A Great Hero of hte 'Mahabharata'. Karna lived such a life that he became another name for generosity and loyalty. It was his misfortune to be shunned as a person of low caste. He sacrifice his life for his master.
The Ganga was flowing full to the brim. An old man stood on the bank. He made obeisance with folded hands to the sun that was just rising. He prayed as usual:
"Oh Sun God! You give light to the whole world. I have no children and my life is miserable. Have mercy on me. Grant me a child. Bestow light on my life."
A Treasure On The Waves
As the prayer ended, Adhiratha's eyes were filled with tears. This was not the first time all this had happened. Every day he would pray like this, He was already becoming old. He thought perhaps God had not heard his prayer at all.
Adhiratha was about to leave. Then he saw something floating. Adhiratha stood still. The object was floating towards him. When it came near him Adhiratha bent down. Lo, it was a large basket! Inside, on a soft cushion, there was a child. It wore a Shining armor; it had a glowing earornament. The Child was lovely; it shone like a miniature sun.
Adhiratha was overwhelmed with surprise, pity and joy. At once he picked up the child from the basket. Tears of joy flowed from his eyes profusely. How strange! He had found a child just where he had stood in prayer! Did it mean that God had heard his prayer? Poor child, to whom does it belong? What did it matter! In future it would be his, and only his. Adhiratha joyfully took child in his arms and went home.
Radha was Adhiratha's wife. Like her husband she was also pining for a child. When she saw the child she could not contain her joy. They brought up the child lovingly.
They named the child Vasushena. But the name Karna stuck to the child.
"I Must Become His Disciple"
Karna grew up to be a boy. He was brighter than his friends, stronger and more determined. Even as a boy he liked bows and arrows. He was far ahead of others in archery and in marksmanship. Those who watched him were surprised. "He is so young, but already so intelligent and so sure of his aim!" they said.
Karna wished to improve his mastery of archery. He longed to become an outstanding archer and a great warrior. But he needed a teacher to train him, didn't he? He was looking for such a teacher.
Once when he was talking to somebody, the great Parashurama's name was mentioned. Karna asked:
"Who is Parashurama?"
"He is the son of the sage Jamadagni. Although a sage, he is an outstanding warrior.
"Who is Parashurama?"
"How is that?"
"He has gone round the whole country twenty-one times. No Kshatriya could vanquish him. When he lifts his bow the whole world trembles. He knows the intricacies of archery. Do you know what people say about him?"
"What do they say?"
"He is the very embodiment of the art of archery. He is God born on this earth to wipe out injustice."
When Karna heard this, admiration and respect for Parashurama grew in him. He wished to become the disciple of such a great man and learn archery only from him. But there was one nagging doubt: would Parashurama accept him as his disciple?
Karna made bold and went to the hermitage of Parashurama. He prostrated before him. Parashurama asked:
"Who are you, Child
"They call me Karna."
"Why did you come to me?"
"You are regarded as a matchless and outstanding warrior. You know the intricacies of archery. I wish to become your pupil. Do not reject me."
When he observed Karna's humility and love of learning, Parashurama took pity on him. As Parashurama desired Karna gladly demonstrated his skill. Parashurama was surprised at his dexterity andconcentration. He felt Karna's skill was beyond his years. He also felt that Karna deserved to be his pupil. He agreed to teach Karna the art of archery. Karna was overjoyed.
In those days only Kshatriyas and Brahmins were allowed to stay with and learn archery from a teacher.
Parashurama hated that Kshatriyas. Therefore he had decided to teach archery only to Brahmins. He thought Karna was a Brahmin. And Karna refrained from telling him that he was not a Brahmin.
Karna's training proceeded without any hindrance. He would grasp his teacher's instructions instantly. He would carry them out perfectly, at the first attempt. Thus Karna grasped the technique of archery from the teacher. And he served his teacher with affection. Quite some time passed.
The Curse Of Parashurama
One afternoon Parashurama was somewhat tired. He rested with his head in Karna's lap. He fell asleep.
