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Karna (right) confronts Arjuna, who will later kill Karna, in the Kurukshetra war.

Karna (Sanskrit: कर्ण written Karṇa in IAST transliteration) is one of the central characters in the epic Mahābhārata from ancient India. He was the King of Anga (present day Bhagalpur). Karna is considered to be one of the greatest warrior of Mahābhārata by authorities including Krishna and Bhishma, as stated in the original text by Maharishi Ved Vyasa.[1][2][3][4] He was the son of Surya (the Sun god) and Kunti. He was born to Kunti, before her marriage with Pandu. He is described as the closest friend of Duryodhana. Karna fought on his behalf against the Pandavas (his brothers) at the Kurukshetra war. Karna fought against misfortune throughout his life and kept his word under all circumstances. Many admire him for this courage and generosity. It is believed that Karna founded the city of Karnal.

Contents

Virgin birth

Karna was born to his mother Kunti by his father the solar deity Surya. Karna was born, before his mother's marriage to prince Pandu. When Kunti was young, the sage Durvasa visited her father's palace. She served the sage with utmost care for an entire year. Pleased by her service and hospitality, the sage foresaw her future difficulty after marriage of not having a child through Pandu, and hence granted her a boon to overcome this difficulty. By this boon she could call upon any god of her choice, and beget a child. Out of curiosity, Kunti still being unmarried, decided to test the power of the boon. She invoked the mantra and called Surya. Bounded by the power of the mantra, Surya appeared before her and granted her a son, who was as radiant and robust as Surya himself. This baby was born with an armour ('Kavacha') and a pair of earrings ('Kundala') attached to him. Though Kunti retained her virginity, she was unwilling to face the world as an unwed mother. With the help of her maid Dhatri,she placed the baby Karna in a basket and set him afloat on the holy river Ganga in the hope that he would be taken in by another family.

Upbringing

The child Karna was found by Adhiratha-- a charioteer of the king Dhritarashtra. He and his wife Radha raised Karna as their own son and named him Vasusena. Karna also came to be known as Radheya - son of Radha (his foster mother) while his original name Karna meant 'ear', because according to legend, the baby Karna came out of Kunti's ear. The bond between Karna and his foster parents was filled with pure love, respect and affection. Karna lovingly performed his duties as their son, despite his rise as a king of Anga and the eventual revelation of his true birth. Thus, Karna remained faithful and loyal to his foster parents till his death. His wife's name was Vrushali, Ponnuruvi.

As regards his sons, Karna had several sons and the names of nine of his sons are mentioned. Of the nine, only one survived the Kurukshetra war. Vrasasena; Sudhama; Shatrunjaya; Dvipata; Sushena; Satyasea; Chitrasena; Susharma(Banasena); and Vrishakethu.

Sudhama died in the melee that followed Draupadi’s swayamvara. Shatrunjaya and Dvipata died in the Kurukshetra war at the hands of Arjuna during the days when Drona commanded the Kaurava forces. Sushena was killed in the war by Bhima. Satyasena, Chitrasena and Susharma died at the hands of Nakula. Karna’s eldest son Vrasasena died during the last days of the war when Karna commanded the battle forces. Vrishasena was killed by Arjuna.

Vrishasena’s death is described in all its gruesome detail:

Vrishasena, angered at the death of Duhshasana and Chitrasena, rushed at Nakula, desiring to fight with his father's enemy. A fierce battle then ensued between those two heroes. Vrishasena managed to kill Nakula's horses and pierce him with many arrows. Descending from his chariot, Nakula took up his sword and shield, and making his way toward Vrishasena, he severed the heads of two thousand horsemen. Vrishasena, seeing Nakula coming towards him whirling that sword like a discus, shattered the sword and shield with four crescent shaped arrows. Nakula then quickly ascended Bhima's chariot. As Arjuna came near, Nakula requested him, "Please slay this sinful person." Arjuna then ordered Lord Krishna, "Proceed toward the son of Karna. I will kill him within his father's sight." Unsupported by anyone, Vrishasena challenged Arjuna releasing many different kinds of arrows. He pierced Arjuna's arm with ten arrows and Krishna also with ten. Arjuna became enraged, and exclaimed loudly to the Kaurava kings including Karna, "Today, O Karna, I will kill your son as you unfairly killed my son, Abhimanyu! Let all the warriors protect him if they can. I will kill him, and then, O fool, I will slay you; and Bhima will slay the wretched Duryodhana, whose evil policies have brought about the great battle."

