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Title: Karna  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Duryodhana, Arjuna, Glossary of Hinduism terms, Karnaprayag, Anga Kingdom
Collection: Characters in the Mahabharata, People Related to Krishna
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Karna in battle
Spouse(s) Vrushali
Children Sudama, Vrishasena, Chitrasena, Satyasena, Sushena, Shatrunjaya, Dvipata, Banasena, Prasena and Vrishaketu
Parent(s) conceived by (Kunti and Surya), adopted by (Adhiratha and Radha)

Karna (Sanskrit: कर्ण, IAST transliteration: Karṇa), originally known as Vasusena, is one of the central characters in the Hindu epic the Mahābhārata, from ancient India. He was the King of Anga (present day Bhagalpur and Munger). Karna was one of the greatest warriors, whose martial exploits are recorded in the Mahābhārata, and the only warrior believed to be able to defeat Arjuna in battle, an admiration expressed by Lord Krishna and Bhishma within the body of this work.[1] As per the Mahabharata, Karna was the only warrior in that era who conquered the entire world.[2] Karna single-handedly successfully conducted Digvijaya Yatra, conquering all kings in every direction of the world in order to establish Duryodhana as the emperor of the world and to conduct the Vaishnava sacrifice.[3] Karna was equal to 2 Maharatha warrior.[4]

Karna was the son of Surya and Kunti. He was born to Kunti before her marriage with Pandu. Karna was the closest friend of Duryodhana and fought on his behalf against the Pandavas (his brothers) in the famous Kurukshetra war. Karna fought against misfortune throughout his life and kept his word under all circumstances. It is believed that Karna founded the city of Karnal, in present Haryana.[5] Karna is one of the most famous personalities in Hinduism based on the merits they earned by giving charity. He is often quoted for his sacrifice, courage, charity, valour, and selflessness.


  • Etymology 1
  • Story 2
    • Birth, education and curses 2.1
      • Second Curse 2.1.1
    • Meeting Duryodhana 2.2
      • Fight with Jarasandha 2.2.1
    • Hostilities with the Pandavas 2.3
  • Conquering the World 3
  • Prelude to war 4
  • Celestial weapons (Astra's) of Karna 5
  • Kurukshetra war 6
    • Sitting out 6.1
    • Joining the battle 6.2
    • Killing Ghatotkacha 6.3
    • Karna Parva 6.4
      • Sixteenth Day 6.4.1
      • Seventeenth Day 6.4.2
      • Cremation 6.4.3
      • Ascension to svarga 6.4.4
    • Other stories 6.5
      • The Superior Son 6.5.1
      • Dharma-devata's protection 6.5.2
      • Parasurama's command 6.5.3
  • Karna's family 7
  • Themes and analysis 8
  • Secondary literature and media 9
    • Literature 9.1
    • Film and theater 9.2
  • In popular culture 10
  • Notes 11
  • Bibliography 12
  • Further reading 13
  • External links 14


The name he became renowned for in the epic was "Karna", meaning the cutter/peeler of his own skin/natural armor.

Karna's other names are:

  • Radheya - Son of Radha
  • Vaikarthana - The one who gave away his impenetrable natural armour & earrings to Indra. Also means the one who is related/belonging to the Hindu solar deity Surya
  • Rashmirathi - One who rides the chariot of light
  • Vasusena - Birth name meaning the one born with wealth (his golden Kavacha and Kundala).
  • Suryaputra - Son of Surya
  • Parashurama Shishya - Disciple of Parashurama
  • Angaraj - King of Anga
  • Vijaya Dhari - One who wields Vijaya
  • Adhirathi - Son of Adhiratha
  • Daanveer - The hero possessing undying charitable nature
  • Daanshoor - One who fought like a true warrior
  • Vrisha - One who is truthful in speech, engaged in penances, observant of vows, and kind even to enemies. Vrisha also means "bull", and Karna was referred to as bull by other warriors
  • Souta - Son of Suta or belonging to charioteer caste
  • Sūtaputra - Son of Sūta or belonging to charioteer caste
  • Kaunteya - Son of Kunti


Birth, education and curses

Surya, father of Karna, the Hindu Sun god.

As a young woman Kunti, the princess of the Kunti Kingdom, had been granted a boon by sage Durvasa to be able to invoke any deity to give her a child. Eager to test the power, while still unmarried, she called upon the solar deity Surya and was handed a son Karna wearing armour (Kavacha) and a pair of earrings (Kundala). Afraid of being an unwed mother and having a bastard, Kunti placed the baby in a basket and set him afloat on a river. The child was found by Adhiratha, a charioteer of King Dhritarashtra of Hastinapur. Adhiratha and his wife Radha raised the boy as their own son and named him Vasusena. He also came to be known as Radheya, the son of Radha.

Karna became interested in the art of warfare and approached Dronacharya, an established teacher who taught the Kuru princes. But he refused to take Karna as his student, since Karna was not a Kshatriya. However, according to some versions of the tale, appreciating Karna's boldness, Drona tells Adhiratha to call his son "Karna".[6] After being refused by Drona, Karna wanted to learn advanced skills of archery and hence he decided to learn from Parashurama, Drona's own guru.[7]

As Parshurama only taught to Brahmanda astra.

Upon Karna's pleading, Parshurama relented and modified his curse, saying that Karna would only lose the knowledge when he needed it most when fighting against an equal warrior.[9] Rewarding Karna's diligence, he gave him his personal celestial weapon Bhargavastra which no one else possessed. Repenting over a curse made in anger, and in order to nullify said curse, Parashurama gave Karna his personal bow Vijaya to be ever victorious in battle and blessed Karna with greatness.[9]

Second Curse

Karna was also cursed by a Brahmin for killing his cow while practising his skills with bow and arrows. The Brahmin got angry and cursed him that he would become helpless and die in the same way the innocent cow had become, by his chariot wheels getting stuck in the ground.[10] Folklore from Andhra Pradesh further relates that Karna once encountered a child who was crying over her pot of spilt ghee. On asking her the reason for her dismay, she stated that she feared that her stepmother would be angry over her carelessness. Refusing to take new ghee from Karna, the child insisted that she wanted the same ghee. Taking pity on her, Karna took the soil mixed with ghee in his fist and squeezed it with all his might, so that the ghee dripped back into the pot. During this process, Karna heard the agonized voice of a woman. When he opened his fist, he realized that the voice was that of Bhoomidevi, the Earth goddess. She furiously chastised Karna for inflicting enormous pain on Mother Earth for the sake of a mere child and cursed him that at a very crucial moment in battle, his chariot wheel would be trapped as tightly as he had held that fistful of soil and die helplessly.

Meeting Duryodhana

The coronation of Karna

To display the skills of the Kuru princes, guru Dronacharya arranged a friendly tournament. His student Arjuna, third of the Pandava brothers, was shown to be a particularly gifted archer. Karna arrived at this tournament, uninvited, and surpassing Arjuna's feats, challenged him to a duel. Kripacharya refused Karna his duel, asking first for his clan and kingdom; for according to the rules of duelling, only a prince could challenge Arjuna to a duel. Due to his low standing, Karna was not allowed to fight Arjuna. He was further insulted by Bhima by comparing him to a stray dog, for his mixed caste and lineage. This incident marks the beginning of a feud between Karna and Pandavas.[11][12] Duryodhana, the eldest of the one-hundred sons of the king Dhritarashtra, knew that his cousins Pandavas were better at warfare. Seeing Karna as a chance to get on even terms with them he immediately offered Karna the throne of the kingdom of Anga, making him a king and hence eligible to fight a duel with Arjuna.[13] Neither of them knows that Karna is in fact Kunti's oldest son, born to (sun god) Surya. When Karna asked him what he could do to repay him, Duryodhana told him that all he wanted was his friendship.[14] Karna later married Vrushali belonging to the Suta caste, as per the wishes of his foster father Adiratha.

Fight with Jarasandha

Karna was a loyal and true comrade to Duryodhana. Karna helped Duryodhana marry the Princess Bhanumati of Kalinga. Duryodhana abducted Princess Bhanumati from her Swayamvara ceremony in a chariot and Karna fought with the rest of the suitors. Many legendary rulers like Shishupala, Jarasandha, Bhishmaka, Vakra, Kapotaroman, Nila, Rukmi, Sringa, Asoka, Satadhanwan etc. attended the ceremony and Karna easily defeated the pursuing Kings, who dejected and abandoned their pursuing after seeing the fighting prowess of Karna to protect his friend.The ashamed Jarasandha, the king of Magadha later challenged Karna to a one-on-one fight. Karna and Jarasandha fought continuously with different weapons and Karna defeated Jarasandha by trying to tear him apart during a wrestling fight. Jarasandha concedes defeat and Karna spared his life. Jarasandha gifted the city of Malini to Karna as a token of appreciation. Jarasandha accepted and declared Karna as the greatest warrior in world and thus Karna become the king of both Anga and Malini. The victory over Jarasandha made Karna famous all over the world. Later following his accession to the throne of Malini, Karna took an oath that anyone who approached him with a request, when he worshipped the sun, would not leave empty-handed.[15]

Hostilities with the Pandavas

Upon prodding by his uncle Shakuni, Duryodhana goes forward with a plot to kill the Pandavas through treachery, apparently succeeding. Throughout the planning and execution, Karna tries to convince his friend to call it off, desiring to defeat the Pandavas with honor on the battlefield.

Though a monogamist, Karna was a suitor for Draupadi at her Swayamvara, attempting to win her for Duryodhana. Unlike most other contenders, he was easily able to wield and string the bow, but Draupadi refused to allow him to take part, rejecting him for being a "suta-putra".The entire kings and the assembled people insulted Karna for his low birth; only Duryodhana supported and argued for Karna, saying Great Sages, Philosophers, and Warriors have no source. They are made great, not born great. Having escaped Varnavat, the Pandavas were also present in the swayamvara, disguised as Brahmins. Following the failure of the other princes, Arjuna stepped into the ring and successfully hit the target, winning Draupadi's hand. The assembled kings in the Swayamvara argued that a Brahmin was ineligible and they took their weapons and attacked the disguised Arjuna. Arjuna fought with all the assembled kings and defeated them with ease. Karna entered the battle to protect his friend Duryodhana; a terrible battle was fought between Karna and Arjuna, but Arjuna recognized Karna and the two Maharathis fought each other. The battle was so intense that sky was filled with arrows and visibility was lost in the cloud of arrows. With both archers not gaining upper hand, they turned to use celestial weapons. With the battle deadlocked, news came to Karna that his nine-year-old son Sudama (not to be confused with the more well-known Sudama, Krishna's childhood friend) was dying. Karna praised the skill of the Brahmin and compared it with the skill of Drona or Bhisma. Not being interested in committing Brahmahatya, Karna withdrew from the fight and rushed to his son. It was then revealed that Sudama was hit by an arrow sent by the Brahmin warrior when fighting earlier with the other kings. The bystander Sudama died in the hands of Karna. When Arjuna's identity was later revealed, Karna's feelings of hostile rivalry with him further intensified and he swore to kill Arjuna and his family.

