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Mahabharata of Vyasa translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguly
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Mahabharata Story narrated in brief by Rajaji
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The story of Karna
Characters/Persons from Mahabharata

Mahabharata Characters Index

Karna is one of the central figures in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. He was the first son of Kunti, and was thus half brother to the Pandavas, and the eldest of them. Although Duryodhana of the Kauravas appoint him king of Anga, his role in the legend far exceeds the importance of a king. He fought for the Kauravas in the great battle at Kurukshetra. As such, the name Karna (and various other spellings) is a common Indian first name.

The princess Kunti attended to the sage Durvasa for a full year, while he was a guest at her father's palace. The sage was pleased with her service and granted her a boon whereby she could call upon any god of her choice, and beget a child in his image. Unsure of whether the boon would actually be granted, Kunti, while still unmarried, decided to test the boon and called upon Surya the sun god. Bound by the power of the mantra, Surya granted her a son as radiant and strong as his father, although she did not want a child (wishing only to test the power). Through his divine power, Kunti retained her virginity. Thus Karna was born. Surya gifted Karna with an armour ('Kavacha') and a pair of earrings ('Kundala') which dipped in Amrit, which were attached to him from birth.

Unwilling to face the world as an unwed mother, Kunti abandoned Karna, setting him afloat in a box in a river.

The child Karna was borne down the river and picked up by King Dhritarashtra's charioteer, Adhiratha, a sudra. Karna was raised by him and his wife Radha (not the same Radha who was Lord Krishna's Companion at Mathura) as their son and named Vasusena (born with wealth), due to his natural set of armour and earrings. They knew something of his parentage by the jewellery he was found with, and never hid from him the fact that he was not their biological child. He was also known as Radheya because of the name of his mother Radha.

The bond between Karna and his foster family was one of pure love, respect and affection despite the lack of blood relationship. Adhiratha was honored by Karna in front of all the warrior kind, and 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 sought to be a warrior. He approached Dronacharya, who at that time had established his school and was training the Kuru princes, requesting admission into his school. Drona refused to teach him, as he was a 'sutaputra' or the son of a charioteer. Karna realized his caste would continue to be a barrier in his quest for knowledge. He decided eventually to approach Parashurama, who was known to teach Bramhins alone. Karna appeared to Parashurama as a Brahmin and wanted to learn the arts of war from Parashurama and would use them to maintain order as Parashurama had done, and was accepted as his student. Karna is described as a diligent student. Parashurama trained him to the point where Parashurama declared Karna to have surpassed him in the arts of war.

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. Radheya pleaded with him and told him he was not a kshatriya (even though he was, he did not know it yet) and this would have been the act of any student towards his guru. After a Parashurama heard his plea Parashurama said his curse was irrevocable, he would gift to him the Vijaya, Parashurama's personal bow, and that in the end, Karna would achieve what he wanted the most, everlasting honor.

Departing from Parashurama's ashram, Karna wandered for some time. Mistaking a cow for a wild animal, he shot an arrow and killed it. Incensed, the brahmin who owned the cow cursed Karna, stating that when Karna would fight the most crucial battle of his life his wheel would get stuck in the mud, rendering him vulnerable to his enemy.

Returning home, Karna informed his family of his training, keeping the curses a secret. He susbequently decided to seek out a position in the Hastinapura court.

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. However, Kripacharya refused Karna his duel, asking first for his clan and kingdom - according to the rules of dueling, only a prince may challenge Arjuna who is a prince of the Kuru house. Duryodhana, the oldest of the Kauravas, offers Karna the throne of Anga (today's Bhagalpur in Bihar), so that Karna would be a king and thus be more than eligible to duel his cousin. When Karna, who is emotionally overcome at this, asks him what he can do to repay him, Duryodhana tells him all he wants is his friendship. "I want your heart" he tells Karna, to which Karna says it is already his.

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 friend 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.