Having threatened Karna, Arjuna struck Vrishasena with ten arrows that weakened him. With four razor headed arrows, Arjuna cut off his bow, his two arms and his head that was adorned with beautiful earrings. Beholding Vrishasena killed, Karna wept bitter tears, and his eyes were red with rage. He then proceeded toward Arjuna challenging him to fight.

Vrishakethu was the only son of Karna that survived the horrific slaughter called Kurukshetra war. He later came under the patronage of the Pandavas. During the campaign that preceded the Ashvamedha –yaga, Vrishakethu accompanied Arjuna and participated in the battles with Sudhava and Babruvahana. During that campaign Vrishakethu married the daughter of king Yavanatha (perhaps a king of the western regions). It is said, Arjuna developed great affection for Vrishakethu, his nephew.

Training

As he grew up, Karna became more interested in the art of warfare than in being a charioteer like his father Adhirata. Karna met Dronacharya, who at that moment was an established teacher in the art of warfare. Dronacharya taught the Kuru princes, but refused to take Karna as his student, since Karna was a son of a charioteer and Drona only taught Kshatriyas.

After being refused by Drona, Karna decided to be self-taught with his brother Shona's help. But according to Indian culture when you have to learn an art, you must have a Guru(teacher),so Karna decided to make The Sun(God)his guru. Karna learnt all the arts without a Guru. During daytime, he gathered information about various ayudhas(Weapons) and then after sundown, he exercised them.

One day when Karna came to Hastinapur(capital of Kauravas)after a month of holiday, he heard from his friend Ashwathama(son of Drona) that last week Guru Dronacharya decided to test his students in their skill of archery. He hung a wooden bird from the branch of a tree and then summoned his students. He asked the first one to aim for the bird's eye but not shoot just yet. He then asked the student what he could see. The student replied that he could see the garden, the tree, flowers, etc. Drona asked him to step aside and not to shoot. He repeated the same process with a few other students. When it was Arjuna's turn, Arjuna told his Guru that the only thing he could see was the bird's eye. This satisfied the Guru and he allowed Arjuna to shoot the bird and Arjuna successfully hit the eye of that Parrot.

After listening to his brother's version of events, Karna told his brother that if Arjuna could hit the one eye of the parrot then he can hit both eyes of the parrot in a single shot. As they practiced in the night, Karna decided to shoot both eyes of the parrot the same night with the help of Palita(instrument used to lighten homes).As Karna instructed him ,Shona suspended the wooden parrot high above the tree and held the palita beneath. Karna strung the bow with two arrows (slightly changed their position one after the other) and as soon as he got signal from Shona, Karna successfully hit both eyes of the bird in a single shot. This was achieved within a short time's practice, this shows that Karna is the greatest archer in the world of all time.

In a very short period of time Karna was able to learn various arts. But, Karna becomes more interested to learn all the advanced skills of archery including the use of Divine weapons. After being refused by Drona, Karna decides to learn from Parashurama, the guru of Drona. Thus, Karna eventually approached Parashurama, who was known to teach only Brahmins[5]. He appeared before Parashurama as a Brahmin and requested that he be taken as his student. 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. Thus, Karna became a diligent student of Parashurama.

Various curses on Karna

Karna was cursed by his guru Bhagvan Parashurama, a Brahmin and the Earth goddess as described below:

As Karna's training came to completion, Parashurama learnt the truth about Karna's origin. The legend goes that one afternoon Parashurama requested Karna to bring a pillow for him to sleep on in a tree's shade. Karna instead offered his teacher his lap. While Parashurama was asleep, a giant bee stung Karna's thigh. Despite the excruciating pain, Karna did not move so as not to disturb his Guru's sleep. As the bee bored deeper into Karna's thigh, the wound began to bleed. Parashurama was woken up by the blood from Karna's thigh. He deduced at once that Karna was a Kshatriya and not a Brahmin, as only a Kshatriya could have endured such intense pain. Thus, Parashurama, who had sworn vengeance against all Kshatriyas, concluded that Karna lied about being a Brahmin in order to learn from him. So, he cursed Karna that his martial skills including the use of Brahmastra would desert him when he needed them most. This in turn meant that Karna would forget all that he had learnt from Parashurama during his hour of crisis. Karna, who was as yet unaware of his royal lineage, pleaded with his Guru that any student in his place would have acted the same way and besides, he was the son of Vasusena, a mere charioteer and not a Kshatriya. While he regretted cursing Karna in a moment of anger, Parashurama's curse was irrevocable. He also gifted Karna a celestial weapon called Bhargavastra along with Parashurama's personal bow called Vijaya and blessed him that in the end, Karna would achieve what he wanted the most: everlasting glory and immortal fame.

