Karna (written Karṇa in IAST transliteration) was the first son of Kunti, by Lord Surya, and was thus half brother to the Pandava brothers. He was the prince of Anga Rajya in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. He fought for Duryodhana in the great battle of Kurukshetra. He is akin to Job in the Bible.



The princess Kunti, while young, was granted a boon whereby she could call upon the gods at any time that she chose, and the god would grant her a child. Unsure of whether the boon would actually be granted, Kunti, while still an unmarried teenager, decided to test her powers and called upon Lord Surya. When the deity appeared before her, she was completely overawed. Surya, granted her a son as radiant and strong as his father. That son was Karna, born with divine armor and earrings that would ensure his protection.

Kunti was now in the embarrassing position of being an unwed mother. Unable to face the world with her divine child, she placed Karna in a basket and floated him down a river with his jewellery (the story of Moses bears a strong similarity to this), praying fervently that he would be kept safe.


The child Karna was borne down the river and picked up by a poor charioteer called Adiratha, a shudra, the lowest caste in Hindu society. He was raised by Adiratha and his wife Radha as their son; the son of a god among the lowest members of society. They knew something of his parentage by the jewellery he was found with, and never hid his noble birth from him. He was also known as Radhey because of the name of his mother Radha.


Karna sought to be a great warrior. He first approached Drona, teacher of the Pandavas and Kauravas, but Drona refused to teach him because of his low caste. He later asked Parashurama, another great teacher, to teach him the art of warfare. Parashurama only taught Brahmins, who were the highest caste, this art, and would not teach Kshatriyas, a warrior caste because of his hatred for them as they killed his father. Once when the Parashurama was sleeping with his head on Karna's lap, a bee stung Karna. This caused Karna to bleed and bare acute pain, but refused to move at all so his teacher could rest. When Parashurama woke up and saw the blood, he divined that Karna was not a Brahmin, and believed that only a Kshatriya could bear such pain. So he cursed Karna for his guile and deception such that his knowledge would fail him when he needed it the most. Later, another Brahmin cursed Karna that he would be killed when he was helpless, because Karna accidently killed the Brahmin's cow.

King of Anga

A contest tournament was held to determine the greatest skilled warrior. The winner's prize was the hand of marriage to the Princess Draupadi. Virtually all great warriors of the generation competed for her hand. Karna, who was raised by low-caste charioteers, competed in the contest and was constantly mocked for his low caste. Nevertheless, he defeated every one of the warriors and was about to contest Arjuna (by successfully completing the last task of the contest) to decide the winner. However, Draupadi used her veto power and stated that she refused to marry a person who was a low-caste charioteer. In disgust, Karna threw down his bow and arrows, because even if he won the competition, he was not a member of the high prince-warrior caste, and disqualified from the competition. Arjuna won by default. Briefly afterwards, Duryodhana, who competed in the competition and was the eldest Kaurava prince of the powerful kingdom of Hastinapura, crowned Karna the King of Anga. This allowed Karna to be considered a member of the high prince-warrior caste. Nevertheless, he continued to be mocked for his low-caste upbringing.

The Tragedy of Karna

Encounter with Kunti

The Pandavas and the Kauravas were cousins who competed for the throne of Hastinapura. Eventually, this led to a war. Before the war, Kunti, biological mother of Karna and the Pandavas, approached Karna and asked him to join the Pandavas and she would pronounce that he was the rightful heir to the throne of Hastinapura. However, Karna refused her offer because she abandoned him, refused to recognize his birthright for over fourteen years after the warrior competition, and Duryodhana had always been loyal to him. Therefore, his loyality lay with the Kauravas. Kunti asked him to promise not to kill any of the five Pandavas. Karna promised that Kunti that if he ever faced any Pandava brother in combat, he would spare his life, except for Arjuna, because Karna was one of the few warriors who could compete with Arjuna.

Encounter with Indra

Indra, king of the gods (i.e. Devas) and father of Arjuna, realized that (akin to Achilles in the Iliad), Karna's armor and earrings were impregnable which in essence made him undefeatable in battle. Surya, Karna's father and god of the Sun, informed Karna in a dream that Indra would disguise himself as a beggar and ask for Karna's armour and earrings as alms. Indra did this, but nevertheless Karna gave his armour and earrings, because it was his moral policy to never refuse beggars. Indra, struck by Karna's genuine kindness, offered Karna the ability to use Indra's most powerful weapon, the shakti, but only once.

The Great War: Kurukshetra

Kurukshetra was the eighteen day war between the Pandavas and Kauravas. Karna was killed on the 17th day of battle by Arjuna.

Karna's Honor and Dishonor in Battle

During the course of the war, he encountered each Pandava prince, save Arjuna, and defeated everyone of them and was capable of even killing them. (This included Yudhisthira, the Pandava who claimed the right to rule Hastinapura). However, Karna kept his promise he made to Kunti and spared their lives.

On the thirteenth day of battle, Drona, then-commander-and-chief of the Kaurava army, instructed Karna to break the warrior's code of conduct and gang up on Abhimanyu, a Pandava ally and the favorite son of Arjuna, who was decimating the Kauravas. If he disobeyed his commander, he broke the warrior's code of conduct. If he ganged up on Abhimanyu, he would break the code of conduct. In this unfortunate dilemma, Karna wrongly chose to gang up on Abhimanyu. (Note: Karna shot arrows that broke Abhimanyu's bow and broke the reins of Abhimanyu's chariot while the Kauravas ganged up on him. He did not kill Abhimanyu.)

On the fourteenth night of battle, Ghatotkacha, a son of the Pandava Bheema, was decimating the Kaurava forces. Karna was forced to use the shakti weapon on Ghatotkacha. Because Indra only allowed Karna to use it once, Karna was now without that weapon and his impregnable armour and earrings.

On the fifteenth day of battle, Drona was killed, and Karna became commander-and-chief of the Kaurava forces.

On the seventeenth day of battle, Karna finally was given the opportunity to encounter Arjuna in combat. They were evenly matched during the spectacular combat. However, during the course of combat, one of the Karna's chariot wheels got stuck in the mud. Karna asked Arjuna to disengage in combat while he got off his chariot and removed the wheel from the mud. Arjuna agreed. Then Krishna informed Arjuna to break the code of conduct and shoot Karna while he lifted his wheel out of the mud. Arjuna complied, and Karna was killed. Karna's combat with Arjuna fulfilled Parashurama's curse as well as the other Brahmin's curse on Karna.

After Karna's Death

After Karna's death, Kunti informed the Pandava's that she was Karna's mother and that he was the eldest of the Pandavas. The Pandavas grieved for Karna. On the 18th day of battle, the Kauravas were decimated and defeated.

Karna: The "Job" of Hinduism

Despite unfortunate circumstances, Karna relentlessly did what he believed was right, even if in the end it caused him suffering. He could have been king, but he chose to do the right thing. According to the Mahabharata, Karna attained Moksha (i.e. Nirvana or Heaven) upon his death. He is a hero to all people, low caste or high caste, Hindu or non-Hindu.


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