As a king, warrior and friend of Duryodhana, Karna became part of the Hastinapura court. He went on to repeat Bheeshma's actions in bringing the princesses of Kashi to Duryodhana as wives, appearing at the Kashi court, seizing the princesses, and challenging the kings and princes to take them from him if they can.

Another instance was when Karna aided Duryodhana in marrying the princess of Chitragandha (not to be confused with Princess Chitrangada of Manipur). In her swayamvar, the princess rejected Duryodhana, who subsequently carried her away by force. The other kings present at the swayamvar pursued Duryodhana. However, Karna defeated them single-handedly. Among the kings present in the princess of Chitragandha's swayamvar were Jarasandha, Shishupala, Dantavakra and Rukmi. As a token of his appreciation, Jarasandha gifted Karna a portion of Magadha.

Karna was renowned in all the worlds for his generosity, surpassing even the Gods. Following his appointment as king, he took an oath : 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.

Karna was one of the suitor for Draupadi at the famed swayamvar. Unlike other contenders, he was easily able to wield and string the bow. Before he could take aim, however, Draupadi intervened, stating she would not wed a suta.

Karna, furious over the insult, stormed out of the arena. 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. He also fought a duel subsequently with Karna, who expressed admiration for his skill.

When Arjuna's identity is later revealed, Karna's feelings of rivalry further intensify.

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 Cheer-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 wicked brothers. Karna calls Draupadi a "whore", and goes as far as to say that whores have no rights so it would not be wrong to bring her nude in front of everyone.

On the spot, Bhima vows that he will personally slaughter Duryodhana and his brothers in battle.

During the Pandavas' exile, Karna took upon himself the task of establishing Duryodhana as the World Emperor. 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 (i.e south-western Rishikas located in Maharashtra) and numerous others including mlecchas and the forest tribes

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. He knew of Karna's moral policy and that he would never refuse any request of a Brahmin or beggar at that time of the day. Karna's father, the Sun god Surya, informed Karna in a dream that Indra would disguise himself as a beggar and ask for Karna's armour and earrings as alms. Surya exhorted him not to give away his protection. Karna, who did not know that Surya was his father, does not heed the warning. As Surya had predicted, a disguised Indra approached Karna and asked for his kavacha (body armour) and kundala (earrings) as alms. Karna, despite knowing that the armour and earrings were his protection, readily gives them away. In fact, he cuts off his birthsuit armour and earrings from his body without flinching. 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.

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' (Kunti's firstborn) instead, and he replies that that is the day 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, either him or Arjuna. He agrees to Kunti that he will use naga-astram only once against 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. It is noteworthy that Karna denies to reveal this secret which makes him, the eldest of the Pandavas, rightful emperor.

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 only enters the battlefield on the 11th day, after Bhishma was struck down the previous day. It is also interesting to note that he does not capture any of the Pandavas even though he had defeated them and had the opportunity of doing so.

On the thirteenth day of the battle, Dronacharya (Drona) organized a special formation for the phalanxes called the Chakravyuha/Padmavyuha. (Chakravyuh and Padmavyuha are 2 different military formations. While Chakravyuh denotes a circular arrangement, Padmavyuh means a lotus formation). Only Krishna and Arjuna on the Pandavas' side knew how to break the scheme; however both were purposely taken away from the battle field by two kings 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, but could not hear all the information as his mother fell asleep in Arjuna's lap. Hence he could enter the Chakravyuha, but did not know how to exit it. It was decided that Abhimanyu would lead the Pandavas into the Chakravyuha and then they would fight their way out. No one that day was able to defeat Abhimanyu, who had entered the Chakravyuha a circular arrangement of soldiers. But Jayadratha, a king in the Kaurava army, prevented 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 almost all reputed generals of the Kauravas including Karna, Drona and Duryodhana. Duryodhana and Karna chose to assist to eliminate Abhimanyu as per the instructions of Drona. Karna shot arrows that broke Abhimanyu's bow and the reins of his chariot, while the Kauravas overwhelmed him. The battle ends with Abhimanyu's death. His father, Arjuna takes up a terrible pledge to kill Jayadratha the next day before the sunset, or he would sacrifice his own life by self-immolation.