After Shakuni won a game of dice by trickery, Draupadi, now queen to all five Pandavas, was dragged into the court by Dushasana. Duryodhana and his brothers attempted to strip her. Karna insulted Draupadi by saying that a woman with more than four husbands is nothing but a whore. Arjuna subsequently swore to kill Karna for that insult.[16]

Conquering the World

Later after Pandavas were in exile, Karna took up the task of establishing Duryodhana as the emperor-of-the-world. Karna embarks upon a Digvijaya Yatra, subjugating kings in all directions, imposing Duryodhana's imperial authority over them.

He started Digvijaya Yatra having war with Panchala, defeating king Drupada and the kings under him. Then going to the north he defeated all the sovereigns of that quarter, defeated king Bhagadatta. And ranging all sides, he conquered and brought under subjection all the kings inhabiting the Himalayas and made them pay dues. Then descending from the mountain and he went to the east, he reduced the Angas, the Bangas, the Kalingas, the Mandikas, the Magadhas, the Karkakhandas, and also included with them the Avasiras, the Yodhyans, and the Ahikshatras. Having thus conquered the eastern quarter Karna went to Batsa-bhumi. Karna defeated Batsa-bhumi, Kevali, Mrittikavati, Mohana, Patrana, Tripura, Kosala and compelled all of them to pay tribute. Then going to the south, Karna defeated all the very powerful charioteers of that quarter and in Dakshinatya, Karna defeated Rukmi. After this Karna went to Pandya and the mountain Sri. And by fighting, he made Karala, King Nila of Mahismati, Venudari's son, and other kings living in the southern direction pay tribute. Then going to Dhristaketu of Chedi Kingdom, Karna defeated him and defeated all the neighbouring rulers. Then Karna defeated the Avantis and conquered the Vrishnis. Thus Karna conquered the entire west quadrant. He then further travelled west outside the land mass of Bharata Kingdom and made all the Yavana and Varvara kings pay tribute to Hastinapura and Duryodhana. And having conquered the entire earth i.e. east, west, north and south directions, Karna without any aid brought under subjection all the nations of the Mlecchas, the mountaineers, the Bhadras, the Rohitakas, the Agneyas and the Malavas. Having thus conquered and brought under his subjection the entire world, Karna came back to Hastinapura with immense wealth and power the world had never witnessed before.[2][17][18]

King Dhritarashtra praised Karna, comparing him favourably to those like Bhisma and Drona, who had never returned such tribute. Duryodhana conducted the Vaishnava sacrifice and thus became the emperor of the world. No person in the entire universe, except Lord Vishnu had performed this Vaishnava sacrifice before. Duryodhana even made plans and preparations to conquer Indra, the lord of the heavens and the father of Arjuna with the help of Karna in order to become the sovereign ruler of both heaven and earth.[19]

Prelude to war

The Pandava elder brother Yudhishthira always considered Karna as the foremost warrior in the world and worries about this fact in the prelude to the war.[20]

Following failed peace negotiations with Duryodhana, Krishna is driven back to the Pandavas by Karna. Krishna then revealed to Karna that he is the eldest son of Kunti, and therefore, technically, the eldest Pandava. Krishna implored him to change sides and assures him that Yudhishthira would give the crown of Indraprastha to him; Draupadi who rejected him earlier will become his wife; even Duryodhana will happily see his friend get the crown. Shaken from the discovery, Karna still refuses these offers over Duryodhana's friendship. Krishna is saddened, but appreciating Karna's sense of loyalty, accepted his decision, promising Karna that his lineage would remain a secret. In addition, Karna was elated to learn that his true father was none other than Surya.[21]

Indra realized that Karna would be invincible in battle and unable to be killed as long as he had his Kavach and Kundal. He approaches Karna as a poor Brahmin during Karna's sun-worship. Surya warned Karna of Indra's intentions, but Karna thanked Surya and explained that he was bound by his word and could not send anyone from his door empty-handed. When Indra approached Karna in the form of a Brahmin beggar and asked his Kavach and Kundal as alms, Karna reveals that he knew the Brahmin's true identity but assured that he would never turn anyone away. Indra became ashamed and took his normal form. Cutting the armor and earrings off his body, Karna handed them to Indra. As he does so, heavens opens up and all the gods and celestial beings in all realms appeared in sky and showered flowers on Karna. They praised that it was the greatest charity the world have ever witnessed. All Gods, Deva's, sages and celestial beings blessed Karna with glory and fame. They blamed the Lord of Heaven, Indra for such crooked and cunning actions for the benefit of his son Arjuna. Lord Indra justified himself and told, like every father he only wished for the welfare of his child. Celestial beings become very much ashamed of seeing the Lord of Heaven becoming a beggar. In order to escape from such severe shame Lord Indra asked Karna to accept a gift in return. Karna rejected this offer telling that he didn't give charity expecting anything in return. All Gods, Deva's, sages and celestial beings requested Karna to accept any gift in return in order to save them from the insult that was caused by Indra upon them. Obeying the celestial beings and as per the request of Lord Indra, Karna, as his father had instructed him, asked for the Vasavi Shakti. Indra granted the boon, with the stipulation that Karna could only use the weapon once. In some versions of the story, Indra also gives Karna the name "Karna" for this great act.[22]

As war approached, Kunti met Karna and in desperation to keep her children alive, asked Karna to join the Pandavas. But Karna denies the offer again. Knowing that Karna will fight against Arjuna with a motive to kill, Kunti extracted a couple of promises from Karna that he will not kill any of the Pandavas except Arjuna and against Arjuna he will not use a same celestial weapon twice. This particular request by Kunti as suggested by Lord Krishna led to the death of Karna in the war as he did not use Nagastra and Rudraastra twice against Arjuna. Karna requested his mother to keep their relationship a secret until the end of the war. He also promised that at the end of the war she would still have five sons, the fifth one be either Arjuna or Karna himself.

