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Karna (Sanskrit: कर्ण written Karṇa in IAST transliteration Tibetan: གསེར་ཁྲབ, Wylie: gser khrab) or Radheya is one of the central characters in the epic Mahābhārata, from ancient India. He was the King of Anga (present day Bhagalpur and Munger). Karna was one of the greatest warriors whose martial exploits are recorded in the Mahābhārata, an admiration expressed by Krishna and Bhishma within the body of this work.
Karna was the son of Surya (a solar deity) and Kunti. He was born to Kunti before her marriage with Pandu. Karna was the closest friend of Duryodhana and fought on his behalf against the Pandavas (his brothers) in the famous Kurukshetra war. Karna fought against misfortune throughout his life and kept his word under all circumstances. Many admire him for his courage and generosity. It is believed that Karna founded the city of Karnal.
Many believe that he was the greatest warrior of Mahabharata since he was only able to be defeated by Arjuna along with a combination of 3 curses, Indra's efforts and Kunti's request.
The story of Karna is told in the Mahābhārata, one of the Sanskrit epics from the Indian subcontinent. The work is written in Classical Sanskrit and its development dates to a period broadly contemporary with the classical age of ancient Greece and Rome, c. 400 BC–400 AD. Like the poetry of Homer, however, this epic is attributed to a figure about whom little is known – Vyasa, via his scribe Ganesha – and is a record of material that was already in existence as an oral tradition before it was set down in writing. Its ultimate origins may date to the eighth or ninth century BC. Like the Iliad, the Mahābhārata concerns an ancient war, the Kurukshetra war; like the Odyssey, where Odysseus recounts his marvellous adventures to King Alcinous, it is a story within a story. It is, however, much longer than both the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. Karna was a great warrior in the Kurukshetra war and his story is contained within the Mahābhārata, as is the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text of the Hindus.
When Kunti was a young woman, a wise though irascible old man, the sage Durvasa, visited her father's palace, where Kunti served him with utmost care for an entire year. Pleased by her service and hospitality, the sage foresaw that Kunti would have difficulty having a child after her marriage to Pandu, and granted her a boon to overcome this difficulty. By this boon she could call upon any god of her choice, and receive a child through him. Out of curiosity, Kunti still being unmarried, she decided to test the power of the mantra and called upon the god Surya. Compelled by the power of this mantra, Surya appeared before her and handed her a son, who was as radiant and powerful as Surya himself. The baby was wearing armour ('Kavacha') and a pair of earrings ('Kundala'). Though Kunti had not physically given birth to the baby, she was unwilling to be accused of being an unmarried mother and so with the help of her maid Dhatri, she placed the baby Karna in a basket and set him afloat on 'Ashwa' a tributary of the holy river Ganges, the Ashwanadi, in the hope that he would be taken in by another family.
Childhood and education
The child Karna was found by Adhiratha, a charioteer of King Dhritarashtra of Hastinapur. Adhiratha and his wife Radha raised the boy as their own son and named him Vasusena. He also came to be known as Radheya, the son of Radha. The name Karna, however, denotes 'ear', because Karna was born with divine earrings. The emotional bond between Karna and his foster parents would remain strong throughout his life, filled with love, respect and affection.
Karna happily performed his duties as their son, but as he grew up, he became more interested in the art of warfare than in merely being a charioteer like his father Adhirata. Karna met Dronacharya, who 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 Dronacharya only taught Kshatriyas, or warriors.
After being refused by Dronacharya, Karna sought his brother Shona's help. But according to Indian culture, to learn an art you must have a guru (teacher), so Karna appointed the sun god as his guru, learned to wield his weapons during the day by gathering information about the various ayudhas (weapons) and practiced with them after sundown.
