A 19th century artist's imagination of Karna
|Children||Vrishasena and Vrishaketu|
Kunti and Surya (biological parents)|
Adhiratha and Radha (adoptive parents)
Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, Sahadeva (brothers)
Karna (Sanskrit: कर्ण, IAST: Karṇa), also known as Vasusena, Anga-Raja, Sutaputra and Radheya, is one of the major characters in the Hindu epic Mahābhārata. He is the son of Surya (the Sun deity) and princess Kunti (later the Pandava queen). He was conceived and born to unmarried teenage Kunti, who hides the pregnancy, then out of shame abandons the new born Karna in a basket on a river. The basket is discovered floating on the Ganges River. He is adopted and raised by foster Suta parents named Radha and Adhiratha Nandana of the charioteer and poet profession working for king Dhritarashtra. Karna grows up to be an accomplished warrior of extraordinary abilities, a gifted speaker and becomes a loyal friend of Duryodhana. He is appointed the king of Anga (Bengal) by Duryodhana. Karna joins the losing Duryodhana side of the Mahabharata war. He is a key antagonist who aims to kill Arjuna but dies in a battle with him during the Kurushetra war.
He is a tragic hero in the Mahabharata, in a manner similar to Aristotle's literary category of "flawed good man". He meets his biological mother late in the epic then discovers that he is the older half-brother of those he is fighting against. Karna is a symbol of someone who is rejected by those who should love him but do not given the circumstances, yet becomes a man of exceptional abilities willing to give his love and life as a loyal friend. His character is developed in the epic to raise and discuss major emotional and dharma (duty, ethics, moral) dilemmas. His story has inspired many secondary works, poetry and dramatic plays in the Hindu arts tradition, both in India and in southeast Asia.
- 1 Nomenclature
- 2 Mythology and sources: Mahābhārata
- 3 Biography
- 4 Themes and symbolism
- 5 Secondary literature and media
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 Bibliography
- 9 External links
Karṇa (कर्ण) is a word found in the Vedic literature, where it means "the ear", "chaff or husk of a grain" or the "helm or rudder". In another context, it refers to a spondee in Sanskrit prosody. In the Mahabharata and the Puranas, it is the name of a warrior character. Called Vasusena as a child by his foster parents, he became known by the name Karna because of the golden earrings of Surya he used to wear, according to the Sanskrit epics scholar David Slavitt.
The word Karna, states the Indologist Kevin McGrath, signifies "eared, or the ear-ringed one". In section 3.290.5 of the Mahabharata, Karna is described as a baby born with the ear-rings and armored breastplate, like his father Surya.
The second meaning of Karna as "rudder and helm" is also an apt metaphor given Karna's role in steering the war in Book 8 of the epic, where the good Karna confronts the good Arjuna, one of the climax scenes wherein the Mahabharata authors repeatedly deploy the allegories of ocean and boat to embed layers of meanings in the poem. For example, his first entry into the Kurukshetra battlefield is presented as the Makara movement (an arrangement of soldiers in the sea-monster pattern). As Duryodhana's army crumbles each day, the sea and vessel metaphor repeatedly appears in the epic, particularly when Karna is mentioned. As a newborn, Karna's life begins in a basket without a rudder on a river, in circumstances that he neither chose nor had a say. In Book 1, again in the context of Karna, Duryodhana remarks, "the origins of heroes and rivers are indeed difficult to understand".[note 1]
The name Karna is also symbolically connected to the central aspect of Karna's character as the one who is intensely preoccupied with what others hear and think about him, about his fame, a weakness that others exploit to manipulate him. This "hearing" and "that which is heard", states McGrath makes "Karna" an apt name and subtle reminder of Karna's driving motivation.[note 2]
Mythology and sources: Mahābhārata
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 is a composite work of revisions, editing and interpolations over many centuries. The oldest parts in the surviving version of the text probably date to about 400 BCE. Within Mahabharata, which follows the story within a story style of narration, the account of Karna's birth has been narrated four times.
Karna appears for the first time in the Mahabharata in the verse 1.1.65 of Adi Parvan (first book) where he is briefly mentioned through the metaphor of a tree, as someone who is refusing to fight or help in the capture of Krishna. He is presented again in sections 1.2.127–148, and chapter 1.57 of the Adi Parvan. It is here that his earrings "that make his face shine", as well as the divine breastplate (body armor) he was born with, are mentioned for the first time. This sets him apart as someone special, with gifts no ordinary mortal has. However, later in the epic, the generous Karna gives the "earrings and breastplate" away in charity, thereby becomes a mortal and later dies in a battle with Arjuna.
