Karna Parva describes the appointment of Karna as the third commander-in-chief of the Kaurava alliance. The parva recites how war begins to tire and frustrate everyone, triggers angry shouting matches between Yudhisthira and Arjuna - brothers who otherwise love each other. This book describes how brutal war leads to horrifying behaviour over the 16th and 17th day of the 18 day Kurukshetra War. At the end of the parva, Karna is killed in a fierce battle with Arjuna.
Karna parva includes a treatise by Krishna on if and when is it ever appropriate to lie or volunteer a falsehood. The parva also includes a symbolic dialogue where Karna in distress demands a just process, but he abuses the just process when others are in distress.
Structure & Chapters
This Parva(book) has 96 adhyayas (chapters).
The eighth book of the Mahabharata praises Karna's warrior abilities. After Dronacharya's death, Karna is made the commander-in-chief of Kaurava army. He defeats four of five Pandava brothers - Yudhisthira, Bhima, Nakula and Sahedeva. However, Karna does not kill any of them in order to keep his promise to Kunti - the biological mother of Pandavas and his - to not harm his four step brothers, but only kill Arjuna(see Udyoga Parva). Yudhisthira becomes upset with Karna's action and behaviour on the battlefield, criticizes Arjuna for failing everyone during the war and particularly by not engaging Karna. This upsets Arjuna who reminds Yudhisthira, in Chapter 70 of Karna parva, that Yudhisthira's addiction to gambling is at the root cause of everything - from their exile to this unnecessary war. Krishna intervenes between the two brothers and reconciles them.
On the second last day of the war, Karna and Arjuna engage in a mortal fight, in which Karna is slowly gaining upper hand. Karna's chariot sinks into earth. Karna steps out to remove the wheel, asking Arjuna to suspend their battle, as the agreed rules of just war required. However, Krishna tells Arjuna that Karna has no right to the rules of a just war because Karna has consistently violated those rules against Pandava's army during the war, including when he disarmed Abhimanyu which ultimately, resulted in his death. Karna hangs his head in shame but continues the fight on a tilted chariot, even making Arjuna swoon. While Arjun was unconscious, Karna decided to utilize the time in extracting the wheel of his chariot. Krishna knew that it was the only time possible to kill Karna, else he was invincible. Arjuna responds with Anjalika Astra, killing Karna.
Karna Parva was composed in Sanskrit. Several translations of the book in English are available. Two translations from 19th century, now in public domain, are those by Kisari Mohan Ganguli and Manmatha Nath Dutt. The translations vary with each translator's interpretations.
Clay Sanskrit Library has published a 15 volume set of the Mahabharata which includes a translation of Karna Parva by Adam Bowles. This translation is modern and uses an old manuscript of the Epic. The translation does not remove verses and chapters now widely believed to be spurious and smuggled into the Epic in 1st or 2nd millennium AD.
The critical edition of Karna Parva, after removing spurious and corrupted text that is known so far, has 69 adhyayas(chapters) and 3,870 shlokas(verses).
Quotations & Teachings
Karna Parva, Chapter 6:
Passion, engagement, skill and policy - these are the means to accomplish objectives.
Karna Parva, Chapter 69:
Many people maintain that morality can be learned from the scriptures alone; I do not find fault with that, but then everything is not provided in the scriptures.
Moral precepts have been made for the well bring of all creatures.
Moral precepts have been made to free the creatures from all injuries.
Dharma - morality - is so called because it protects all. Morality saves all creatures. That is moral that keeps creatures from injuries.
An untruth spoken to save creatures from injuries is in the cause of morality and does not amount to a falsehood.
- Karna Parva, English translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli
- Karna Parva, English translation by Manmatha Nath Dutt
- Le Mahabharata, Translation in French, by H. Fauche (Paris, 1868)
- Karna Parva in Sanskrit by Vyasadeva and commentary by Nilakantha (Editor: Kinjawadekar, 1929)