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: Why did Kunti abandon Karna?
Kunti gives birth to Karna due to a misguided use of Durvasa’s magical incantation to summon Surya, the sun god. Since Kunti is an unwed maiden at the time, she requests Surya to leave without giving her a son. But he replies that he cannot do so. Therefore, afraid of social censure, Kunti decides to abandon her baby.
Read on to discover more about why Kunti abandoned Karna.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Kunti is actually the biological daughter of King Shurasena, who rules over the kingdom by the same name. She is the sister (younger or older, we do not know; probably the former) of Vasudeva, who fathers Krishna with Devaki.
She is, however, given up to fostering at the house of Kuntibhoja, the king of (the kingdom) Kunti. Her birth name is Pritha.
After her marriage, she comes to be known by the name of the kingdom from which she hails. Everyone begins to call her Kunti.
Her life as princess of Kunti is quite uneventful except for when Sage Durvasa visits Kuntibhoja. The king welcomes Durvasa with due honour, and gives Kunti the task of attending to his every need.
(Related Post: Mahabharata Episode 4: Kunti, Madri and Gandhari.)
Durvasa stays at the royal palace for a few months, and as he is about to go, he leaves Kunti with a magical incantation. He is so pleased with the princess’s devotion that he gives her the ability to bear sons with any god of her choosing.
She can summon as many gods as she wishes – one at a time – and have as many children as she wants. All she has to do is recite the incantation.
As soon as Durvasa leaves, Kunti is overcome by excitement and curiosity. A part of her is disbelieving: how could she, a mere mortal woman, summon a god to have children with?
She wonders if the sage had been playing a prank on her. One morning, while marvelling at the beauty of the morning sun, Kunti recites the mantra. In no time at all, the sun god Surya stands before her in all his glory.
Surya refuses to leave without giving her a son. Through their union is born Karna.
(There is a whole school of thought that the whole story of Kunti’s magic is just a lie, and that Karna is Durvasa’s son. But we will ignore this theory for the moment.)
Spiritual or Physical?
The actual mechanics of how Durvasa’s chant works is not explained with clarity. Some assume that the union between Kunti and the gods is a physical one, just like the union of any other man and woman. Others suggest that the act is a spiritual one, and that Kunti does not lose her virginity as a result.
Some think that Kunti carried Karna to term; others say that Karna was born immediately, on the same day of Surya’s visit.
(Related Post: Mahabharata Episode 5: Pandavas and Kauravas.)
One can argue both ways on this, but we know the following from the births of the Pandavas:
- They are all born a year apart from one another, which hints at the fact that Kunti and Madri carried each foetus to term.
- Kunti considers the four gods that fathered her children as paramours, and cites that as the reason for not giving Pandu more sons. This suggests that the union is a physical one.
All of this is important because it allows us to imagine Kunti’s predicament while carrying Surya’s son in her womb.
Kunti’s pregnancy could not have been a private matter. The princess of a kingdom (or any woman for that matter) does not have the privacy to keep such a thing as her pregnancy secret from everyone.
While it may not have been known to many, at least her closest confidants would have known. Kuntibhoja himself would almost certainly have been given the news.
So the decision of what to do with the infant after he is born would not have been Kunti’s alone. All the people – especially her father – who knew of Kunti’s secret would have had a say in it.
The most important factor to consider is this: Kuntibhoja would have been keen to smother the secret completely so that it never returns to bother Kunti.
We should also remember that Kuntibhoja’s own reputation is at stake here. King Shurasena would not be pleased if he knew that his daughter’s adoptive father was so reckless as to allow her to become pregnant before her marriage.
Realistically speaking, what choices would Kuntibhoja have once he is informed of Kunti’s pregnancy? This would have happened around Kunti’s first or second missed menstrual cycle, so he would still have plenty of time to think it over.
The first thing he might have done is to ensure that as few people as possible ever get to know about this. Then, he would have considered the following options:
- Can the child be given to a waiting woman with instructions for him to be reared in a poor family in Kunti? This way, Kuntibhoja and Kunti can keep an opportunistic eye on the boy as he grows up.
- Can the child be fostered in a family of high birth within the court of Kunti? This way, the child will grow up with all the privilege that he deserves, but this will necessarily mean exposing to secret to more people.
- Can the child be removed from Kunti completely so that there is a clean break between child and mother? This way, neither Kuntibhoja nor Kunti will need to worry about anything.
The first two choices are better for the baby, because a link between him and his birth family is not being completely severed. But they are also risky for Kuntibhoja. With each new person knowing about Kunti’s unplanned pregnancy, the risk of that knowledge reaching the wider public – and Shurasena – increases.
Given all of the incumbent factors, there is only one choice open to Kuntibhoja. He decides to abandon the child.
He arranges for the baby to be placed in a basket and left on the river. It is clear that he intends for the boy to be found – because otherwise he could have easily ordered to have him killed.
Sometimes this decision is portrayed as being Kunti’s alone. She is depicted as being the person to let go of the basket on the river. We of course think of her as being very emotional in this moment, tears streaming down her cheeks as she stands and watches the basket disappear out of sight.
But we have no reason to believe it happened that way. For all we know, the instructions would have come from Kuntibhoja, and the dirty deed might have been completed by a waiting woman.
The child, at the time of abandonment, is unnamed. He is later found by a charioteer named Adiratha and is given the name of Vasusena (‘he who is born of wealth’). He comes to be later known as Karna, after he peels off his earrings and armour.
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