Karna – Hindu Warrior


Karna originally known as Vasusena, is one of the central characters in the Hindu epic the Mahābhārata, from ancient India. He was the King of Anga (present day Bhagalpur and Munger). Karna was one of the greatest warriors, whose martial exploits are recorded in the Mahābhārata, and the only warrior believed to be able to defeat Arjuna in battle, an admiration expressed by Lord Krishna and Bhishma within the body of this work. As per the Mahabharata, Karna was the only warrior in that era who conquered the entire world.Karna single-handedly successfully conducted Digvijaya Yatra, conquering all kings in every direction of the world in order to establish Duryodhana as the emperor of the world and to conduct the Vaishnava sacrifice.Karna was equal to 2 Maharatha warrior.

Karna was the son of Surya and Kunti. He was born to Kunti before her marriage with Pandu. Karna was the closest friend of Duryodhana and fought on his behalf against the Pandavas (his brothers) in the Kurukshetra War. Karna fought against misfortune throughout his life and kept his word under all circumstances. It is believed that Karna founded the city of Karnal, in present Haryana. Karna, Mahabali, Harishchandra are the three most famous personalities in Hinduism based on the merits they earned by giving charity. They are often quoted for their sacrifice, courage, charity, valour and selflessness they exhibited for helping a fellow being.

Birth, education and curses
As a young woman Kunti, the princess of the Kunti Kingdom, had been granted a boon by sage Durvasa to be able to invoke any deity to give her a child. Eager to test the power, while still unmarried, she called upon the solar deity Surya and was handed a son Karna wearing armour (Kavacha) and a pair of earrings (Kundala). Afraid of being an unwed mother and having a child in the society, Kunti placed the baby in a basket and set him afloat on a river. The child was found by Adhiratha, a charioteer of King Dhritarashtra of Hastinapur. Adhiratha and his wife Radha raised the boy as their own son and named him Vasusena. He also came to be known as Radheya, the son of Radha.

Karna became interested in the art of warfare and approached Dronacharya, an established teacher who taught the Kuru princes. But he refused to take Karna as his student, since Karna was not a Kshatriya. Dronacharya insulted Karna for being a mere suta-putra, son of a charioteer and asked him to help his father in riding chariot instead of trying to learn warfare. After being refused by Drona, Karna wanted to learn advanced skills of archery and hence he decided to learn from Parashurama, Drona’s own guru.

As Parshurama only taught to Brahmins, Karna appeared before him as a Brahmin because of the fear of rejection. Parashurama accepted him and trained him to such a point that he declared Karna to be equal to himself in the art of warfare and archery. On a day towards the end of his training, Karna happened to offer Parashurama his lap so his guru could rest his head and take a nap. But while Parashurama was asleep, a bee stung Karna’s thigh. Despite the pain, Karna did not move, so as not to disturb his guru. In some versions, Lord Indra became afraid of the fighting prowess of Karna and he himself took the form of a bee and stung Karna’s thigh in order to benefit his son Arjuna. With blood oozing from his wound, Parashurama woke up at once deduced that Karna was not a Brahmin. Parashurama, who had sworn to teach Brahmins only, laid curse upon Karna that he would forget all the knowledge required to wield the divine weapon Brahmanda astra.

Meeting Duryodhana
To display the skills of the Kuru princes, guru Dronacharya arranged a friendly tournament. His student Arjuna, third of the Pandava brothers, was shown to be a particularly gifted archer. Karna arrived at this tournament, uninvited, and surpassing Arjuna’s feats, challenged him to a duel. Kripacharya refused Karna his duel, asking first for his clan and kingdom; for according to the rules of duelling, only a prince could challenge Arjuna to a duel. Due to his low standing, Karna was not allowed to fight Arjuna. He was further insulted by Bhima by comparing him to a stray dog, for his mixed caste and lineage. This incident marks the beginning of a feud between Karna and Pandavas. Duryodhana, the eldest of the one-hundred sons of the king Dhritarashtra, knew that his cousins Pandavas were better at warfare. Seeing Karna as a chance to get on even terms with them he immediately offered Karna the throne of the kingdom of Anga, making him a king and hence eligible to fight a duel with Arjuna. Neither of them knows that Karna is in fact Kunti’s oldest son, born to (sun god) Surya. When Karna asked him what he could do to repay him, Duryodhana told him that all he wanted was his friendship. Karna later married Vrushali belonging to the Suta caste, as per the wishes of his foster father Adiratha.