At that time a bee flew in from somewhere. Flying hither and thither it settled on Karna's thigh. Within a few minutes it began to bore Karna's thigh. Karna could not attempt to drive it away. Even a slight movement of his thigh would disturb his master. So inspire of the increasing pain Karna sat still. He thought that his suffering did not matter if the teacher's sleep was not to be disturbed. The bee continued to bore Karna's thigh. Blood began to ooze from the thigh. The blood touched Parashurama's cheek. He woke up. He was taken aback and said:
"What is this, child? Where did so much blood come from?"
Karna explained what had happened.
Asked Parashurama: "Did you put up with so much pain without a murmur?"
"The pain did not seem unbear able to me."
Parashurama was surprised. He looked at Karna from head to foot. He had all along assumed that Karna was a Brahmin boy. But a soft-bodied Brahmin could not have endured so much pain. Karna was not a Brahmin. Parashurama suspected strongly that Karna was a Kshatriyas. Angrily he spoke to Karna in a harsh voice:
"You, Karna I"
"Tell me the truth, who are you? Have you not hidden something from me?"
"What have I hidden, I do not "Are you a Brahmin boy? Tell me, tell me the truth."
Karna did not reply. He stood silent, with his head bowed. He had assumed that he was really the son of Adhiratha whobrought him up, Adhiratha was a charioteer. He Karna, was a charioteer's son; neither a Brahmin nor a Kshatriyas. What answer could he give to his teacher? He was Miserable and filled with fear. Karna's silence convinced Parashurama that his suspicion was confirmed. Karna's modesty, courage, reverences for the teacher and love of learning- he forgot all in his wrath. "You, boy! Have you not deceived your teacher and received training? I have taught you the use of mighty weapons; but when you most need this knowledge may you forget it all!" So Parashurama cruelly cursed Karna.
Karna felt as if the ground on which he stood gave way. He had hurt his teacher's feelings. Besides he had acquired the curse by which he would forget all he had learnt, when he needed it next, he left Parashurama's hermitage.
The education of the princes, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, in archery had just concluded. A display of their skill had been arranged. This news reached Karna.
He went there, curious to see the exhibition of the skill of archery by the princes.
There was a large field outside the capital Hastinavati City. A stadium had been constructed there. In the center there was a huge arena. The rest of the stadium was for the spectators. There was a huge gathering of people to witness the display. Members of the royal family were also there.
The display began. The princes gave an exhibition of riding swift horses. They performed strangle feats of horse riding. They drove chariots in breath-taking ways. They sat on elephants and fought. They swung and brandished swords in various ways and showed a variety of tricks. Arjuna all by himself gave an effortless display of archery. He showed the use of mighty arrows, which amazed the audience. Everybody began to praise him: "There is nobody to equal Arjuna. He is supreme in archery."
"Partha, Do Not Be Proud"
At that time there was a sound of thunder near the door. The people turned to look. A youth was striking his arms as if in challenge and advancing. His radiance, his well-built body, his tall stature, his bright armor and ear-ornament-all dumbfounded the people. A murmur rose on all sides:
The youth who had stepped forward was none other than Karna. When he came to the arena he turned towards Arjuna and said:
"You, Partha, do not think that there is no better archer than you and be puffed up with vanity. I shall display far greater mastery than your." So saying, Karna demonstrated his skill. He shot the Parjanya weapon into the sky and brought down rain; with the Vayavya weapon he checked the rain. By Agneya weapon he checked the rain. By Aneya weapon he kindled fire, and with the Varuna weapon he put it out. Into the mouth of a swiftly turning metallic figure of a boar he drove five arrows. He shot an Antardhana weapon, which made him disappear; swiftly he appeared in another part of the arena. After their display he took a mace and showed in how many ways he could wield it. People were astounded at this superb mastery. There was uproar on every side.
The King Of Anga
Hardly was the display over when Duryondhana raced to the arena, embraced Karna and said, "You matchless warrior, your Valor and knowledge of arms have overwhelmed me. Here, my kingdom and I are all yours. Tell me what you desire. I want to fulfil your wish at once."
