Karna: The Ill Fated One!

Whenever the epic Mahabharata is discussed we have the heroic Pandavaas and the villainous Kauravas in every traditional depiction of the epic, but one such character that is always in the background is of karna the most tragic hero in this world.

From his birth to his death all the incidents that occurred in his life depicts the tragedies and struggles he faced all his life.

Karna was born to Kunti and Surya dev {sun god}, pleased with kunti’s devotion and service to him sage Durvassa gave her a boon with the help of this boon she could invoke any god she wanted and ask him to bless her with a child. As she was young and impatient in order to test the boon she invokes Surya dev when he does appear before her he blesses her with a son , the baby had a golden armour and golden earrings and Surya dev claimed that he would be the most virtuous and noble warrior of his time and named him Karna.

Kunti is afraid as being an unmarried girl it would be terrible for her reputation to mother a child also being a princess she had various responsibilities and a code of conduct to be followed thus she keeps karna in a basket and sets him afloat on the banks of river Ganga and prays to Surya dev to look after his child.

Baby karna is found by a charioteer Adhiratha and his wife Radha, they were childless and on finding karna they regard him as a blessing by the holy river Ganga and take him into their household as their own. Adhiratha was the charioteer of Hastinapur King Dhrithrashtra and wants his son Karna too to follow his footsteps but karna always wanted to be a warrior and learn archery but the time period of Mahabharata had a rigid and strict cast system where only a kshatriyas son could be a warrior and a sutas {charioteers} son would be a suta.

Since karna was a Sutaputra he too had to become a Suta but he convinces his parents to let him learn archery and become a warrior once he gets the permission and blessings of his parents he approaches Guru Drona the Acharya [Teacher] of the Hastinapur princes :- the Kauravas and the Pandavaas and requests him to accept him too as his student and train him to become a warrior but Drona refuses to take him as his student and asks him to leave saying he does not teach a sutas son and karna should follow his father Adhiratha and become a charioteer. Humiliated Karna refuses to return home and decides to seek education from Lord Parshuraam the Acharya of Guru Drona, now Lord Parshuraam was a man who had once killed all the kshatriyas on Earth and thus he had a strict rule he never taught any Kshatriya he only taught Brahmins.

When karna requests Lord Parshuraam to accept him as his student he lies to him that he is a Brahmin and thus begins his training under Lord Parshuraam the teacher of Guru Drona and Mighty Bheeshma.

Once his training is complete and Karna is set to leave , Lord Parshuraam takes him for a walk across the woods when he is tired he decides to sleep and karna offers his lap to his Guru in order to keep his head on it. After a few hours a scorpion stings karna and he does not flinch so that he does not disturb his teachers sleep, when Parshuraam wakes up he finds Karna’s thigh covered with blood and asks him who he really is because a Brahmin can never have the strength to endure such a pain and he says that Karna is definitely a Kshatriya. Karna apologises to his guru and reveals his true identity of being a Sutaputra and not a Kshatriya but Parshuraam does not believe him and says that he is a Kshatriya and he curses him saying the knowledge that karna took from him will be of no use to him when he needs it the most and asks him to leave and never show his face to him again.

This was not the only curse he got he was also cursed by a Brahmin for killing a cow while practising his bow and arrow skills and the Brahmin cursed him that he would die in the same way helpless just like the cow did when his chariot would get stuck in the ground , a folklore from Andhra Pradesh also describes Karna’s third curse once he encounters a young girl crying over ghee that had spilled on the ground she said if she did not take ghee home her stepmother would be furious when Karna offered her fresh ghee she refused to take it as she wanted the same ghee taking pity on her Karna takes the ghee mixed with mud and squeezes it with all his might to get it out from the mud and pours it in the pot but after doing that he hears the agonizing voice of a women it was Bhoomidevi [Goddess of Earth] she reprimands Karna saying just for the sake of a young girl he inflicted so much pain on her and curses him saying that on a very crucial moment in battle his chariot wheel would be stuck in the mud as tightly as he had held her today and he would die helplessly.

Karna returns to Hastinapur and wants to show his skills to all especially Guru Drona and thus participates in the graduation ceremony held for the princes of Hastinapur, here he faces another challenge when he challenges Arjuna to fight a duel with him but Drona and Royal Guru Kripa aware of his lineage ask him who his father is and what is his lineage? When Karna declares he is the son of Adhiratha, charioteer of King Dhrithrashtra and a suta he is mocked and made fun of even the Pandavaas mock him and Arjuna refuses to fight with him. King Dhrithrashtra too says that a prince will only fight with another prince and not a low-caste suta, it is then Duryodhana steps up in order to support Karna because Duryodhana believed in merit and he also says that it does not matter whether Karna is a low-caste suta since he has the merits and the makings of a warrior thus he deserved respect from all and not humiliation, Duryodhana makes him his friend and also crowns him as the king of Anga Pradesh. Karna then becomes a loyal friend of Kauravas and a fierce enemy of the Pandavaas.

