Why does Indra approach Karna?

Why does Indra approach Karna - Featured Image - Picture of Airavata, Indra's elephant.

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 does Indra approach Karna?

Indra is in the enviable position of knowing right from the beginning that the Kurukshetra war is inevitable. He knows that the only warrior capable of and willing to kill Arjuna – his son – is Karna. Therefore, in order to weaken Karna, Indra approaches him in the garb of a Brahmin and asks for his divine armour and earrings.

(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

When does Indra visit Karna?

The exact timing of Indra visit to Karna is debatable. One possibility is that Karna is quite a young man – perhaps thirteen or fourteen – when this happens. At such an impressionable age, Karna may have been too naïve to understand the significance of what is being asked of him.

Here are a few facts:

  • By the time Karna appears at the graduation ceremony of the Kurus, he is already known as ‘Karna’ – which means ‘peeler of self’.
  • Duryodhana points out his many scars and proclaims: ‘He gave away his natural armour because a Brahmin asked for it. How can you call him undeserving of being here?’
  • Throughout his life, Karna displays a distinct lack of physical courage when faced with the prospect of battle. This is inconsistent with a person who has impenetrable armour on him.

(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 26: Karna is Defanged.)

The Alternative

The alternative theory is that Indra visits Karna just before the Kurukshetra war begins. This means that throughout his life up to that point, Karna actually had his kavacha-kundalas with him.

This brings up multiple questions such as:

  • Why did Karna then lose to Arjuna on two separate occasions?
  • Why did Karna flee from the battlefield when Duryodhana is abducted by Gandharvas and needed to be saved?
  • How did Karna lose the battle against Drupada when the Kuru princes attack Panchala after their education is complete?

Of course, believing that Karna gave up his armour and earrings when he was younger would mean that he has been in possession of the Vasava dart all along. Why, then, did he not use it against Arjuna when he fights him at Draupadi’s swayamvara? Or during the defence of Matsya?

Indra’s Motivation

Regardless of the timing of his visit, the motivation behind Indra’s visit is quite straightforward. He wishes to protect Arjuna from Karna. This means by implication that he believes that Karna – if he has his kavacha-kundalas – is enough of a match for Arjuna, despite the fact that Arjuna has been blessed with numerous divine weapons.

Indra does not appear before Karna as himself, though. He dons the guise of a Brahmin because Karna has a reputation of never saying no to anything a Brahmin asks.

Surya appears to Karna in a dream and warns him of Indra’s plan. He tells Karna not to give away his kavacha-kundalas because that will weaken him immeasurably.

Karna rejects this piece of advice. ‘If the king of the gods wants something from me, and he is coming by himself to ask for it, there is no bigger honour. I will not say no.’

What does Karna get in return?

It bears noting that Karna does not expect anything from Indra in return. He gives the kavacha-kundalas as alms. Indra is then moved enough by Karna’s nobility to grant him a gift.

Karna asks for the Vasava dart, which allows him to kill any warrior no matter how powerful. This is a fair request from Karna: in return for giving up a defensive power, he asks for an equivalent offensive power.

Indra does give Karna the weapon, but with a caveat: that Karna can use it only once in his entire life. After that one use, the dart will return to Indra.

This is, of course, not a fair trade anymore. Indra is essentially handicapping Karna forever by taking away his kavacha-kundalas, and in return he is giving him one formidable weapon that can be used only once.

If we assume that this exchange happens early on in his life, then we can expect Karna to be fearful of combat in general – because he is no longer invincible – and yet confident of defeating Arjuna – because he is saving his Vasava dart to kill him.

Killing Ghatotkacha

For the longest time, Karna keeps the Vasava dart in reserve to be used against Arjuna. But on the night of the fourteenth day, with Ghatotkacha running amuck, the Kaurava soldiers call out to him and implore him to use his weapon.

Karna does not want to, but he also cannot ignore the beseeching cries of Duryodhana’s men. In a moment of perplexity, he pulls out the Vasava and hurls it at Ghatotkacha.

The fall of Ghatotkacha compels Krishna to cry out in delight and to proclaim: ‘Karna is no longer powerful enough to kill you, Arjuna. Now your victory is certain.’

This also implies, of course, that until that point, Krishna was not sure that a fight between Arjuna and Karna would end with victory going to the former.

(Related Article: Mahabharata Episode 49: Karna Kills Ghatotkacha.)

Arjuna’s Nemesis

Karna is therefore rightly called Arjuna’s nemesis despite the fact that he is not as powerful as Arjuna, and despite losing several battles that Arjuna goes on to fight and win.

Before he gives up his kavacha-kundalas, Karna is a universally strong warrior. He is near invincible against any enemy and any weapon.

But after Indra robs him of his armour, Karna turns into a warrior who is still strong against other opponents, but not invincible against him. More than anything, he is not confident of holding his own – hence the many instances of his fleeing the battlefield.

At the same time, when facing Arjuna, Karna’s fears dissipate and his poise returns. He knows that he has in his armoury the one weapon that can kill Arjuna.

Despite Bhishma’s protestations to the contrary, therefore, Karna is still the only warrior on both sides of the Kurukshetra war capable of defeating Arjuna. And he is the only warrior that Krishna is trying to avoid fighting.

This lends further credence to the notion that it is Karna who should have been made the first commander of Duryodhana’s army. But Bhishma sees to it Karna is banished from fighting for the first ten days, thus once again protecting Arjuna.   

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