Departing from Parashurama's ashram, Karna wandered for some time. On his way, while practicing the Shabdavedi Vidya (the ability to hit a target by just observing the sound), he mistook a cow for a wild animal and shot an arrow at it and killed it. Incensed by this incident, the Brahmin who owned the cow cursed him, stating that as he had killed a helpless animal, Karna too would be killed in the same way when he was most helpless with his concentration being diverted away from his enemy at that crucial moment.

Andhra folklore further states that once Karna while riding his chariot in his kingdom of Anga, encountered a child who was crying over her pot of spilt ghee. On asking her the reason for her dismay, she stated that she feared her step mother who would be angry over her carelessness. Being generous enough Karna told her that he would give her new ghee. But, the child insisted that she wanted only the ghee that was mixed with the soil and refused to take the new ghee. Taking pity on the girl, Karna took the soil mixed with ghee in his fist and squeezed it with all his might to extract the ghee and pour it back into the pot. During this process, Karna heard the agonized voice of a woman. When he opened his fist, he realized that the voice was that of Bhoomidevi- the Earth goddess. Furious, she chastized Karna for inflicting enormous pain on Mother Earth for the sake of a mere child. So, the Earth goddess cursed him that in a very crucial battle of his life, she would trap his chariot wheel in the same way that he held the fistful of soil,thereby making him vulnerable to his enemy.

Thus, Karna was cursed on three separate and independent occasions. Unfortunately, each of these curses became operational at the same crucial moment in the Kurukshetra war, later making him weaponless, left without a chariot and helpless.

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, who always knew that Pandavas were better than him and his brothers at warfare, saw Karna as his strongest chance against Pandavas and immediately offered him the throne of the kingdom Anga, making him a king and hence 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 comrade 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 valor. Karna aided Duryodhana in marrying the princess of Chitragandha. In her swayamvara, the princess rejected Duryodhana, who subsequently carried her away by force. The other kings present at the swayamvara pursued Duryodhana. However, Karna defeated them single-handedly. The defeated included Jarasandha, Shishupala, Dantavakra, Salya and Rukmi. As a token of his appreciation, Jarasandha gifted Karna a portion of Magadha. Bheema defeated Jarasandha with the help of Krishna but it was Karna who defeated Jarasandha earlier single-handedly. Karna was the first one to expose the weak point of Jarasandha about splitting him in two.

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 worshipped the Sun, would not go away with his request unfulfilled. He would never let anyone leave empty-handed. This practice contributed to Karna's fame as well as to his downfall, as Indra took advantage of it. Further, Karna was cursed by Bhoomidevi when he tried to fulfill the request of a girl over ghee that fell in the soil.

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 hit the target, winning Draupadi's hand. When Arjuna's identity was later revealed, Karna's feelings of rivalry further intensified.

Game of dice

After Shakuni had won the game of dice by trickery, the Pandavas' queen Draupadi 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' and that the Pandavas were all like sesame seeds removed from the kernel and she should now find some other husbands.

On the spot, Bhima vowed that he will personally slaughter Duryodhana and his brothers in battle. Arjuna subsequently swore 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 succeded 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, the Ashmakas, the Rishikas and numerous others including mlecchas and the forest tribes. (MBH 8.8.18-20).

Krishna and Karna

Following the failed peace negotiations with Duryodhana, Krishna approaches Karna, who has come to be known Duryodhana's finest warrior. Krishna 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 Indraprastha to Karna who would become a great king.

Karna refuses the enormous offer because he swore fidelity to Duryodhana, and as such, was compelled to stay by his side despite his genetic ties to the Pandavas. He said that Yudhisthira was a righteous man, and knowing that Karna was older than him, Yudhisthira would immediately give up his crown to him. However, to repay his debt to Duryodhana, Karna would have to put the crown of Indraprastha on Duryodhana, which Karna thought was against Dharma. He also remarks to Krishna that as long as he is with Pandavas on the side of Truth, defeat is certain for himself. Krishna is saddened, but appreciating Karna's sense of loyalty, accepts his decision, promising Karna that his lineage would remain a secret. Krishna yet again appreciated Karna for his righteousness, and bowed to him- the one example when divinity bowed down to humanity.

Loss of armour

Indra, king of the gods (Devas) and father of Arjuna, realized that Karna would be invincible and immortal 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 armour and earrings. Karna thanked Surya but explained he was bound by his word and could not send anyone from his door empty handed even if it meant 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 gave them away, cutting the armor and earrings off his body. Indra, shamed into generosity by Karna's gesture, reciprocated 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

As the war approached, Kunti met Karna to reveal his true identity. She told him that she was his mother and that he was her son. Then, both of them shared a touching moment together. She told him to call himself 'Kaunteya' (son of Kunti) instead of 'Radheya', but Karna replied that he wanted the entire world to recognise him as a Radheya and not as a Kaunteya. Kunti asked Karna to join the Pandavas and become king. Karna refused and told Kunti that had she been willing to call him as Kaunteya many years ago when he appeared at the tournament, then things would have been very different. But it was too late now for him to make this change. He further stated that being a friend of Duryodhana, he could not betray the trust of his friend. However, he promised Kunti that he would not kill any of the Pandavas except Arjuna. Both Karna and Arjuna had sworn to kill each other, and thus one of them was bound to die. So, he told Kunti that she could only keep five sons- the fifth one being either him or Arjuna. Karna requested his mother to keep their relationship and his royal birth a secret until his death.

Kunti also sought another promise from Karna of not using an arrow / divine weapon more than once. Karna promised her this too. As a result, Karna could not use the Nagastra weapon more than once in the Kurukshetra war later.

The Great War: Kurukshetra

A manuscript of Mahabharata depicting the war at Kurukshetra.

Before the war begins, Bhishma, the commander-in-chief of the Kauravas refused Karna's participation in the Great war under his leadership. Duryodana requests Bhishma to consider Karna under his leadership, but Bhishma denies Karna's participation in the war under his leadership saying that Karna had insulted his Guru Parshuram by insulting Draupadi and nobody disrespecting his Guru can fight under his leadership. Bhishma also knew about Karna's true ancestary and did not want him to fight against his own brothers. Consequently, Karna enters the battlefield only on the eleventh day after the fall of Bheeshma (on the tenth day).

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The thirteenth day

On the thirteenth day of the battle, Dronacharya (Drona) organized a special formation called the Chakravyuha/Padmavyuha to challenge the Pandavas. Only Krishna and Arjuna on the Pandavas's side knew how to break the scheme. However, both were purposely drawn far away 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 Chakrvyuha formation having heard it while he was in his mother's womb when Arjun was narrating the Chakravyuha arrangement to his wife Subhadra. Subhadra had paid attention to only for the first part of the narration and then had fallen asleep, so Abhimanyu only knew how to enter the formation, but not how to extract himself out of it. Thus, the four Pandava brothers decide that Abhimanyu will lead them to enter the Chakravyuha in the absence of Arjuna and Krishna.

But, as soon as Abhimanyu enters the Chakravyuha, Jayadratha-- the sindhu king from the Kaurava army blocked it, thereby preventing other pandavas from entering the formation. Thus, Abhimanyu was left all alone in the middle of the enemy formation. Once inside, he fought valiantly and single-handedly defeated all the 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 on learning of the death of Abhimanyu at the hands of Kauravas, pledged to kill Jayadratha before sunset the next day, failing which he would immolate himself in a pyre of fire.

The night of the 14th day

On the fourteenth day, the battle uncharacteristically extended over the night and Ghatotkacha, the half-asura son of Bhima began to decimate the Kaurava forces. Generally, the asuras become 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 (while donating his armour and earring to Indra). However, this shakti weapon could be used only once after which it would return to Indra. Thus, on using the shakti weapon on Ghatotkacha, Karna could not use the same on Arjuna later. When Karna spent the shakti weapon to slay Ghatotkacha, Krishna knew that victory was theirs for certain, as Karna did not have any divine weapons to fight Arjuna now.

Karna Parva

The Mahabharat war fought on day 16 and day 17 is documented as Karna Parva where Karna is the commander of Kaurava army.