Karna always tried to prove himself superior to any Kshatriya especially his arch enemy Arjuna and this too happens at Draupadi’s swayamvaar. King Dhrupad of Southern Panchaal organizes a swayamvaar for his daughter Draupadi she was regarded as the most beautiful woman of her time, she was born form the sacrificial fire and at the time of her birth a heavenly voice had prophesised that she would bring about the destruction of the kuru line. Prince Duryodhan attends Draupadi’s swayamvaar with his friend Karna but the condition to win her hand was every suitor had to pierce the eye of a golden fish hung on the ceiling by looking at its reflection in water, Duryodhan was aware he would not be able to do so as he wasn’t a good archer so he requests Karna to participate in place of him, when karna does so Dhristhadyumna who is Draupadi’s brother asks him to withdraw as it was unfair for the other participants if Karna participated in place of Duryodhan, he said if Duryodhan wants to marry his sister he himself has to win her hand and not ask his friends to help. Duryodhan feels insulted and declares that he no longer wishes to participate in the swayamvaar but he wants his friend Karna to as he was the best archer in this world and nobody else could complete the task that King Dhrupad has set for his daughters swayamvaar, as soon as Karna steps forward to pick up the bow Draupadi declares that she would not marry a Sutaputra , this insult was the hardest for him to bear and from that day onwards he held a grudge in his heart for Draupadi waiting for that one day when he could be in her place and insult her. That day too arrives when in the royal court of Hastinapur Duryodhan orders Draupadi to be disrobed and Karna takes revenge by calling her a whore he says a women who is married to five men is not less than a whore and it does not matter whether she has clothes on or not. This statement of Karna was one thing which affected his reputation and Draupadi who felt sympathetic towards him now hated him as much as she hated the Kaurava brothers.

Karna had done various noble deeds in his life but it seemed that misfortune was always a step behind no matter what he did there was always something that went wrong and added to the already difficult life he was leading.

Though Karna was a monogamist he was married twice in his life, his first wife was Vrushaali she too was from the suta caste her brother satyasen was the charioteer of Duryodhan and she had been chosen by Karna’s father for him, Vrushali and Karna had nine sons Vrishasena, Vrishaketu, Chitrasena, Satyasena, Sushena, Shatrunjaya, Dyipata ,Banasena, Prasena. Karna’s second wife was Supriya not much is known about her except from the fact that she was a friend of Bhanumati the wife of Duryodhana.

Karna’s valour was seen when he single-handedly fought Magadha King Jarasandha and was about to kill him but did not when Jarasandha accepts defeat and offers him the throne of Malini kingdom on succession of this throne karna declares that from that day onwards anybody who approaches him early in the morning once he has taken his bath will not go empty handed.

It was this oath which resulted in various changes in his life as a few days before the war Kunti approaches him and reveals to him the truth of his birth the fact that he was her son and the eldest brother of the Pandavaas and requests him to side with his brothers so that they may win the war but Karna is hurt because he felt Kunti had come there not to apologise to him but to save her legitimate 5 sons, he tells her even today you have come here not for me but for your sons those sons you always considered your own not me who was an unwanted child, a child whose existence would ruin your reputation.

He promises Kunti that he will not kill Yudhisthir, Bheema, Nakula and Sahdeva but Arjuna he would not spare because all his life had waited for that one day when he could fight and kill Arjuna and the war will give him that opportunity and he does not want to lose it, he promises her that after the war she will still have 5 sons but one of her 5 sons will either be Arjuna or him.

Also when Indra the father of Arjuna decides that he needs to protect his son Arjuna before the war begins visits Karna, Karna who has already been warned by Surya that Indra would come before him disguised as a hermit and ask for his Kavaach and kundal [Golden Armour and Earrings] Karna says if Indra comes to him early in the morning he would not refuse and that’s what happens Indra arrives early morning and asks Karna for his Kavaach and kundal and Karna obliges. Indra pleased by this act of Karna offers him Indraastra and says he could use it only once, karna reveals that he knew that it was Lord Indra disguised as a hermit and he did so in order to protect his son Arjuna but it didn’t matter to him if he no longer possessed them he would now use the weapon given to him by Indra to defeat and kill Arjuna.

This shows two different personalities of Karna at one place even after knowing he was being cheated by Lord Indra he still follows his duty and keeps the word of the oath he had taken and on the other hand his vile nature could be seen when he reveals that he would use the weapon given to him as a blessing again to do harm to Arjuna.

Karna’s true friendship for Duryodhana is seen when Lord Krishna visits him and asks him to side with Pandavaas as he was already aware that they were his younger brothers and once they discovered the truth they would not fight the war and even Duryodhana on discovering that his best friend is the oldest Pandavaa would give up the throne and thus Karna would become the King with no objection from both the sides and he also says that being the eldest Pandavaa he too would get Draupadi as his wife as she is shared between the 5 brothers and since he too was their brother he would have equal rights on her.

