Mahabharat – Karna

Karna – The respectable character from Mahabharata

Karna – The incomparable

Perhaps the most respectable character in Mahabharata, because he cannot be faulted for his actions. Perhaps the most deserving and worthy who achieved nothing, because everyone around him was plotting against him. From Indra to Krishna. Perhaps the odds were stacked against him, perhaps this was his destiny that his own guru cursed him. Even on the battlefield,everyone was on Arjuna’s side and he lost the duel inspite of fighting better. In my opinion, he was better archer, a better human being who did not get his due.

For those who want to know more about this character, please read Rashmirathi penned by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar. You will not find a better representation of this character. Perhaps I am taking too much time and not going into the details – so here is the story of Karna for you.

Karna is one of the central figures in Hindu epic Mahabharata. He was the first son of Kunti, and was thus brother to the Pandavas, and the eldest of them. Although Duryodhana of the Kauravas appoint him king of Anga, his role in the legend far exceeds the importance of a king. He fought for the Kauravas in the great battle at Kurukshetra.
Karna's chariot stuck in mud
Karna’s chariot stuck in mud

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Birth of Karna

The princess Kunti, while young attended to the sage Durvasa for a full year, while he was a guest at her father`s palace. The sage was pleased with her service and so he granted her a boon whereby she could call upon any of the gods through a mantra and the god would grant her a son equal to the god in splendour. Unsure of whether the boon would actually be granted, Kunti, while still an unmarried young girl, decided to test the mantra and called upon Lord Surya, the Hindu deity of the sun. When Surya appeared before her, she was completely overawed. Bound by the power of the mantra, Surya granted her a son as radiant and strong as his father, although she did not want a child. Through his divine power, Kunti retains her virginity and honor. Thus Karna was born. As Surya`s son, Karna is born with an armour (`Kavacha`) and a pair of earrings (`Kundala`) which are dipped in Amrit the nectar of immortality.

Kunti’s embarassment

Kunti was now in the embarrassing position of being an unwed mother. Unable to face the world with her divine child, she placed Karna in a basket and floated him down a river with his jewelry, praying fervently that he would be kept safe.

The child Karna was borne down the river and picked up by King Dhritarashtra`s charioteer, Adhiratha, a suta(meaning son of a Kshatriya man and a Brahmin woman). Karna was raised by him and his wife Radha (not the same Radha who was Lord Krishna`s Companion at Mathura) as their son and named Vasusena (born with wealth), due to his natural set of armour and earrings. They knew something of his parentage by the jewellery he was found with, and never hid from him the fact that he was not their biological child. He was also known as Radheya because of the name of his mother Radha. His younger brother, Shon, was born to Adiratha and Radha after Karna`s arrival.

Birth of Karna and Kunti letting him go away
Birth of Karna and Kunti letting him go away

Karna born with Kavach and Kundal
Karna born with Kavach and Kundal

The bond between Karna and his foster family was one of pure love, respect and affection despite the lack of blood relationship. Adhiratha was honored by Karna in front of all the warrior kind, and Karna lovingly performed his duties as a son and brother within his foster family, despite his rise as king of Anga and the eventual revelation of his true birth.


As he grew into adulthood, Karna sought to be a warrior – being a Kshatriya and divine at that, it is said to have run in his blood. He correspondingly moved to Hastinapura. He approached Dronacharya, who at that time had established his school and was training the Kuru princes, requesting admission into his school. Drona refused to teach him, as he was a sutaputra. Karna realized his caste would continue to be a barrier in his quest for knowledge. He decided eventually to approach Parashurama himself. He did so, and was accepted as a student by Parashurama, who was under the impression he was a brahmin. Karna is spoken of as a diligent student, whose attention and concentration mirrored Arjuna`s. Parashurama trained him, to the point where he declared him his equal in the arts of war and fighting. During his stay in Vishnuavatar Parashurama`s hermitage, Karna befriended many Rakshasas, Yakshas, Gandharvas and Nagas.

