Who was Karna’s Charioteer in the Mahabharata War?

Who was Karna's charioteer in the Mahabharata war - Featured Image - Picture of a horse's head

The Mahabharata war, also called the Kurukshetra war, is the climactic event of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. It is fought between two sets of cousins in the Kuru dynasty, the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) and the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra).

Kingdoms like Panchala and Matsya side with the Pandavas. Krishna, the regent of Dwaraka, drives the chariot of Arjuna, the third Pandava, and signals his support for their cause.

The war is fought over eighteen days on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. It is won by the Pandavas at the end, but only after unfathomable destruction to lives and wealth on both sides.

(For the full summary of the war, see: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.)

In this post, we will answer the question: Who was Karna’s charioteer in the Mahabharata war?

On the seventeenth day of the war, Karna asks Duryodhana to make Shalya his charioteer, thinking that having a good charioteer will make him as powerful as Arjuna. Shalya thus agrees to drive Karna’s vehicle, but sabotages his master’s efforts at every turn, becoming one of the main reasons for his death.

Read on further to learn more about who Karna’s charioteer was in the Mahabharata war.

Who is Shalya?

Shalya is the brother of Madri and the king of the Madra kingdom. He is therefore the maternal uncle of Nakula and Sahadeva.

Shalya’s intention, naturally, is to fight on the side of the Pandavas because they are the sons of his dead sister. With an akshauhini of troops behind him, he heads out from Madra in the direction of Upaplavya, where the Pandavas are residing.

Duryodhana, however, anticipates this and arranges for a number of shelters to be constructed along Shalya’s path. He stations large groups of servants at each shelter tasked with looking after Shalya’s every need.

Shalya does not know who the servants belong to, but he thinks that Yudhishthir has sent them. When the servants tell him that their master would like a boon from him, Shalya immediately agrees.

But to his surprise, the mystery host is revealed to be Duryodhana. As a boon, Duryodhana asks Shalya to fight on his side in the war, and to give his akshauhini of troops to the Kaurava cause.

Though this is against Shalya’s preference, he agrees because he had already given his word.

A Spy for Yudhishthir

Shalya then goes to Upaplavya and tells the Pandavas what had happened. This is a bit of a blow for Yudhishthir, because he had been counting on the one akshauhini of troops from Shalya.

(If Shalya had fought on the side of the Pandavas, they would have had eight akshauhinis on their side and the Kauravas would have had ten. The distribution of strength would have been a lot more even.)

Still, Yudhishthir does not let any of his irritation show. He immediately asks Shalya for a favour.

‘If you must fight on Duryodhana’s side, Uncle,’ he says, ‘then please make sure that you do not exert yourself to the fullest at any time. Whenever you see a way to help us out, please do so without hesitation.’

Yudhishthir then gives Shalya very specific instructions regarding Karna.

‘There will be a battle to the death between Arjuna and Karna during this battle, O King,’ says Yudhishthir. ‘On this occasion, contrive to become the charioteer of Karna, and do all that you can to weaken him.’

Shalya agrees to Yudhishthir’s terms and returns to Madra. Here he waits for the summons to battle.

Karna’s Request for Duryodhana

During the first sixteen days of the war, Shalya fights on the Kaurava side but does not perform any great deeds worthy of mention. He is one of the many warriors that assist in the killing of Abhimanyu, but otherwise he is quite nondescript.

On the eve of the seventeenth day, Karna proposes that he will fight Arjuna the next day. In order to elevate his power to equal that of Arjuna, he asks Duryodhana to give him the services of Shalya as charioteer.

‘Arjuna and I are comparable in skill and weapons, O King,’ he tells Duryodhana. ‘But he is invincible only because his charioteer – Krishna – is much better than mine. If you can give me the king of Madra as charioteer tomorrow, I will defeat Arjuna.’

Let us pause for a moment to consider the various angles to Karna’s request:

  • Karna himself is a charioteer’s son. In the eyes of the Kaurava warriors, his true calling in life is to drive chariots, not fight with weapons.
  • Shalya is the king of Madra. He is also relative to the Kuru family through marriage.
  • No self-respecting Kshatriya would be pleased to drive the chariot of a charioteer’s son. To ask such a chore of Shalya is beneath contempt.

Shalya does not immediately agree, therefore, but Duryodhana convinces him. On the seventeenth day, Karna thus rides out on his chariot with Shalya holding the reins.

Shalya Sabotages Karna

This is exactly the scenario that Yudhishthir has predicted before the war began. Shalya finds himself in the perfect place from which to sabotage Karna’s efforts during the battle with Arjuna.

Shalya also has a personal axe to grind against Karna: this Sutaputra has, after all, reduced him – the king of Madra! – to the status of a mere charioteer.

During the course of the entire day, therefore, Shalya engages Karna in several pointless arguments. Instead of supporting Karna, he confronts him on various points – and even sings the praises of Arjuna and Krishna.

After the battle with Arjuna begins, when Karna’s chariot-wheel sinks to the ground, Shalya refuses to even leave his seat. Just a short while back, Krishna had lifted Arjuna’s chariot from the mud – Karna has seen that.

Now he is compelled to lift the wheel of his chariot himself, with Shalya refusing to even budge.

This complete lack of cooperation from Shalya adversely affects Karna’s chances against Arjuna. Indeed, Arjuna shoots his fatal arrow at Karna’s neck when the latter is about to lift his chariot-wheel back onto firm ground.

Shalya’s Death

Despite the significant help received from Shalya, Yudhishthir shows him no mercy on the eighteenth day, when Shalya rides out into the battlefield at the head of Duryodhana’s troops.

As the commander of the Kaurava army, Shalya chooses to fight at his very best, terrorizing vast swathes of the Panchala army. Seeing that the king of Madra is no longer (seemingly) fighting on the Pandavas’ side, Yudhishthir decides that the time has come for him to die.

With Arjuna and Bhima protecting either of his chariot wheels, Yudhishthir goes into battle with Shalya and kills him.

Later, when Arjuna asks Krishna how Karna the great warrior was vanquished, Krishna names Shalya among the important reasons behind the death of the son of Surya.

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