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 with him. Finally when it semmed that Ghatotkacha would decimate all the Kaurava forces that very night, Duryodhana requested Karna to salvage the situation.Thus,he 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. Karna was now without that weapon and his impregnable armour and earrings. Now Karna did not have a divine weapon that was a serious threat to Arjuna and would have to rely primarily on his skills and prowess to take on Arjuna, who was equipped with a wider range of divine weaponry. Still, Karna knew that he must face Arjuna in battle and one of the two would certainly die.

On the fifteenth day of battle, Dronacharya, the guru of the warriors on both sides, is killed by unfair means. Yudishtra, who could not tell a lie, names an elephant ashwathatmma, the son of Drona and kills the elephant. He then announces that Ashwathama, the elephant has been killed, with the word elephant drowned out. Drona is killed in his sorrow and Karna is appointed as the commander-and-chief of the Kaurava forces. In individual confrontations on the battlefield, Karna defeats all the Pandavas, except Arjuna, but chooses to spare their lives, keeping his promise to his mother Kunti.

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(pinakin), 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 had a charioteer to equal Krishna (Shalya had mastered the Ashwahridaya - "Art of Horses")

Without the Shakti weapon, Karna had no particular way to kill Arjuna. He had to rely upon his own garnered skill. In a wondrous, intense display of amazing archery, valour and courage, Karna and Arjuna engaged and exhausted all their brilliance, knowledge and passion. Karna devised an intelligent strategy based upon his personal prowess. He stunned Arjuna with a powerful volley of arrows that struck his chest. And the instant in which Arjuna was dazzled, Karna let loose another powerful volley intended at killing his powerful foe. King Shalya of Madra, Karna's charioteer (Shalya, who was the uncle of Nakula and Sahadeva, had been tricked into fighting on the Kaurava side, but had promised Yudhisthira that he would not allow Karna to kill Arjuna), told Karna to play safe by aiming the {naga-astram} arrow at Arjuna's chest. However, Karna refused to heed that advice and aimed the arrow at Arjuna's head. But Lord Krishna came to his friend and devotee's rescue, plunging the chariot into the earth by his power, causing the fatal arrow to miss Arjuna by a few miserable inches and strike Arjuna's crown instead.

During the course of combat, one of the Karna's chariot wheels got stuck in loose soil, apparently because of a curse put on Karna by a Brahmin whose cow Karna had mistakenly killed. King Shalya, who was his charioteer, refused to get down and remove the wheel from the mud . Hence Karna asked Arjuna to disengage in combat, while he got off his chariot and removed the wheel from the mud. Arjuna agreed. But Krishna recalled Karna's previous lapses in honourable conduct and ordered Arjuna to shoot at Karna while he was attempting to lift his wheel out of the mud. The chariot wheel remained stuck and the curse of Parashurama ensured that Karna could not recall the mantras necessary to unleash the more powerful weapons of mass destruction - The Brahmastra. Krishna reminds Arjuna of Karna's ruthlessness against Abhimanyu when Abhimanyu was similarly left without a chariot or weapons.

All of Arjuna's tears, pain and anger swelled up within him as he aimed the fatal shaft Anjalika at a desperate Karna and beheaded him.

After Karna's death, Kunti informed the Pandavas that she was Karna's mother and that he was the eldest of the Pandavas. The Pandavas grieved for Karna. Yudhisthira, particularly, was incensed on hearing that his mother had kept secret from him and his brothers Karna's true identity, whom it would have been their duty in life to serve and revere as their elder, as his four brothers had served and revered him. He cursed all women, stating that henceforth they would never be able to keep a secret.

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.

The city of Karnal in Haryana, near Kurukshetra, is named after Karna.

Karna serves as an excellent example of a gifted, righteous and brave individual who was still doomed because of his loyalty towards the evil Duryodhana. Karna's blind 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.

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Srimad Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana) Complete Translation