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 Karna remove his armor?
Karna’s natural armor and earrings – the kavacha-kundalas – make his body impenetrable to weapons. Indra disguises himself as a Brahmin and asks Karna for his armor to protect Arjuna. Despite knowing Indra’s true identity, Karna gives up his armor because he does not want to say no to the king of the gods.
(In Karna: Your Ultimate Guide to the Mahabharata’s Antihero, we delve deeper into the character of Karna. We also answer all Karna-related questions in Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Born with Armor
Karna is born of the union between Kunti – when she was an unwed princess – and Surya the sun god. At birth, he has natural armor all over his body (called ‘kavacha’) and earrings hanging of his ears (called ‘kundalas’).
Though the exact powers of the kavacha-kundalas are never explicitly described in the story, it is often mentioned that they make Karna almost invincible in battle.
If one has to guess, one might say that the kavacha is more like a thin covering of mail all over his body that protects him from weapons. The kundalas are more difficult to decipher. Do they have any magical properties? Perhaps they allow the kavacha to heal after it has taken a battering?
In some descriptions of Karna, we’re told that his earrings ‘bathe his face in a warm white glow’. Whether they do anything else besides that is not clear.
Visit by Indra
Accepted wisdom is that as long as Karna possesses the kavacha-kundalas, he is impossible to injure – even for someone as skilled and blessed as Arjuna. Further, Karna poses a very real threat to Arjuna’s life as long as the armor and earrings are in play.
Therefore, in order to protect his son, Indra dons the disguise of a Brahmin and visits Karna. He asks for alms, secures Karna’s promise that he will be given ‘anything’, and then requests Karna to hand over his kavacha-kundalas.
Now, the night before Indra’s visit, Surya visits his son in a dream and tells him, ‘Indra is about to arrive and ask for your armor and earrings. He will come disguised as a Brahmin. Do not entertain his request.’
But Karna replies, ‘If the king of the gods himself comes and asks me for something, how can I refuse? People all over the world make offerings of their own to Indra and pray that he accepts them. Here, he is asking for alms from me. What higher honor can there be?’
So when Indra makes his request, Karna peels off his armor, cuts off his earrings, and gives them away. After this incident, he comes to be known as Karna, the ‘peeler of one’s self’.
Indra Gives a Gift
Indra may have approached Karna expecting to be denied, because when Karna gives up his armor, he is pleasantly surprised. So impressed is he by Karna’s generosity – or, rather, his respect for him – that Indra gives Karna a wish.
We must note here that Karna does not know at the moment of giving up his armor that he will be given a gift. This is an act of charity that later becomes a trade.
In any case, Karna then wishes to be presented with the Vasava Dart, a powerful weapon in Indra’s possession that can kill anyone. Indra grants the wish, but qualifies it by saying, ‘I cannot give you repeated use of this weapon, my son. But you will be able to use it once to kill anyone you wish. After that one use, the dart will return to me.’
If Indra had given Karna the dart for repeated use, it would have made him just as powerful as when he had the kavacha-kundalas. Arjuna’s death at his hands would have been more of a certainty.
But by restricting it to only a single use, Indra ensures that the trade is slightly lopsided against Karna. He has lost an enduring defensive advantage to gain a one-shot but fatal offensive edge.
When does Indra approach Karna?
This is one of the most puzzling aspects of the Karna story: just when does Indra take Karna’s kavacha-kundalas off him? There are two possibilities.
The first is that this incident happens just before the Mahabharata war begins. That means that all through the story leading up to this, Karna has his kavacha-kundalas in his possession.
But this raises a few questions:
- If he had the kavacha-kundalas, why does Karna lose to Drupada during the invasion of Panchala?
- Why is Karna unable to easily defeat Arjuna at Draupadi’s swayamvara? At this time, Arjuna himself is not the powerful warrior he will become later. He is yet to receive any gifts from any gods.
- Why does Karna flee from the battlefield when Duryodhana is captured by Gandharvas? If the kavacha-kundalas make you invincible, should that knowledge also not give you almost reckless amounts of courage?
- Why does Karna lose to Arjuna during the defense of Matsya? Granted, Arjuna is very powerful at this point, but with the kavacha-kundalas, Karna should at least put up a fight.
- Why does Karna acquire the name of Karna if the incident that will give him that name has not yet happened? He should be called Vasusena until the war begins. Instead, he is known as Karna right from the beginning.
One explanation for why Karna loses all those battles could be that the kavacha-kundalas are not as powerful as people think. Maybe they provide one level of protection against weapons, but he is by no means invincible because of them. And he knows it.
But accepting this raises another question: if the kavacha-kundalas are not that great, why does Indra bother to steal them from Karna?
At the Beginning?
The second possibility with this is that Karna gives away his armor and earrings before he makes his first appearance at the graduation ceremony.
There is some supporting evidence for this notion. For instance:
- He introduces himself to the royal assembly as Karna. Spectators at the arena seem to already know him as the youth who had given away his natural armor to a Brahmin.
- During his speech in defense of Karna, Duryodhana points to the scars on his body and says, ‘Behold the wounds left behind after he had cut himself to fulfill a Brahmin’s wish. Can someone like this be low-born?’
If we accept this theory, all the questions raised in the previous section are answered. Without the kavacha-kundalas, Karna is just a good warrior with one special ability.
From the end of the graduation ceremony onward, Karna must have set his sights on Arjuna as the target of his Vasava dart. This explains his general apathy and cowardice in battle with other people but extreme confidence about being able to kill Arjuna.
Note that this confidence would have struck an observer as false bravado – especially if said observer does not know of the existence of the Vasava. So when Bhishma asks, ‘If you can kill Arjuna, why did you run away from the Gandharvas?’ the question strikes us as eminently fair.
Now, having come this far, we must also acknowledge that if we accept this timeline of events, we’re left with one glaring question.
Namely: If Karna possesses the Vasava dart, why does he not use it during his battle against Arjuna during Draupadi’s swayamvara or during the Virata Parva?
The answer for the first is simple enough: Karna does not know at Draupadi’s swayamvara that he is fighting Arjuna. But in the second instance, he is on an actual battlefield, and Arjuna is fighting him from atop a single chariot without disguise.
The only possibility that strikes me is that at this point in time, Karna does not deem it worthwhile to use the Vasava on Arjuna. Perhaps he thinks of the Pandavas as already beaten. Perhaps he thinks that since Arjuna has been found out, the Pandavas will be sent back for twelve more years of exile.
Whatever the reason, Karna decides not to use his chief weapon on Arjuna during the defense of Matsya’s cattle.
When does Karna become Karna?
Of the two possibilities above, I find the first to be more problematic than the second. Several incidents pop up during the story that are simply not reconcilable with an invincible Karna.
With the second possibility – that Karna gives up his armor when he is a young man, before any of us see him – we only have to answer one minor question: why does Karna not use the Vasava against Arjuna during the Virata Parva?
All the other questions are answered. His failure against Drupada, his cowardice against the Gandharvas, his battle against a disguised Arjuna, and the mystery of his name – all of these are consistent with a Karna who is a decent warrior but with one exceptional weapon tucked away in his armory to be used just once against one special enemy.
So if you put a gun to my head and ask just when Karna becomes Karna, I’d say during his early youth, some time before he appears at the Kuru graduation ceremony.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story
- 300+ Mahabharata Stories to Thrill, Delight and Enchant You
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered