Hindu Gods & Goddeses:
Karna

Details and Origins

Who: KARNA. Also known as Vasusena (one born with wealth), Vaikhartana (one belonging to Surya), and Rashmirati (the one who rides the chariot of light), among others.

What: This Hindu demigod is the son of Queen Kunti (before she married) and Surya, god of the sun. Raised as a lowly charioteer, he becomes Angaraj (meaning king of Anga), and a great warrior, the only one able to defeat the Pandava archer Arjuna.

Which religion? Hindu religion; part of the great epic Mahabharata

When: ? (Sometime between 6000 BC and 500 BC. There’s a lot of disagreement over the possible time frame for the events upon which the tales may be loosely based.)

Spouse: Not named in the Mahabharata. Twentieth-century novelist Shivaji Sawant called her Vrushali. Also other unnamed co-wives.

Divine relatives: The sun god, Surya, is his father. By extension, he would also be half-brother to Surya’s divine offspring, including Shani and Yama, Lord of Death. He is also the unacknowledged half-brother of the semi-divine Pandavas Yudhishtira, Bhima, and Arjuna.

Weapons or noteworthy special powers: His prowess in battle is unmatchable, even by his half-brothers, the Pandavas. He is the only king to conquer the known world in his time, although he made the eldest of the Kauravas, Duryodhana, emperor in his place. He wielded celestial weapons, including: 

  • Bhargavastra: rains powerful weapons from the sky; more powerful than the Indraastra shower of arrows; destroys much of the Pandava army; capable of destroying the planet if not reined in
  • Vijaya: the divine bow fashioned by Vishvakarman, architect of the gods, for Shiva. A gift from Parasurama to take back the force of his curse, no one carrying the Vijaya Dhanush can be defeated. Mere mortals cannot even lift it, and the string is unbreakable. When used, the twang of the string makes a sound like thunder, and flashes like powerful lightning fill the sky. The bearer of this bow cannot be defeated by any known weapon.


Aham Sharma as Karna in Mahabharatam

A Few Stories of Karna

The Angaraj Karna is a major figure in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. It would be impossible to render a complete picture of such a complex figure on one page, but here are a few of the stories of his origins, anguish, and faults, and what made him great.

Kunti's Boon

When Princess Kunti was young, the rishi Durvasa came to visit. Pleased with her devotion and care for his needs, the holy man offered her a boon: a magic formula with which she could call any of the sky gods to come to her and father a child instantly.

Curious, Kunti did not wait for marriage. She called to Surya, the sun god, mighty light of the heavens, and from his embrace she was given a son. This son, Karna, was born wearing armor and a pair of gold earrings. He was fierce and strong — a son to be proud of.

But Kunti could not be proud. Unmarried, she feared for her reputation. So she placed the child in a basket and set him adrift in the river, a secret who would not be allowed to know his mother, rather than the celebrated gift of a god. Adhiratha, King Dhritarashtra’s charioteer, and his wife, Radha, found the boy and raised him as their own. 

In time, Kunti went on to marry Pandu and become a queen. When they had trouble having children, she once more called to mind her boon and, thus, gave Pandu demigods for sons: Yudhishtira from Yama, lord of dharma, a man of truth; Bhima, the strongest of men, from Vayu, god of the wind; and Arjuna, son of Indra, ruler of the sky. He would become a mighty archer, able to wield the bow with his right or left hand. Pandu received two additional children through his second wife, Madri: Nakula and Sahadeva, sons of the Ashwini Kumaras. When Madri later committed sati at Pandu’s death, Kunti adopted her twin boys and raised them as her own.

Because Arjuna’s father was chosen by Kunti herself instead of by Pandu, who had chosen for the older two, Arjuna was ever her favorite. But still she never told Pandu of her firstborn, raised in obscurity apart from the woman who bore him, loved instead by the family destiny chose.

The Defeat of Arjuna

Karna grew into a mighty warrior, inhumanly strong. He sought to hone his skills in the art of warfare under the great master Dronacharya (the name Drona + the title acharya, for master or instructor), guru to the Kauravas and Pandavas. But Drona scoffed at his supposed low parentage and refused to teach him.

Incensed, the young man refused to give up. He and his adopted brother Shona studied on their own with the sun god as their guru. And later on, the young demigod went to Parasurama himself, Drona’s own teacher and an avatar of Vishnu. Since Parasurama taught only Brahmins the arts of war, Karna approached him in disguise. All went well. Everything Parasurama taught, he mastered, until there was none greater than he in all the earth. He was his master’s equal in warfare and archery.

One day as the guru rested with his head in his student’s lap, Indra came in the form of a bee and stung him. The celestial being feared the young warrior’s growing power and sought to give his own son Arjuna advantage. Karna didn’t even flinch, seeking not to wake his teacher. Seeing the blood leaking from his thigh, Parasurama came to know his student wasn’t truly a Brahmin and began to curse him, since he’d vowed only to teach Brahmins.

Karna pleaded with him until Parasurama began to yield. And although he couldn’t take his curse back, he could bless his student as well with a bevy of celestial weapons that would make him very nearly unstoppable.

It’s with this training denied by Drona that he came to meet his brothers, unacknowledged, in competition. Finally, only Arjuna — the best archer in the world — was left to face him. 

He defeated Arjuna and challenged this prince who’d been given every advantage to a duel. But this was not to be. Again mocked for his “low” birth, the charioteer’s son was informed only a prince could challenge a prince to fight and was dismissed forthwith. Still, he left the field as the victor, a man without rival in all the land.