Fight with Jarasandha
Karna was a loyal and true comrade to Duryodhana. Karna helped Duryodhana marry the Princess Bhanumati of Kalinga. Duryodhana abducted Princess Bhanumati from her Swayamvara ceremony in a chariot and Karna fought with the rest of the suitors. Many legendary rulers like Shishupala, Jarasandha, Bhishmaka, Vakra, Kapotaroman, Nila, Rukmi, Sringa, Asoka, Satadhanwan etc. attended the ceremony and Karna easily defeated the pursuing Kings, who dejected and abandoned their pursuing after seeing the fighting prowess of Karna to protect his friend.The ashamed Jarasandha, the king of Magadha later challenged Karna to a one-on-one fight. Jarasandha earlier 18 times defeated Lord Krishna and every time Lord Krishna and his brother Balarama ran away from Jarasandha.The defeat by the hands of Jarasandha prompted Lord Krishna to abandon Mathura and built the new capital city Dvaraka for the Yadavas. Karna and Jarasandha fought continuously with different weapons and Karna defeated Jarasandha by trying to tear him apart during a wrestling fight. Jarasandha concedes defeat and Karna spared his life. Jarasandha gifted the city of Malini to Karna as a token of appreciation. Jarasandha accepted and declared Karna as the greatest warrior in world and thus Karna become the king of both Anga and Malini. The victory over Jarasandha made Karna famous all over the world. Later following his accession to the throne of Malini, Karna took an oath that anyone who approached him with a request, when he worshipped the sun, would not leave empty-handed.

Hostilities with the Pandavas
Upon prodding by his uncle Shakuni, Duryodhana goes forward with a plot to kill the Pandavas through treachery, apparently succeeding. Throughout the planning and execution, Karna tries to convince his friend to call it off, desiring to defeat the Pandavas with honor on the battlefield.

Though a monogamist, Karna was a suitor for Draupadi at her Swayamvara, attempting to win her for Duryodhana. Unlike most other contenders, he was easily able to wield and string the bow, but Draupadi refused to allow him to take part, rejecting him for being a “suta-putra”.The entire kings and the assembled people insulted Karna for his low birth; only Duryodhana supported and argued for Karna, saying Great Sages, Philosophers, and Warriors have no source. They are made great, not born great. Having escaped Varnavat, the Pandavas were also present in the swayamvara, disguised as Brahmins. Following the failure of the other princes, Arjuna stepped into the ring and successfully hit the target, winning Draupadi’s hand. The assembled kings in the Swayamvara argued that a Brahmin was ineligible and they took their weapons and attacked the disguised Arjuna. Arjuna fought with all the assembled kings and defeated them with ease. Karna entered the battle to protect his friend Duryodhana; a terrible battle was fought between Karna and Arjuna, but Arjuna recognized Karna and the two Maharathis fought each other. The battle was so intense that sky was filled with arrows and visibility was lost in the cloud of arrows. With both archers not gaining upper hand, they turned to use celestial weapons. With the battle deadlocked, news came to Karna that his nine-year-old son Sudama (not to be confused with the more well-known Sudama, Krishna’s childhood friend) was dying. Karna praised the skill of the Brahmin and compared it with the skill of Drona or Bhishma. Not being interested in committing Brahmahatya, Karna withdrew from the fight and rushed to his son. It was then revealed that Sudama was hit by an arrow sent by the Brahmin warrior when fighting earlier with the other kings. The bystander Sudama died in the hands of Karna. When Arjuna’s identity was later revealed, Karna’s feelings of hostile rivalry with him further intensified and he swore to kill Arjuna and his family.

