Karna is a character without whom Mahabharatha would be incomplete. It is his story we are going to read now.
Lord Krishna’s father Vasudeva had a sister by name Pritha. She was a very bright, beautiful and lovely girl. Even while she was very young, her father gave her in adoption to Raja Kuntibhoja who was his nephew. Kuntibhoja was childless till then and so he adopted Pritha with great affection and took her to his kingdom. There he renamed Pritha as Kunti.
Kunti grew up to be a beautiful maiden and possessed all good qualities. Once when the sage Durvasa, who was known for his terrible temper visited Kuntibhoja’s palace, the duty of looking after the guest was assigned to the young Kunti. Kunti did her job perfectly well that the sage had no complaints during his stay and in fact, he was extremely happy and wanted to give something in reward to Kunti.
He taught Kunti some mantras, through which, he said Kunti could invoke any celestial being and beget a son.
After the sage left, Kunti was filled with the curiosity which is natural to a teenager and wanted to try out the mantra taught by Durvasa.
One day as she was witnessing the beautiful sun rising, she meditated upon Lord Surya and chanted the mantra. Lo and behold, there was a blaze of dazzling light which almost blinded her and Lord Surya appeared before her in all his grand splendour, wearing a lotus garland. Kunti was amazed and dumbfounded.
Lord Surya addressed her “You have called me O Princess and I shall give you the son you sought!”
A shocked Kunti stammered, “But…. but… I am not married yet. I was just curious to try out the mantra. What will people say if I have a child? Please, please go back O Surya Deva!”
She was in tears at her doing but Lord Surya said, “Kunti, The mantra is in control of me and once having come, I cannot go back without giving you the son you desired”
Kunti had no choice but to lament at her predicament and thus was born Karna. He was born with a celestial armour and earrings and was a beautiful child. Kunti was in a deep dilemma as she could not keep this secret for long and even to conceal the birth of the baby had been a herculean task which would have not been possible without the help of her friend and matron. With the help of the same lady, with a heavy heart, she placed the baby on a silk cloth in a bamboo basket, kept some jewels along and let the basket afloat in the mighty Ganga, which flowed beside their palace.
A sobbing Kunti returned to the palace burying the secret deep in her heart.
The baby floated in the basket and in Hastinapur, the charioteer of Dhritharashtra, by name Adhiratha was bathing in the river. He was childless and when he saw the basket with a divine looking baby floating, he was overjoyed. Taking the baby, he thanked the gods for giving him this beautiful child and took the baby home. He and his wife Radha overwhelmed by this unexpected gift, named the child Vashusena, but he was well known as Radheya, meaning the son of Radha.
After a year or two Kunti was married to the prince Pandu of Hastinapur and in course of time came to live in the palace with her five sons who she got by invoking celestial beings (Lord Yama – Yudishtira, Lord Vayu- Bhima, Lord Indra – Arjuna. Pandu’s other wife Madri who was taught this mantra by Kunti got Nakula and Sahadeva by invoking the Ashwini Devas (twins).
Karna grew up to be a valiant boy but he always yearned to find out who this heartless woman was, who had abandoned him at birth. He also had an undying thirst to learn warfare, archery in particular. As a young boy, he approached Dronacharya in the Kuru palace, who was teaching the Pandavas and Kauravas archery.
“Accept me as your disciple O Revered One”, said he to Drona.
Drona gave him a disdainful look and said in the most harsh and unkind tone, “I do not teach boys who do not know their lineage. I teach only Kshatriyas”
Deeply hurt and extremely ashamed, his anger mounting on his heartless mother whose identity he did not know, his mind was working at the next strategy to gain knowledge. He wanted to acquire the knowledge by hook or crook and he decided to approach the teacher of Bhishma, Sage Parasurama.
Parasurama had retired. Also his hatred of Kshatriyas was well known.
Though Karna did not know that he was born a Kshatriya, he did not want to have another issue based on his lineage and this time disguised as a brahman boy and approached the sage. Parasurama believed him and accepted him as his disciple and imparted to him all the knowledge that there is to acquire on archery and warfare. In no time Karna was an expert archer, more than a match to Prince Arjuna.