Draupadi's Swayamvara

During this time in the Indian kingdoms, women could marry in many different ways. In some, she was little more than an object to be sold or stolen. But in one tradition, she could choose. King Drupada had intended to marry his daughter, Draupadi, to Arjuna, but hearing false rumors of the Pandavas’ demise, he determined to hold a swayamvara in which a groom would be chosen for his daughter. Similar to Penelope in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, the suitor must be able to lift and string the bow and shoot the designated target. From among those able to perform the task, Draupadi would choose her husband.

Her famed beauty and intelligence filled the room with suitors, including Karna — the only man able to easily perform the task. But Draupadi looked upon him as a man of inferior birth and spurned him as a “suta-putra” — son of a charioteer. Only his friend, the king Duryodhana, took his part, saying, 

Great Sages, Philosophers, and Warriors have no source. They are made great, not born great.” 

Meanwhile, the Pandavas, disguised as Brahmins, waited in the crowd. Arjuna, too, stepped forward and handily accomplished the challenge to win Draupadi as his bride. Now the crowd turned about and refused him as an acceptable candidate, because they supposed him to be Brahmin priest, not a Kshatriya warrior. 

A fight ensued between the assembled kings and the Pandavas. Karna joined in to defend Duryodhana and so came face to face with Arjuna once again. Arrows filled the heavens as these two epic warriors battled, neither gaining the edge. Finally, not wishing to kill a Brahmin (as he supposed Arjuna to be) and hearing his nine-year-old son Sudama was wounded, Karna exited the field. When later he discovers the “Brahmin” to have been his rival, Arjuna, the shooter of the arrow that ultimately killed Sudama, his fury knew no bounds. He vowed to kill Arjuna.

Ruler of the World

The stage is set: angry with the Pandavas and finding friendship with Duryodhana, Karna has joined forces with the Kauravas, the Pandavas’ cousins and mortal enemies. The Pandavas, maneuvered by the Kauravas into a game of dice they can’t win, lose themselves, their lands, and even their wife, Draupadi, whom Karna calls a whore for marrying five men (the Vedic limit being four husbands total). This man of power who would never have risked his wife in a game of dice would later speak derisively of the freedom of women in lands he conquered. The Pandavas go into exile for thirteen years.

Now Karna makes his move. He will conquer the world, the only king to subjugate all other lands and kings in one massive Digvijaya Yatra, beginning with Draupadi’s homeland, Drupada. They will all pay tribute or be crushed beneath his feet in this immense military campaign stretching out east, west, north, and south.

When he stands above everyone, what will he do with the kingdoms he’s amassed? 

He’ll give them to Duryodhana and make him emperor. All kings must swear allegiance to Duryodhana, or they will not be spared. For none can stand against Karna, with his military prowess and celestial weapons. He aided Duryodhana in performing the Rajasuya Yagna and set him over all things, to the praise of the new emperor’s father, the blind king Dhritarashtra.

But someday the Pandavas will come back. And who will then be ruler of the world?

War for a Mother's Love

On the sacred field of the Kurus, a place of unremitting forgiveness, a family divided prepares to battle for earthly power. The descendants of Kuru face the sons of Pandu, and even Yuddhishtira fears the unconquerable Karna, ally of the Kauravas, acknowledged by him as the most powerful warrior on earth. For who can stand against him?

It is now that Krishna, avatar of Vishnu and Arjuna’s charioteer, goes to Karna and reveals the truth: he is none other than the offspring of Kunti and the sun god Surya. There is no need for shame. All that has been withheld will now be given. He need only recognise his brothers and fight alongside them. Come back with him, Krishna says, and Kunti will be his mother, and honorable Yudhishtira will step down to let the eldest be ruler in his place. 

As if that could motivate a man who’s already won the whole world and given it freely to his friend. And it’s for that friend who hungers for power that Karna stays, his lineage remaining secret.

But that means the Pandavas are still in danger — more specifically, Indra’s son Arjuna. So Indra schemes to remove the great warrior’s advantage and divest him of power by trickery: he comes to Karna as a beggar seeking alms. Even though he sees through Indra’s thinly veiled deception and has been forewarned by Surya, he refuses to send any beggar away empty handed. 

So he gives the sky god what he asks as alms: the armor and earrings he was born with, which provide him supernatural protection and immortality. The gods consider it the greatest act of charity ever witnessed and rain flowers down on him. They castigate Indra for his low, thieving ways, and require of him a gift for the noble human. Indra gives him his own weapon, the Vasava Shakti, telling him he may only use it once.

Even now, though, the playing field has not been evened enough: Karna has yet to meet his mother — this mother who will give preference to her favorite, knowing it may cost her oldest son his life. She makes him promise not to kill any of the Pandavas except Arjuna. And when he fights Arjuna, he may use each of his celestial weapons only once. And at the end of all things, regardless of the outcome, she will still have five sons. Kunti goes back, continuing to keep the secret of his birth.

As the battle at Kurukshetra rages, the curses of Karna’s life, fair or not, come back to haunt him. It is only when all three come into play at once that Karna is defeated. As he struggles unarmed to free his chariot wheel from the mud, Arjuna, contrary to the rules of war, uses the anjalika weapon to cut off his head as Krishna has urged, despite the mercy Karna showed his opponent earlier in battle.

The deed is done, and a brother is dead, still unknown and untreasured, for all his worth. Flawed and heroic, abandoned but generous, it was said of him:

“O thou that resemblest a very god, amongst men

there is none like thee…”

(From Mahabharata Book 6)


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