Karna (Sanskrit: कर्ण written "Karṇa" in IAST transliteration) is one of the central characters of the Mahābhārata. He was born of Kunti, before her marriage to Pandu. A close friend of Duryodhana, Karna fought in his behalf against the Pandavas - his brothers- at the Kurukshetra war.


Karna was born to Kunti of Surya, before her marriage to prince Pandu. A young Kunti had attended to the sage Durvasa for a full year, while he was a guest at her father's palace. The sage, who was pleased with her service, granted her a boon whereby she could call upon any god of her choice, and beget a child in his image. Out of curiosity Kunti, still unmarried, decided to test the boon and summoned Surya. Bound by the power of the mantra, Surya granted her wish and a son, who was radiant and robust as his father.The baby was born with an armour ('Kavacha') and a pair of earrings ('Kundala') attached to him.

Though Kunti retained her virginity, unwilling to face the world as an unwed mother, she abandoned Karna, setting him afloat in a box in the holy river Ganga.


The child Karna was borne down the river and picked up by King Dhritarashtra's charioteer, Adhiratha. Karna was raised by him and his wife Radha as their own son and named the child Vasusena. Karna also came to be known as radheya - son of Radha (His foster mother).

The bond between Karna and his foster family was one of pure love, respect and affection. 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, who had the heart of a warrior, sought to become one. He approached Dronacharya, who at that time had established his school and was training the Kuru princes. However, Dronacharya did not accept him as his pupil because of his caste('Sutputra'). Moreover Drona wanted to make Arjuna the best Archer.

Karna eventually approached Parashurama, who was known to teach anyone but Kshatriyas. Karna appeared to Parashurama as a Brahmin and requested that he be accepted as Parashurama's student. Karna is described as a diligent student. Parashurama trained him to the point where he declared Karna his equal.

Parasurama's curse

As Karna's training came to completion, Parashurama learnt the truth about Karna's origin. One afternoon, he requested Karna to bring a pillow for him to sleep outside in the shade. Karna instead offered him his lap as a pillow. While Parashurama was asleep, an insect came by and alighting on Karna's thigh, bit him. Despite the pain, Karna did not move as it would disturb his Guru. The insect bit deep into Karna's leg, causing blood to flow out, the warmth and feel of which woke up Parashurama. He deduced at once that Karna was a Kshatriya as only a warrior could withstand such pain without flinching. He cursed Karna, stating that when he required an astra (divine weapon) the most, he would be unable to recall its incantation. Karna pleaded with him and told him he was not a Kshatriya; and that act would have been the act of any student towards his guru. Regretting the curse he had uttered in a moment of anger, Parashurama said his curse was irrevocable. He, however gave Karna the Vijaya - Parashurama's personal bow, and blessed him that in the end, Karna would achieve what he wanted the most, everlasting honor.

Departing from Parashurama's ashram, Karna wandered for some time. On his way, he mistook a cow for a wild animal and shot an arrow at it, killing it. Incensed, the Brahmin who owned the cow cursed him, stating that as he had killed a defenceless animal, Karna, too would be killed when he was most defenceless.

An Andhra folklore further states that on his way, Karna encountered a milkmaid who was crying over her pot of spilt milk. On asking her the reason for her dismay, she stated that she feared her step mother who would be angry over her carelessness. Taking pity on the girl, Karna squeezed the spilt milk from the earth back into the pot. This act, however, greatly angered Bhoomidevi - the earth goddess, and she vowed to exact revenge for the pain Karna had caused her.

King of Anga and Friendship with Duryodhana

Drona held a tournament at Hastinapura, to display the skills of the Kuru princes. Arjuna emerged in this tournament as a particularly gifted archer. Karna arrived at the tournament and after surpassing Arjuna's feats, challenged him to a duel. Kripacharya refused Karna his duel, asking first for his clan and kingdom - according to the rules of dueling, only a prince could challenge Arjuna who was a prince of the Kuru house. Duryodhana, the oldest of the Kauravas, offered Karna the throne of Anga, making him eligible to duel Arjuna. When Karna asks him what he can do to repay him, Duryodhana tells him all he wants is his friendship.

This event establishes key relationships in the Mahābhārata, 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 of as a loyal and true comerade 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.

Generosity and Character

Following his accession to Anga's throne Karna took an oath that 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.