In reply said Karna: "Maharaja, I do not want anything else. Your friendship and a bout of archery with Arjuna: These are the only two I want." Duryondhana said, "If so, your wishes are as good as fulfilled. From today you are my bosom friend; you are my equal. Need I fear anybody in future?"
All this talk provoked Arjuna who was nearby. Said he, "You Karna! We did not invite you but still you came. We did not ask you to speak, still you are talking too much, You have disturbed a quiet assembly. I will kill you at once. Be armed and get ready to fight."
Karna flared up at this and said:
"You Arjuna! This arena is not reserved for you. This is a public place. Whoever knows archery may exhibit it here. What is your objection? You are insulting me. Does a true warrior blabber? Come, fight. I will kill you with my arrow here and now."
Both of them got ready to fight. Dronacharya, who had trained the princes, had to agree to this. There was utter confusion in the assembly. Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, fainted when she heard that Karna and Arjuna were to fight.
Kripacharya walked up to the arena. He knew well the rules of a duel. He said to Karna:
"Look, Karna. This person who is ready to fight against you is Arjuna. He is a prince of the race of the Moon, son of king Pandu. The person to oppose him should be his equal in all these respects. Whose son are you? To what race do you belong? Whose pupil? Tell it to the assembly."
Karna bowed his head overcome by a sense of shame and sorrow. 'I am the son of a charioteer. Therefore, it seems I belong to a low race. These people are making it a big issue. What does it matter who I am 7 Is not courage important for a man?' thought Karna. But that was the practice of the time. What could be done? Karna stood silent.When Duryondhana saw what had happened he was furious. "You Kripacharya, what are you talking about? You think that Arjuna is a prince and Karna is not, don't you?
Well, then, here and now I make Karna a king. He can then challenge Arjuna, cannot he?" So saying, he then and there crowned Karna, King of Anga State. The people shouted in approval. Karna was overwhelmed with gratitude. "Maharaja, how can I repay you for this favor?" he asked. Duryondhana said, "Karna, I value your friendship more than anything else. Let it always be mine" and embraced him.
Arjuna and Karna were about to fight. At that moment Adhiratha came there. He had just heard that his son had become a king. Karna went to him and saluted. Adhiratha lovingly embraced his son and blessed him thus: "Child, may your fame increase." Bhima who observed this understood that Karna was the son of Adhiratha. He said in a slighting voice: "You, Karna, are you not the son of Adhiratha, the charioteer? How can you be the equal of Arjuna born in the lunar race? Because he stands by the side of the sacred fire, does a dog get the right to eat the sacred offering? You are unworthy of the Anga kingdom; you are not even fit to be killed by Arjuna in a battle" so insulted Bhima. When Duryondhana heard this he became furious. He turned to Bhima and shouted: "Your words are not worthy of a Kshatriyas. For a Kshatriyas, valor is most important. How do Karna’s caste matters? Indra's mighty weapon, Vajraayudha, was forged out of sage Dadhichi's bone; Dronacharya was born in a s sacred pot; they say that Kripacharya was born in a handful of sacred grass. Why should birth matter? Karna was born with sacred earornament and armor. He shines like the sun. How is such a person unworthy of the kingdom of Anga? if anybody does not approve of the coronation of Karna let him fight against Karna and win."
There was commotion in the assembly. As it was getting dark, the assembly ended. People went home, praising Karna's prowess.
Duryodhana's Bosom Friend
The friendship between Duryodhana and Karna grew day by day. Not for a moment did Duryodhana think that he was the emperor and Karna was his inferior. He was always in the company of Karna, He would tell him everything . When the officials employed for the purpose began to sing his titles he would stop them and make them sing Karna's titles, and feel happy. Every day he would give precious gifts to Karna. he valued greatly Karna's character, strength, honesty and generosity.
And Karna reciprocated. Duryodhana was dear to him as his own life. For his sake karna was prepared to offer his life. When others insulted by calling him the son of a charioteer, Duryodhana alone had treated him as his equal; so Karna had great regard and friendship for Duryodhana.
