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 was Karna cursed by Parashurama?
Parashurama curses Karna for the sin of lying about his identity. Parashurama thinks that Karna is a Brahmin boy, but one day, he sees evidence of Karna’s pain-bearing ability, and concludes that he must be a Kshatriya. Outraged at this deception, Parashurama curses Karna that he will forget everything he has learnt when he most needs it.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Sage Parashurama has a bit of a reputation for being a sworn enemy of the Kshatriya race.
The story goes back to the time of his youth, when a king called Karta Virya Arjuna (he of a thousand arms) kills Parashurama’s father, Jamadagni. Parashurama vows revenge and kills Arjuna. After that, he goes on a bloody quest to eliminate the entire race of Kshatriyas.
It is said that he kills every king on Earth before hanging up his axe. By the time he is finished, the five lakes of Samantapanchaka are reddened by blood.
Many years after this incident, the war of Mahabharata occurs here in Samantapanchaka – which also has the name of Kurukshetra because it was claimed by a king called Kuru.
In addition to being known as a Kshatriya-hater, Parashurama also is considered a Brahmin-sympathizer. Drona takes advantage of this quality and procures from the sage all his weapons and the knowledge required to wield them successfully in battle.
When Karna is a boy growing up in Hastinapur as the son of Adiratha and Radha, he is compelled by a desire to move up the social ladder. He knows that he had been adopted; he also knows that his birth parents were wealthy. By all visible signs, he is a Kshatriya – probably even a prince of a kingdom.
But now he is stuck as a member of the lowly Suta caste, and if he does not grab destiny by the neck and wrestle with it, there is a danger that he will live out his life as a charioteer.
(Related Article: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Karna Parva.)
The most important skill he should learn, he decides, is to proficiently wield weapons. If he is good at the art of fighting, he can exhibit himself at any royal festival and gain the favour of the king.
In order to learn this, though, he has to become a disciple to some Brahmin who is adept both at scripture and at fighting. Karna decides to approach Parashurama for this.
However, even Parashurama will not entertain a low-born Sutaputra as student. Karna will need to lie about his identity if he is to gain the sage’s favour.
Knowing Parashurama’s hatred for Kshatriyas and his love for Brahmins, Karna introduces himself as a Brahmin boy.
For the entire period of his time with Parashurama, Karna manages to fool the sage successfully. We’re not told explicitly how long Karna lives with Parashurama, but we might hazard a guess that it is around two or three years.
During this time, Parashurama comes to grow affectionate toward Karna. He teaches the young man everything he knows. Karna thus turns himself into a warrior.
But toward the end of his tenure, one day, when Parashurama is sleeping with his head resting on Karna’s lap under a tree, a worm crawls onto the boy’s thigh and begins to sting him there.
Karna doesn’t so much as flinch while the worm sucks blood from him. He does not wish to disturb his preceptor’s nap. But the blood from the thigh wound flows onto Parashurama’s shoulder and awakens him.
When Parashurama sees what has happened, he concludes that a man with such incredible ability to withstand pain for someone else’s welfare must be a Kshatriya.
Ironically, he thinks that Karna is a Kshatriya boy who disguises himself as a Brahmin. In his anger he places upon Karna a curse.
‘For the sin of lying to your preceptor, I am giving you this curse,’ says Parashurama. ‘In that very moment when you most need all the knowledge you have acquired from me, you will forget it all.’
Karna immediately apologizes to Parashurama and tells him the truth about himself. Parashurama is also repentant that he had spoken in haste. But he also acknowledges that perhaps a bigger force is at work here.
‘Maybe it is destiny that is showing its hand here, my son,’ he says, bidding Karna farewell. ‘I wish you all success in everything you do. But my curse will continue to act upon you.’
Whether Parashurama’s curse is a one-time effect that afflicts Karna during the final battle with Arjuna or whether it manifests itself every single time Karna fights, we do not know.
But if it is the latter, it explains why Karna displays signs of cowardice whenever he finds himself close to combat. Perhaps he is wary that he will forget everything he knows when the pressure is on.
This also is consistent with Karna’s ability to display his skill with no trouble at all in competitive scenarios (like the graduation ceremony) where there is no danger to life or limb.
This is by no means the only curse that Karna endures during his early life. During his time as king, while practicing archery one day, he inadvertently kills the cow belonging to a Brahmin, who curses him that his own death – when it comes – will be as unfortunate as that of the cow he killed.
There is also the sometimes-told tale of Karna being cursed by the earth goddess Bhoomi. On one occasion, Karna’s chariot causes a child to spill ghee on the earth. Karna descends from his chariot and, in an attempt to retrieve as much ghee as possible for the child, squeezes the mud to make the ghee drip back into the vessel.
He does succeed in salvaging some of the child’s ghee, but he squeezes the earth so hard for this that Bhoomi curses him. ‘On the day you fight your arch enemy,’ she says, ‘I will swallow your chariot wheel.’
All of these incidents reinforce the character of Karna as an unfortunate man fighting throughout his life against the force of destiny. Though he is born to a god and in the womb of a princess of a big kingdom, numerous events outside his control shape his life.
He does succeed in achieving a small part of what he deserves – by becoming king of Anga – but overall, his image is that of a tragic hero trapped by the cruel workings of fate.
Parashurama is therefore just one of the many tools that fate uses to punish Karna.
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