After Shakuni won a game of dice by trickery, Draupadi, now queen to all five Pandavas, was dragged into the court by Dushasana. Duryodhana and his brothers attempted to strip her. Karna insulted Draupadi by saying that a woman with more than four husbands is nothing but a whore. Arjuna subsequently swore to kill Karna for that insult.

Conquering the World
Later after Pandavas were in exile, Karna took up the task of establishing Duryodhana as the Emperor of the world. Karna embarks upon a worldwide military campaign, otherwise called Digvijaya Yatra, conquering all kings in every direction in order to subjugate kings, impose Duryodhana’s imperial authority over them and establish Duryodhana as the emperor of the world. He commanded army that marched to different parts of the world to subjugate kings and made them swear allegiance to Duryodhana, the king of Hastinapur or else die in battle.

In this military adventure, Karna waged wars all over the world and made submission of entire kingdoms in the world. He started Digvijaya Yatra having war with Panchala, defeating king Drupada and the kings under him. Then going to the north he defeated all the sovereigns of that quarter, defeated king Bhagadatta. And ranging all sides, he conquered and brought under subjection all the kings inhabiting the Himalayas and made them pay dues. Then descending from the mountain and he went to the east, he reduced the Angas, the Bangas, the Kalingas, the Mandikas, the Magadhas, the Karkakhandas, and also included with them the Avasiras, the Yodhyans, and the Ahikshatras. Having thus conquered the eastern quarter Karna went to Batsa-bhumi. Karna defeated Batsa-bhumi, Kevali, Mrittikavati, Mohana, Patrana, Tripura, Kosala and compelled all of them to pay tribute. Then going to the south, Karna defeated all the very powerful charioteers of that quarter and in Dakshinatya, Karna defeated Rukmi. After this Karna went to Pandya and the mountain Sri. And by fighting, he made Karala, King Nila of Mahismati, Venudari’s son, and other kings living in the southern direction pay tribute. Then going to Dhristaketu of Chedi Kingdom, Karna defeated him and defeated all the neighbouring rulers. Then Karna defeated the Avantis and conquered the Vrishnis. Thus Karna conquered the entire west quadrant. He then further travelled west outside the land mass of Bharata Kingdom and made all the Yavana and Varvara kings pay tribute to Hastinapura and Duryodhana. And having conquered the entire earth i.e. east, west, north and south directions, Karna without any aid brought under subjection all the nations of the Mlecchas, the mountaineers, the Bhadras, the Rohitakas, the Agneyas and the Malavas. Having thus conquered and brought under his subjection the entire world, Karna came back to Hastinapura with immense wealth and power the world had never witnessed before.

King Dhritarashtra praised Karna, comparing him favourably to those like Bhishma and Drona, who had never returned such tribute. Having thus, Karna in a short time conquered the entire world with all the mountains, forests, skies, oceans, fields, cities and all the islands. Karna thus brought the entire monarchs of the world under subjection and gained imperishable wealth. King Dhritarashtra with Gandhari loved Karna even more than their children. Bringing tribute and allegiance from all the world’s kings, Karna helped Duryodhana to perform the Vaishnava yagna to please Vishnu and crown Duryodhana as “Emperor of the World”, as Yudhisthira did with the Rajasuya Yagna. No person in the entire universe, except Lord Vishnu and Indrajit, the son of Ravana in ancient times performed this Vaishnava sacrifice before. Duryodhana thus become the most powerful and the most wealthiest man in the world. Duryodhana even made plans and preparations to conquer Indra, the lord of the heavens and the father of Arjuna with the help of Karna in order to become the sovereign ruler of both heaven and earth.