Celestial weapons (Astra's) of Karna

Shastra's that are given to Karna are,

Shastra Effect
Kaal Disc Time disc,Renders a piteous state of the enemy, full with magical powers,ending in air, and water filled, ends in craters with fire, generates fire
Vishnu Disc It first sparkles with cosmic holes, contains high degree radiance, revolves with one lakh revolutions per foot, very panicking is its projection
Indra Disc Disc of King of Gods
Danda Disc Punisher Disc
Dharma Disc Virtue Disc
Modaki Mace The Beater mace
Shikhari Mace The tower of Protection mace
Dharma Paasha The noose of Lord Dharmma
Kaala paasha The noose of Time
Naga Pasha Noose of The Nagas,Upon impact, this weapon would bind the target in coils of living venomous snakes.
Kankaalam The deadly Pounder weapons that are wielded by demons
Impellers Presided over by the power of Vishnu
Impellers Presided over by the power of Rudra
Kapaalam Weapons that are wielded by demons, Rod for the elimination of those very demons
Kankanam Weapons that are wielded by demons,Rod for the elimination of those very demons.
Vijaya Bow The bow of Lord Shiva, the Destroyer.Lord Shiva left it in the care of Lord Indra who on instruction from Lord Shiva gave it to Lord Parashurama. Lord Parashurama kept it as his personal bow and later gave it to Karna. The Sanskrit name ‘Vijaya’ means ‘victory’ and this bow is said to give sure victory to the possessor. The string of this bow cannot be broken by any kind of astra or weapon.Every time an arrow is released from this bow, it created a terrible twang, which is said to be loud as thunder causing terrible fear in enemies and produces flashes of light as brilliant as lightning, which blinds the enemy. Every time an arrow is aimed, the energy of the arrow is amplified by multiple times as this bow is charged with sacred mantras.No weapon, not even Pashupatastra, can harm a warrior who has Vijaya bow in his hand, as the name Vijaya implies victory to the wielder.

Offensive astra's that are given to Karna are,

Astra Effect
Aishiika Astra Grass-Blade missile,aisiika missile is dried blade of grass, which by invoking with hymns will become a projectile weapon
Shushka Astra The Drier astra
Aardra Astra The Drencher astra
Krouncha Astra The Wrestler astra
Mohana Astra The Stupefier,astras of Gandharvas
Prashamana Astra The Pacifier of enemy's anger,astras of Gandharvas
Maanava Astra The Humane astra of Gandharvas
Varshana Astra The Rainer astra
Shoshana Astra The Drainer astra
Santaapana Astra The Humidifier astra
Vilaapana Astra The Weep inducer astra
Mohana Astra The Intoxicator,an unassailable intoxicator and a dear astra of Manmatha
Paishaca Astra The Monster missile, astras of pishaacas, monsters
Teja Prabha Astra Solar missile the sequestrator of others' brilliance
Shishira Astra The Cooler,the missile of Moon-god
Sudaamana Astra A very deadly astra of Tvasta
Shitaisu Astra Dangerous Astra of Bhaga
Samvarta Astra, Mausala Astra, Satya Astra, Maaya Astra Indomitable astras
Vaidyadhara Astra, Taamasa Astra, Saumana Astra Indomitable astras
Naga-astra Astra of the Nagas,The weapon would have an unerring aim and take on the form of a snake, proving deadly upon impact.
Twashtar Astra Astra of Twashtri,the heavenly builder,When used against a group of opponents (such as an army), would cause them to mistake each other for enemies and fight each other.
Manavastra Astra of Manu (Hinduism), father of the human race,Could overcome supernatural protections and carry the target hundreds of miles away. Can inspire humane traits in an evil being.
Parvataastra Would cause a Parvata/mountain to fall on the target from the skies.
Pramohanaastra Would cause an instant numbness in the opponents body
Bhaumastra Astra of Bhūmi, goddess of earth,The weapon could create tunnels deep into the earth.
Agneyastra Astra of Agni, god of fire,the weapon discharged would emit flames inextinguishable through normal means.
Varunastra Astra of Varuna, god of water,the weapon discharged would release torrential volumes of water. This weapon is commonly mentioned as used to counter the Agneyastra.
Vayvayastra Astra of Vayu, god of wind,Bring about a gale capable of lifting armies off the ground.
Sailaastra Astra of Vayu, counter to Vayvayastra, restores calm atmosphere.
Suryastra Astra of Surya,the solar deity and the father of Karna,Create a dazzling light that would dispel any darkness about/dry up water bodies/ can produce blinding light.
Indraastra Astra of Indra god of weather and King of Devas,would bring about a 'shower' of arrows from the sky.
Vasavi Shakti Magical dart of Indra god of weather and King of Devas,Infallible.
Mohini Astra Astra of Mohini, an Avatar of Vishnu,Dispel any form of maya or sorcery in the vicinity.
Hayagriva Astra The Astra of the Horse-head avatar of Vishnu
Bhargavastra Astra of Lord Parashurama ,Guru of Karna.This astra possesses Parashurama's skill in archery. Infallible. It brings a shower of arrows much more powerful weapons than the Brahmastra and could cause total destruction of a planet if not retracted.
Rudra Astra Astra of Rudra,a form of Lord Shiva,Contains the power of a Rudra. When it is used, it invokes the power of a Rudra out of the Ekadasha (Eleven) Rudras and destroys the target. The mantra for the Siva kavach(armour) can be weakened by the Rudra astra
Maheshwarastra Astra of Lord Maheshwara, a form of Lord Shiva,Contains the power of Shiva's third eye. Shoots a really fast fiery beam which can turn even celestial beings to complete ashes. Infallible and unstoppable.It has the power to turn the entire creation to ashes
Shiva Astra The Astra of Lord Shiva, the Destroyer.
Brahma Astra Astra of Lord Brahma, the Creator,Capable of killing devas,would destroy entire hosts at once. Could also counter most other astras. It is said that the weapon manifest with the single head of Lord Brahma as its tip.It is the only weapon capable of piercing the Brahma Kavach (invincible armour of Lord Brahma). Extremely powerful.
Brahmashira Astra Astra of Lord Brahma, the Creator,Capable of killing devas.It is the evolution of the Brahmastra, 4 times stronger than Brahmastra.
Brahmanda Astra Astra of Lord Brahma, the Creator,Capable of repelling the Brahmastra and Brahmashira astra and any other weapons ever created.The weapon manifest with the all five heads of Lord Brahma as its tip.This weapon is said to possess the power to destroy the entire universe or Brahmand, the 14 realms according to Hindu cosmology when used for offensive purpose.Highly prohibited to use against an inferior enemy. Designed to neutralize Vaishnavastra of Vishnu and Pashupatastra of Shiva.