As Karna`s training comes to completion, Parashurama learns the truth. One afternoon, when he is tired, he requests Karna to bring a pillow for him, so he may sleep outside in the shade. Karna instead offers him his lap as a pillow. While Parashurama is asleep, an insect comes by, and alighting on Karna`s thigh, bites him. Despite the pain, Karna does not move as it would disturb his Guru. The insect bites deeply into his leg, causing blood to flow out, the warmth and feel of which wakes up Parashurama. He asks Karna how he could withstand the pain and the sight of blood, neither of which brahmins are capable of. He deduces he is a kshatriya, as only they possess the resolve to withstand such pain. He curses Karna, stating that when he requires an astra (divine weapon) the most, he will be unable to recall its incantations. Radheya pleads with him, upon which Parashurama tells him, in a mollified tone, that while his curse is irrevocable, Karna will eventually achieve what he senses as his goal – fame. He tells Karna that eventually, his name will become immortal.

Parshurama sleeping in Karna's lap
Parshurama sleeping in Karna’s lap

Karna leaves Parashurama`s hermitage, and wanders about for some time. One day, seeing something flash by him, he shoots an arrow at it out of reflex reaction. The arrow kills his target which turns out to be another brahmin`s cow. Its owner, seeing it dead, curses Karna stating that when he is fighting the most crucial battle of his life with his dearest enemy, his chariot wheel will sink and he will be helpless.

Cursed twice over, Karna returns to his home. He does not tell his family about the curses, merely that his training is complete. Eventually, he decides to seek out a position at the court in Hastinapura.


Tournament of Hastinapur and becoming King of Anga desh

Drona held a tournament at Hastinapura, to display the skills of the Kuru princes, whose training was also complete. Arjuna emerges in this tournament as a particularly gifted archer. Karna, who was at that time a member of the audience, decided to challenge Arjuna, who was fairy complacent about his position and ability. He repeated all of Arjuna`s feats, to the chagrin of Drona and the Pandavas, and the amazement of Duryodhana. To establish a clear winner, Karna challenges Arjuna to single combat. Drona, however refuses Karna his duel, asking first for his clan and kingdom – according to the rules, only a prince may challenge Arjuna who is a prince of the Kuru house. Duryodhana, eldest of the Kauravas, offers Karna the throne of Anga (today`s Bhagalpur in Bihar), so that Karna would be a king and thus eligible to participate in the contest. This act is considered one of the few truly noble actions carried out by Duryodhana. When Karna, who is emotionally overcome at this, asks him what he can do to repay him, Duryodhana tells him all he wants is his friendship. `I want your heart` he tells Karna, to which Karna says it is already his.

Friendship with Duryodhana

This event establishes key relationships in the Mahabharata, namely, the strong bond between Duryodhana and Karna, the intense rivalry between Karna and Arjuna, and the enmity in general between the Pandavas as a whole and Karna.Karna is spoken as a loyal and true friend to Duryodhana. While he was later party to the infamous game of dice to please Duryodhana, he was opposed to it to begin with. Karna disliked Shakuni, and advised Duryodhana continuously to use his prowess and skill to defeat his enemies, rather than deceit and trickery. When the attempt to kill the Pandavas in the house of lac fails, Karna chides Duryodhana in his despondence, telling him the ways of cowards are doomed to failure and exhorting him to be a warrior and obtain what he wants through valour.

As a king, warrior and friend of Duryodhana, Karna became part of the Hastinapura court. He went on to repeat Bheeshma`s actions in bringing the princesses of Kashi to Duryodhana as wives, appearing at the Kashi court, seizing the princesses, and challenging the kings and princes to take them from him if they can.

Another story goes that Karna aided Duryodhana in marrying the princess of Chitragandha(not to be confused with Princess Chitrangada of Manipur). In her swayamvar, the princess rejected Duryodhana and was going to garland some other king when the eldest son of Dhritarasthra forcibly lifted and carried her away. The other kings present at the swayamvar pursued Duryodhana. However, Karna defeated them single-handedly.Among the kings present in the princess of Chitragandha`s swayamvar were Jarasandha, Shishupala, Dantavakra and Rukmi.

As a token of his appreciation of Karna`s valour, Jarasandha is said to have gifted Karna a portion of Magadha (modern day Bihar).

