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Mahabharata, the greatest epic is hailed as the fifth veda. Of all the characters in the epic, Shree Krishna’s role is the most important of all. Without his presence, the Kurukshetra war would have not been fought. Without his indulgence, Arjuna would have never lifted his bow against his own cousin brothers. But he being the God himself knew everything. He says in Bhagavad Gita that everything was destined to happen, that he knew the outcome of the war. And hence even though he is my most favourite character in the entire book, I did not take up his character for discussion since it is not just me, but anyone would find it impossible to analyze him.

The other character which has always fascinated me is Karna’s. His story is one of the saddest, since he was ill-fated ever since his birth.

Born to Kunti and Suryadeva (Sun) and being one of the best warriors of all times, he probably deserved a better life. His mother abandoned him along with his protective armor and earrings, soon after his birth since she was unmarried at that time. A charioteer of King Dritharashtra picked him from the river where his mother left him floating in a box and adopted him as his own son. Dronacharya was the tutor for all the princes from Hastinapur like Yudhistra, who was known for telling only truth, Bhima, who was known for his strength and Arjuna, who was known for his archery skills and their cousins like Duryodhana, whose pride was the primary cause for the war. Karna, was brought up by a poor father and this led to a refusal for teaching by Drona. Karna now approached Parashurama, who taught only Brahmins and lied to him that he was a Brahmin. Karna also learnt the usage of Brahmastra from him.

Once in the ashram of Parashurama, Karna fires an arrow aimlessly and a cow belonging to a Brahmin dies. The Brahmin curses him saying “Let the wheel of your chariot get stuck in the mud and at that very instant let someone kill you. This is your punishment for killing an innocent cow”.

Indra or Devendra (king of Gods), father of Arjuna did not want Karna to become more powerful and hence took the form of a worm and stung Karna when Parashurama was sleeping on his lap. Karna withstood the pain since he did not want his guru to wake up. The guru woke up and upon seeing the blood oozing out of his body, immediately recognized that Karna was not a Brahmin. A Brahmin could never withstand such a pain and still keep quiet. Parashurama cursed Karna for lying saying “When you are fighting with an enemy and the enemy is about to kill you, you will forget everything you learnt from me”.

Duryodhana becomes a good friend of Karna. Duryodhana makes him a king of a city and thus Karna joins the Kauravas. Karna never knew that he was son of Kunti and that Arjuna was his step-brother. Along with Duryodhana, he developed hatredness towards Arjuna and all the other Pandavas. Indra was now getting scared of Karna as the news spread far and wide that he was a great warrior. He devised a plan to get hold of the earrings and the divine armor of Karna. Suryadeva came to know about this plan and warned Karna not to give his armor and earrings to anyone. But Karna refuses to agree saying that he is Dhana shoora Karna, which means he gives anyone anything they ask for. Soon Indra comes dressed like an ordinary Brahmin and asks for the armor and earrings. Karna recognizes him as Indra and asks for his Shaktyayudha in return. And this way Indra makes him vulnerable to death by taking his armor given by Suryadeva himself.

Kauravas snatch the kingdom from Pandavas by cheating them and refuse to return one half of it, when they come back from exile. The Kurukshetra war is then declared. Krishna informs Kunti about the war. Kunti now approaches Karna, hoping to make him change sides. She accepts him as her son and asks him not to wage a war against his own brothers. “Let the world see Karna and Arjuna unite”, she requests. But Karna says “Oh mother, you abandoned me and as a result I am denied of all my Kshatriya rights. You have not come here to accept me as a son, but only for your selfish motive. I will not kill your other sons but either Arjuna or I will survive at the end. I have eaten Duryodhana’s salt and it is time for me to show loyalty and gratitude towards that dear friend of mine”. Kunti also makes him promise her that he will not use the same weapon twice.

And thus the war begins. Karna and Arjuna get involved in an intense fight.

Krishna urges Arjuna to not show compassion towards Drona, Bhisma, Jayadratha and Karna here, in this stanza from Bhagavad Gita:

Now Karna uses Sarpastra, an arrow which is shaped like a snake, aiming it at Arjuna’s throat. As soon as Sree Krishna sees this, he pushes Arjuna’s chariot and sinks it a few inches deep in the mud. As a result, the arrow hits Arjuna’s crown and knocks it off his head. The arrow flies back to Karna and asks him to use it again. It assures him that this time it will kill Arjuna. But Karna refuses to do so in order to keep his promise that he will not use an arrow more than once. The fight now continues between Karna and Arjuna. Arjuna gets ready with a very poisonous deadly arrow and just then as if to signal the end of Karna, his chariot sinks into the ground (the brahmin’s curse). Karna forgets to use Brahmasatra, as a result of Parashurama’s curse. Then he asks Arjuna not to fire an arrow at him, while he tries to get his chariot out of the mud. He requests him to follow dharma.