Defensive astra's or Upasamhaara astras, which can be used to neutralize enemy's astra's are,

Defensive Astras or Upasamhaara Astras
Upasamhaara Astras!
Satyavanta, Satyakeerti, Dhristha, Rabhasa, Pratihaaratara, Paraanmuka, Avaanmukha, Lakshya, Alakshya, Dhridhanaabha, Sunaabha, Dashaaksha, Shatavaktra, Dashasheersha, Shatodara, Padmanaabha, Mahaanaabha, Dundunaabha, Svanaabha, Jyotisha, Shakuna, Nairaashya, Vimala, Yungandhara, Vinidra, Daitya, Pramadhana, Suchibaahu, Mahaabaahu, Nishkali, Virucha, Saarchirmaali, Dhritimaali, Vrittiman, Ruchira, Pitrya, Ssaumansa, and also thus Vidhoota, Makara, Karaveerakara, Dhana, Dhaanya, Kaamaroopa, Kaamaruchira, Moha, Aavarana, and thus Jrimbhaka, Sarvanaabha, Varana.

Offensive astras and their Defensive astras or Upasamhaara Astras that can be used for both offensive and defensive purposes are,[23]

Astras and their Upasamhaara Astras
Astra Upasamhaara Astras
Andhatamisr Astra Mahatarany Astra
Pakhand Astra Gayatry Astra
Andh Astra Chakshushmat Astra
Shaktinash Astra Vishvavasumah Astra
Antak Astra Mriityunjay Astra
Sarvasmritinashan Astra Sarvasmritidharan Astra
Bhay Astra Abhayankaraaindr Astra
Maharog Astra Namatray Astra
Ayurnash Astra Kalasamkarshan Astra
Mahasur Astra Muladurg Astra
Muk Astra Mahavagvadiny astra
Vedataskar Astra Mahamatsy Astra
Arnav Astra Adikurm Astra
Hiranyaksh Astra Mahavarah Astra
Hiranyakashipvastra Ugranarasimha Astra
Balindr Astra Vaman Astra
Haihaya Astra Bhargava Astra
Ravaana Astra Kodandaram Astra
Dvivid Astra Haladhar Astra
Rajasur Astra Vasudev Astra
Sankarshan Astra Pradyumn Astra, AniruddhAstra
Kalyastra Kalkyastra
Mahamoh Astra Shambhav Astra

Lord Parashurama trained Karna for decades in the Mahendra mountain after pleased by his intense devotion to learn the science of weapons. At the time of Kurukshetra war Karna was 85 years old.[24][25]

Kurukshetra war

Sitting out

Bhishma is appointed as the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. But giving the reason that Karna had humiliated Draupadi and disrespected their shared guru, Parashurama, Bhishma refuses to take him in the Kaurava army. Secretly, he knows of Karna’s lineage and doesn't want Karna to fight his own brothers. At the tale of Rathi's and Atirathi's, Bhishma further insults Karna and declares him as just an Ardha Rathi(Half a Rathi) warrior.[26] Duryodhana wants Karna to fight in the war from the beginning, but Bhishma threatens that he will not fight if Karna is in the army. Duryodhana considers instead installing Karna as the commander, but due to Karna's low birth, he knows that many kings would threaten not to fight under Karna when people like Bhishma and Dronacharya are present. So Karna decides that he will not fight until the fall of Bhishma. Only after Bhishma falls on the eleventh day did Karna enter the war. After the fall of Bhishma, Karna visits him on the bed of arrows and Bhishma reveals his knowledge about Karna's birth. He then explains his previous attitude, praises Karna's prowess, relates Karna's exploits, and gives Karna his blessings.[27]

Karna (left) kills Ghatotkacha (centre) as Arjuna (right) watches

Joining the battle

On the morning of 11th day of battle, Surya offered his invincible chariot and his charioteer Aruṇa to Karna, just like Lord Indra who gave his chariot to Arjuna. The chariot of Surya was brilliant as the sun, yoked with 7 horses of different colors [28][29] and only a person with divine vision could look into it. Confident in his own skills, Karna rejects this offer, saying he didn't want to be remembered as a person who depended upon others strength to gain victory, indirectly referring to Arjuna who depended upon Lord Krishna. Drona took the commander-in-chief position.