When Karna refuses all this Krishna tries to reason with him saying that Duryodhana was on the side of adharma and fighting on his side Karna too is supporting it and if he fights for his brothers he will side with dharma but Karna still refuses and says when there was nobody to stand up for him in the graduation ceremony of the royal princes Duryodhan was the only one who stood up for him made him his friend and gave him the respect and honour he was always looking for and now when his friend needs him the most how could he leave him and go ,it did not matter to him what side it was he would side with his best friend till his last breath.

This revelation of karna told everybody that he respected Duryodhana’s friendship and was a loyal friend, there are people who leave their friends when they see their own good in something, Karna had the golden opportunity to become the king of Hastinapur and nobody would object to it but he does not do so which reveals he wasn’t selfish and was a true friend.

Karna enters the Kurukshetra war on the 11th day after the death of Grandsire Bheeshma as he had declared that he would not fight the war with a suta on his side on entering the war Karna wrecks havoc on the Pandavaa army and on the 16th day of the war he becomes the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army, it was that day he decides to kill Arjuna and uses the Naagastra on Arjuna but Krishna saves Arjuna by lowering their chariot in the ground and that is when the sun sets.

17th day of the war was the last day of Karna’s life the battle between two greatest foes Karna and Arjuna began, Karna would always cut the bowstrings of Arjuna in order to reduce his speed but the fight was at par Arjuna attacked Karna and moved his chariot 10 steps back when Karna attacked Arjuna’s chariot it moved 2 steps back seeing this in the middle of their fight Lord Krishna praised Karna arising questions from Arjuna that’s when Krishna said Karna moved their chariot 2 steps back the chariot which had Lord Hanuman guarding its top and Lord Vishnu himself holding its reins thus having the weight of entire universe, no human in this world could have managed it and he did so that is why he was one of the most formidable warrior of their time at par with Arjuna himself.

The epic states that initial battle between the two foes was at par but Karna’s wheel gets stuck in mud as per the curse, he gets down and asks Arjuna to follow the code of war and not to attack him when he is unarmed but Lord Krishna reminds Arjuna that Karna too was a part of the gruesome killing of Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu and he too was attacked when he was unarmed the plight of his beloved son enrages Arjuna and he decides to attack Karna on the other hand Karna tries to summon celestial weapons but is unable to do so due to Lord Parshuraam’s curse and he accepts his fate and Arjuna kills Karna.

It is mentioned in the epic that Duryodhana did not shed a single tear when his brothers were killed in the war but when his beloved friend Karna was slain he was inconsolable.

After his death Kunti revealed the truth of his birth to her sons and the world and the 5 brothers were shocked that they had committed fratricide, Yudhisthir being furious with his mother laid a curse on womankind that thereafter no women would ever be able to keep a secret. Karna’s last rites were performed by Duryodhana as even Kunti believed he had more right over Karna than any of them as he was the one who stood with Karna all his life and was a true and loyal friend thus Pandavaas were mere spectators of their older brothers funeral, Vrushaali committed Sati on Karna’s funeral pyre and the epic has not mentioned anything about his second wife Supriya.

Not many are aware but Arjuna built the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple during his conquest for Ashwamedha yagya in south India,

The legend says that Arjuna built the temple in order to expiate from the sin of performing fratricide by killing his older brother Karna and killing an unarmed enemy.

The character of Karna is one of the most intriguing character of the epic he is good and bad at the same time one can call him a person having the shades of gray as he was a righteous man respecting all, performing his dharma and above all keeping his word and on the other hand his vileness could be seen when he insults Draupadi during her disrobing in the kuru royal court, he could have easily stopped it and Duryodhan would have listened to him but he did not do so as the grudge and hatred he held for her was far more than the righteousness he had and thus he does nothing to stop it.

Later in life Karna regrets it especially when he discovers that the Pandavaas were his brothers which makes Draupadi his Daughter-in-law as younger brothers according to him were sons and their wife Daughter-in-law he asks Krishna to convey his apology to Draupadi and he even reveals the same to Grandsire Bheeshma when he goes to meet him on his deathbed that he regrets that incident every day of his life thus revealing he was a good man after all just the time had caused him to do such deeds.

Scholars all over the world regard him as a tragic hero of one of the most revered epic of the world but one of the most important thing or characteristics that we learn from his character is the strength to deal with all the problems that we face in our life ,all his life Karna struggled in order to get himself a place in the rigid and stubborn Vedic society of his time he was unwanted at birth, cursed, rejected, insulted, cheated and faced many such things but even then he did not lose hope , he did not lose faith in god and went on to perform his duties followed the path he felt was right did what his heart told him to and in doing so he immortalised himself made himself one of the greatest characters of the greatest epics of all time.