The Swayamvara of Draupadi

Karna was a suitor for Draupadi at her swayamvara. Unlike most other contenders, he was easily able to wield and string the bow, but as he was ready to set aim, on Krishna's gesture, Draupadi restrained him from shooting the arrow by calling him a soot-putra (son of a charioteer). The Pandavas were also present in the swayamvara, disguised as brahmanas. Following the failure of the other princes, Arjuna stepped into the ring and successfully tackled the target, winning Draupadi's hand. When Arjuna's identity was later revealed, Karna's feelings of rivalry further intensified.

The Game of Dice

Karna was never happy with Shakuni's plan to defeat the Pandavas by trickery and deceit. He preferred the way of battle and repeatedly cajoled Duryodhana to choose that path. To please Duryodhana, however, he chose to be a part of the game, leading to the disturbing "Vastra Haran" scene.

After Shakuni had won the game of dice by trickery, the Pandavas' queen Draupadi was dragged into the court by Duhsassana who attempted to strip her, incited by Karna, Duryodhana and his brothers. Karna insults Draupadi by saying that a woman with more than four husbands is nothing but a 'whore'.

On the spot, Bhima vows that he will personally slaughter Duryodhana and his brothers in battle. Arjuna subsequently swears to kill Karna.

Military Campaign

During the Pandavas' exile, Karna took upon himself the task of establishing Duryodhana as the Emperor of the World. 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. Karna succeeded in all the battles. In this military adventure, Karna is stated to have waged wars and reduced to submission numerous kingdoms 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 and numerous others including mlecchas and the forest tribes. (MBH 8.8.18-20).Karna had conquered many foreign states till Kazakhstan and most of the central asian countries for Duryodhana. This was the reason why most of them sided with Duryondhana as his allies. After the war these states were again splitted. Later on some of them were again merged by Arjuna. But Karna was the first one the bring them under his strength and will power due to which he was praised as the most skillful warrior much better than the Pandavas in the art of fighting. Karn's war skills might be reason why people of central asia adopted his name and formed Han, Hun and Khan.Karna defeated many foreign countries hence could be possible that he had made many alliances over it could be possible that even Mongolians are his descendants either direct or indirect through Huns.Karna’s campaign had subjugated many invincible and mighty foes—the Gandharas, the Madrakas, the Matsyas, the Trigartas, the Tanganas, the Khasas, the Pancalas, the Videhas, the Kulindas, the Kasi-kosalas, the Suhmas, the Angas (the other Anga kings), the Nishadhas, the Pundras, the Kichakas, the Vatsas, the Kalingas, the Taralas, the Asmakas, and the Rishikas. Subjugating all these brave races, Radha’s son, had caused all of them to pay tribute to us for the aggrandisement of Duryodhana. In mordern day these places outside India are Cambodia, Burma, xiang province of china , afghanistan , Tajikistan, Russia, Purasia , Greece.

Krishna and Karna

Following the failed peace negotiations with Duryodhana, Krishna approaches Karna since Karna is the only hope for Duryodhana to win the battle. He reveals to Karna his identity as the eldest Pandava and asks him to join their side. Krishna assures him that since he is the eldest Pandava, Yudhisthira would most certainly give the crown of Indraprasth to Karna who would become a great king.

Karna refuses the enormous offer because he owes Duryodhana too much to abandon him at this crucial point. He also says to Krishna as long as he is there with Pandavas on the side of Truth, defeat is certain for himself. Krishna happily laughs, appreciates his sense of loyalty, blesses him and goes off.

The Loss of his Armour

Indra, king of the gods (Devas) and father of Arjuna, realized that Karna would be invincible in battle as long as he had the golden armour suit and earrings that he was born with. During the Pandavas' exile, when war was imminent, Indra took it upon himself to weaken Karna. He decided to approach Karna as a poor brahmin during his mid-day worship. . Surya warned Karna of Indra's intentions, exhorting him not to give away his armor and earrings. Karna thanks Surya but explains he is bound by his word and can not send anyone from his door empty handed even if it means his death. As Surya had predicted, a disguised Indra approached Karna and asked for his kavacha (body armour) and kundala (earrings) as alms. Karna readily gives them away, cutting the armor and earrings off his body. Indra, shamed into generosity by Karna's gesture, reciprocates by giving Karna the boon to use Indra's most powerful weapon, the Vasavi shakti, but only once. It is at this point that he earns the name Vaikartana, as he cut the armor off his body without flinching.