One day, when Karna came to Hastinapur, the seat of the Kauravas dynasty, after a month of holiday, he heard from his friend Ashwathama that the week before, the guru Dronacharya had decided to test his students in their skill at archery. He had hung a wooden bird from the branch of a tree and then summoned his students, asking the first one to aim for the bird's eye but to tell him first what he could see. The student replied that he could see the garden, the tree, the flowers, everything – of course! Dronacharya asked him to step aside and not to shoot. He asked a few other students the same thing, with the same outcome. When it was Arjuna's turn, Arjuna told his guru that the only thing he could see was the bird's eye. This satisfied Dronacharya and he allowed Arjuna to shoot at the bird. Arjuna successfully hit the eye of the wooden crow.
After listening also to his brother Shona's account of these events, Karna told him that if Arjuna could hit the one eye of the wooden crow then he could hit both eyes of it in a single shot. They practiced with their bows during the night, and Karna decided to shoot both eyes of the wooden crow there and then, with the help of some household illumination. Karna instructed Shona to suspend the wooden crow high in a tree and to hold the light underneath. Karna strung his bow with two arrows (slightly changed their position one after the other) and as soon as he got a signal from Shona, he successfully hit both eyes of the bird in a single shot.
Like the Irish mythological hero Cú Chulaind, who was possibly a young sun god, Karna was able to learn various martial arts in a very short time. But, Karna wanted to learn all the advanced skills of archery including the use of divine weapons. After being refused by Dronacharya, Karna decided to learn from Parashurama, Dronacharya's own guru, who was known to teach only Brahmins. He appeared before Parashurama as a Brahmin and requested that he be taken on 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.
As Karna's training came to completion, Parashurama learned the truth about his star pupil, in the following way. The legend goes that one afternoon Parashurama requested Karna to bring a pillow for him to lie his head on in the shade of a tree. Karna offered his teacher his lap, but while Parashurama was asleep, a giant bee stung Karna's thigh. Despite 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 and deduced at once that Karna was a Kshatriya and not a Brahmin, since only a Kshatriya could have endured such pain. Parashurama, who had sworn vengeance against all Kshatriyas, laid this curse upon Karna: that he would forget all the mantras required to wield the divine weapon Brahmastra, the most destructive weapon in archery, at the moment of his greatest need.
Karna pleaded that any student would have acted in the same way and that he was the son of Vasusena, a mere charioteer and not a Kshatriya. But while Parashurama regretted cursing Karna in a moment of anger, his curse was irrevocable. So he gave to Karna as a gift the celestial weapon called Bhargavastra, along with his personal bow called Vijaya, for being such a diligent student.
According to the original scripture written by Vyasa, Karna was cursed by a Brahmin for killing his cow. One day, Karna was practising his skills with bow and arrows near the ashram of Sage Parashurama. One of his arrows accidentally killed a cow. The cow belonged to a poor Brahmana who had been making his living from the cow. The Brahmana got angry due to Karna's deed and cursed him that he would become helpless in the same way the innocent cow had become, by his chariot wheels getting stuck to his ground.
Andhra folklore further relates that Karna was riding his chariot in his kingdom of Anga once when he 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 that her stepmother would be angry over her carelessness. Being generous, Karna told the girl that he would give her some 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 her, Karna took the soil mixed with ghee in his fist and squeezed it with all his might, so that the ghee dripped 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. She furiously chastised Karna for inflicting enormous pain on Mother Earth for the sake of a mere child and cursed him that at a very crucial moment in battle, his chariot wheel would be trapped as tightly as he had held that fistful of soil.
These two curses play a prominent role in Karna's defeat in the Kurukshetra war. Though Karna is shown as an extremely competent warrior, sometimes more skillful than Arjuna, the timing of his curses in crucial moments of his battle with Arjuna brought him doom.
King of Anga
The guru Dronacharya held a tournament at Hastinapur, to display the skills of the Kuru princes. His student Arjuna was shown to be a particularly gifted archer. Karna arrived at this tournament, however, and after surpassing Arjuna's feats, challenged him to a duel. Kripacharya refused Karna his duel, asking first for his clan and kingdom; for according to the rules of duelling, only a prince could challenge Arjuna to a duel since he was a prince of the Kuru house. Duryodhana, the eldest of the one-hundred sons of the blind king Dhritarashtra, knew that the Pandavas, the five sons of King Pandu, younger brother of King Dhritarashtra, were better than he and his brothers at warfare and saw Karna as a chance to get on even terms with them. He immediately offered Karna the throne of the kingdom of Anga, making him a king and hence eligible to fight a duel with Arjuna. When Karna asked him what he could do to repay him, Duryodhana told him that all he wanted was 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 (the sons of King Pandu and Madri and Karna'a mother Kunti) and Karna himself.