The story of his young mother getting pregnant due to her curiosity, his divine connection to the Hindu sun god Surya, then his birth appears for the first time in the epic in section 1.104.7. The epic uses glowing words to describe Karna, but the presentation here is compressed in 21 shlokas unlike the later books which expand the details. These later sections with more details on Karna's birth and childhood include 3.287, 5.142 and 15.38. According to McGrath, the early presentation of Karna in the Mahabharata is such as if the poets expect the audience to already know the story and love the character of Karna. The text does not belabor the details about Karna in the early sections, rather uses metaphors and metonyms to colorfully remind the audience of the fabric of a character they already are assumed to be aware of. The complete narrative of his life appears for the first time in chapter 1.125.
Manuscripts, many versions
The Mahabharata manuscripts exist in numerous versions, wherein the specifics and details of major characters and episodes vary, often significantly. Except for the sections containing the Bhagavad Gita which is remarkably consistent between the numerous manuscripts, the rest of the epic exists in many versions. The differences between the Northern and Southern recensions are particularly significant, with the Southern manuscripts more profuse and longer. The legends of Karna too appear in many versions, including some versions that have no support in surviving manuscripts. The manuscripts found in the north and south India for the Karna parvan book have "great divergence" in details, though the thematic essence is similar. Scholars have attempted to construct a critical edition, relying mostly on a study of the Bombay edition, the Poona edition, the Calcutta edition and the south Indian editions of the Mahabharata manuscripts. The most accepted version is one prepared by scholars led by Vishnu Sukthankar at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, preserved at the Kyoto University, the Cambridge University and various Indian universities.
Birth and childhood
Once upon a time lived a Yadava dynasty king named Surasena. He had a beautiful young daughter named Pritha (later Kunti). As tradition had it, a rishi – Vedic scholar and seer – named Durvasa visited the king for a lengthy stay, who housed him as his palace guest. The king asked Pritha to personally ensure that the sage Durvasa's stay was comfortable. Princess Pritha did her best, and Durvasa was delighted with his stay and her diligent services. Before leaving, Durvasa thanked her and gave her the Siddha mantra telling her that if she ever wants, she can use that mantra to call any god she desires as her lover.[note 3]
Teenage Pritha after her first menstruation became curious, wondered if the mantra would really work, and so one beautiful morning, as the golden sun rose, to explore, she called the sun god Surya. He came with a golden glow, dressed up in jewelry and breastplate. She is reluctant about having sex, felt confused yet interested, while Surya knew her deeper desires. They talk. Before "agreeing to make love to Surya, Pritha makes Surya promise that the son born of the union would be a hero with earrings and breast-plate", states McGrath.[note 4] She falls on the bed in confusion, Surya enters her and impregnates her. Karna is thus the love child of the passion between the princess and the Surya. After their consummation, the god Surya grants her the wish that after Karna's birth she will regain her virginity.
Pritha hid her pregnancy. Karna is born with characteristics of both parents, such as the "ear-rings and breastplate armor" along with glow of his father and the feet that looked like his mother. The earrings and breastplate make him immortal like the gods, invincible before any god, human or demon. Pritha felt confused and ashamed, worried what everyone will think and how she will embarrass her family. So, she put the newborn baby in a padded basket, waterproofs and seals it with beeswax, and set it adrift in the small river Ashvanadi by the palace.
As the adolescent mother abandons her unwanted child on the river, she laments and the epic verses describe her emotions with heartbreaking poetry, according to the Indologist Patricia Greer.
The basket floats, reaches the river Charmanavati, which carries it to the Yamuna River. The basket floats on and reaches the Ganges River and on it into the kingdom of Anga (ancient Bengal). There, it is found by a charioteer's wife Radha, who takes the baby Karna to her husband Adhiratha Nandana. They adopt him right away and name him Vasushena. They love him and raise him just like their own son. While he was growing up, his adopting parents let Karna know that they had found and adopted him. This knowledge affects Karna, he feels ashamed that he was abandoned, and this frames his sense of self-identity through the epic.
The boy goes to school in Hastinapura, and studies martial arts under the sages Drona, Kripa and the Vishnu avatar Parashurama. Arjuna is his peer and equal. At school and in episodes where his character appears, he is repeatedly rejected, subjected to ridicule and bullying for being the son of a poor family, and particularly for his low birth. The boy Karna came to be known for his solitary habits, hard work, pious yoga before Surya every day, compassion and eager generosity to help anyone in need particularly Brahmins, his gift of speech, and for the pursuit of excellence in whatever he did. Karna is also known as someone who craves for respect, love and attention, who is overly sensitive to criticism, who habitually brags about his skills and martial capabilities, yet is deeply thoughtful and dharmic in critical moments of the epic.
