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Karna (Sanskrit: कर्ण, IAST transliteration:Karṇa) or Radheya is one of the central characters in the Hindu 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.
- 1 Mahābhārata
- 2 Story
- 3 Karna's family
- 4 Themes and analysis
- 5 Secondary literature and media
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
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. Within Mahabharata, which follows the story within a story style of narration, the account of Karna's birth has been narrated four times.
Birth, education and curses
As a young woman Kunti, the princess of the Kunti Kingdom, had been granted a boon by sage Durvasa to be able to invoke any deity to give her a child. Eager to test the power, while still unmarried, she called upon the solar deity Surya and was handed a son Karna wearing armour (Kavacha) and a pair of earrings (Kundala). Afraid of being an unwed mother Kunti, placed the baby in a basket and set him afloat on a river. The child 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.
Karna became interested in the art of warfare and approached Dronacharya, an established teacher who taught the Kuru princes. But he refused to take Karna as his student, since Karna was not a Kshatriya. After being refused by Dronacharya, Karna with his brother Shona's help started his own's education and appointed the sun god as his guru. But, Karna wanted to learn advanced skills of archery and hence he decided to learn from Parashurama, Dronacharya's own guru.
As Parshurama only taught to Brahmins, Karna appeared before him as a Brahmin. 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. On a day towards the end of his training Karna happened to offer Parashurama his lap so his guru could rest his head and nap. But while Parashurama was asleep, a bee stung Karna's thigh and despite the pain, Karna did not move, so as not to disturb his guru's sleep. With blood oozing from his wound, Parashurama woke up at once deduced that Karna was not a Brahmin. Parashurama, who had sworn to teach Brahmins only, laid curse upon Karna that he would forget all the knowledge required to wield the divine weapon Brahmastra, at the moment of his greatest need. Upon Karna's pleading, Parshurama gifted him the celestial weapon called Bhargavastra, along with his personal bow called Vijaya, for being such a diligent student.
Karna was also cursed by a Brahmin for killing his cow while practising his skills with bow and arrows. The Brahmin got angry and cursed him that he would become helpless in the same way the innocent cow had become, by his chariot wheels getting stuck in the ground. Folklore from Andhra Pradesh further relates that Karna once 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. Refusing to take new ghee from Karna, the child insisted that she wanted the same 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.
Friendship with Duryodhana
To display the skills of the Kuru princes, guru Dronacharya arranged a friendly tournament. His student Arjuna, third of the Pandava brothers, was shown to be a particularly gifted archer. Karna arrived at this tournament uninvited and 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. Duryodhana, the eldest of the one-hundred sons of the king Dhritarashtra, knew that his cousins Pandavas were better at warfare. Seeing 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.
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, when he worshipped the sun, would not leave empty-handed. Later after Pandavas were in exile, Karna took up the task of establishing Duryodhana as the Emperor. He commanded 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. 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.
Hostilities with Pandavas
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 rejecting 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.
Prelude to war
Following failed peace negotiations with Duryodhana, Krishna is driven back to the Pandavas by Karna. Krishna then revealed to Karna that he is the eldest son of Kunti, and therefore, technically, the eldest Pandava. Krishna implored him to change sides and assures him that Yudhisthira would give the crown of Indraprastha to him. Shaken from the discovery, Karna still refuses this offer over Duryodhana's friendship. Krishna is saddened, but appreciating Karna's sense of loyalty, accepted his decision, promising Karna that his lineage would remain a secret. In addition, Karna was elated to learn that his true father was none other than Surya.
Indra, the king of the (Devas) and the father of Arjuna, realized that Karna would be invincible in battle and unable to be killed as long as he had his kavach and kundal. He approaches Karna as a poor Brahmin during Karna's sun-worship. Surya warned Karna of Indra's intentions, but Karna thanked Surya and explained that he was bound by his word and could not send anyone from his door empty-handed. When Indra approaches, Karna reveals that he knew the Brahmin's true identity but assured that he would never turn anyone away. Cutting the armor and earrings off his body, Karna handed them to Indra. For Karna's generosity Indra decided to reward him and Karna asked for Indra's powerful weapon, the Vasavi shakti. Indra granted the boon, with the stipulation that Karna could only use the weapon once.
As war approached, Kunti met Karna and in desperation to keep her children alive asked Karna to join the Pandavas. But Karna denies the offer again. Knowing that Arjuna was under the divine aegis of Krishna he would be invincible. Karna requested his mother to keep their relationship a secret and promised that at the end of war she would still have five sons.
Bhishma was appointed as the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. But giving the reason that Karna had humiliated Draupadi and disrespected his guru Parshuram, Bhishma refused to take him in the Kaurava army. He secretly knew of Karna’s lineage and hence did not want him to fight his own brother. Only after Bhishma fell on the eleventh day did Karna enter the war. Dronacharya took the commander-in-chief position on twelfth day and the thirteenth day ended with Abhimanyu’s (Arjun’s son) death in the specially organized Chakravyuha/Padmavyuha formation.
Uncharacteristically, the battle on fourteenth day extended into the dark hours. Taking advantage of that, Krishna introduced Ghatotkacha, Bhima’s half-Asura son, as asuras gained extraordinary power at night time. Ghatotkacha’s destroyed the Kaurava force and also injured Dronacharya. Seeing the desperate situation, Karna used his Vasava Shakti, that was the boon from Indra, against Ghatotkacha, thus killing him. Krishna however was pleased with the fact that the powerful weapon could not be used against Arjuna in future as Karna had only one chance to use it.