Karna followed dharma (established code of conduct), in that

  • He was good natured and a very dependable person.
  • Loyalty is an important trait that Karna displays. Since he ate Duryodhana’s salt, he does not betray and change sides when his mother asks him to.
  • He never broke his promises. He did not try to kill any of the Pandavas, other than Arjuna, even though he defeated them. Even though Sarpastra asked him to fire it again and it  was evident that it would have definitely killed Arjuna, yet just to keep his promise, Karna refuses to fire it.
  • He was a great friend to Duryodhana and showed his gratitude towards Duryodhana for supporting him when he needed support.
  • Even though Suryadeva warns him not to give his armor, he does not refuse to give it to Indra who requests for it. He indeed is “dhaana shoora”.
  • His situation is really pitiable in that he being a prince, never got what he deserved ever since his mother abandoned him. He ended up in a war where he had to fight against his own brothers, in order to support a friend. It was all due to ill-fate.

For which, Sree Krishna says “Now that you are in trouble, you remember dharma. Where was your dharma, when you did these wrong deeds with Duryodhana?”

He committed adharma (behaved against the established code of conduct) like this:

  • Building friendship with someone like Duryodhana and then maintaining that friendship, even when what Duryodhana did was not right. He fell into wrong company and when you are with friends, you tend to start supporting them. That is why it is important to choose right set of friends.
  • Karna cheated his guru by telling a lie that he is a Brahmin, when he was not.
  • He supported Duryodhana in every evil deed of his like -
    • Karna uses shameful words against Draupadi and asks Duhsasana to seize garments of Draupadi and hand them to Sakuni, he also supports Duryodhana in trying to poison Bhima, in trying to burn Pandavas in a wax house.
    • Karna was responsible for killing Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna by trickery. Karna with others made Abhimanyu enter the Chakravyuha (a circular formation) which only Arjuna knew how to come out of, and then blocked the entrance so that other Pandavas could not enter. Arjuna and Krishna were battling somewhere far. Abhimanyu, all alone battled with six great warriors and then Karna went behind and broke his bow and armor, which was against the rules of the battle. Abhimanyu fought with the wheel of his chariot but all six of them surrounded Abhimanyu and killed him.

After hearing what Krishna said, Karna bowed his head in shame but still took his bow and started fighting. He shot an arrow at Arjuna that pierced his chest and then utilizing this time that he gained, Karna began lifting his chariot. At that instant, Krishna asked Arjuna to use Anjalika weapon, which then severed Karna’s head from his body.

This is something that today’s generation can learn from Karna’s story. One should make friendship of noble men and stay away from people who deviate from dharma. Just because your friend asks you to cut someone’s throats, will you cut? One needs to make a decision here. What is right and what is wrong? This is where Karna lacked in judgement. Even though Duryodhana had helped him, did he really have to take a wrong path and help him?

Please note: The author of this post has not read the original Mahabharata, written by Vedavyasa. She has  just read the translations of that by other authors and also obtained some points from B.R.Chopra’s video depiction. Should you find that some of the parts of the story are not  actually true, please let the author know by leaving a comment.

Check out the other Indiana Legends here:
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  1. Rumya says:

    Mahabharat is such a huge epic and interpretations are innumerable.
    Congratulations on doing a good job GREAT!! :D
    You have beautifully brought out the good and bad points of Karna who is a lesser known character from Mahabharat.
    Comparatively you find very little to read on Karna. You have done it extensively for lay people like me to understand it very well!!!
    Cheers to Raiders!! ;)

  2. Shobhit says:

    An extremely relevant example you made there regarding the understanding of ‘Dharma’.

    The last paragraph is so very correct as to what path should one follow in times of making decisions.

    Our generation needs to pick up such things from the epics instead of reading or watching them just for the sake of them being epics. I wonder whether many do actually still read them or not.

    We were really lucky to have grown up through the times of ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ which helped us gather so many details of mythological times. :)

    Is the ‘chariot-in-the-mud’ picture you used above from ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ too ?