Relationship with Duryodhana
Karna meets Duryodhana for the first time in Hastinapura during archery lessons from Drona, an event described in section 3.293 of the Mahabharata. They become close friends a little later when Karna and Arjuna are at a weapons trial competition. Duryodhana sees in Karna a man who is an equal of Arjuna in martial abilities, and someone to befriend to balance out Arjuna and thereby "diminish the Pandavas".
Before the competition starts, the contestants must announce their lineage so that men of equal ranks are placed together. After Arjuna announces his royal lineage, it is time for Karna to present his lineage. If Karna were to announce his charioteer lineage, it would disqualify him from competing against Arjuna. Duryodhana steps in and says Karna is an Arajna (a non-king, but also a word play on Arjuna) but announces that he is offering to anoint Karna as the king of Angas (Bengal). Once Karna is a king, states Duryodhana, Arjuna would not have the excuse to avoid Karna and not compete with the able warrior. Karna accepts the anointment, becomes a king that day. It also transforms him into a loyal friend to Duryodhana, with an eagerness to reciprocate the favor. Karna asks Duryodhana what he would want in return for the kingdom he just gave out of his empire, Duryodhana replies, "I want your endless friendship Karna".
For the consecration ceremony, Karna's father arrives. Bhima, one of the Pandavas, ridicules him for his low status and calls him dog-like. The public insult of his father makes Karna hate the Pandavas. At the end of the competition, while everyone rejects Karna, Duryodhana expresses amity to Karna by "taking Karna by his hand". Karna feels Duryodhana is that friend who stood by him when everyone rejected him. Duryodhana becomes Karna's lifelong close friend. In Karna, Duryodhana finds an able man and talented commander who can help him gain and retain power over an empire. In Duryodhana, Karna finds a caring friend and resourceful supporter when almost everyone is bent on ridiculing and disowning him.
Karna evolves into a character who shares Duryodhana's view that Pandavas are bad and enemies, though for different reasons. Karna participates with Duryodhana in schemes to effect the downfall of the Pandavas. Duryodhana provides the goals, Karna conspires the means to get there.
In the final year of the exile of the Pandavas, Duryodhana plans to sow dissension and keep the entire empire to himself. In contrast, Bhisma and Drona suggest a conciliation and dividing the kingdom into two, half for Kauravas and other for Pandavas. Karna, in contrast, adopts the hawkish approach and becomes the first to suggest a direct confrontation in the form of the Kurukshetra war. He calls for "together we should slay the Pandavas" as the final solution. Karna persistently recommends violence and an all-out war, to settle things once and for all, by good brave warriors. Karna also accuses Bhisma and Drona as covetous materialists and dishonest in counseling Duryodhana with non-violent strategies. Duryodhana has evil intentions and is a bad king, but it is Karna who fuels Duryodhana's ambitions and fights his battles.
With Duryodhana, Karna is a key participant in insulting the Pandavas and Draupadi. He humiliates the Pandavas with his gift of speech and mocks Draupadi, then calls her a "whore" and asks Duhshasana to strip her off her clothes. It is Karna's language and insults that hurt the Pandavas and Draupadi the most, a sentiment that is noted in numerous verses of the Mahabharata such as 3.13.113 and 5.93.11. Yet, states the Mahabharata scholar Alf Hiltebeitel, "remarkably, Karna regrets his harsh words to Draupadi and Pandavas", in verse 5.139.45, where he confesses he spoke so to please Duryodhana.
Hostilities with the Pandavas
No one except Pandavas, particularly Arjuna, could equal or challenge Karna in his range of abilities at competitions. At martial sporting events, Arjuna and Karna were often equal, though in his self-bragging style Karna once announced, states McGrath, that "he will perform any feat that Arjuna has accomplished and do it better".