The Superior Son
One tale relates that as Karna lays dying on the battlefield, his father Surya and Arjuna’s father Indra fall into a debate as to who among their sons is superior. They decide to test Karna’s generosity and appear before him as Brahmins asking for alms. Karna says that at this point he had nothing to give them while one of the Brahmins remarks that he has some gold in his teeth. Realizing this, Karna promptly takes a stone and breaks his teeth, handing them over to the Brahmins, thus proving his superiority.

Dharma-devata’s protection
In other versions of the epic, when Arjuna used the Anjalika astra on the weaponless Karna, Krishna found that Karna was still alive even though seriously wounded. Krishna found that Dharma-devata, the goddess responsible for protecting Dharma, was guarding Karna from death and resisting every arrows sent by Arjuna. Krishna explained to Arjuna that the Dharma-devata herself was protecting Karna from death because of the massive good merit Karna earned by giving charity during his lifetime and it was impossible even for Lord Shiva to kill Karna. Krishna said wherever Dharma is present there is victory and this time Dharma was with the side of Karna. So Krishna went down from his chariot and appeared as a Brahmin and asked for Karna’s punya or merit to him as charity. Karna gave his entire merits as charity to the Brahmin in the form of his blood and once Karna gifted his life’s merit to him, Krishna rewarded Karna with the view of Krishna’s Vishwaroopa. Krishna told that only this way it was possible to kill Karna and when Karna gave away his life’s merit to Krishna, Dharma-devata disappeared. Karna asked Krishna to cremate him in a virgin land where nobody else is present. Then Krishna went back to his chariot and asked Arjuna to take the kill shot on Karna. Later Krishna himself spread the cremations of Karna at Karnaprayag.

Parasurama’s command
In some versions of Mahabharata, Parasurama appeared in Karna’s dream during the night of 15th day of battle, as requested by Lord Krishna. In order to protect Arjuna and Dharma, Krishna sought the help of his previous avatar. The avatar Parasurama explained to Karna that if he killed Arjuna, Duryodhana and chaos would ensue. Parashurama asked Karna to accept death and asked him to die at the hands of Arjuna, so that the world might live in peace. Karna protested to this idea but Parasurama asked this as his Guru Dakshina. Previously, Karna never had a chance to pay his Guru Dakshina; Parasurama never asked for it either. Severely, Parasurama reminds Karna that whatever he became or attained in his life is due to the knowledge he gained from his guru. Karna accepted his guru’s words and promised he would never kill Arjuna. Pleased by this offering, the grateful Parashurama blessed Karna with immortal glory and everlasting fame after his death. Thus, Karna never took the kill shot on Arjuna, even though he often had the opportunity to do so.

In some versions, during the Kurukshetra war, Karna had a dream in which he envisioned his guru Parashurama and asked him to take back the curse he had placed years back. Parashurama revealed that he had known all along Karna was a Kshatriya, but because he was a worthy student Parashurama had instructed him regardless. The avatar explained to Karna that the Brahmanda astra had to fail him when he needed it most. If he killed Arjuna, Duryodhana would be king instead of Yudhishthira and chaos would ensue. Parashurama asked Karna to accept his curse and asked him to die at the hands of Arjuna, so that the world might live in peace. Karna accepted his guru’s words and in return the grateful guru, Parashurama blessed Karna with immortal glory and everlasting fame.

Karna’s family
According to the Mahabharata, Karna was married to Vrushali. He had ten sons: Vrishasena, Sudama, Vrishaketu, Chitrasena, Satyasena, Sushena, Shatrunjaya, Dvipata, Banasena, and Prasena; eight of them took part in the Kurukshetra war. Sudama was killed by Arjuna at Draupadi’s swayamvara when he was 9 years old. Prasena was killed by Satyaki. Shatrunjaya, Vrishasena, and Dvipata were slain by Arjuna. Bhima killed Banasena; Nakula killed Chitrasena, Satyasena, and Sushena.Vrishakethu was his only son who survived the war.After the war when Pandavas were made aware of Karna’s lineage, Vrishakethu was under the patronage of Arjuna and took part in various battles that preceded the Ashvamedha yagna. Vrishakethu was killed by Arjuna’s son Babruvahana during the battle fought during Ashvamedha Yagna.