    • Avada Kedavra says:

      Yep you are right. We had Amar Chitra Katha at our dispense those days. I guess the chariot in mud pic is from that. Not sure. Just googled for the image. Also my grandfather would narrate me stories from Mahabharata every night before sleeping and I love the fact that DD aired such programs for us kids to watch. These days, kids just get to see some animated version of these epics, which are fictitious.
      Everytime I read any of these epics, I learn something new and different from them :)

  3. Sanchit Goyal says:

    Every time you read about Mahabharata, Ramayana or Indian history you learn some stuff which you haven’t heard earlier. Such is the vastnesss of these epics.

    Very well written post in simple language. I am glad that I read the post because I have learned few things which I didn’t know earlier!

    • Avada Kedavra says:

      You are absolutely right Sanchit. I thought I knew everything about Karna, but while writing this post, I debated about his dharma with dad and learnt lot of new stuff about his character that I did not know earlier. I always supported Karna but not anymore. :) Thanks fellow raider :) Cheers to raiders!! :)

  4. Reema says:

    Karna has become my fave character after reading the Palace of Illusions :) A great post on him. A lot of research must have gone into this post!!

  5. Dhiman says:

    Yeah Karna is one of the most wronged character in Mahabharat …thing which you mentioned in last paragraph is the main lesson from Mahabharat is however noble you are if you are in the wrong side then you have to pay with your life….

    • Avada Kedavra says:

      Thanks D-man :) The kind of friends that you make is really important in shaping your character. I realized that during college days. All those people who end up with bad company, ruin their careers. These epics teach us so many virtues that we fail to recognize when we read them :)

  6. Swaram says:

    I like Karna’s character too. That pain @ being abandoned by his Mother and torn between having his Mother come for him, but more for the sake of saving her other sons @ the end is so much to bear :(
    Liked ur lesson @ the end. Well written and well inferred :)

    Gud luck for the contest :)

  7. debosmita says:

    I agree with your first paragraph ;) But I attempted Krishna because in my view, he is the most multi-faceted character in the whole epic…
    I loved your depiction of Karna. I have read the epic in Bengali and has always been in love with it. Karna is my favourite, too [I kind of 'like' him, you see ;)] Do you know of this theory that Draupadi always liked Karna, but could not marry him due to instigation by Krishna and her brother Dhristadumnya. Karna liked her too and that is one of the reasons why Kunti offered him to change sides and marry Draupadi! If you try to probe deeper, you will realise it too. Jealousy with Arjuna was so intense not for just one reason ;) ;)
    I liked your conclusion – that was a really neat analysis.. ATB :-)

    • Avada Kedavra says:

      You are right. Krishna is really multifaceted and he is one of those Gods that I really admire a lot.
      Thanks Debosmita :) Oh I did not know about Karna’s and Draupadi’s story!! That’s something new to me. So is this one of the reasons why Karna hated Arjuna so much, of all the Pandavas? That’s interesting. I will try to get hold of a book and find out.

      • debosmita says:

        And have you ever felt that Duryodhana used Karna to get even with the Pandavas? Duryodhana has never shown much trait of loyalty and love towards others. So isn’t it a little unbecoming of him to offer kingdom and friendship to Karna, who incidentally showed equal/more talent than the Pandavas? Just my two cents ;-) That Karna-Draupadi theory is a well-known one among Bengali scholars :-) One of the reason why there is no love story of Karna in Mahabharata ;-)

        • Avada Kedavra says:

          oh yeah agree with you about Duryodhana. Duryodhana just used Karna since he was a great warrior. Karna-Draupadi thing- havent come across it in the books on Mahabharata that I have read. And it makes sense too. Hmm Karna never got married too right.

  8. Psych Babbler says:

    Great work Ava! And amazing job taking on a character like Karna…someone who was so conflicted and pretty much a character with so many shades of grey. Made you think whether he would have turned out differently had his circumstances been different. Awesome work and great research put in!!! :)

      • DR. RAGHU says:

        RAGHAVA-
        KARNA MY ALL TIME FAV IN MAHABHARATH AFTER KRISHNA… EVERY MORNING WHEN I WORSHIP SUN GOD I OFFER MY RESPECT TO SUNGOD SAYING THATTHANKS FOR GIVING SUCH A GREAT NOBLE SON TO THIS WORLD! I CRY FOR HIM VERY OFTEN.. BUT KARNA GOT MARRIED AND HAD 9 SONS. ONE SURVIVED IN WAR BY NAME VRISHAKETHU. ARJUNA AFTER KNOWING THE TRUTH AS HIS BROTHER HE TOOK CARE OF HIS SON AS HIS OWN LIKE ABHIMANYU……