Karna was a loyal and true comrade to Duryodhana. He helped him to marry the princess of Chitragandha. Following his accession to the throne of Anga, Karna took an oath that anyone who approached him with a request at midday, when he worshiped the sun, would not leave empty-handed. This practice contributed to Karna's fame as well as to his downfall, as Indra took advantage of it. Ultimately, Karna's unfailing generosity resulted in his death on the Kurukshetra battlefield.
Karna was a suitor for Draupadi at her swayamvara, or her choosing of a marriage partner. Unlike most other contenders, he was easily able to wield and string the bow, but Draupadi refused to allow him to take part. She rejected him for being a "suta-putra" - son of a charioteer. The Pandavas were also present in the swayamvara, disguised as Brahmins. 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 hostile rivalry with him further intensified.
After Shakuni won a game of dice by trickery, Draupadi, now queen to all five sons of King Pandu, including Arjuna, 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, another of the Pandava brothers, vowed that he would personally slaughter Duryodhana and his brothers in battle. Arjuna subsequently swore to kill Karna.
The Pandavas were exiled, and during this time, Karna took upon himself the task of establishing Duryodhana as the Emperor of the World. Karna commanded an army that marched to different parts of the country to subjugate kings and made them swear allegiance to Duryodhana, the king of Hastinapur or else die in battle. Karna succeeded in all the battles. In this military adventure, Karna 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.
Karna and Krishna
Following failed peace negotiations with Duryodhana, Krishna approached Karna, who was acknowledged as Duryodhana's finest warrior. Krishna revealed to Karna that he was the eldest son of Kunti, and therefore, technically, the eldest Pandava, and asked him to change sides. Krishna assured him that Yudhisthira would give the crown of Indraprastha to him.
Karna refused this huge offer because he had sworn fidelity to Duryodhana, and as such, was compelled to stay by his side despite his blood ties to the Pandavas. He said that Yudhisthira was a righteous man, and knowing that Karna was older than he was, Yudhisthira would immediately give up his crown to him, he knew. However, to repay his debt to Duryodhana, Karna would have to confer the crown of Indraprastha immediately onto Duryodhana, which Karna thought was against Dharma. Krishna was saddened, but appreciating Karna's sense of loyalty, accepted his decision, promising Karna that his lineage would remain a secret.
However, Krishna's purpose - that of making Pandavas victorious - was served, as this revelation weakened Karna's hatred towards the Pandavas, his own younger brothers.
Karna and Indra
The Pandavas were exiled and eventual war seemed certain. Indra, the king of the gods (Devas) and the father of Arjuna, realized that Karna would be invincible in battle and unable to be killed as long as he had the golden armour and earrings that he had been born with, so he conceived a plot to weaken Karna. He decided to approach Karna as a poor Brahmin during Karna's midday sun worship. Surya warned Karna of Indra's intentions, however, exhorting him not to give away his armour and earrings. Karna thanked Surya but explained that 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 warned, 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 his most powerful weapon, the Vasavi shakti, but only once. It was then that Karna earned the name Vaikartana, as he cut the armour off his body without flinching.
Kunti speaks with her eldest son
The story relates that as war approached, Kunti met Karna to reveal to him that she was his mother. Both of them shared a touching moment together but when she asked him to call himself Kaunteya (son of Kunti) instead of Radheya, 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, but Karna refused. He told his mother that, had she been willing to acknowledge him all those years ago when he appeared at the tournament, then things might have been very different. But it was too late now. He could not betray the trust of his friend. However, he promised his mother that he would not attempt to kill any of the Pandavas except for Arjuna.