Draupadi’s Secret
The secret of Draupadi,though not mentioned in many versions, but considered to be an important episode in many folk renditions of Mahabharata and sometimes better known as the “Jambul episode”.All popular versions of Mahabharata have mentioned that Draupadi did not love all five husbands equally and that she loved and longed for Arjuna more amongst all the brothers. However, Arjuna had never reciprocated the emotion as he was more in love with Subhadra (Krishna’s sister) than anybody else. The hidden love of Draupadi for Karna is something that has been explored by many writers. Some have even justified the romance, in the sense that the powerful and the dynamic character of Draupadi could find her match only in Karna and not in the five brothers, who were incomplete without one another.

According to a legend from Mahabharata, during the thirteenth year of the exile of the Pandavas, Draupadi saw a ripe jambul (rose apple), hanging from a tree. She plucked it to have it. No sooner had she done this, Lord Krishna came from somewhere and stopped her from eating it. According to Lord Krishna, the ripe fruit was supposed to be the fruit with which a sage was supposed to break his twelve-year fast. Not finding the fruit at its place,Pandavas could earn the wrath of the sage, resulting in more trouble. Pandavas prayed Krishna to relieve them from the crisis.

Lord Krishna said that he see to it that the wrath of sage Amitra does not befall on Pandavas. In order for that to happen, each one of Pandavas must speak only the truth. Saying thus, he took them to the tree. He placed the fruit under the tree and told that each one of them should reveal all secrets about them without hiding anything and without any deceit.Then the fruit will go and cling to the tree on its own accord. Having said this, he invited Yudhishtra to speak first.

Yudhistra said that truthfulness, honesty, tolerance and righteousness should flourish in this world while wickedness, conceit and dishonesty should banish entirely. He hold Draupadi responsible for the whole bad events happened to them. At this, surprisingly the fruit moved two feet above the ground and remained in the air. Next, Lord Krishna asked Bhima to speak.Lord Krishna sternly warned Bhima that if he uttered a lie, the fruit would be burnt to ashes. Bhima said that he was never content with food, fight, sleep, and sex, and always craved for more. He would kill every one of Dhritarashtra’s sons. He had great reverence and unflinching loyalty towards Yudhisthira, but would kill anyone who insulted his mace.The fruit moved two feet further up.

Arjuna spoke next and said, “Prestige and fame mean more to me than even my life. Unless I kill Karna in the war, the ambition of my life will not be fulfilled and for that i would adopt any method,even if it is against Dharma.” The fruit moved up two feet further.Then Nakula said that virtues, a noble birth, wealth or beauty do not give a person what he desires. He believe that a man can attain fame just by leading a life in this world that is based on his discrimination alone. Again, the fruit moved up two feet.Lord Krishna looked at Sahadeva and Sahadeva said, “Truth is my mother. Intelligence is my father and good deeds are my siblings. The love that I shower on others is my friend. My calm mind is my wife. The attitude of eradicating the thoughts of hatred, enemity and vendetta is my son. I believe these to be my real family.” He also said that he had the knowledge of the past, the present and the future. One would never come to grief if one sought his advice, but he himself would not volunteer to offer any advice or suggestion to anyone. The fruit moved up by two feet again.

At last Draupadi said, “I have five husbands like the five senses, namely, eyes, ears, nose, mouth and body. Though I have five husbands, I am being the cause of agony for all. I feel penitent for having acted thoughtlessly in spite of being well educated.After Draupadi said what she did, the fruit didn’t move up and join the branch. Krishna said that she concealed something.With great trepidation, Draupadi looked into the eyes of her husbands and said “I love five of you. But I love a sixth too. I love Karna . I regret not marrying him on account of his caste. If i had married Karna, then i would never have to experience any of these bitter events in my life”.