Karna Parva, the eighth book of the Mahābhārata, describes sixteenth and seventeenth days of the Kurukshetra war where post Dronachary’s death Karna took over as the commander-in-chief. Anticipating a likely battle to the death between Karna and Arjura, Krishna warned Arjuna calling Karna to be the foremost of the heroes.
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, again, the foremost of heroes. He is exceedingly handsome. Possessed of every accomplishment of a warrior, he is a dispeller of the fears of friends. Engaged in the good of Dhritarashtra's son, he always hates the sons of Pandu. No one, not even the gods with Vasava at their head, can slay the son of Radha, save thee, as I think. Slay, therefore, the Suta's son today. No one possessed of flesh and blood, not even the gods fighting with great care, not all the warriors (of the three worlds) fighting together can vanquish that car-warrior.
As promised to Kunti, Karna aimed on only killing Arjuna. On the sixteenth day, he fought with all the Pandava brother but Arjuna and spared each one of them. After defeating them, he ordered his charioteer Shalya to get towards Arjuna. He used Nagastra to kill Arjuna, which Krishna saved him by lowering his chariot in the earth. Karna and Arjun waged a rough war against each other and karna spared arjuna due to sunset as both sides followed the rules of war
On the seventeenth day, Karna and Arjuna resumed their war where Karna cut the string of Arjuna’s bow many a times. After the long struggle, with no one winning, the situation changed when Karna’s chariot wheel sank into the loose ground. He still defended himself but also forgot all the incantations at the crucial moment, as was cursed by Parshurama. Karna got down from his chariot to free the wheel and asked Arjuna to pause reminding him of etiquettes. But Krishna in turn reminded Arjuna of all the rules that Kauravas and Karna had broken in the war and before. Enraged with recollection of all the incidences, of Abhimanyu’s death, laksha-griha conspiracy, Draupadi’s insult; Arjuna used the Anjalika weapon slaying Karna at the end.
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 and 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 took a stone and broke 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.
Following the end of the war, Tarpan vidhi were performed for all the fallen. Kunti then requested her sons to perform the rites for Karna and 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.
Karna was married to Vrushali and Supriya. He had seven sons; Vrishasena, Vrishaketu, Chitrasena, Satyasena, Sushena, Banasena and Prasena and all of these took part in the Kurukshetra war. Prasena was slain by Satyaki, Vrishasena by Arjuna, Banasena by Bhima, Chitrasena, Satyasena and Sushena by Nakula. Vrishakethu was his only son who survived the war. Karna's eldest wife Vrushali went sati after Karna's death. Karna had six foster brothers, Sangramajit Shatrunjaya, Dvipata and another brother was killed by Arjuna Vrikarath was killed by Bhima  and one brother was killed by Abhimanyu. Karna mentioned to Krishna that he had grandchildren, but nothing of their fates are known. 
After the war when Pandavas were made aware of Karna's lineage, Vrishakethu was offered to be the King of Indraprasth, being the son of their eldest brother. He was under the patronage of Arjuna and took part in various battles that preceded the Ashvamedh yagna.
Themes and analysis
Within the various Hindu mythologies, Karna draws resemblance with various other characters. The attributed author of Mahabharata, sage Vyasa, is also noted to be born from an unwed union of Satyavati and sage Parashara, just the way Karna is born before Kunti's marriage. Philologist Georges Dumézil also compares him with his father Surya in the sense that he too has two mothers, Kunti and Radha, just the way Surya in Vedas has two mothers, the night and the dawn. German indologist Georg von Simson, notes the similarities in the names of Karna and of the Kumbhakarna, the demon brother of the main antagonist Ravana of the epic Ramayana. He also notes that both Karna and Kumbhakarna did not take part in the great wars of their respective epics at the start. Scholars internationally have also drawn parallels with various European mythologies. Karna's kawach (armour) has been compared with that of Achilles's Styx-coated body and with Irish warrior Ferdiad's horny skin that could not be pierced. He has been compared to the Greek character Achilles on various occasions as they both have powers but lack status.
Secondary literature and media
Karna has been topic of various contemporary literary works. The Marathi books of Radheya (1973) authored by Ranjit Desai and Mrityunjay (1967) authored by Shivaji Sawant bring forth Karna's private and personal life on paper. Sawant also received Moortidevi Award, instituted by Bharatiya Jnanpith, for his work and was translated into nine languages.
Film and theater
The 1964 epic Tamil film Karnan depicted his life and friendship with Duryodhana, starring Sivaji Ganesan in title role. In 1977, the Telugu movie Daana Veera Soora Karna starred the Indian film actor, director and producer N. T. Rama Rao. Shyam Benegal's 1981 film Kalyug adapted the Mahabharat as a conflict between rival business houses with Shashi Kapoor playing Karan, 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. Recently in 2010, Prakash Jha directed the Bollywood film Raajneeti, a fictional adaptation of the Mahabharata, set within a backdrop of Indian politics and starring the actor Ajay Devgan, playing a character based on Karna. Karna was portrayed by Pankaj Dheer in 1988, in the television series Mahabharat, for which he is popularly known. South Indian film actor Mohanlal performed Karna on the stage in Karnabharam, a Sanskrit play that was premiered in New Delhi in 2001 as part of the Bharat Rang Mahotsav 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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