Sadly, destiny was always more powerful against Karna and this time it came in the form of a wasp. One day, Sage Parasurama was taking a nap placing his head on Karna’s lap. A wasp appeared and started to sting Karna’s thigh. It started boring his thigh and blood started trickling. Even though it was extremely painful for him, Karna bore the pain, as he thought that if he moved, his teacher’s sleep would be disrupted. So, when the trickling warm blood touched the sage’s face he woke up to find Karna’s thigh bleeding profusely. Parasurama was furious.
“You have cheated me boy!” he said, his voice trembling with anger. “Only a Kshatriya will be capable of withstanding this pain and agony and you told me you are a Brahmana boy! You are not. Tell me who you are really!”
Karna stood dumbstruck rooted to the ground. He was neither a Kshatriya nor a Brahmana. He would never be able to explain to his Guru that it did not matter who he was and all that mattered to him was the yearning for knowledge of archery and warfare.
Karna’s silence infuriated Parasurama and strengthened his suspicion.
“You have cheated your Guru and you shall suffer for that. I curse you that you will forget the knowledge you have acquired till now”
Karna, was shattered by what had happened in a few minutes. He fell at the feet of the sage and pleaded with him to revoke the curse.
Parasurama relented a bit and said, “I cannot take back a curse once I utter it. Anyhow, you will not forget the knowledge now, but only at the moment you really need it”. So saying he gave his own bow to Karna and left.
Karna was directionless. He felt as if he was abandoned in the mid sea in a boat without oars. Seething with anger at his destiny which had again been cruel to him as always, he picked up the bow and wandered aimlessly in the woods. To vent his anger, he shot an arrow without any particular aim and to his dismay, it hit a farmer’s cow and it died instantaneously.
To a shocked Karna, the farmer angrily shouted, “O young man, you have shot my cow which was vulnerable and so you shall be attacked and you shall die when you are vulnerable and helpless!”
As the farmer was grieving over his cow, Karna, wounded to the core in his heart, went back to his parents. They were as affectionate as ever and welcomed him with open arms. He did not tell them about the curses though. They were glad that he had mastered archery.
Some days later, there was a grand competition in Hastinapur between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The princes were to showcase all that they had learnt in front of the Kuru elders who were seated in an amphitheatre.
Each of the prince had mastery over one weapon. Yudhishtira excelled with the spear, while Bhima and Duryodhana had mastered fighting with the mace. Nakula was skilled in fighting unusual weapons and Sahadeva was skilled at wielding the sword. The other princes had all mastered one weapon or the other but it was Arjuna who caught the attention of everyone. He was dazzling with his bow and arrow and the onlookers were wonderstruck at his abilities wielding the bow and arrow.
Just as the competition was about to end and Arjuna announced as the winner, Karna entered the arena. With his shining armour and princely look, he caught the attention of all and requested permission to participate in the competition and took out an arrow when Drona suddenly remembered him and shouted “Stop, young man. This is a competition for princes. We shall not allow commoners to participate in this”
Karna’s face fell. Here also destiny was playing against him. But the cunning Duryodhana saw the opportunity here to have an archer equal to Arjuna in his side and as the competition ended, suddenly Duryodhana called Karna and putting his hand on Karna’s shoulder announced “I am making this young man my friend and the King of Anga!”
There was a mixed feeling of shock and surprise, pleasant for some and unpleasant for some others. Kunti who was in the audience recognised Karna and was having mixed feelings. Sad for having abandoned him, happy that he had been made a prince now and worried that he had accepted Duryodhana’s friendship. But she could do nothing about it.
Years rolled on and the friendship of Duryodhana and Karna became known to everyone and both trusted and respected each other unconditionally. Being with Duryodhana and not knowing who he really was, it was natural for Karna to harbour ill feelings and hatred against the Pandavas.
After the infamous game of dice when Draupadi was dragged into the court by the order of Duryodhana, it was Karna who instigated Duryodhana to disrobe Draupadi.
Though Duryodhana gave him the status of a prince, he was still not accepted as one by the elders of the Kuru clan. Thus, when the battle of Mahabharata was to be fought, Bhishma refused to fight if Karna was made commander and Karna also resolved he would not fight till Bhishma fell in the battlefield.
