Chapter in a Nutshell

This chapter tells the story of Karna from the Mahabharata. Karna was the son of the Sun god and half-brother to the Pandavas. This story narrates four incidents from Karna’s life- his first meeting with the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the time he was cursed by Parasurama, his talk with the dying Bhishma, and finally his death.

Characters

  1. Karna – a mighty warrior who was the son of Kunti and the Sun god
  2. Arjuna – a Pandava, son of Kunti and Indra
  3. Duryodhana – the eldest Kaurava
  4. Bhishma – a wise and great warrior related to both the Pandavas and the Kauravas 
  5. Krishna – Arjuna’s charioteer and the reincarnation of Lord Vishnu
  6. Yudhishthira, Bhima – the other Pandavas who are Kunti’s sons
  7. Draupadi – the Pandavas’ wife
  8. Parasurama – a great sage who could teach the Brahmastra

Karna meets the Pandavas and the Kauravas

The Pandavas and the Kauravas learnt to use weapons from Kripacharya and Drona. A day was fixed to test them and show their skills to the Royal family. The public was also invited to this event. Everyone was awed by Arjuna’s superhuman skills and admired him greatly. Duryodhana was very jealous of this.

At the end of the day, a godlike youth suddenly appeared and challenged Arjuna. He was Karna, Arjuna’s half-brother who was unaware of their relation. Karna easily duplicated all of Arjuna’s feats. Duryodhana was overjoyed and hugged him. Karna told him that he only wanted two things- Duryodhana’s love and a fight with Arjuna, making Duryodhana even happier.

Arjuna was filled with anger and told Karna to actually fight him instead of just talking about it. So, they prepared for battle. Their godly parents, Indra, the god of thunder, and Bhaskara, the god of the sun, appeared in the heavens to watch them. Kunti immediately recognized Karna as her first son and fainted. Vidura told the maidservant to look over her and she regained consciousness. Shocked and distressed, she did not know what to do.

As the battle was about to start, Kripa told Karna that Arjuna, a mighty prince of royal lineage, could not fight an unknown adventurer like Karna. At this, Duryodhana immediately stood up and made Karna the king of Anga. When the fight was finally about to start after this, Karna’s foster-father, the old charioteer Adhiratha, entered the assembly. Karna bowed to him as he hugged his son with tears. Bhima laughed at this scene, saying that Karna was not fit to fight Arjuna or be a king because he was just the son of a charioteer.

Duryodhana replied that it was unworthy of Bhima to talk like that because many great men had humble origins. He also said that Karna looked too great to be an ordinary man. At last, he angrily went away with Karna in his chariot.

Indra could see that a big fight between Arjuna and Karna would surely happen in the future. So, he disguised himself as a Brahman and begged the generous Karna for his earrings and armour. The Sun god had already warned Karna that this would happen but he still could not manage to refuse Indra. He gave away the earrings and armour he had been born with.

Indra was filled with surprise and joy at the action and felt shameful about what he had done. So, he told Karna to ask for any blessing he wanted. Karna said he wanted Indra’s mighty weapon, the Shakti. Indra granted it to him on the condition that he could kill every enemy except one.

Karna’s Curse

Karna pretended to be a Brahmana and became Parasurama’s disciple. He learnt the mantra for using the master weapon known as Brahmastra from him. One day, Parasurama was resting in Karna’s lap when a stinging worm dug into his thigh. Although there was a lot of blood and pain, Karna did not move because he did not want to disturb his master’s sleep. Parasurama woke up and saw the scene. He told Karna that he could not be a Brahmana because only a kshatriya could undergo such pain without moving. He demanded Karna tell him the truth.

Karna admitted that he had lied to his master and that he was actually the son of a charioteer. Parasurama was angry and cursed him saying that he would forget the Brahmastra that he had learnt at the most important moment.

Karna and the Grandsire

On learning that Bhishma was wounded and dying, Karna hurried to him. Bhishma told Karna that he was actually the son of Kunti and the Sun god. He said that he had been sad to see his hatred for the Pandavas and wished that he would befriend them as their true brother.

Karna said that he was aware of his origins, but he must remain true to Duryodhana who had always supported him. He could not go over to the Pandavas now and must repay Duryodhana even at the cost of his life. He asks for Bhishma’s forgiveness and blessings.

Bhishma told him to do as he wished for it was the right way, and gave him his blessings. He said Karna was dependable and loyal and should serve and save Duryodhana as he wished. Hence, Karna rode to the battlefield. Duryodhana was overjoyed and his sorrow at having lost Bhishma was reduced a bit.

The Death of Karna

The Kaurava princes made Karna their grand general. Karna stood in his gorgeous war chariot driven by Salya. His confidence and fame cheered up the Kauravas. A great battle followed.

Karna shot an arrow of fire towards Arjuna. Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, moved the chariot so that it missed Arjuna’s head but it still struck off his helmet. Arjuna was filled with shame and anger and readied his bow to strike Karna. Karna’s fated hour had come and the left wheel of his chariot suddenly sank into the mud below. He jumped down to lift it up. He pleaded Arjuna to not take unfair advantage of this situation since he was a righteous warrior.

Arjuna hesitated but Krishna spoke up. He said that Karna only remembered fair play when he was in difficulty. He did not think about fair play when he had insulted Draupadi at the Hall of Assembly along with Duryodhana, Dushasana and Sakuni. Krishna reminded him of all the immoral things he had done. He cheated Dharmaputra while gambling and refused Yudhishthira his kingdom after the Pandavas’ twelve years of exile.

He plotted with wicked people to poison Bhima and to burn the Pandavas after luring them to the palace of wax. He also did nothing but mock Draupadi as she was violently disrobed. He was even involved in the shameless killing of the young Abhimanyu. Krishna concluded that having committed all these misdeeds, Karna did not have the right to talk about chivalry and fair play.

Karna bowed his head in shame and climbed his chariot which was still stuck. He then sent an arrow towards Arjuna with such force that it stunned him for a moment. Karna utilized this time to try to pull his wheel out of the mud again but fortune had left him so he failed. He could not even remember the Brahmastra because Parasurama had cursed him.

Krishna pleaded Arjuna to waste no time and kill his enemy. Arjuna was still hesitant but ultimately shot his arrow and killed Karna as Lord Krishna had commanded him to. The poet of the Mahabharata did not want to assign this action to the noble Arjuna. The poet instead said that it was on Lord Krishna’s command that Arjuna shot Karna while he was trying to get his chariot out of the mud. The act might have been wrong according to the code of honour and the laws of war, but only the Lord could take responsibility for such violations of dharma.

Conclusion

Karna, although a great and mighty warrior, finally dies at the hands of Arjuna. The misdeeds he had committed throughout his life brought him to his end. This story shows us how fate abandons even the mighty if they have made the wrong choices and engaged in dishonourable actions.