna asks him to do so. But Shalya refuses. ‘Not the job for a king,’ he says.
This forces Karna onto the ground. Not long after, Arjuna kills him.
Shalya, therefore, plays an important role in the killing of Karna.
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