The sixteenth day

Here is what Lord Krishna says unto Arjuna before the war between Karna and Arjuna - "Hear in brief, O son of Pandu! I regard the mighty car-warrior Karna as thy equal, or perhaps, thy superior! With the greatest care and resolution shouldst thou slay him in great battle. In energy he is equal to Agni. As regards speed, he is equal to the impetuosity of the wind. In wrath, he resembles the Destroyer himself. Endued with might, he resembles a lion in the formation of his body. He is eight ratnis in stature. His arms are large. His chest is broad. He is invincible. He is sensitive. He is a hero. He is, again, the foremost of heroes. He is exceedingly handsome. Possessed of every accomplishment of a warrior, he is a dispeller of the fears of friends. Engaged in the good of Dhritarashtra's son, he always hates the sons of Pandu. No one, not even the gods with Vasava at their head, can slay the son of Radha, save thee, as I think. Slay, therefore, the Suta's son today. No one possessed of flesh and blood, not even the gods fighting with great care, not all the warriors (of the three worlds) fighting together can vanquish that car-warrior".

On the sixteenth day Karna fought as commander in chief of the Kaurava army. On the sixteenth day of the war Karna single-handedly defeated all the Pandavas. Firstly, Karna defeated Bhima but left him alive saying that as he (Karna) is elder to him (Bhima), he won't kill him. Then he went to Yudhisthira and also defeated him but left him alive by saying that "It seems that you have forgotten all the teachings which your guru has taught you, so first go and practice those and then come to fight". After that Karna defeated Nakula and Sahedeva but didn't kill them since he had promised his mother to spare the lives of all the Pandava brothers except Arjuna. After defeating all his brothers, Karna asked his charioteer, Shalya, to take his chariot in front of Arjuna. Seeing Arjuna in front of him, Karna took his powerful weapon, Nagastra and shot it at Arjuna. Krishna saved Arjuna from sure death by the Nagastra by his divine powers; by subtly lowering Arjuna’s chariot into the earth, by a gentle pressure of his feet.

The seventeenth day

Karna's wheel is stuck as Arjuna aims at him

On the seventeenth day of the battle, the much awaited duel between Karna and Arjuna took place.

During the battle, when Arjuna's arrows struck Karna's chariot,it moved back by a few feet. However, when Karna's arrows struck Arjuna's chariot, it moved back only a few inches. Krishna praised Karna for this. But, Arjuna got astonished and asked him the reason for his praise, In response, Krishna told Arjuna that Karna's chariot bore only the weight of Karna and Shalya. On the other hand, Arjuna's chariot bore the weight of the entire universe since Krishna and Hanuman were on the chariot. Despite this, Karna was able to move it.

Karna cut the string of Arjuna's bow multiple times. But, at each instant he found that Arjuna was able to tie back the bow string in the wink of an eye (in an extremely short time). For this, Karna praised Arjuna and remarked to Shalya that now he understood why people called him the greatest archer in the world. Though the duel was initially held at a stalemate, Karna was hampered when his chariot wheel sank into the ground in loose wet soil (BhoomiDevi's curse thus came into effect). He also found himself unable to remember the incantations for divine weapons, as his teacher Parashurama had foretold. Descending from his chariot to remove the wheel, he requested Arjuna to wait until it is set right as per the rules of battle. Krishna told Arjuna that Karna has no right to refer to the rules at this point, after having violated the same himself while killing Abhimanyu. He urged Arjuna to kill Karna while he was helpless (The Brahman's curse came into effect here). Lord Krishna told Arjuna that if he did not kill Karna at this critical juncture of the war, he might never be able to kill him and the Pandavas may never win the war. Thus, Arjuna fatally injured Karna using a divine arrow.

After Karna's death

Following the war, funeral rites were performed for all the fallen. Kunti then requested her sons to perform the rites for Karna as well. When they protested, saying he was a suta, she revealed the truth of his birth. The brothers were 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.

Lord Krishna went to Gandhari to tell her Karna had died. Karna was the oldest son of Kunti and although he knew who he was, he still fought for Dhuryodhana. Gandhari told Lord Krishna, "you knew what was going to happen and you still could've prevented the war". Gandhari cursed Lord Krishna: "just as my entire family perished, your family will die the same way".

After the 18-day Mahabharata war at Kurukshetra ended, Lord Krishna asked Arjuna to step down from his chariot. When Arjuna did so, Krishna took Arjuna some distance away from the chariot. Then he signaled to Lord Hanuman seated on the chariot to get up. The moment Lord Hanuman jumped off the chariot, Arjuna's horses were burnt alive and his chariot exploded into pieces. Seeing this, Arjuna was shocked. Krishna then told him that the deadly astras of Bheeshma, Drona, Karna and Ashwattama had caused the destruction of Arjuna's horses and chariot. It was the divine presence of Lord Hanuman that maintained the chariot in a proper condition by postponing the effects of their divine weapons.