At the svayambara competition of Draupadi, where she is expected to choose her husband, both Arjuna and Karna are present. Arjuna and his brothers, however, are disguised as mendicant Brahmins. They use this false identity in exile because Duryodhana had attempted to kill them using various schemes, including burning the lacquer house – custom built for the Pandavas by Duryodhana – along with the forest while they were sleeping. So, when many princes and Karna seeking Draupadi as their bride failed to "string a legendary bow" step of the competition, the mendicant Arjuna steps forward and strings it. Karna then objects. Karna's objection is that the competition is only meant for Kshatriyas, and Brahmins such as "the mendicant who just strung the bow" should not be competing for the hand of Draupadi, a Kshatriya bride. Duryodhana supports him. The gathered Kshatriyas too angrily support Karna, for they against the mixing of varna (here, Brahmin-Kshatriya marriage). Arjuna maintains his calm, continues to hide his true identity, insists that he is a "Brahmin who fight". Arjuna's accomplishments and calmness win Draupadi's heart. Draupadi picks Arjuna and awards the garland to him, signify that she chooses to marry the disguised-Brahmin Arjuna.[note 5] The varna-based discrimination and verbal insults on Arjuna, for lovely Draupadi's hand, one that Karna initiates at the time of Draupadi's svayambara competition comes back to haunt him many times through angry Bhima and others who remind Karna that he is merely a suta-putra (son of a charioteer). Draupadi too never likes Karna thereafter.
Karna fights and berates the Pandavas at the legendary gambling match during the royal consecration ritual. There, Karna uses the choicest words to insult Draupadi, then recommends a form of sexual assault where she is dragged and publicly disrobed, an injury with insult that takes the bitterness of Pandavas for Karna to much more emotional level from what previously was a dispute about respective martial prowess.[note 6] These are the sections of the epic when the Pandavas, Arjuna in particular, openly pledge to kill Karna. Karna retaliates with words too, stating that Arjuna's death is so near that he will now "not wash his feet until Arjuna is slain".
Karna is not proud of his anger and outbursts. Later, in a quieter moment with Krishna such as in section 5.139.45, and to his lifelong friend Duryodhana in section 8.1.7, Karna confides he was wrong in insulting Draupadi and the Pandavas, it is his past karma that haunts him and is a source of his private suffering.
Discovery of his biological mother
Krishna went to Kunti and asked her to meet Karna and tell him that he is her first born son and the Pandavas were his brothers. According to Krishna, once Karna knew his real identity, he would be emotionally weakened, but left it to her to choose between Karna and her five other sons. As the war approached, Kunti met Karna and in desperation to keep her children alive asked him to join the Pandavas. Surya Deva also validated her words and Karna was emotionally distraught. His hatred for the Pandavas had weakened. Karna was still angry with Arjuna and wished to take revenge for all the past wrongs. Karna promised to Kunti that he will not kill any of his half-brothers except for Arjuna.
Surya meets Karna and warns him of Indra's plan to appear disguised as a Brahmin to divest him of his earrings and breastplate, and thereby his immortality. Karna disregards this warning and says that if the king of gods Indra comes to beg before him, and if he charitably gives to Indra, it will bring him "renown and fame", then argues that "fame is more important to him than anything else". Indra appears as predicted, and Karna cuts his birthmarks of immortality with knife, and gives the blood-soaked donation to Indra. The leader of gods in return praises him and gives him a missile that can only be used once and will kill any mortal or immortal.
Themes and symbolism
Across the various Hindu legends, Karna resembles various famous characters. The attributed author of Mahabharata, the 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 mythological character Achilles on various occasions as they both have powers but lack status.
Circumstances and subjective morality
With the assistance of Karna, Duryodhana plotted many evil plans against the Pandavas.
War and prejudice
Flawed, tragic hero
Karna is a character in the Mahabharata who is martially adept and equal to Arjuna as a warrior. He is also a gifted speaker, eloquent and someone who knows the art of embedding insults for his opponents in front of an audience. He is presented as a character with as deep a knowledge of dharma as are his skills with weapons. In dharma, in the sense of ethics and duty, he is someone who lives by the code he speaks. Yet, in Book 8 of the epic, at the time of his death, he remarks "dharma has failed him".
Secondary literature and media
Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem, "Karna Kunti Sangbad" based on the meeting of Karna and Kunti before the war. Karna also 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 a fictionalized account of Karna's private and personal life. Sawant also received Moortidevi Award, instituted by Bharatiya Jnanpith, for his work and was translated into nine languages. Ramdhari Singh Dinkar in 1978 published an epic poem Rashmirathi (translation: One who rides the Chariot of light, 1952) which narrates Karna's life. The poem has later also been adapted as a play.
Film and theater
- Sivaji Ganesan played the role of Karna in Karnan (1964).
- N. T. Rama Rao played the role of Karna in Daana Veera Soora Karna (1977).