  9. Hitesh Rawat says:

    i think it was obvious that we’ll have differences in thoughts……..there are a few things which i don’t agree with in this post.

    i agree karna was on the wrong side……but he wasn’t wrong, technically speaking……. i mean about Draupadi….he did said she was a whore….but he hated Draupadi cause she didn’t allow him to participate in the sawayamvar….. cause of his caste….

    then about Abhimanyu….it’s debatable….cause Drona was the one who conspired …it was his plan…to put the best of his men to face Arjun….though it was sad that Abhimanyu was trapped…..but Drona is also equally responsible for killing Karna…….

    other then these two instances…..there is nothing against him….he criticized Duryodhan’s act of killing Pandavs in the house of lac…which he didn’t know about……

    and Mahabharat was not about Dharma……. no one who fought in the war followed Dharma….may it be Yudi – who lied about Aswathama’s death, Arjun for killing unarmed and distracted Karna, Bheem who hit Duryodhan below the belth…….Krishna…for being biased and supporting Pandav’s especially arjun…blingly……. Drona for Chakarvyu….etc…….

    • Avada Kedavra says:

      Yeah Mahabharata is one epic where the characters are so complex that different people have different opinion :)
      And agree with what Guria said about humiliating Draupadi. It is not right to ask someone to remove garments of a lady just because she humiliated right? It is not justified even in 21st century.
      Yeah none of the Pandavas followed Dharma in the war, because they would have never won it, if they had followed Dharma. They had been cheated of everything in the past and hence they cheated the evil cousins. This is one more lesson to be learnt from Mahabharata. I dont think Krishna was biased. He knew everything, he knew that Kauravas have to die, so this was the only way to kill them.
      Sorry but I dont feel Pandavas did anything wrong :)

      • Guria says:

        You know AV and Hitesh, the thing that I want to get across, something I feel, is that the Mahabharata had been moulded according to what people think it should be rather than what it really is. (Belittling women by misinterpreting or muddling up facts is one of the things that people have done. It was necessary to them to make sure that the society remains a male-dominated one and women don’t get an ideal.) Mahabharata was much more clean that what it has ended up today. Even I don’t think Lord Krishna did anything wrong. But if you do a good deed, it’s your credit, if do a bad one, it’s God’s fault? It was finally about every individual’s choices and free will and the fruits reaped by them. Nothing less, nothing more.

        • Avada Kedavra says:

          Very true Guria. Even I feel that different authors have interpreted the story in their own way. Most of them have misunderstood the essence of the epic and are blaming the wrong people.

  10. Guria says:

    I really like your analysis of Karna. It is unbiased and logical, a very good review He was indeed a good man, but he had his own failings of envy, jealousy and pride. With the influence he had over Duryodhana, he never swayed his friend or tried, because he thought it was his destiny to fight his brothers. He knew he would die, he was a different person altogether away from Duryodhana. But with him, he did stray from Dharma that he knew would be his downfall.
    Great writing AV, this is the best in this category! :)

    • Avada Kedavra says:

      Thanks Guria. You are absolutely right. He also loathed Arjuna because Arjuna got everything that he did not get, starting from training by Dronacharya. He should have never deviated from Dharma and tried to kill his own brothers.Loved your take too girl :)

  11. Guria says:

    @Hitesh… I know you like Karna’s character, but seriously it was Draupadi’s swayamvar, did she know who Karna was like we do? You think just because she didn’t want to marry Karna that Karna was justified in participating in a woman’s humilaition? Just a thought!
    And there are two sides to every story. There was Dharma, it was about principles, if you have to condemn Pandavas for those misdeeds you mentioned, how many times would you condemn the Kauravas? Every action has an equal and opposite reaction and that what Mahabhatrata shows. And every one paid that price. Including Lord Krishna, the “human form” of Narayana.

    • Avada Kedavra says:

      You put everything in proper words Guria.
      “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction and that what Mahabhatrata shows. ” -> exactly!! and this is what we should learn from the story. We cannot just do something bad and get away with it. We will be punished for any wrong doings.

  12. lostworld says:

    I am doing a painting of Bhagvad Gita actually.. The same one you’ve posted. If it comes out well, will post it (else will mail you)!! ;-D
    Nice post. My fav character is Shakuni mama.. heeee :D

      • lostworld says:

        Shakuni mama.. all because he adds the much needed spice in Mahabharat. If not for Duryodhana and Shakuni mama, we’d have yet another Ramayana only :-D
        That apart, I like Krishna too (a lot). Also Abhimanyu among the young blood.