Karna was matchless in charity. So was he in carrying out his promise. Hundreds of poor people used to come to him. Wiht a smile Karna would give them money or clothes. He was called " Danashoora" ( outstanding in generosity).
The Kauravas and the Pandavas were sons of brothers. For the sake of the kingdom they were always at loggerheads. Whenever there was a quarrel Karna was on the side of Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas. For him I must fight; in the future war I must kill his enemies, the Pandavas; in particular I must destroy the most powerful among them, Arjuna. That will please Duryodhana. Such were his thoughts. He had confidence in his ability to protect Duryodhana even if Bhisma, Drona and others let him down. Whenever Duryodhana was worried about the stronger of hte Pandavas, Karna would assure him. " Please do not worry. Only, let there be a war between ourselves and hte Pandavas, then you will see. I am going to crush them." Such words gave Duryodhana comfort and confidence.
"Come, Karna, Be The Emperor"
The Kauravas and the Pandavas decided to wage a war for the kingdom. Krishna went to Hastinavati to prevent the war and bring about an agreement between the two. In the king's court he advised Duryodhana not to wage a war. Duryodhana did not heed the advice. When he left Hastinavati Krishna took Karna a little distance with him. He made him sit by his side in the chariot. Karna was diffident and uneasy. He thought: Krishna is a great man. Compared to him who is I-a low caste man! Why does he make me sit next to him? Krishna realised this. He said with a smile: -
"Karna, you need not be embarrassed. You think that you are the son of a charioteer, don't you? But no, it is not true. Adhiratha is your foster-father; not the real father.
You are Kunti's son. Kunti gave birth to you when she was not yet married. Fearing that people would blame her, she put you in a basket and sent you floating on the river Ganga. Adhiratha found you. Karna, you were born by the grace of the Sun God; you are a Kshatriyas, and the eldest of the Pandavas. As you are my aunt Kunti's son, you are related to me also. Come with me. I will take you to the Pandavas. Because you are the eldest among both the Kauravas and Pandavas, you will be the emperor of the Kaurava Empire. The Pandavas will also be very happy when they come to know that you are their eldest brother. Both Duryodhana and Dharmaraja will accept you as the emperor. There will be no war and thousands of people will escape death. You belong to a great family, but all these days you have been regarded as the son of a charioteer. Enough of such humiliation! You should live as the emperor obeyed by the Kauravas, the Pandavas and the Yadavas, but you have been begging alms of Duryodhana!"
"Duryodhana Is Everything To me"
On hearing Krishna, surprise, happiness and sorrow at once overcame Karna and his voice was choked. It was difficult to speak. Said he: "Krishna, you say that Kunti was the mother who gave birth to, me. That may be. However, she abandoned me at the instant of my birth. But as soon as he saw me Adhiratha lovingly carried me home.
Mother Radha has fed me with her milk. Adhiratha has treated me better than his own son. He has brought me up lovingly -and celebrated my marriage. No matter what you offer me, how can I leave the parents who have lavished such love on me? And now about Duryodhana. We are two bodies but one soul. When the whole world was mocking me as lowborn, he honored me. I went to him as a nobody, but he bestowed a kingdom on me. He has given boundless* friendship. How can I repay his debt? In declaring war on the Pandavas he has mainly relied on me. Shall I join the Pandavas and betray him? No, Krishna. Duryodhana is the master who gave me succour. He is my master, my all. I will stand by him and fight the Pandavas. If I win I shall have the satisfaction of having done my master's work; if I die I shall have glory. So I am resolved. Now let us part."
On hearing Karna, Krishna was inwardly full of admiration. "Bravo Karna! You are the very embodiment of loyalty to the master" thought he. But he took leave of Karna without showing his feelings.
"Be The Mother Of Five Children"
Next morning Karna was offering prayer to the sun on the bank of the river. At that time Kunti came there. Krishna himself had sent her there. He had asked her to get a promise from Karna that he would not kill the Pandavas. The moment he saw Kunti, Karna respectfully touched her feet and saluted her. Said Kunti, "Child, you are my son. The Pandavas are your younger brothers. You have been thinking of your brothers as your enemies. You have vowed to kill them. Please do not do so. Leave the camp of the Kauravas. Join your younger brothers. Am I not your mother? Hear my words, Karna. Is it not the duty of children to carry out the wishes of their parents?"
