As with other epic figures, Karna's curses are the bad outcomes from actions that are a mixture of foreseeably bad decisions and seemingly innocent mistakes. But the outcome is ultimately disastrous, leaving this otherwise invincible warrior helpless at the critical moment. Below is the strange witches’ brew of karma that was his undoing…
When the guru Dronacharya belittled Karna and refused to teach him, he eventually turned to Drona’s master, Parasurama, for instruction. Since Parasurama, the warrior-priest avatar of Vishnu, taught martial arts only to the Brahmin caste, our would-be hero practiced deception by pretending to be a Brahmin.
Predictably, he was found out — ironically, by reacting to pain and injury in too stoic a fashion (i.e., he was too tough to be Brahmin). Since he’d caused Parasurama to inadvertently break his vow, Parasurama cursed Karna that in the most critical moment, he would forget all his Brahmin-learned skills.
Because of Karna’s hard work and faithfulness as a student, Parasurama relented a bit in the end and equipped Karna with celestial weapons, but the curse was immutable.
One day while Karna was out hunting, he mistook a Brahmin’s helpless cow for a wild animal and shot it with his arrows. For this the Brahmin cursed him to one day be attacked when he was equally helpless.
Karna was widely known for his charity to beggars but sometimes foolish and impulsive in his decisions, even when attempting to be generous. According to folklore, he one day encountered a little girl who had spilled her ghee and was afraid she’d get in trouble for it. Karna smiled and offered to give her new ghee, but she refused vehemently, wanting only the impossible — the ghee now drenching the soil.
Wishing to help her, Karna grabbed a handful of the soil and began squeezing it so hard, beads of ghee dripped from his hand into the jar. But the voice of Bhoomi Devi, the earth goddess, startled him. It was unacceptable for him to cause her such pain for the sake of a child’s carelessness. Therefore, she cursed him to have his chariot wheels stuck in the mud.
When Kunti finally came to Karna and revealed her true identity as his mother, he again refused to come back and join the Pandavas. But with her acknowledged sons ever on her mind, she extracted a couple of promises from Karna, who gave his word willingly. As much as Karna's curses, as much as his arguably questionable and unflagging support of Duryodhana, who was corrupted by a hunger for power, these promises led to his death:
Although Kunti purportedly arranged matters this way so she’d still have five sons no matter what — with either Arjuna or Karna as one of that number — she tilted the scales decidedly in favor of her favorite, Arjuna, and I get angry with the unremitting bias every time I read how often Karna was disadvantaged in order to privilege him. If Arjuna is really that epically great, he should be able to prove it without handicapping the competition, as was done with the archer Ekalavya and (repeatedly) with his half-brother Karna.
During the Kurukshetra War, Karna had been massively important in the battle between the Kauravas and Pandavas for ultimate power. There’s a reason everyone from Krishna to Indra sought to disadvantage Karna in his fight against Pandu’s sons. Leave aside who should have won and whether the Pandavas were genuinely better than the Kauravas. Perhaps “it is written,” as they say, and simply meant to be.
In any case, there came a moment in which Karna, according to the rules of engagement in war, didn’t attack Arjuna when he was down and turned instead to free his chariot wheel from the mud. In that moment, all the curses converged: he was stuck in the mud, he was helpless, and he couldn’t bring to mind the training from Parasurama. Encouraged by Krishna to act against the rules of engagement, Arjuna attacked and decapitated Karna while he was helpless.
Some say Karna deserved it for killing Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu or for participating in Draupadi’s humiliation. Others credit his steadfast preference for Duryodhana, a king and friend he did not try to sway from what may have been a bad path.
Nevertheless, Karna is remembered for his courage, loyalty, charity, strength, stubborn persistence, excellence, love for his children, and offhand generosity — this in spite of his mistakes. He is almost casually great, and I find myself drawn to him … a man I begin to think of as a complex, sometimes tortured hero, where I expected to find an enemy.