  13. Gyanban says:

    This is quite packed. Articulating so much in so few words deserves kudos. I think the time you spent behind researching this is evident.

    Good stuff.

  14. kanagu says:

    I liked the way you have brought about the life of Karna Ak… you have written very well to bring it in very few lines :) Kudos to you.. :)

    Liked the post… :) :)

    but I think you could have analyzed him some more… I see this as very good on history and a little low on analyzing.. Just a thought as I know the topic…

    if we leave aside this contest it’s one of the best posts of you AK.. :)

    • Avada Kedavra says:

      Thanks Kanagu :) I felt giving background was important before analyzing otherwise people who dont know Karna’s story well wont understand na. Anyway, had fun writing the post since I just loooove Mahabharata story and was wanting to write a post on it from long time :)

  15. Harini says:

    Karna has always been my favorite character from the great Epic. He was a great warrior, great friend, kept his word and never said no to dhaana. I know he wasnt perfect but which character is? Everyone had their own faults. But for me Karna stands out for what he stood up to. I am a bit partial towards him actually :P.

  16. Survivor says:

    Very well captured the essence of Karna in the Mahabharata in your post.

    I though would disagree that Karna made the wrong choices. If one looks at his life he had no choices over his aspirations.

    He wanted to learn archery but because he was neither a prince or a Brahmin he could not, what choice he had except to lie to do what he wants to do.

    Don’t we lie to get things done or pursue what we find it out of our reach? Was it his fault that he was born neither a Brahmin or prince?

    Duryodhan made Karna a king when he was not allowed to take part in a competition deciding the best warrior which Arjuna won because he was a charioteer’s son. In that sense Duryodhan did the right thing giving Karna the equal opportunity (even when it was a selfish motive) when others were biased and prejudiced against him. So no wonder he stood by him even when he knew Duryodhan was wrong because he was the only supporting him when he was being humiliated in front of the people.

    From that perspective, Karna had developed a hatred against the people who would not give him the opportunity to showcase his skils and that somewhat explains his actions thereafter.

    But it was his goodness for which he ultimately paid the price for. Think for a moment what would have happen if he had refused to Indra on giving his kavach and making promise to Kunti? Don’t you think they used his goodness against him when they knew about his prowess? Doesn’t that amounts to cheating?

    Karna was a victim of fate. He was the “unwanted prince” who was just trying to fulfill his fate of a great warrior but it was not meant to be.

    I wont say he made wrong choice but we need to ask what choices he had given that he was not treated fairly because he was a charioteer’s son. It was in his destiny to be a great warrior greater than Arjuna if not for that would he be happy living any other life?

    It was his fate and goodness that lead to his downfall.

    • Avada Kedavra says:

      Thanks Survivor for such a thought provoking comment :) You know I had an argument with my dad while writing this post and the argument was on the same lines. I thought Karna was good because whatever he did was because of circumstances but my dad felt that even if you did become a victim of fate, you must never follow adharma. It is really complicated. You are actually right. They did take advantage of his goodness but since he was on the side of Duryodhana, who followed adharma, I feel it was necessary to cheat Karna. This was the only way Arjuna could have killed him. I think your last line is absolutely right. And fate was one of the biggest reasons for his downfall.

  17. Destination Infinity says:

    Extremely well written article. My favorite character in Mahabharata is Abhimanyu, and I too want to write something like this… BTW, Karna’s biggest luck was that Duriyodhana accepted him as his friend and made him a prince at a crucial time when he was not even allowed to compete against Arjuna. In the story, he was put in to a really difficult situation, by the author (and by his mother) – you can neither justify what he did nor say that he was correct!

    Destination Infinity

    • Avada Kedavra says:

      Thanks so much DI :) Even my most favourite character is Abhimanyu.. and the scene where he gets killed is one of my favs.. I read it as part of my school syllabus but fell in love with Mahabharata after that.. Karna’s situation is really pitiable.. his mother made it all the more complicated for him.. I really pity his situation and the dilemma he was in

  18. m shivaraj says:

    Hi freind entire mahabarath story. their in somany charecter like arjuna krishana bhima yudhistra bhishma and dronacharya many more. But i alway remember the name. the supreme sacrrifice of DANA VEERA SURA KARNA. he is the hero of the story. this name is evergreen of the earth

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