Replied Karna: "Mother dear, you are my mother, true. But till now people have been ignorant of this fact. Those who looked after me and brought me up are also my parents. How can ' I give them up? This is the time of war, a time when all those who have eaten Duryodhana's salt must fight for him, not rearing death. For the last thirteen years I have enjoyed all princely privileges with him. It was his friendship that brought me everything. All these days I haven't once said a word about my brothers.
Suppose now, when war is imminent, I talk about them and go over to the Pandavas. The whole world will call me a traitor. Therefore my joining the Pandavas is unthinkable. But mother, I will comply with one of your requests. You desire that I should not kill the Pandavas. I agree; I will not kill any of the Pandavas except Arjuna. Whether I kill Arjuna or Arjuna kills me, it won't matter. In either case you will be definitely left with five children. Now let us part." With these words Karna saluted hismother and wished her good-bye.
"I Will Not Fight Now"
The armies of the Kauravas and the Pandavas got ready for war. Bhishma became the Supreme Commander of the Kaurava army. He was listing the names of the important generals on his side and on the side of the Pandavas. In those days the mighty warriors used to rank as Atirathas and maharathas according to their prowess.
Bhishma said of Karna: "This Karna is not an Atirathas; he is not even a purnaratha. Even the teacher who taught him has cursed him. Also the natural armor and earornament he had at birth, he has presented to others. So he is not as strong as he used to be. Therefore, he is an ardharatha." So Bhishma ranked him disparagingly, far below the renowned generals. Dronacharya who was nearby also said: "Yes, yes, tie is very vain. Truly he is an ardharatha."
Karna who heard all this was very much pained. He was also enraged. Said he: "Bhishma, why do you hate me so much? I am innocent. Still you always prick me with such fierce words. You are the Supreme Commander. Is it right to sow conflict in the army? Who can say that you know your responsibility as the Supreme Commander?
You are extremely old; you are senile. That is why you talk like this. "He turned to Duryodhana and said: "Friend, this man thinks he is the only warrior in the world. Single-handed, I can destroy the Pandavas and their army. But when he derides me in this fashion, why should I fight? Even if I kill the enemies, this Supreme Commander will get the credit. I do not like it. In any case, he will be defeated in the war. After that I will fight and kill the enemies". So saying, Karna renounced the war and walked away.
"Granfather Forgive Me"
The war began. As Suprem Commander Bhishma fought against the Pandava army for ten days. He killed thousands of soldiers in the Pandava army. Even the mighty Arjuna found it difficult to stop him. Having fought like this for ten days, Bhishma fell, with arrows stickling all over his body.
True- ' Karna was angry with Bhishma because he had insulted him. But when he saw Bhishma's valor his entire wrath evaporated. Such was his magnanimous nature. He would recognize and admire whatever was good and noble even in enemies. Bhishma's prowess won his admiration. He went to see Bhishma who was lying in a bed of arrows. "Bhishma, I am Karna; I have come to pay my respects to You," so saying he touched Bhishma's feet and saluted.
A flood of tears gushed out of Bhishma's eyes. He embraced Karna as a father would embrace a son. "Karna, you think that I hate you, don't you? No child, truly I have the slightest feeling of enmity towards you. I know you are a mighty warrior. You are like a god. In valor and munificence there is nobody to excel you. In the art of war you are the equal of Krishna and Arjuna. But you are very vain about your strength. I used to speak to you harshly to check your vanity, that's all", said Bhishma.
When Karna heard this voice was choked with affection. "Grandfather, if I have spoken to you harshly in anger or ignorance, please forgive biess and me me," said Karna.
Bhishma told him that Karna was Kunti's son and said: "Karna, it is not possible for the Kauravas to win this war. Join the Pandavas. Advise Duryodhana to stop the war.
And let all of you live peacefully."