Military Campaign

During the Pandavas` exile, Karna took upon himself the task of establishing Duryodhana as the World Emperor. Karna commanded an army to different parts of the country to subjugate kings and made them swear allegiance to Duryodhana, the king of Hastinapura or else die in battle. While Karna succeeded in all the battles, subjugating even the allies of the Pandavas, the conquest was not permanent. In this military adventure, Karna is stated to have waged wars and reduced to submission numerous tribes including those of the Kambojas, the Shakas, the Kekayas, the Avantyas, the Gandharas, the Madarakas, the Trigartas, the Tanganas, the Panchalas, the Videhas, the Suhmas, the Angas, the Vangas, the Nishadas, the Kalingas, the Vatsa, theAshmakas, the Rishikas (i.e south-western Rishikas located in Maharashtra) and numerous others including mlecchas and the forest tribes.

Generous Karna

Karna is most famous for his generosity, which was said to surpass that of the gods. Following his appointment as king, he took an oath : Anyone who approached him with a request at midday, when he would worship the Sun, would go away with his request fulfilled. He would never let anyone leave empty-handed. This practice contributed to Karna`s fame as well as to his downfall, as Indra and Kunti took advantage of it.
Several stories are told as to Karna`s generosity. One goes that a brahmin, who required sandalwood to cremate his departed wife,  approached Karna for it. It was raining heavily and the brahmin needed dry sandalwood (an alternate version is that there was a shortage of sandalwood in the city). Karna, unable to procure sandalwood from the market, noticed that the pillars of his palace were of sandalwood, and calling for an axe, cut them down to give the brahmin his wood.

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  1. yes karna was a real hero he is example for friendship and dhan dharm only gods defeated him not arjuna it is shame to god.

  2. Karna – The real hero.. it is really difficult not to fall in love with him.. Men like him rarely appears in human race..he was invincible.

  3. I'm fascinated by the story of Karna, but can you tell me of any other sources that recount his story (asides from the primary source of the Mahabharat)? Like for example, the fact that he had a brother named Shona (which I have not found in the Mahabharat text) or anything else regarding his personal and family life?

    1. Please read Mrityunjaya by Shivaji Sawant, It is originally in Marathi but you can get English translation on flipkart. The author has given the story from Karna’s point of view and it is a brilliantly written book.

  4. I think Karna went to get training from Parshurama after he lost his kavacha and kundala. I feel it is this way because until he had his kavacha nothing could destroy him…
    Anyway very accurate article! Karna is my favourite from Mahabharata 😀 He is the most righteous and self sacrificing character ever.

    1. I think otherwise. He went to Parshuram to learn to fight. Kavach and Kundal could have saved him but not allowed him to win a battle, like Mahabaharat.

    1. Yes , he is the one who had everything but ended up having nothing, but he lived and died by his principles and values!!!

    1. Correct Rohan. But Karna was given the boon of everlasting fame. Which is true as I see that my artilces on Karna has best readership. Thanks for your insightful comment.

  5. no one can adopt these good qualities in them in this possible time.. but stil lkarna is ever great n of course immortal in all hearts.. his importance to friendship genorosity is inspiring..

  6. I like this story and as karna is my favourite he know that the Pandvas are his brothers then he also fought from Duryodhan’s side because he is his best and true friend.

  7. i heard a story, i don’t know whether it is true or not, but it goes like this:- Once during the battle between two mighty warriors Arjuna & Karna arjun got into overconfidence about his skills and power, when Karna attacks on arjuna the chariot of arjuna get back 3 meters due to force but when arjuna attacks on karna his chariot goes back 5 meters. By seeing this krishna appreciates karna’s power and this makes arjuna upset and furious and asks the reason for appreciating the enemy. He replied “You have me on your chariot and Lord hanuman as your chariot flag, even then he push your chariot 3 meters away”. By hearing this arjuna gets angry and said ‘it’s not because of you or the flag, its all because of me’, Hearing this krishna got down from the chariot with the flag. Now Arjuna attack karna which push him back 5 Meters away, then Karna attack on Arjuna which push arjuna’s chariot miles away from the battle ground.