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The Legend of Karna from Mahabharata deserves a retelling to those who find glory and might only in warriors like Arjuna, Bheeshma or Drona. The circumstances of Karna’s birth, brought-up, life and death are equally unfortunate and conspiratorial. Following are the major misfortunes in the extraordinary life of Rashmirathi.

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Illegitimate Birth of Karna

From his birth to death, Karna carried the burden of being an illicit child, one produced without a ceremonial marriage. The reason for this and story of Karna’s birth is quite incredible. Here it is:

Kunti, the future wife of Pandu (father of five Pandavas) once attended the famed Rishi Durvasa with great devotion and care. Impressed, the sage gave her a secret mantra with which she can summon any God and seek a child through him. The young and unmarried Kunti decided to try this mantra once and conjured Surya (Sun) who then left only after giving her a son, Karna (which denotes ear). He was born with impenetrable armour and earrings (Kavach and Kundal) that would grow with his body.

Kunti however didn’t like the idea of being an unmarried mother (a social disgrace) and set Karna afloat in a basket in Ashwa River. As fate would have it, Karna was found by Adhiratha, a charioteer of Dhritrashtra. He and his wife Radha raised Karna as Vasusena.

After being turned down by Dronacharya for not being from royalty, Karna went to Parshurama (Dronacharya’s Guru) for advanced training of martial arts and weaponry. To be trained by him, he lied to Parshurama that he was a Brahmin. And that laid foundation of his second misfortune….

Karna Cursed By Parshurama

One day towards end of Karna’s training, Parshurama asked him for a pillow to sleep and Karna offered his lap. While his Guru was sleeping, a large bee stung Karna in the thigh. To not upset his guru’s sleep, he bore the pain without flinching. When Parshurama woke up and saw the blood oozing out, instead of being pleased, he got angry at Karna. Because only a Kshatriya could have borne so much pain, which meant Karna lied about his being a Brahmin. Enraged, he cursed Karna that he will forget the mantras to invoke ‘Brahamastra’ when he needs it the most.

Karna Deceived By Indra

Karna’s pledge of never returning anyone empty-handed was known to all. Abusing this, Indra approached Karna, disguised as a poor Brahmin and asked for his Kavach (armour made of gold) and Kundal (earrings). Though Karna father Surya warned him against Indra, Karna decided to honour his commitment without second thoughts. Impressed, Indra gave him Vasava Shakti or Indrastra or Amogh Shakti, a powerful weapon that Karna can use once to kill anyone, after which the weapon will return to Indra. This weapon too was wasted away by Karna because of trickery and deceit. Here’s how…

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Amogh Shakti Wasted On Ghatotkacha

When Karna joined the Kaurav forces on Day 11, Krishna very well knew of the Amogh Shakti that Indra gifted to Karna, and the ever-lurking threat it possessed for Arjuna. After a strategic but remorseless decision, Ghatotkacha was sent to attack the Kaurava’s army as the battle continued beyond sunset one day.

Ghatotkacha was the son of Bheema, from Hidimba the Rakshasi (demoness). As is typical with Rakshas, Ghatotkacha got very mighty and unconquerable in the wee hours of night. When Duryodhana saw that the rakshas was indefatigable and unflinching, he asked Karna to kill him. After fighting a long ferocious duel, Karna too realised the might of Ghatotkacha’s power. He then used Amogh Shakti or Indrastra which killed Ghatotkacha and returned to Indra.

Though a victory for the Kaurav camp, this was a personal defeat for Karna. He just spent his only weapon and chance that could have killed his arch-nemesis, Arjuna.

The Misfortune of Karna’s Death

The misfortune of Karna’s death was a curse from his own Guru Parshurama. After a balanced battle went between Karna and Arjuna on seventeenth day of war, Karna’s chariot’s wheel was stuck in the soil of Kurukshetra (modern day Haryana) which was wet with blood of slain soldiers. Frustrated, he decided to invoke Brahamastra to mortally attack Arjuna. But as prophesised by Parshurama, he forgot the mantras to conjure Brahamastra, for he needed it most desperately at this moment.

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Realising his time has come, he requested Arjuna to follow the ethics of war and wait till he fixes his chariot wheel. But under Krishna’s aegis and influence, Arjuna ignored Karna’s pleas and decapitated him using the weapon called Anjalika. This was the final act of misfortunes in scheme of things for Karna, the solar progeny.

 Other Misfortunes of Karna

  • Though he had all the wisdom, knowledge and righteousness to see that Duryodhana’s ways were wrong, Karna’s swearing allegiance, loyalty and friendship to him prevented him from doing anything against Duryodhana’s will, right unto his death.
  • On learning of his true lineage that he’s a Pandav and the eldest son of Kunti, Karna assured Krishna and later Kunti that he will not kill any Pandav except Arjuna. This way, Kunti will continue to have five children. True to his word, he attacked and injured all four Pandav brothers except Arjuna, but did not kill any of them.
  • In her past live, Draupadi had prayed to lord for a husband with five qualities. Since all those qualities were not commonly seen in one person, Draupadi’s fate got her married to five persons. When she asked Krishna about her polyandrous destiny, Krishna told her that Karna was the person with all these qualities but since Draupadi rejected him because of his non-noble birth, she was resigned to this fate to honour her boon.

Since his birth till death, Karna bore the insult, agony and misfortunes for no apparent reasons. Instead of corrupting him, his miseries made him a stronger, wiser and more sensible person. Such was his respect that on his death, he was cremated by Krishna. Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s poem Rashmirathi chronicles the major incidences in life of Karna. Whether Karna was a protagonist or an antagonist, one can never be sure.

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