- Rebel Star Krishnam Raju played the role of Karna in Kurukshetram (1977).
- Shyam Benegal's 1981 film Kalyug adapted the Mahabharat as a conflict between rival business houses with Shashi Kapoor playing Karan, the character based on Karna.
- 1991 Tamil film Thalapathi, directed by veteran director, Mani Ratnam chronicles the friendship between Karna and Duryodhana. Here, the character based on Karna, named Surya, was played by Rajinikanth and Duryodhana by Mammotty. One of the songs from Thalapathi has been voted number 4 in the BBC's 'World's Top Ten Revealed' worldwide music poll.
- Ajay Devgan played a character based on Karna in the 2010 Bollywood film Raajneeti.
- 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.
- Bala Devi Chandrashekar plays the character of Karna in the 2015 Bharatanatyam production Karna – Destiny's Child.
|1977||Daana Veera Soora Karna||N/A||N. T. Rama Rao|
|1988||Mahabharat||DD National||Harendra Paintal/Pankaj Dheer|
|1989||The Mahabharata||N/A||Lou Bihler/Jeffrey Kissoon|
|1993||Krishna||DD Metro||Govind Khatri|
|2013||Mahabharat||STAR Plus||Gananay Shukla/Vidyut Xavier/Aham Sharma|
|2015–2016||Suryaputra Karn||Sony Entertainment Television||Vishesh Bansal/Vasant Bhatt/Gautam Rode|
- The Karna legend in the Mahabharata is overlaid with metaphors such as "the worlds stand in water, every taste is made of water, all the world is made of water", later that "no one perceives this world sinking in a deep sea of time, where sharks of death and age awaits".
- Surya, his father, tries to persuade him to not worry about what others think and avoid getting gullibly exploited, Karna declines.
- She used the same mantra later in the Mahabharata, after Queen Kunti is unable to have any children with her human husband, and he agrees to her using the mantra to have children. Kunti calls on god Dharma to have son Yudhishthira, then god Vayu to have Bhima and finally Indra to have Arjuna.
- This story appears in various forms, with different level of details in many sections of the Mahabharata. A detailed version, for example, is found in sections 3.290–291 of the critical edition.
- This story appears in many versions in different manuscripts and later secondary literature. In some versions, such as one published by Ramesh Chandra Dutt, Draupadi openly rejects Karna because he is the son of a charioteer (suta), something that angers Karna. In another version, found in South Indian texts, Krishna takes the form of a rat and severs the string and thereby prevents Karna from equaling Arjuna's feat. However, all such versions are relatively modern, and according to McGrath who quotes Vishnu Suthankar, appear in "late and inferior or conflated manuscripts". The older critical edition version shows Karna simply failed, just like he and his army ultimately fails in other battles against the Pandavas. For another version of this story in a non-critical edition of the epic, see the summary by Moriz Winternitz.
- For an alternate version, different from the critical edition of the Mahabharata manuscript, see Greer.
- Charles Russell Coulter & Patricia Turner 2013, pp. 262-263.
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- David Dean Shulman 2014, pp. 380-389.
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- Bimal Krishna Matilal 2002, pp. 90-118.
- de Bruin & Brakel-Papenyzen 1992, pp. 38-39, 47-49, 53-54.
- Terrence 1995, pp. 134-135.
- "Karnal". District of Karnal. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
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- McGrath 2004, pp. 218-222 with footnotes.
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- McGrath 2004, pp. 116-119 with footnotes.
- McGrath 2004, pp. 116-120 with footnotes.
- McGrath 2004, pp. 119-121 with footnotes.
- J. A. B. van Buitenen & James L. Fitzgerald 1975, pp. 313-314.
- Adam Bowles 2008, pp. xxviii-xxix, xxxvi-xxxvii.
- Adam Bowles 2008, pp. xxvi-xxx, xxxv-xxxvii.
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- McGrath 2004, pp. 75-79.
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- McGrath 2004, pp. 76.
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- McGrath 2004, pp. 79-81 with footnotes.
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- Phillip B. Zarrilli;Kattaikkuttu: The Flexibility of a South Indian Theatre Tradition, and: Karna's Death: A Play by Pukalentirrulavar (review);Asian Theatre Journal, Volume 20, Number 1, Spring 2003, pp. 100-102
- McGrath 2004, pp. 33-35 with footnotes.
- McGrath 2004, pp. 30-31, 33-35 with footnotes.
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- Brockington 1998, p. 70.
- Brockington 1998, p. 71.
- McGrath 2004, p. 4.
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