Karna knew that Arjuna was under the divine aegis of Lord Krishna and hence would be invincible. But he knew that because of this he would be able to pay off Duryodhana's debt while performing the duties of an elder brother. He told Kunti that she could only keep five sons – the fifth would either be himself or Arjuna. Karna requested his mother to keep their relationship and his royal birth a secret until his death.
The Great War: Kurukshetra
A quarter of the whole length of the Mahābhārata is devoted to an account of the Kurukshetra war.
The story relates how, before the war began, Duryodana requested Bhishma, the commander-in-chief of the Kauravas, to consider Karna under his leadership. Bhishma refused, saying that Karna had insulted his guru Parshuram by insulting Draupadi and nobody disrespecting his guru can fight under his leadership. Bhishma secretly knew about Karna's true ancestary and did not want him to fight against his own brothers. Consequently, Karna entered the battlefield only on the eleventh day, after the fall of Bheeshma. We pick up the story on the thirteenth day.
The guru Dronacharya (Drona) had organized a special formation called the Chakravyuha/Padmavyuha to challenge the Pandavas. Only Krishna and Arjuna on the Pandavas's side knew how to combat this, but they had been purposely drawn far away from the field of battle.
Abhimanyu, Arjuna's son, however, had heard about the formation while he was in his mother's womb, when Krishna was narrating the Chakravyuha arrangement to his sister Subhadra. Subhadra had paid attention only to the first part of the narration and then fallen asleep, so Abhimanyu only knew how to enter the formation, and not how to extract himself from it. Notwithstanding this, the four Pandava brothers decided that Abhimanyu should lead them to enter the Chakravyuha in the absence of Arjuna and Krishna.
But, as soon as Abhimanyu entered the Chakravyuha, Jayadratha, a Sindhu king from the Kaurava army blocked it, thereby preventing other Pandavas from entering the formation. Abhimanyu was left all alone in the middle of the enemy formation. Once inside, he fought valiantly and held back all the best warriors of the Kauravas single-handedly, including Karna, Dronacharya and Duryodhana. Duryodhana and Karna chose to assist in the elimination of Abhimanyu under Dronacharya's guidance. Karna shot arrows from behind that broke Abhimanyu's bow and the reins of his chariot, while the Kauravas overwhelmed him. The battle ended in Abhimanyu's death.
Arjuna, on learning of the death of Abhimanyu at the hands of the Kauravas, pledged to kill Jayadratha before sunset the next day, failing which he would immolate himself in a fire.
Night of the fourteenth day: Krishna sacrifices Ghatotkacha to Karna to protect Arjuna
Uncharacteristically, the battle next day extended into the hours of darkness. Ghatotkacha, the half-asura son of Bhima, began to destroy the Kaurava forces. It was a characteristic of the asuras that they became extraordinarily powerful at night. Duryodhana and Karna bravely stood and fought him. Finally, when it seemed that Ghatotkacha would destroy all the Kaurava forces that very night, having already badly-wounded Dronacharya, Duryodhana called upon Karna to use all means necessary. Karna engaged him in a ferocious duel, with every single warrior from both sides watching in silent awe. As Ghatotkacha began to use his skills of dark magic, Karna had to use the Vasava Shakti, which had been gifted to him by Lord Indra in return for his divine armour. Using this weapon, Karna killed the Asura Ghatotkacha.
Although his death was a major disappointment to the Pandavas, there was a serene smile on Krishna's face. Krishna knew that, because Karna had now expended this fearsome weapon, Arjuna was no longer vulnerable to it.
Sixteenth day: Defeating and sparing the lives of all Pandavas
Karna Parva is the name given to the Eighth Book of the Mahābhārata, describing days 16 and 17 of the Kurukshetra war. Karna is now the commander of the Kaurava army. Anticipating a likely battle to the death between Karna and Arjura, Lord Krishna spoke to 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, indeed, the foremost of heroes."
