Birth of Karna
Karna was the son of Princess Kunti and the glorious Sun-God Surya Dev.
Lord Sri Krishna’s grandfather Shoorsena was the ruler of Avanti. The neighboring kingdom Kunti was ruled by his cousin Kunti Bhoja. Since Kunti Bhoja was issueless, Shoorsena promised to give his first-born child to him. So, when Shoorsena’s daughter Pritha was born, she was adopted by her uncle Kunti Bhoja and was renamed Kunti.
When Kunti was fourteen, Sage Durvasa visited Kunti Bhoja’s palace. The king felt anxious as Durvasa was famous for his unpredictable and tempestuous temper. Nevertheless, he received the sage with reverence and obeyed his every command. Kunti willingly took upon the responsibility of looking after his necessities. Kunti’s dedication and devotion pleased Durvasa and he decided to give her a boon before leaving the palace. The boon was a powerful mantra uttering which Kunti could invoke any celestial god of her choice and bear his son.
Kunti, out of girlish curiosity, decided to test the power of the mantra. One morning she uttered the mantra and invoked Surya Dev. The Sun-God appeared and blessed her with a glorious son. He was born with impenetrable natural gold armour and earrings. This son later grew up to be the famous warrior hero Karna.
Kunti knew how much an unwed mother was criticized in the society. Even being a princess would not help her in this matter. Hence, to save her own reputation and also that of her family she decided to abandon her new-born son. She placed Karna in a basket and set it afloat on the river Asva, a small tributary of the river Ganga.
Later the baby was rescued and brought up by Bheeshma’s charioteer Adhirath and his wife Radha. They named him Vasusena but he was more popularly known as Radheya (Radha’s son).
Right from his childhood Karna’s dream was to learn weaponry and become a warrior. But, in the Vedic society, nurturing such a dream was sacrilege for anyone belonging to a non-Kshatriya lowly Suta caste. When Karna requested Guru Dronacharya to accept him as his disciple, the latter refused on the pretext that Karna was neither a Kshatriya nor a prince.
Karna soon realised that no guru would accept him after knowing his true identity. He made an alternative plan to make his dream come true. He knew that one who had learnt all the four Vedas, ie, Rig Veda, Saam Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda, was considered to be a Brahmagyani or Brahmin. Karna learnt all the four Vedas. Then he went to Guru Parashuram and introduced himself as a Brahmin. Parashuram, who trained only Brahmins, accepted him as his disciple. Karna’s special talent was in archery. Under Guru Parashuram’s training he soon became a great archer and an invincible warrior.
One day Parashuram was peacefully sleeping, resting his head on Karna’s lap. A scorpion stealthily slithered up on the latter’s thigh and started biting him. Karna felt excruiciating pain but he took no action fearing that any movement would create disturbance in his Guru’s slumber. When Parashuram woke up he saw Karna’s wounded thigh and was shocked to realise the amount of pain he had endured. Parashuram knew that such endurance power could only belong to a Kshatriya and not a Brahmin or any other caste. When he confronted Karna he admitted that he was a Suta (charioteer class) and not a Kshatriya, but Parashuram refused to believe him. In his fury he cursed Karna for telling him a lie to become his disciple.
“Your knowledge of weaponry will leave you when you will need it the most. You will forget the mantra to invoke the weapons while fighting the most important combat of your life.”
A devastated Karna fell on his feet, asking for his forgiveness. He narrated how he had been repeatedly humiliated by the Kshatriya society for being a Suta who wanted to learn weaponry. *
*(Sutas were the offsprings of Kshatriya father and Brahmin mother. They were a mixed class who were considered lower than the upper classes in social hierarchy. The Sutas were mainly charioteers by profession)
Parashuram felt sorry for Karna and presented him Lord Shiva’s powerful Viyaya Dhanush (Victory Bow).
“When you fight with Vijaya Dhanush you become invincible,” said he.
Karna thanked him and left the gurukul with a heavy heart.*
*(It is said that the scorpion that bit Karna was none other than Lord Indra, Arjun’s biological father. Since Karna was Arjun’s nemesis Indra always tried to destroy his power. Just before Kurukshetra War Indra approached Karna in the disguise of a Brahmin and made him donate his invincible armour and earrings)
Once Karna was walking through the woods. Suddenly he noticed a movement behind a thick shrub and concluded it to be a deer. He aimed a sharp shaft at the shrub only to discover that the animal he had killed was not a deer but a calf. The cow is a holy animal in Hinduism and killing it was sacrilege. Karna went to the Brahmin who owned the calf to seek his forgiveness. But the angry Brahmin cursed him instead.
“You will die a helpless death like my innocent calf when you will be fighting the most important combat of your life.”
That was Karna’s reward for being honest and truthful.
Once Karna was returning home from the Hastinapur palace. On his way he saw a small girl crying beside the road.
“Why are you crying child?” asked he.
“My father gave me a bowl of oil to sell in the market. But my feet slipped in the mud and I fell down, spilling all the oil on the ground. Now I can’t take home any money and my father will beat me,” sobbed the girl.
Karna, who was famous for his kindness and donations, offered some gold coins to the poor girl but the latter refused to take them.