Kunti was the one whose mind was in the greatest turmoil. She could not tell her five sons that Karna was their eldest brother and she did not want them to kill him and vice versa. Lord Krishna, being the all-pervading supreme power, knew this thought of Kunti and one day he approached Karna when he was alone and revealed the secret of his birth. After hearing Krishna, it was only hatred that brewed in Karna’s mind about the way his mother had abandoned him.
He told Krishna “Lord, you may say all this to protect the Pandavas, but it was Duryodhana who gave me an entity of a prince even without knowing I was one and the status and life I live now is solely due to him. I value that friendship more than the affection of this mother who has been ever ashamed of me. So I will not leave his side”
Krishna was proud that Karna was upholding his principles of gratitude and friendship and left with a smile.
Kunti’s turmoil was multiplying day after day and one day she dared to go to Karna as he was performing his morning prayers to the Sun.
Even as he knew that she was his mother, he pretended not to know anything. Kunti broke down as she told him of the events that had happened early in her life and that he was the son of Lord Surya who he worshipped daily. She pleaded with him to leave Duryodhana and join hands with the Pandavas. “My sons will be at your beck and call O Valiant one,” she said “and you shall rule the world after the war is over”.
Karna did not show any emotion. “O mother, please do not compel me to switch sides. My duty is to Duryodhana” he said calmly. “However, I shall not kill any of your sons except Arjuna. And if he kills me or I kill him, you will still be the mother of five sons. I have a request though…..”
“Tell me son, what is it?” asked a shaken Kunti.
“If I die in the hands of Arjuna, you should proclaim me as your son in public and lament keeping my head on your lap. Will you do it mother? Will I get a place on your lap at least in my death?”
Kunti broke down completely having to hear such harsh words from her first born, but could not do anything about it. She returned to the palace with a heavy heart.
Karna’s protective armour and earrings were invincible and everyone knew that he could not be killed with them on. Lord Indra who was Arjuna’s father was more worried about this.
Karna was also a known philanthropist. Every day at a certain time he would give charity to people and give them whatever they asked for. He is known as Daanveer (warrior in charity).
So, Indra, disguising himself as a commoner came to Karna as he was giving alms. When Karna asked Indra what he wanted, Indra said without a moment’s hesitation, “The armour and the earrings you are wearing”. Karna had been warned of this by Lord Surya in his dream, but still knowing that his end would be near, he took his knife and tore open the armour which was a part of his body. Though bleeding profusely, he handed them over to Indra with a calm face. Indra was stunned by this act of Karna that he blessed him that his wound would heal instantaneously and it did!
On the tenth day of the war of Mahabharata, Bhishma fell. Duryodhana proceeded to make Karna the Commander in Chief. One by one the various brave hearts of the Kaurava side were falling. Karna had encounters with all his brothers except Arjuna and true to his word he did not kill them but let them escape.
By his virtuous acts of charity, Karna had accumulated lot of blessings and positive energy which we may call punya and this was protecting him all the while. If he had to fall, he had to willingly surrender them and so Krishna went to him disguised as an old man and sought the punya as charity. Karna knew his days were doomed and the curses of his Guru and the cowherd had to come true and he whole heartedly willed that all the positive energy leave him as he granted Krishna’s wish.
The power of the mind is enormous and the day he gave up all the positive energy that he had, his bad time started and the wheel of his chariot got caught in a slushy area of the battlefield. His charioteer ditched him and as Karna was helplessly trying to retrieve the wheel out of the slush, Arjuna shot him mercilessly.
As he lay waiting for his soul to leave the body, Karna asks Krishna the reason for destiny being always against him and the reason for him to lose the affection of everyone right from his mother, his brothers to his Guru and the Kuru elders. Krishna tells him the story of his earlier life where he wore a thousand armours and was known as “Sahasra Kavach”. Just as he had accumulated lot of positive energy in this life, he had earned the wrath and negatives in his last life. He had lost nine hundred ninety nine armours and had sought refuge in Lord Surya. The one armour he was left with was the one he was born with. And there was a story why it was necessary to remove his armour before killing him.
We shall see that story of Sahasra Kavach in the next post.
After the death of Karna, Kunti true to her word rushed wailing to the battlefield and cried her heart out with his head on her lap. The shocked Pandava brothers did the last rites and paid their respects to this brother of theirs to whom destiny was always cruel.