Karna single-handedly defeated all but one of the Pandavas on this sixteenth day of the Kurukshetra war, as related in the Mahābhārata. He overcame Bhima but left him alive, saying that as Bhima was younger than he was, he wouldn't kill him. He defeated Yudhisthira and also left him alive, saying that: "It seems that you have forgotten all the teachings which your guru has taught you, so first go and practice them and then come to fight". Karna then 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 for Arjuna.
After defeating all of Arjuna's brothers, Karna asked his charioteer, Shalya, to drive his chariot to where Arjuna was standing. Karna took his powerful weapon, Nagastra and shot it at Arjuna. Krishna saved Arjuna from certain death by his divine powers; by subtly lowering Arjuna's chariot into the earth, through a gentle pressure of his feet. An angry Arjuna showered all his arrows on Karna, but Karna neutralized them all with his own. Karna then shot more arrows which incapacitated Arjuna and made him weaponless. But the close of the day spared Arjuna's life, since both sides observed the codes of war and stopped fighting.
The much-awaited duel between Karna and Arjuna resumed. Both these warriors matched each other weapon for weapon. This famous duel was witnessed by the gods from the heavens.
Karna cut the string of Arjuna's bow many times. But at each instant he found Arjuna able to tie back the bowstring in the twinkling of an eye. Karna praised Arjuna for this and remarked to Shalya that now he understood why people called him the greatest archer in the world.
Although the duel was evenly-fought for a long while, Karna was suddenly stricken by the playing-out of the curses that had been thrown at him and which would now put him in grave danger. Hampered as his chariot wheel sank into the ground in loose, wet soil, he found himself unable to remember the incantations for his divine weapons, as his teacher Parashurama had foretold. Descending from his chariot to remove the wheel, he requested Arjuna to wait, as the etiquette of battle allowed; but Krishna told Arjuna that Karna has no right to refer to etiquette at this point, having violated those same rules himself when killing Abhimanyu, participating in the laksha-griha conspiracy, assisting Duryodhan in the game of dice and insulting Draupadi in the Hastinapur court. Lord Krishna told Arjuna that it was not adharma to kill a man who had supported evil all his life, and urged Arjuna to kill Karna while he could.
Arjuna shot many arrows at the helpless Karna, severely wounding him, but was curiously unable to kill him. Lord Krishna told him that the great Dharma of noble charity that Karna had performed during his lifetime was protecting him. Lord Krishna ordered Arjuna to redouble his efforts. Arjuna complied and Karna was killed.
As Karna lay dying on the battlefield, his father Surya and Arjuna's father Indra fell into a debate as to who among their son's was superior. Indra was convinced that Arjuna was the better while Surya said otherwise, stressing on Karna's charitable attitude. Both of them decided to test Karna's generosity and appeared before him as Brahmins asking for alms. Karna said that at this point he had nothing to give them while one of the Brahmins remark that he has some gold in his teeth which could be of use to them. Karna on realizing this promptly takes a stone and breaks his teeth handing them over to the Brahmins and thus proving his superiority.
In other versions of the epic, the Brahmin is said to be Krishna who asks for Karna's punya or merit and when Karna does so he is rewarded by sighting of Krishna's Vishwaroopa. A play is staged in South India known as Kattaikkuttu which is based on the events that occurred in Karna's life on the day of his death.
After Karna's death
Following the Kurukshetra war, Tarpan vidhi 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 Sūta, she revealed the truth of his birth. The brothers were shocked to find that they had committed fratricide. Yudhishtira, in particular, was furious with his mother and laid a curse upon all women that they should never thereafter be able to keep a secret.
According to Karna's dying wish, Karna's Antim Sanskar was performed by none other than Lord Krishna himself. This was the honour given to him by Lord Krishna. Karna is the only person in the Mahābhārata epic who receives this great honour. (This is not mentioned in the original, but is a popular addition made by later authors)
Lord Krishna went to Gandhari to tell her that Karna had died. Gandhari told Lord Krishna: "You knew what was going to happen and you could have prevented the war." Gandhari cursed Lord Krishna for this. "Just as my entire family perished, your family will die the same way." Lord Krishna smiled as he accepted Gandhari's curse and reminded her that she herself used to pray for the victory of the "righteous". Shri Krishna also gently reminded Gandhari of her own responsibility in this carnage.