Factors that contributed towards Karna's death

  1. The first and foremost contributor towards Karna's death was Sage Durvasa himself. While blessing Kunti with a mantra by which she could call upon any god of her choice, he did not tell her the consequence of this incantation. Thus, Kunti called Surya without being aware of the consequence of the Mantra much before her marriage, panics and subsequently abandoned the baby. His upbringing by the charioteer Adiratha denied Karna the recognition of a Kshatriya. It was Karna, not Yudhishtira or Duryodhana, who was the true heir to the throne of Hastinapur, but this was not realized as his birth was kept secret.
  2. Lord Indra who in the form of a giant bee, stung Karna's thigh,which angered the guru Parasurama, who in turn cursed Karna for lying about his caste. It is later revealed that Parasurama knew about the impending massacre at Kurukshetra. He explains to Karna in a dream, the night before the battle with Arjuna that he purposely cursed him in a harsh manner so the defeat of the Kauravas would be certain. In the dream, he blessed Karna with everlasting glory after his death due to his humble acceptance of the curse.
  3. The curse of a Brahmin who owned a cow.
  4. The curse of Bhoomidevi.
  5. The giving away of his Kavacha and Kundala as alms to Lord Indra, this time disguised as a beggar, because of his extremely generous nature.
  6. Invoking the Shakti weapon on Ghatotkacha.
  7. His two promises to his mother Kunti.
  8. Krishna pressed the chariot to save arjuna from karna's nagastra
  9. Not using the "Nagastra" for the second time in accordance with his second promise to Kunti.
  10. Shalya, who left Karna's Chariot the midway while the fight was in crucial phase.
  11. When Karna came to know that Pandavas were his brothers by Krishna just before the beginning of the Mahabharatha war, just to nullify the Karna's vengeance on Pandavas. Karna's hatred towards the Pandavas vanished. But, to be loyal to Duryodhana, Karna decided to fight against Arjuna in the war. On the other hand, none of the Pandavas were aware that Karna was their brother until after Karna's demise.
  12. Lord Krishna, by exhorting Arjuna to kill Karna when he was trying to push his chariot out of the mud.
  13. Karna didn't use his celestial bow Vijaya from the beginning

Karna as the adulated figure

Even though Karna devoted his services to evil Duryodhana, he remains an adulated figure for millions of Hindus and Indians. Karna is always considered as a formidable warrior, perhaps the greatest warrior of all time, a courageous spirit who braved impossible odds in his life, and died with unique courage, valor and honor. Karna is especially adored for his generosity. He is also considered an example of how misjudgment renders all the fine qualities of an individual futile.

Many Hindus consider Karna as a man who fought against his misfortunes throughout his life without a single pause. He never got his due, but never gave up his efforts. Many of his contemporaries including Bheeshma and Lord Krishna conceded Karna was a noble spirit who rarely appears in the human race. He is idealized as an inspiration for struggling humanity to not lose heart. Karna is also a popular Hindu male name.

There are many incidents and quotes which indicate the might and greatness of Karna. One of those incidents is during Karna's war with Arjuna. When Arjuna's chariot was shifted a few inches back by the impact of one of the arrows shot by Karna, Krishna being Arjuna's Sarathi(charioteer) praised Karna. On his comment, Arjuna exclaimed that "while I hit Karna's chariot it moved miles behind so there is no reason to praise Karna on this". Krishna then explained to Arjuna that “On your chariot I, Lord Vishnu am present. I own the weight of entire universe and in addition to it your chariot is the chariot of Agni(the fire god) and it has the blessings of Hanuman in the form of a flag. If you remove these factors your chariot will fly away, revolving around the Earth".

There are also certain incidents those describe Karna's ethics in war as well. One of them is during his duel with Arjuna, when by the blow of Karna's arrow Arjuna fainted. At that moment the cobra king Ashwasen who was sheltered by Karna, crept out of hiding and requested Karna to use his poison against Arjuna because Arjuna had burnt his home(a forest) to the ground. Karna refused to use a snake against any human, saying that it would be treachery towards humanity.