Killing Ghatotkacha

Uncharacteristically, the battle on fourteenth day extended into the dark hours. Taking advantage of that was Ghatotkacha, Bhima’s half-Asura son, as asuras gained extraordinary power at night time. Ghatotkacha’s destroyed the Kaurava force and also injured Dronacharya. Seeing the desperate situation, Karna used his Vasava Shakti against Ghatotkacha, killing him. Krishna is pleased with the fact that Karna could no longer use the weapon against Arjuna. Lord Krishna told Satyaki that he had applied his maya or illusion on Karna in order to protect Arjuna from Karna's celestial weapons, preventing them from engaging in direct combat.[30]

Later Lord Krishna reminded Arjuna about the life and past heroic actions of Karna. Lord Krishna warned Arjuna about the power of Karna, saying he is incapable of being vanquished even by Maha Vishnu with his discus.[31]

Karna Parva

Yudhishthira wrestling with Karna

Karna Parva, the eighth book of the Mahābhārata, describes sixteenth and seventeenth days of the Kurukshetra war where, post-Drona’s death, Karna took over as the commander-in-chief. Karna took his Vijaya bow for the first time in battle. As Karna drew the Vijaya bow, a terrible twang was produced because of the immeasurable energy of this bow and it silenced all other loud sounds.[32] Hearing this and anticipating a likely battle to the death between Karna and Arjuna, Krishna warned Arjuna calling Karna to be the foremost of the heroes.[33] Lord Krishna told Arjuna,

A concern for the Kaurava forces is the perceived favour Arjuna has because of the skills of his charioteer, Krishna. To balance this, Duryodhana requests that the talented Shalya, the king of Madra and the Pandavas' maternal uncle, be Karna's charioteer. Though disconcerted over serving a warrior of lesser rank, Shalya agrees to the task. Prior to the war's start, when tricked on to the Kauravas' side, Shalya promised Yudhishthira that he would demoralize and frustrate Karna.

Sixteenth Day

As promised to Kunti, Karna aimed at killing only Arjuna. On the sixteenth day, he fought with all the Pandava brothers but Arjuna, defeated them all in direct combat and spared each one of them after insulting them with harsh words. After the terrible death of Dussassana, he ordered his charioteer Shalya to move towards Arjuna, Karna deciding to finish him off for once and all. So violent and offensive were Karna's attacks that Arjuna's defenses soon crumbled before it. Karna then moved in for the kill. He arms his Nagastra. Intervening, Shalya tells him to aim at Arjuna's chest. Frustrated at Shalya's constant insults, Karna believes that the advice must be bad, and instead aims at Arjuna's head. Krishna saved Arjuna from certain death by lowering their chariot wheel into the earth; the arrow strikes Arjuna's helmet instead of his head. Karna and Arjuna then waged a rough war against each other. As promised to Kunti, Karna used a celestial weapon only once against Arjuna. Regaining the upper hand, Karna has a chance to kill Arjuna but spares the latter as the sun was about to set. In some versions, Lord Krishna realized that only miracles can save his ward Arjuna from death and caused the Sun to set prematurely.[34]

Later Lord Krishna made plans to kill Karna by cheating and revealed his plan to Arjuna. Lord Krishna told Arjuna that there will come a time where Karna would be defenseless and unarmed; that was the time for Arjuna to strike.[35]

Karna's wheel is stuck
Arjuna kills Karna

Seventeenth Day

On the seventeenth day of battle the two foes faced each other once more. The warriors on the battlefield and the devas in heaven watched the battle in speechless amazement and terrified admiration of the strength and skill of these greatest of warriors. Karna cut the string of Arjuna’s bow many times. As the battle intensified, Brahmanda astra, as a result of his guru Parashurama's curse. Karna got down from his chariot to free the wheel and asked Arjuna to pause, reminding him of the etiquette of war. But Krishna reminded Arjuna of Karna's cruelties - Draupadi’s insult and Abhimanyu’s death among them, and the enraged Arjuna attacked Karna while he was trying to lift his sunken chariot wheel. Karna defended himself and invoked Rudraastra, hitting Arjuna on his chest.[37] Swooning, Arjuna lost his grip on his Gandiva, which fell down from his hand for the first. Following the rules of engagement of war, Karna did not try to kill the unconscious Arjuna but instead tried to utilize the time in extracting the wheels of his chariot. Arjuna recovered and using the Anjalika weapon, decapitated the weaponless Karna, who was still trying to lift the sunken chariot wheel. Though it was highly forbidden according to the rules of engagement of the war to attack a weaponless warrior or to attack an enemy from the back, Arjuna attacked Karna from the back and killed him as suggested by Krishna. It was later revealed that Karna could be killed only when all the 3 curses acted together upon him, and this made Krishna employ deceit to kill Karna.

It is said that, Duryodhana never shed a single tear drop for any of his real brothers who were killed in the battlefield, but when his beloved friend Karna was slain, he was inconsolable.