“If I had married him, I would not have been gambled away, publicly humiliated and called a whore. For he has all the qualities possessed by my 5 husbands”
This was a shock to all the husbands, but none said anything.Draupadi having confessed this,the fruit went back on the branch of the tree and all was well.The Pandavas got the message that in spite of five brave husbands, they had failed their wife when she needed them the most. When Draupadi was being disrobed after she was lost in the dice-game, none of the husbands could come to her rescue. It brought out the weakness amongst each one of them, and that Draupadi had a soft corner for someone who was more a man than the five of them. This was an insult which they had to bear without any malice towards their wife. Also, being the wife of five, made her that much vulnerable to such acts, than it did to their own wives, which each had taken for themselves.

Themes and analysis
Within the various Hindu mythologies, Karna draws resemblance with various other characters. The attributed author of Mahabharata, sage Vyasa, is also noted to be born from an unwed union of Satyavati and sage Parashara, just the way Karna is born before Kunti’s marriage. Philologist Georges Dumézil also compares him with his father Surya in the sense that he too has two mothers, Kunti and Radha, just the way Surya in Vedas has two mothers, the night and the dawn. German indologist Georg von Simson, notes the similarities in the names of Karna and of the Kumbhakarna, the demon brother of the main antagonist Ravana of the epic Ramayana. He also notes that both Karna and Kumbhakarna did not take part in the great wars of their respective epics at the start. Scholars internationally have also drawn parallels with various European mythologies. Karna’s kawach (armour) has been compared with that of Achilles’s Styx-coated body and with Irish warrior Ferdiad’s horny skin that could not be pierced. He has been compared to the Greek character Achilles on various occasions as they both have powers but lack status. In Mahabharata, Vyasa gave lengthy description about Karna’s beauty and skills. Karna is often compared to his biological father and Hindu Solar deity Surya and is referred to as second Sun on earth. Karna is considered as the most handsome man alive in that era. In Mahabharata it is often refereed that Kunti’s elder son i.e. Karna possessed all the qualities, skills and power of her other sons i.e. the Pandavas and a perfect man in all aspects. Karna is always considered as a warrior who fought fairly, but his enemies always used crooked and unethical methods to gain advantage over him. Though Karna defeated Arjuna on the 17th day of Kurukshetra war, but spared Arjuna obeying the rules of engagement of war. Even the gods had to conspire against him and the god of righteousness Vishnu had to cheat Karna in order to win over him. Karna is always considered as a tragic hero in the Mahabharata. The great contest between Karna and Arjuna, long expected and long deferred, came on at last in the Kurukshetra war. It is the crowning incident of the Indian Epic Mahabharata, as the contest between Hector and Achilles is the crowning incident of the Iliad. With a truer artistic skill than that of Homer, the Indian poet Vyasa represents Karna as equal to or greater than Arjuna in strength and skill and his death is only due to foul play by Gods and the Pandavas especially Lord Indra piercing Karna’s thigh for the benefit of his son Arjuna, Lord Indra in the form of beggar taking away the armor of Karna for the benefit of his son Arjuna, Lord Krishna revealing the truth about Karna’s family to him and making him vulnerable, the boons collected by Kunti as suggested by Krishna from Karna by employing deceit, Bhishma purposely keeping Karna away from the battlefield, Sacrifice of Ghatotkacha by Lord Krishna, the constant application of illusion or maya by Lord Krishna on Karna during the war, the use of Shalya by King Yudhishthira to demoralise Karna and at last the foul play by Arjuna and Lord Krishna, blowing away all the rules of engagements of the war by shooting arrow on the back of Karna when he was trying to lift his sunken chariot wheel.

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