“Thank you for your kindness Sir, but I am not a beggar. I cannot take alms from you.”
Karna appreciated the little girl’s self respect and tried to help her in some other way. He noticed that the ground below was still smeared with oil. He wiped off all the oil he could with his palm and collected it in the girl’s bowl. Then he noticed that some of the oil had seeped into the earth. He squeezed the earth with both hands and extracted that oil. Mother Earth felt much pain at being squeezed so hard. In her pain and anger she cursed Karna.
“The wheels of your chariot will get stuck into the earth just before your death.”
That was Karna’s ‘reward’ for being kind and compassionate.
Impact of the Curses:-
Ironically all the three curses of Karna fell on him on the same day, in the same hour.
It was the Seventeenth Day of the Kurukshetra War. Karna, on that day, was the Sar Senapati or Chief Commander of the Kaurava army. He was about to have his final combat with Arjun.
By that time Karna knew that Arjun was his younger brother. His cousin Sri Krishna and biological mother Kunti visited him just before the Kurukshetra War. They disclosed to him the truth about his birth. No, he was not Adhirath and Radha’s son. He was Kaunteya, not Radheya. He was Suryaputra, not Sutaputra. They told him that he was the eldest Pandava and the chief contender to the throne of both Indraprastha and Hastinapur. They asked him to leave Duryodhan and join his ‘brothers’ in the Pandava camp. But he couldn’t. His sense of loyalty and righteousness did not allow him to abandon his friend Duryodhan when he needed him (Karna) the most. But he promised to Kunti to spare the lives of four of his brothers. But he made no such promise about Arjun.
“The world knows you as the mother of five Pandavas. So shall you remain even after this war is over. Arjun will be there if I die and vise versa,” said Karna to Kunti.
So a face off between the two brothers became inevitable.
During the Kurukshetra War Lord Sri Krishna chose to become Arjun’s charioteer. After becoming the Chief Commander of the Kaurava army, Karna needed a charioteer who would be as skilled as Arjun’s Sri Krishna. Madra king Shalya was requested to be his charioteer.*
*(Salya was the maternal uncle of the Pandava twins Nakul-Sahadev whom Duryadhan tricked into changing sides. Salya felt cheated and vowed to harm the Kauravas in his own way. He agreed to Duryodhan’s request of being Karna’s charioteer, but secretly planned to demotivate Karna by uttering harsh words. During Karna’s combat with Arjun, Salya continuously praised Arjun and belittled Karna, thus demotivating and frustrating the latter)
As the combat intensified and became more fierce, suddenly the back wheel of Karna’s chariot got stuck into a muddy pit. Mother Earth’s curse had fallen upon him.
Salya was a hostile charioteer, hence he refused to help Karna free the wheel from the earth. Karna requested Arjun to stop the combat for a while so that he could extract the wheel from the pit. Arjun agreed. Karna left his Vijaya Bow and quiver of arrows in his chariot and got busy with the wheel.
Sri Krishna saw this as a golden opportunity to get rid of Karna who was the biggest obstacle in the way of the Pandavas’ victory. Hence he incited Arjun to kill Karna.
“Arjun, you may not get such a golden opportunity again. Use it and kill Karna,” said Sri Krishna.
“But Madhav, he is unarmed and helpless,” replied Arjun. “He is not even in his chariot. How can you ask me to do such a cowardly and unrighteous act?”
“Are you serious Arjun?” cried Sri Krishna. “Have you forgotten how mercilessly they butchered Abhimanyu? He too was unarmed, helpless and without a chariot. Let me remind you that Karna was one of the Saptarathis (seven charioted warriors) who participated in the cowardly and unrighteous killing of your beloved son.” *
*(Abhimanyu was the sixteen-year-old son of Arjun and Sri Krishna’s sister Subhadra. He was an invincible warrior whom even the fiercest of the Kaurava warriors like Drona, Ashwatthama, Kripacharya, Duryodhan, Dushasan, Karna and Kritavarma failed to defeat in a fair one-is-to-one combat. These seven cowardly Kaurava warriors ignored the ethics and rules of the battle and killed him in a most horrifying manner. They made a combined attack on the helpless boy and mercilessly butchered him.)
Sri Krishna’s words made a tremendous impact on Arjun’s mind. Only three days had passed after Abhimanyu’s tragic death. The wound was still fresh in Arjun’s mind and it screamed for vengeance. He picked up his Gandiva bow and invoked the divine shaft Anjalika.
Karna, who was still trying to free the wheel of his chariot, saw what Arjun was about to do. He quickly folded his hands and invoked the divine weapon Brahmastra to counter Anjalika. But, to his utter shock, he failed to remember the mantra that invoked the divine weapons. He tried very hard but his memory was a total blank.
Karna understood that his end was near. He helplessly stared as Arjun decapitated him with his Anjalika shaft.
Thus the curses of Parashuram and the Brahmin also came true.
Karna led a cursed life from the moment he was born. His mother abandoned him upon birth. Society criticised him for daring to break the shackles of caste system to become a warrior. People called him wicked for supporting his friend Duryodhan. Yet his selfless deeds and countless donations earned him the title Daan Veer.
No wonder Karna is considered to be one of the biggest tragic heroes of all times.