Kunti and Karna

Kunti, fearing the war, approached Karna and revealed her identity as his mother to him. The two share a touching moment together, when she tells him to throw aside the name 'Radheya' and call himself 'Kaunteya' (son of Kunti) instead, and he replies that is what he has wanted all his life. Upon her requesting him to come with her however, a request that Surya himself reinforces from the sky, Karna refuses. He tells Kunti that had she been willing to call him Kaunteya many years ago when he appeared at the tournament things might have been different, but now it is too late. He owes Duryodhana too much, is Duryodhana's friend first and foremost, and must fight the Pandavas. However, he promises her that he will not kill any of the five, save Arjuna. He and Arjuna have sworn to kill each other, and one of them must die. He tells Kunti she can only dream of six sons. She will always have five sons, the fifth being either him or Arjuna.

Karna requests his mother to keep their relationship and his royal birth heritage a secret until his death. Only then she may reveal to the world that he was actually her first born.

The Great War: Kurukshetra

Before the start of the war, Bhishma, the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava force, does not pick Karna as one of his key generals and instead assigns him to a less significant position (to curb his undue hatred of the Pandavas). Insulted, Karna rebels against Bhishma, and refuses to fight under Bhishma's authority. He is aghast when Duryodhana does not intervene to reinstate him. Duryodhana, the astute politician that he is, knows fully well the advantage of having Bhishma on his side even though the grand patriarch of all the warriors, undefeated for several generations, has openly declared that the Pandavas are also dear to him and that he would not kill them.

Karna enters the battlefield only on the eleventh day after Bheeshma's fall on the tenth.

The thirteenth day

On the thirteenth day of the battle, Dronacharya (Drona) organized a special formation for the phalanxes called the Chakravyuha/Padmavyuha. Only Krishna and Arjuna on the Pandavas' side knew how to break the scheme; however, both were purposely drawn far from the battle field by two kings(brothers who ruled the Trigartha kingdom) on Duryodhana's side. Abhimanyu, Arjuna's son had partial knowledge of the formation having heard it when he was in his mother's womb when Arjuna, his father, was narrating the Chakravyuha arrangement to his mother, Subhadra. However, he could not hear all the information as his mother fell asleep in Arjuna's lap and hence he could enter the Chakravyuha, but did not know how to exit it correctly. It was decided that Abhimanyu would lead the Pandavas into the Chakravyuha and then they would fight their way out.

As soon as Abhimanyu had entered the Chakravyuha, Jayadratha, a king in the Kaurava army, blocked it off, thus preventing the other Pandavas from entering the formation. Abhimanyu was left all alone in the middle of the enemy formation. Once inside, he fought valiantly and single-handedly defeated all reputed generals of the Kauravas including Karna, Drona and Duryodhana.

Duryodhana and Karna chose to assist in the elimination of Abhimanyu as per Drona's instructions. Karna shot arrows that broke Abhimanyu's bow and the reins of his chariot, while the Kauravas overwhelmed him. The battle ended with Abhimanyu's death. Arjuna knowing of his son's death at the hands of Kaaravas, pledges to kill Jayadratha before the sunset next day failing which to self immolate and die.

The night of the 14th day

On the fourteenth day, the battle uncharacteristically spilled over into the night and Ghatotkacha, the half-asura son of the Pandava Bhima began decimating the Kaurava forces (Asuras became extraordinarily powerful at night).

Duryodhana and Karna bravely stood and fought him. Finally when it seemed that Ghatotkacha would decimate all the Kaurava forces that very night, Duryodhana requested Karna to salvage the situation. Karna was forced to use the Shakti weapon on Ghatotkacha. This had been granted to him by Indra as a mark of respect for his peerless generosity. However, Indra allowed Karna to use the weapon only once, after which it would return to Indra.

The Seventeenth day

Before the seventeenth day, Karna fought with all four Pandavas except Arjuna, defeating even the mighty Bhima in one-on-one combat but leaving them all alive and humiliated. This was due to his promise to Kunti that either he would kill Arjuna, or Arjuna would kill him, thus leaving Kunti with five sons either way.

On the seventeenth day of battle, the much anticipated confrontation between Karna and Arjuna finally takes place. They were evenly matched during the spectacular combat. Karna had been gifted a bow by Parashurama called Vijaya, one designed by Vishwakarma himself. At Duryodhana's request, Shalya, who was a maternal uncle to Pandavas, reluctantly agreed to drive Karna's chariot, hence he was a charioteer to equal Lord Krishna (Shalya had mastered the Ashwahridaya - "Art of Horses").

