Karna – The Generous—from the Mahabaratha
Karna is one of the most fascinating characters in the Mahabharata, the Indian epic that tells the tale of a warring family.
Kunti was a young princess when the great sage Durvasa visited her father’s kingdom. She took great care of the sage and looked to his comforts with humility. The sage was pleased and decided to grant her a boon. With his unique powers, he foresaw the future, and taught her a mantra which would invoke a god of her choice, who would give her a son.
The young Kunti was curious about the mantra, and seeing the sun shining brightly, invoked the Sun God, but was appalled when she found herself with a small child, bright as the sun himself, wearing golden earrings and armour. Afraid of the consequences of her rash action, Kunti abandoned the child by placing him in a basket and floating it down the river.
The child was found by Adhirath, a charioteer of Hastinapur. A childless man, he took the child as a gift from the gods and brought him up as his own son. Named Vasusena by his adoptive parents, the child came to be known as Karna due to the golden earrings in his ears (Sanskrit: karn = ears) with which he was born.
Kunti then got married to Pandu, the king of Hastinapur. He was impotent and thus Kunti was able to use the mantra to beget three children from three other gods. Pandu had two more children through his other wife, Madri. These five children were known as the Pandavas. After the death of Pandu, it was Kunti who brought them all up. She was tremendously proud of the achievements of her five sons, but never forgot her first born, the one she could never call her own.
Karna grew up in the charioteer’s house, but his illustrious lineage showed through his actions. Wishing to learn the arts of war, he tried to gain acceptance into one of the many ashrams teaching young Kshatriyas and Brahmins the skill of handling weapons, but was refused admission since he was the son of a charioteer, considered to belong a low caste. Tutoring himself, he mastered many skills, and finally gained the tutelage of the great Parasurama, but under the guise of a Brahmin, since there was no other caste the sage would teach. Parasurama started teaching him the secret of the Brahmastra, (today this is identified as a nuclear weapon) the greatest of all weapons, believing him to be a Brahmin. One day, as Parasurama reclined on Karna’s lap, a bee bit Karna, and, unwilling to wake the sage, Karna bore the pain as well as he could. The sage awoke and realized Karna’s predicament, but was furious, for he realized that no Brahmin could bear the kind of pain Karna had. He knew at once that Karna was a Kshatriya, and refused to accept Karna’s assurance to the contrary. In his anger, the sage cursed Karna that since he had lied to his guru, he would forget the warfare skills he had learnt through deceit at the moment he most needed them.
Karna’s misfortune continued when he mistakenly shot a cow and was cursed that he himself would be killed when he was as helpless as the cow he had killed.
In spite of such misfortunes, Karna continued to master all the skills he could learn. His caste again came in the way when he tried to prove himself as a talented archer, and he was not allowed to showcase his skills against those of the princes.
Duryodhana, first son amongst the Kauravas and cousin and arch enemy of the Pandavas, recognized the talent of the young man, and was quick to enlist his friendship, making him the King of Anga, thus elevating his status. It was a favour Karna never forgot, considering himself indebted to Duryodhana for the gesture, and stood by his friend through thick and thin, even after he learnt the story of his birth. While he was aware of Duryodhana’s wrongdoings and continually advised him against it, he was always grateful for his friendship, and always stood by his side, to the extent of fighting the war with Duryodhana against his blood brothers even when he knew he was doomed to die. He is thus considered to be the epitome of loyalty.
Arjuna and Karna were bitter enemies, especially since they were both equally adept at archery. Kunti worried about the rivalry between her sons and Karna. She recognized him as her abandoned son and regretted her hasty action. In an attempt to make amends, she went to meet him as he performed his oblations in the river to the sun, a ritual he performed every day at dawn. Surprised to see the mother of his rival waiting for him, he asked her the reason for her presence.
Kunti related to Karna the story of his birth and begged him to join the Pandavas, his brothers. Karna was saddened by the tale, but he said, “I can never abandon Duryodhana, since he befriended me when I had no friends. I cannot be so ungrateful as to abandon him in his need.” However, he reassured Kunti that his rivalry was with Arjuna. He would not fight or kill any of her other sons during the battle. He would only fight with Arjuna. “You will have five sons living at the end of thae war” he promised her ironically!
Lord Indra, father of Arjuna, was also worried, since he knew that Karna was the only danger to Arjuna. He also knew that as the son of the Sun God Surya, Karna was born with golden earrings and armour which made him invincible. He therefore decided to trick Karna into parting with them. Surya was aware of Indra’s intention, and warned Karna.
Indra arrived disguised as a Brahmin when Karna was completing his morning rituals, knowing that Karna would give alms to the poor Brahmins after he finished. Karna at once recognized Indra, but graciously asked him to accept something. Indra was waiting for Karna’s word, and at once asked him for his earrings and armour. Karna smiled, and taking his knife, immediately cut off the armour which grew with his body, and his earrings, and handed them over to Indra while remarking that he was happy to be able to give alms to the king of the gods himself.
Indra was stunned by Karna’s generosity, and offered him a boon in return. Karna asked for Indra’s Shakti, an invincible weapon which always found its mark. Indra had no choice but to grant his wish, but he added a condition that Karna would be able to use it just once.
Karna was surely the most generous of men, but his misfortunes in the form of various curses, and his bad choice of companions proved to be his downfall. Keeping his promise to Kunti, he refused to fight any of the Pandavas except Arjuna, saving his most potent weapon for his arch rival. Unfortunately, he was forced to use the Shakti when Bhima the Pandava’s rakshasa son Ghatotkach threatened to wipe out the Kaurava forces, since nothing else seemed to work against the giant.
In the final battle with Arjuna, all the curses that he had earned seemed to work together, when he first forgot the mantras which he had learnt from Parasurama, and finally when his chariot wheel got stuck in the mud, and he was killed by Arjuna while he was helpless, trying to get it out.
Following the Kurukshetra war, Tarpan vidhi (rites of passage) were performed for all the dead heroes. Kunti then requested her remaining five sons to perform the rites for Karna as well. When they protested, saying he was a charioteer, she revealed the truth of his birth.
The brothers were shocked to find that they had committed fratricide. Karna’s sons too had been killed by the Pandavas. Yudhishtira, the eldest, born to the Lord of Dharma, 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.
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