Karna's wives were Vrushali and Supriya. The names of nine of Karna's sons are mentioned in the Mahābhārata. Of these nine, only one survived the Kurukshetra war, and his name was Vrishakethu.
The nine sons of Karna were Vrishasena,Vrishaketu, Sudaman, Shatrunjaya, Dvipata, Sushena, Satyasena, Chitrasena, and Susharma alias Banasena. Sudaman was slain by Satyaki in the war. Shatrunjaya and Dvipata died in the Kurukshetra war at the hands of Arjuna, during the days when the guru Dronacharya 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 Vrishasena was killed by Arjuna during the last days of the war, when Karna commanded the battle forces.
Vrishasena's death illustrates some gruesome battle detail in the Mahābhārata. Karna's son, angered at the death of his brother Chitrasena, rushed at Nakula. A fierce battle ensued and Vrishasena managed to kill Nakula's horses and pierce him with many arrows. Descending from his chariot and taking up his sword and shield, Nakula severed the heads of two thousand horsemen as he made his way toward Vrishasena. Vrishasena, seeing Nakula coming towards him whirling his sword, shattered it with four well-aimed crescent-shaped arrows. Nakula then quickly ascended Bhima's chariot and, as Arjuna came near, asked him for help.
Arjuna in turn sought Krishna's help and vowed to kill Vrishasena. Vrishasena, however, was able to release many different kinds of arrows against them both, piercing Arjuna's arm and Krishna also. Arjuna became enraged, and after threatening Karna with what he would do to his son, he struck Vrishasena with ten arrows and then with four razor-headed arrows, cut off his bow, his two arms and his head, adorned as it was with beautiful earrings. It was this killing that prompted Karna to challenge Arjuna to fight.
Vrishakethu was the only one of Karna's sons to survive the horror of the Kurukshetra war. He later came under the patronage of the Pandavas. During the action that preceded the Ashvamedha, Vrishakethu accompanied Arjuna and participated in battles with Sudhava and Babruvahana. During that campaign, Vrishakethu married the daughter of king Yavanatha, perhaps a king in the west. It is recorded that Arjuna developed a great affection for his nephew Vrishakethu and trained him to be one of the best archers in the world.
Reasons for Karna's death
Karna's death in the Mahābhārata is brought about by a number of factors. The first and foremost contributor was the 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 likely consequence of this incantation. Karna's upbringing by the charioteer Adiratha denied the young warrior his rightful recognition as a man of Kshatriya status. And it was Lord Indra, in fact, who, in the form of a giant bee, stung Karna's thigh and caused the guru Parasurama to curse Karna with such a significant curse, for lying about his caste. It was later revealed that Parasurama knew about the impending massacre at Kurukshetra; he explained to Karna in a dream, on the night before Karna's battle with Arjuna, that he purposely cursed him in that way so as to ensure the defeat of the Kauravas. In this dream, he blesses Karna with everlasting glory after his death, because of his humble acceptance of the curse.
Having embarked upon the fateful battle, the curse of the Brahmin who owned the cow and the curse of Bhoomidevi provide the opportunity for Karna's defeat. His giving away of his armour and earrings as alms to Lord Indra, this time disguised as a beggar, left him vulnerable. His generous nature and faith in keeping his word also contributed to his downfall by the two promises he made to his mother Kunti, not to kill his four half-brothers and to use the Nagastra only once.
Karna's hatred towards the Pandavas lessened when he learned from his mother that they were his half-brothers. But, to be loyal to Duryodhana, Karna decided to fight against Arjuna in the war. Karna supported Duryodhana in all his wrongdoings even though he knew the difference between good and evil perfectly well. Lord Krishna tried to persuade Karna to switch his allegiance, knowing that without his support, Duryodhan would not fight the war and millions of lives would be spared. But Karna refused to do so because of his personal honour and his debt to Duryodhana. The resulting animosity of Lord Krishna towards Karna led ultimately to his fatal instruction to Arjuna to kill him without mercy.
