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.
During his youth, Karna earns curses on three separate occasions: first, Parashurama curses him that his Brahmastra will fail him; second, Bhumi the Earth goddess curses him that she will swallow his chariot wheel at an important moment; third, a Brahmin curses him for the sin of killing a cow that his weapons and pride will fail him when he needs them most.
Read on to discover more about the curses of Karna.
As a young boy, in a bid to escape the confines of his Suta caste, Karna resolves to learn the skill of weapon-wielding from Sage Parashurama.
It is well known at this time that Parashurama only trains Brahmin boys, so Karna disguises himself as a Brahmin and approaches the sage. The latter is taken in by Karna’s impressive appearance and accepts him as a disciple.
For a long time Karna manages to conceal the truth, but toward the end of his tenure, an incident happens that blows his cover.
One afternoon, Parashurama rests his head on Karna’s thigh under a tree and falls asleep. The boy sits erect and unmoving in order not to disturb his teacher’s nap. But in a short while, a worm (a bee or a leech in some versions) appears out of nowhere and begins to sting Karna on the thigh.
Karna flinches at the first contact of the insect on his skin, but after that, despite the bleeding and the pain, he remains still. Only after Parashurama wakes up does he notice that his student is pale and tense.
Parashurama sees the worm clinging to Karna’s thigh, and immediately kills it with an incantation. Turning to Karna he says, ‘No Brahmin can have such incredible tolerance for pain. I have no doubt that you’re a Kshatriya in disguise!’
(Ironically, Parashurama sees through Karna’s disguise but thinks that he is a Kshatriya. And because of his long-standing quarrel with Kshatriyas, he is moved to curse Karna.)
‘Because you have lied to your preceptor,’ says Parashurama, ‘all that you have learned from me will forsake you when you most need it.’
The Unnamed Brahmin
On a different occasion, while wandering for the sake of practicing with his bow, Vijaya, Karna finds a spot deep in a forest where he shoots a number of fierce arrows at trees and shrubs.
During that time, he accidentally strikes and killed a calf belonging to a Brahmin. He curses Karna that his chariot-wheel will sink to the earth in the midst of an important battle, and that I will be struck by the same fear that had consumed that poor animal when it breathed its last.
Karna gives him a number of cows, and he also wishes to placate the man’s anger by means of other gifts. But the Brahmin, though he accepts what Karna gives him, says that he cannot take back his word. ‘Give in to the dictates of your fate, Karna,’ he says. ‘That is your atonement for killing my calf.’
Though it is not explicitly mentioned, it appears that this incident with the Brahmin occurs after Karna becomes king of Anga. Yet another unfortunate event happens during this time, which angers Bhumi the Earth goddess.
The Curse of Bhumi
Once, when Karna is riding around the city of Anga in his chariot, his charioteer accidentally runs into a walking woman carrying a pot of oil. The collision causes the woman to drop her pot, and by the time Karna descends to the ground, all the oil has already spilled onto the earth.
With the intention of salvaging as much oil as possible, Karna picks up the moist earth and squeezes dry with his hands, causing the oil to drip back into the pot. Such is the strength in his fingers that he manages to half-fill the pot with oil.
This pleases the walking woman who had been hit, and Karna asks her to come by the royal palace to refill her pot.
But this act of being squeezed by Karna’s hands hurts and angers Bhumi. On the one hand there is the sheer physical discomfort of being handled like that by a man. On the other there is the matter of disrespect. Could Karna not have let the oil go and compensate the woman for a whole potful?
So Bhumi also curses Karna. ‘For this insolence, O king,’ she says, ‘I shall see to it that your chariot will not remain on firm ground during the most important battle of your life.’
Cursed by Generosity
In addition to these three instances, Karna makes a habit of hurting himself with his own generous nature. At the end of the war, when Arjuna asks Krishna how they had managed to vanquish Karna, Krishna replies that a number of small factors had come together to help them in the mission.
Here are a few times when Karna’s own generosity turns around and ‘curses’ him:
- When Indra appears in the garb of a Brahmin and asks Karna to give up his kavacha and kundalas, despite knowing the true identity of his visitor, Karna does not say no.
- Just before the war begins, Krishna reveals to Karna the secret of his birth, and offers him the throne of Indraprastha and the loving servitude of the Pandavas if only he agrees to forsake Duryodhana. Karna refuses.
- During his conversation with Kunti, after he (rightly) denounces her claims of being his mother, he gives her a promise that he would not seek to kill any of the Pandava brothers other than Arjuna. True to his word, he captures and spares all four Pandava brothers on four separate occasions.
Cursed by Fate
Karna is also cursed by fate, which is the name we may give to all the forces in the world that act upon a man without his permission. Despite his best intentions and his most strenuous efforts, Karna finds that the walls erected around him by destiny are way too high and torturous to scale.
- Karna is a born to a princess and a god. His is the most privileged of births. By right, he should have grown up to be a king, a great warrior, and a hero.
- If the worm that had stung Karna on that afternoon under the tree had chosen to do something else, Parashurama may not have cursed his disciple. Karna would have given a better account of himself in the final battle against Arjuna.
- If he hadn’t been abandoned by Kunti, or if he had been abandoned in a different way (by being fostered secretly at a nobleman’s house, perhaps), Karna would not have struggled his whole life to find his identity.
- If Adiratha and Radha had chosen not to tell their son that he was adopted, Karna may have found contentment and solace in being a Sutaputra.
- If Drona, Bhishma and Kripacharya had been kinder to him at the graduation ceremony, his friendship with Duryodhana – and his subsequent loyalty – would not have occurred. Perhaps then he would have become friends with the Pandavas.
- If Draupadi had not rejected him during her swayamvara, Karna would perhaps not have been as hostile toward her during the events of the dice game.
Of course, one might argue that Karna still had a choice of how he could react to the situations in which he found himself. But the point stands that he was not given much of a chance by the world to be what he might have been.
It is as if fate decreed at the moment of his birth that his life is going to be a tragedy.
Now you know everything about the curses of Karna. Summing up:
- As a young boy, during his time as Parashurama’s disciple, Karna mistakenly drops his guard with his teacher and earns from him the curse that he will always forget the lessons he had learned during the most inopportune moments.
- As a king, while practicing shooting in the forest one day, he accidentally kills a calf belonging to a Brahmin, who tells him that his own death will be as helpless and wretched as the calf’s.
- On a different occasion as a king, Karna squeezes some spilled oil out of the earth with such great pressure that Bhumi, the Earth goddess, curses him for his insolence. Due to this, his chariot wheel sinks into the earth on the seventeenth day of battle.
- Karna’s own generosity often ends up as his curse – as in the promises he makes to Kunti, Krishna, Duryodhana and Indra.
- Lastly, Karna is cursed by fate itself. Despite being gifted by birth and training, he is destined to live as a flawed hero who will die a failure.
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