Furthermore; at night on the day of his death as Karna lay dying on the Kurukshetra battlefield, in the Pandava camp Krishna lay saddened. When questioned by Arjuna as to why he was upset, Krishna replied that he was mourning the passing of a great man like Karna. Angered by Krishna's affection for Karna, Arjuna demanded to know why. Then Krishna took Arjuna towards Karna, disguised as two Brahmins; one younger and one older. Krishna, disguised as the older Brahmin, said to Karna

    "Oh Karna, you are known to be extremely genenrous, hence I am here requesting something for my son's wedding, what can you give me?"

Karna replied saying "I do not have anything to give you as I lie here dying,i have only thing left is my golden teeth." And so Karna, using a nearby rock knocked his tooth out. In order to test Karna even more and in order to demonstrate to Arjuna Karna's generosity, Krishna scolded Karna for giving him something covered in blood which is not suitable for a brahmin to touch. Upon hearing this Karna began to cry and with his tears washed the tooth and gave it to Krishna. After this Krishna left and Arjuna followed. Krishna then told Arjuna that the passing of Karna from this world would mark the passing of generosity and other such qualities which Karna possesses; and hence he was mourning Karna's death.

Pleased with his supreme sacrifice,Krishna grants Karna the vision of himself seated on Garuda, accompanied by his wives Radha and Rukmini. The Lord promises Karna to grant him whatever boon he wishes. Karna says that, although he could ask Krishna to give victory to Duryodhana and bring his armies back to life, he does not want to do so. He then requests two things: firstly, that as soon as he dies, his mother Kunti shall be informed. She will rush to the battlefield and proclaim publicly that Karna is her son and that he is not of low caste. Secondly, in order to reach Krishna's feet (that is, the liberation of his soul from the cycle of births) Karna wants to fulfil the good deed of feeding others (annadanam). This is the only danam he has not been able to carry out in this life, because nobody wanted to eat in the house of a person of low caste. He asks Krishna to give him in his next births the means to be liberal and the opportunity to carry out annadanam. A moved Krishna grants Karna these favours and tells him that in his next life he will be reborn as Siruttontar Nayanar,(this is only a folk lore not authentic one ) famous for offering his own son as food to Lord Siva, after which he will attain moksham.

Contrast with Arjuna

There are many parallels between Arjuna and Karna. Both were master archers, competed for Draupadi's hand, and had to fight their own brothers in the war. A deeper connection lies in the fact that the two felt strong ties to the Kaurava side both through friendship and through blood. Their decisions along with the corresponding consequences to themselves and their families, are used to emphasize the importance of doing one's duty as explained in the Bhagavad Gita by Krishna.

Karna serves as an excellent example of a gifted, generous, righteous and brave individual who was still doomed because of his loyalty towards Duryodhana. Karna had the five perfect qualities of a husband for Draupadi, but being with Duryodhana nullified these. Karna's affection for Duryodhana led him to, albeit unwillingly, assist his dear friend in all his actions against the Pandavas. Karna was aware of Duryodhana's malicious plans against the Pandavas. Karna was also aware of his own imminent downfall on assisting the evil against the good. While some maintain that he acquired a blemished image by his treatment of Draupadi at Dhritrashtra's court, others maintain that he was justified in this act, since it was Draupadi who first dishonored and humiliated him by unjustly denying him the opportunity to compete in her Swayamvara by insulting him with the soot-putra epithet (referring to him as being of a lower class background) in order to disqualify him; however, his role in the killing of an unarmed and outnumbered Abhimanyu can be interpreted as an act that more directly damaged him as an honorable warrior and doomed him to a similar fate. According to some interpretations of the Mahabharata, it was this deed that solidified Karna's status as a warrior on the wrong side of the war and sealed his fate of being killed by Arjuna in the same way, being unarmed, chariotless and with his back turned to Arjuna.

Karna Devotion to Sun & Chhath Puja

Karna used to pray his father Surya wherein argya is given to the Deity. This tradition of Praying Surya is still being carried out in parts of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh in the form of Chhath Puja.

References

  • Mahābhārata: Karna, by Adam Bowles. Published by NYU Press, 2006. ISBN 0814799817.
  • The Sanskrit Hero: Karna in Epic Mahābhārata, by Kevin McGrath. Published by BRILL, 2004. ISBN 9004137297.
  • Rashmirathi; रश्मिरथी / रामधारी सिंह "दिनकर, (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.

External links

http://images.exoticindiaart.com/books/veer_karna_idg547.jpg


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