Following the end of the war, Tarpan vidhi were performed for all the fallen. Kunti then requested her sons to perform the rites for Karna and revealed the truth of his birth. The brothers were shocked to find that they had committed fratricide. Yudhishthira 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.[38] In some versions it is said that right after the death of Karna, Kunti revealed the truth about Karna to her sons and the world, just as she promised to Karna. Yudhishthira went to Duryodhana and told that being the second eldest brother, only he owned the right to cremate Karna. Duryodhana protested and Krishna verified that Duryodhana had the highest right over Karna. Hence, Karna’s final ceremony was performed by Duryodhana, reducing the Pandavas to mere spectators of this event.[39] Karna's wife Vrushali committed sati on Karna's pyre after his death. A play is staged in South India known as Kattaikkuttu which is based on the events that occurred in Karna's life on the day of his death.

Later, Arjuna built the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple during his conquest for Ashvamedha in South India.[40] Legend has it that Arjuna built this temple to expiate for the sin of having killed Karna against the Dharma of killing an unarmed enemy. The temple is dedicated to Parthasarathy (Lord Krishna's role as Arjuna's charioteer in the war).

Arjuna becomes haunted by Karna's killing, and take it upon himself to treat Vrishakethu, Karna's only remaining son.

Ascension to svarga

The Mahabharata mentions that after his death in the Kurukshetra war, Karna's soul ascended to Suryalok (the abode of his father, Sun god), and along with his sons and "attained" the "state" of a god.[41][42]

Other stories

The Superior Son

One tale relates that as Karna lays dying on the battlefield, his father Surya and Arjuna's father Indra fall into a debate as to who among their sons is superior. They decide to test Karna's generosity and appear before him as Brahmins asking for alms. Karna says that at this point he had nothing to give them while one of the Brahmins remarks that he has some gold in his teeth. Realizing this, Karna promptly takes a stone and breaks his teeth, handing them over to the Brahmins, thus proving his superiority.[43]

Dharma-devata's protection

In other versions of the epic, when Arjuna used the Anjalika astra on the weaponless Karna, Krishna found that Karna was still alive even though seriously wounded. Krishna found that Dharma-devata, the goddess responsible for protecting Dharma, was guarding Karna from death and resisting every arrows sent by Arjuna. Krishna explained to Arjuna that the Dharma-devata herself was protecting Karna from death because of the massive good merit Karna earned by giving charity during his lifetime and it was impossible even for Lord Shiva to kill Karna. Krishna said wherever Dharma is present there is victory and this time Dharma was with the side of Karna. So Krishna went down from his chariot and appeared as a Brahmin and asked for Karna's punya or merit to him as charity. Karna gave his entire merits as charity to the Brahmin in the form of his blood and once Karna gifted his life's merit to him, Krishna rewarded Karna with the view of Krishna's Vishwaroopa. Krishna told that only this way it was possible to kill Karna and when Karna gave away his life's merit to Krishna, Dharma-devata disappeared. Karna asked Krishna to cremate him in a virgin land where nobody else is present. Then Krishna went back to his chariot and asked Arjuna to take the kill shot on Karna. Later Krishna himself spread the cremations of Karna at Karnaprayag.[44]

Parasurama's command

In some versions of Mahabharata, Parasurama appeared in Karna's dream during the night of 15th day of battle, as requested by Lord Krishna. In order to protect Arjuna and Dharma, Krishna sought the help of his previous avatar. The avatar Parasurama explained to Karna that if he killed Arjuna, Duryodhana and chaos would ensue.[45] Parashurama asked Karna to accept death and asked him to die at the hands of Arjuna, so that the world might live in peace. Karna protested to this idea but Parasurama asked this as his Guru Dakshina. Previously, Karna never had a chance to pay his Guru Dakshina; Parasurama never asked for it either. Severely, Parasurama reminds Karna that whatever he became or attained in his life is due to the knowledge he gained from his guru. Karna accepted his guru's words and promised he would never kill Arjuna. Pleased by this offering, the grateful Parashurama blessed Karna with immortal glory and everlasting fame after his death. Thus, Karna never took the kill shot on Arjuna, even though he often had the opportunity to do so.[46]

Karna's family

According to the Mahabharata, Karna was married to Vrushali. He had ten sons: Sudama, Vrishasena, Vrishaketu, Chitrasena, Satyasena, Sushena, Shatrunjaya, Dvipata, Banasena, and Prasena; eight of them took part in the Kurukshetra war. Sudama was killed by Arjuna at Draupadi's swayamvara when he was 9 years old. Prasena was killed by Satyaki. Shatrunjaya, Vrishasena, and Dvipata were slain by Arjuna. Bhima killed Banasena; Nakula killed Chitrasena, Satyasena, and Sushena.[47][48] Vrishakethu was his only son who survived the war.After the war when Pandavas were made aware of Karna's lineage, Vrishakethu was under the patronage of Arjuna and took part in various battles that preceded the Ashvamedha yagna. Vrishakethu was killed by Arjuna's son Babruvahana during the battle fought during Ashvamedha Yagna.[49]