During the battle, when Arjuna's arrows struck Karna's chariot, it moved back by several feet. However, when Karna's arrows struck Arjuna's chariot, it moved back only by a few inches. Upon this,krishna praised Karna. Astonished, Arjuna asked him the reason for his praise, since his(Arjun's) arrows had been more effective. In response, Krishna told Arjuna that Karna's chariot was bearing only the weight of Karna and Shalya, whereas Arjuna's chariot was bearing the weight of the entire universe (since Krishna and Hanuman's flag were on the chariot)- despite this yet Karna had been able to move it by inches

Karna and Arjuna fight a long and intense duel, utilizing their full knowledge of divine weaponry and tactics against each other. Karna uses his "Nagastra" by taking aim at Arjuna's head in an effort to sever it from Arjuna's body. Lord Krishna saves Arjuna from death at Karna's hands by plunging the chariot into the earth. Due to this, the "Nagastra" just pierces Arjuna's crown. While the duel is initially held at a stalemate, Karna is hampered when his chariot wheel sinks into the ground (Boomi Devi's curse thus coming into effect). He also finds himself unable to remember the incantations for divine weapons, as his teacher Parashurama had foretold. Descending from his chariot to remove the wheel, he requests Arjuna to wait until it is set right, as per the rules of battle. Krishna tells him that he has no right to refer to the rules at this point, having disregarded them several times himself. He urges Arjuna to shoot him while he is helpless(The Brahman's curse comes into effect here). Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that if he does not kill Karna at this critical juncture of the war, he may never kill him, and the Pandavas may never win the war. Using a divine arrow, Arjuna decapitates Karna.

After Karna's death

Following the war, funeral rites were performed for all the fallen. Kunti then requests her sons to perform the rites for Karna as well. When they protest, saying he was a suta, she reveals the truth of his birth. The brothers are shocked to find they have committed fratricide. Yudhishtira in particular is furious with his mother, and curses all women to never be able to keep a secret from that point on.

Karna remains a tragic figure for millions of Hindus and Indians to this day. He remains a brave hero, a courageous spirit who braved impossible odds in his whole life, and died with terrific courage, valor and honor, to rise to immortality in fame. He is especially famous for his generosity. He is also an example of misjudgement and how that renders all the fine qualities of an individual futile.

Contrast with Arjuna

There are many parallels between Arjuna and Karna. Both were master archers, and competed for Draupadi's hand. A deeper connection lies in the fact that the two felt strong ties to the Kaurava side, both through friendship and through blood. Karna's ride with Krishna is very similar to the Sacred Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna reminded Arjuna of his duty. Their decisions, along with the consequences to themselves and their families, are used to emphasize the importance of following duty, as Krishna expounded.

Karna serves as an excellent example of a gifted, generous,righteous and brave individual who was still doomed because of his loyalty towards the evil Duryodhana. Karna's affection for Duryodhana led him to, albeit unwillingly, assist his dear friend in all his immoral and unjust actions against the Pandavas. Karna was aware of Duryodhana's malicious plans against the Pandavas. Karna was also aware of his own imminent downfall for assisting the evil against the good. The blemish to his name is his treatment of Draupadi, and his role in the killing of the unarmed and outnumbered Abhimanyu.


* Rashmirathi [ [http://hi.literature.wikia.com/wiki/%E0%A4%B0%E0%A4%B6%E0%A5%8D%E0%A4%AE%E0%A4%BF%E0%A4%B0%E0%A4%A5%E0%A5%80_/_%E0%A4%B0%E0%A4%BE%E0%A4%AE%E0%A4%A7%E0%A4%BE%E0%A4%B0%E0%A5%80_%E0%A4%B8%E0%A4%BF%E0%A4%82%E0%A4%B9_%22%E0%A4%A6%E0%A4%BF%E0%A4%A8%E0%A4%95%E0%A4%B0%22 रश्मिरथी / रामधारी सिंह "दिनकर" - Hindi Literature ] ] (The Sun Charioteer) by Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar' - A Poetic rendering of Karna's life, his dharma, his friendship and the tragedies (in Hindi)
*Shivaji Sawant(author), "Mrityunjaya"(Marathi). {English Version: "Mrityunjaya, the death conqueror: The story of Karna" - ISBN 81-7189-002-4}
* 'The Mahabharata' by Smt. Kamala Subramaniam, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Press.
* Shri Krishna,T.V Serial by the Late Shri Ramanand Sagar.

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