Karna as a figure of adulation
Even though Karna devoted his services to the evil Duryodhana, in the epic story told in the Mahābhārata, he remains a figure of adulation for millions of Hindus and Indians, who regard him as the greatest warrior of all time. 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, his courageous spirit led him to brave impossible odds in his life and he died with unique courage, valour and honour. In the Mahābhārata, Bheeshma and Lord Krishna concede that Karna was a noble spirit who rarely appears in the human race. Karna is especially adored for his generosity. He is idealized as an inspiration for struggling humanity not to lose heart. He is also considered an example of how misjudgment can render all the finer qualities of an individual futile.
Karna's might is praised even by Krishna in the Mahābhārata. During his battle with Arjuna, when Arjuna questions the reason for this praise, Krishna reminds Arjuna that, by having Krishna as his charioteer, Arjuna's chariot contains the whole weight of the universe and yet Karna is still able to rock it by the force of his arrows. When the battle is ended and multiple levels of divine protection are removed from Arjuna's chariot, it explodes into dust through the blows it has received. Arjuna realizes his mistake and praises Karna as well.
Karna's ethics are admired. During his duel with Arjuna, when, by a blow from one of Karna's arrows Arjuna is rendered unconscious, the cobra king Ashwasen creeps out of hiding from Karna's chariot and asks Karna if he may use his poison against Arjuna, because Arjuna had burnt his forest to the ground. Karna refuses. He will not use a snake against any human, because it would be treachery towards humanity.
Karna is still a popular name amongst Hindus.
Differences and similarities with Arjuna
There are many parallels between Arjuna and Karna. Both were master archers, both competed for Draupadi's hand and both had to fight their own brother. Their decisions, and the consequences of these decisions to themselves and to their families, are used to emphasize the importance of doing one's duty, as explained in the Bhagavad Gita.
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 and allowed Arjuna to take her instead. Karna's affection for Duryodhana led him, albeit unwillingly, to 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. He is criticised for insulting Draupadi in the Hastinapur court and for supporting Duryodhan in his act of dishonoring her. His role in the killing of an unarmed and outnumbered Abhimanyu can be interpreted as an act that more directly damaged his image as an honorable warrior and doomed him to a similar fate. According to some interpretations of the Mahābhārata, it was this deed that cemented Karna's status as a warrior on the wrong side of the war and sealed his fate, that of being killed by Arjuna in the same way, being unarmed, chariotless and with his back turned to Arjuna.
Karna devotion to the sun and Chhath Puja
Karna used to pray to his father Surya, the sun god, at noon every day. This tradition of praying to Surya is still carried out in parts of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh in the form of Chhath Puja.
Film and television
A film adaptation of the story of Karna in the Mahābhārata was made in 1963; the movie Karnan, an epic Tamil movie depicting the life of Karna and his friendship with Duryodhana, starring Shivaji Ganesan and N.T. Rama Rao. Other, similar movies soon followed, in Telugu and Hindi.
In 1977, the Telugu movie Daana Veera Soora Karna again starred the Indian film actor, director and producer N.T Rama Rao, who played three characters – Karna, Duryodhana and Krishna. In 2010, Prakash Jha directed the Bollywood film Raajneeti, a fictional adaptation of the Mahābhārata, set within a backdrop of Indian Politics and starring the actor Ajay Devgan, who played Suraj, a character based on Karna. One of the songs from the 1991 Indian movie Thalapathi, based upon the friendship between Karna and Duryodhana, has been voted number 4 in the BBC's 'World's Top Ten Revealed' worldwide music poll.
South Indian film actor Mohanlal performed Karna on the stage in Karnabharam, a Sanskrit play that was premiered in New Delhi as part of the National Theatre Festival directed by Kavalam Narayana Panicker. The play depicts Karna's mental agony a day before the Kurukshetra War, as he thinks about his past and his faith.
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