Themes and analysis

Within the various Hindu mythologies, Karna draws resemblance with various other characters. The attributed author of Mahabharata, sage Kumbhakarna, the demon brother of the main antagonist Ravana of the epic Ramayana. He also notes that both Karna and Kumbhakarna did not take part in the great wars of their respective epics at the start.[52] Scholars internationally have also drawn parallels with various European mythologies. Karna's kawach (armour) has been compared with that of Achilles's Styx-coated body and with Irish warrior Ferdiad's horny skin that could not be pierced. He has been compared to the Greek character Achilles on various occasions as they both have powers but lack status.[53] In Mahabharata, Vyasa gave lengthy description about Karna's beauty and skills. Karna is often compared to his biological father and Hindu Solar deity Surya and is referred to as second Sun on earth. Karna is considered as the most handsome man alive in that era. In Mahabharata it is often refereed that Kunti's elder son i.e. Karna possessed all the qualities, skills and power of her other sons i.e. the Pandavas and a perfect man in all aspects. Karna is always considered as a warrior who fought fairly, but his enemies always used crooked and unethical methods to gain advantage over him. Though Karna defeated Arjuna on the 17th day of Kurukshetra war, but spared Arjuna obeying the rules of engagement of war. Even the gods had to conspire against him and the god of righteousness Vishnu had to cheat Karna in order to win over him. Karna is always considered as a tragic hero in the Mahabharata. The great contest between Karna and Arjuna, long expected and long deferred, came on at last in the Kurukshetra war. It is the crowning incident of the Indian Epic Mahabharata, as the contest between Hector and Achilles is the crowning incident of the Iliad. With a truer artistic skill than that of Homer, the Indian poet Vyasa represents Karna as equal to or greater than Arjuna in strength and skill and his death is only due to foul play by Gods and the Pandavas especially Lord Indra piercing Karna's thigh for the benefit of his son Arjuna, Lord Indra in the form of beggar taking away the armor of Karna for the benefit of his son Arjuna, Lord Krishna revealing the truth about Karna's family to him and making him vulnerable, the boons collected by Kunti as suggested by Krishna from Karna by employing deceit, Bhishma purposely keeping Karna away from the battlefield, Sacrifice of Ghatotkacha by Lord Krishna, the constant application of illusion or maya by Lord Krishna on Karna during the war, the use of Shalya by King Yudhishthira to demoralise Karna and at last the foul play by Arjuna and Lord Krishna, blowing away all the rules of engagements of the war by shooting arrow on the back of Karna when he was trying to lift his sunken chariot wheel.[54]

Secondary literature and media


Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem, "Karna Kunti Sangbad" based on the meeting of Karna and Kunti before the war. Karna also has been topic of various contemporary literary works. The Marathi books of Radheya (1973) authored by Ranjit Desai and Mrityunjay (1967) authored by Shivaji Sawant bring forth Karna's private and personal life on paper.[55] Sawant also received Moortidevi Award, instituted by Bharatiya Jnanpith, for his work[56] and was translated into nine languages.[57] Ramdhari Singh Dinkar in 1978 published an epic poem Rashmirathi (translation: One who rides the Chariot of light, 1952) which narrates Karna's life.[58] The poem has later also been adapted as play.[59]

Film and theater

South Indian film actor Mohanlal performed Karna on the stage in Karnabharam, a Sanskrit play that was premiered in New Delhi in 2001 as part of the Bharat Rang Mahotsav directed by Kavalam Narayana Panicker. The play depicts Karna's mental agony a day before the Kurukshetra War, as he thinks about his past and his faith.[60]

Year Name Channel Played by
1964 Karnan (film) N/A Sivaji Ganesan
1977 Daana Veera Soora Karna N/A N. T. Rama Rao
1988 Mahabharat (1988 TV series) DD National Harendra Paintal/Pankaj Dheer[61]
1989 The Mahabharata (1989 film) N/A Lou Bihler/Jeffrey Kissoon
1993 Krishna (TV series) DD Metro Govind Khatri
2013 Mahabharat (2013 TV series) STAR Plus Gananay Shukla/Vidyut Xavier/Aham Sharma[62]
2015–Present Suryaputra Karn Sony Entertainment Television Vishesh Bansal/Vasant Bhatt/Gautam Rode

In popular culture

  • Shyam Benegal's 1981 film Kalyug adapted the Mahabharat as a conflict between rival business houses with Shashi Kapoor playing Karan, the character based on Karna.
  • One of the songs from the 1991 Indian movie Thalapathi, based upon the friendship between Karna and Duryodhana, has been voted number 4 in the BBC's 'World's Top Ten Revealed' worldwide music poll.[63]
  • Ajay Devgan played a character based on Karna in the 2010 Bollywood film Raajneeti.[64]
  • Karna as well as synonyms like Karan and Karnan is one of the most popular choices of name for Hindu male child in the Indian subcontinent. This name is believed to bring glory and fame as per the blessing on it by sage Parashurama.[65]


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  • Bowles, Adam, 2006. Mahābhārata: Karna. Published by NYU Press. ISBN 0-8147-9981-7.
  • Brockington, J. L. (1998). The Sanskrit Epics.  
  • Buitenen, Johannes Adrianus Bernardus, 1978. The Mahābhārata. 3 volumes (translation / publication incomplete due to his death). University of Chicago Press.
  • Kamala Chandrakant (2009). Karna. Amar Chitra Katha.  
  • Desai, Ranjit. Radheya. ISBN 81-7766-746-7
  • Dinkar, Ramdhari Singh. The Sun Charioteer: a poetic rendering of Karna's life, his dharma, his friendship and tragedies. Rashmirathi; रश्मिरथी / रामधारी सिंह "दिनकर (in Hindi)
  • McGrath, Kevin (2004). The Sanskrit Hero: Karna in Epic Mahābhārata.  
  • Sawant, Shivaji. Mrityunjaya, the death conqueror: the story of Karna. ISBN 81-7189-002-4
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Further reading


External links

  • Works related to The Mahabharata at Wikisource
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