"It is impossible for me to join the Pandavas. Success or failure-God will be done. I shall fight to the end on the side of Duryodhana; he trusts me and relies on me." So saying, Karna again saluted Bhishma and returned.
After Bhishma, Drona became the Supreme Commander of the Kaurava army. On the fourth day the battle was waged in the night in the light of torches. Bhima's son Ghatotkacha fought fiercely that night. He was the son of demon Hidimba. He was very valiant and also a wizard.
The Kaurava army reeled under Ghatotkacha's magic. Seeing this, Karna faced him. He had a formidable weapon called Vaijayanti, Which he had kept by to kill Arjuna. But now he used it against Ghatotkacha and cut him into two. The Kaurava army was overjoyed at the valor of Karna. On, hearing that Karna had used up the Vaijayanti weapon Krishna and Arjuna heaved a sigh of relief.
Karna The Supreme Commander
Drona fought for five days and died. Thereafter Karna became the Supreme Commander. On the very first day he belabored in battle Nakula, one of the Pandavas. He could easily have killed Nakula. But remembering his promise to kunti he spared Nakula.
Karna was eager to kill Arjuna. In every respect he had excelled Arjuna. But there was one big handicap. He did not have as brilliant a charioteer as Arjuna had in Krishna.
He sent word through Duryodhana and persuaded the valiant Shalya to become his charioteer. But this only harmed Karna. Shalya was the uncle of the Pandavas.
Although he had joined the Kauravas he loved the Pandavas. And the Pandavas had made a secret prayer to Shalya: "if ever you become Karna's charioteer, speak to him in such a way that he loses heart."
Shalya did so. He began to praise Arjuna highly before Karna. He spoke so as to imply that Arjuna was mightier than Karna. This threw cold water on Karna's enthusiasm.
Poor man! That was his misfortune. The charioteer who should have helped him was himself inviting defeat. Besides, that very day he had lost two sons in the battle.
Death In The Service Of The Master
But Karna did not lose heart. That day there was a fierce battle between himself and Arjuna. Karna fought in such a way that both armies were thrilled and full of admiration.
Krishna, Bhima and others were exhorting Arjuna: " What is this Arjuna, Your fighting is so lifeless? Karna is subduing all your weapons. Put more fire into your fighting,"
Do what he may, Arjuna could not gain the upper hand in the fight. So he used the Brahma arrow. At the Very sight of it, the Kaurava soldiers were terrified and began to run helter-skelter. But Karna was unmoved. Laughingly he used a mighty weapon and stopped it. Not content with that, he aimed the Snake Arrow, which he had kept by to use against Arjuna. Its blazing light lit up the whole battlefield. The Serpent, Arrow who raced like a leaping flame would have surely killed Arjuna. But in the nick of the moment Krishna pressed the chariot with his foot and depressed it by five inches. The Snake Arrow who should have hit Arjuna's head struck his crown. The crown tumbled down.
Thus the Snake Arrow was wasted.
Karna thought of shooting another mighty arrow. But on account of Parashurama's curse he could not recollect its use. Besides, the left wheel of his chariot got stuck in the ground. The chariot tilted. The horses stumbled. All dangers crowded on Karna as if there was no end to his misfortunes.
Karna turned to Arjuna and said: "Arjuna, the wheel of my chariot is stuck in the ground. Give me but a moment's respite. I will lift it and set right the chariot. Thereafter we may resume the fight. When I have got down from the chariot and I do not have the bow, do not shoot an arrow. That would not be worthy of a warrior like you.
Probably Arjuna would have agreed. But Krishna came in the way. "Arjuna, this is the right moment. If you hesitate now you cannot kill him later. Shoot your arrow without scruple," said he. Karna jumped down from the chariot and tried to lift the wheel with all his might. But he was unfortunate. He was a very strong man and he did his very best, but the wheel would not move. And even as he strove, obeying Krishna's advice Arjuna shot the Anjalika Arrow at Karna. The radiant Karna's head rolled down as if the sun tumbled from the sky.
Thus Karna sacrificed his life for the sake of his friend and master Duryodhana. He became the model of -truthfulness and loyalty.