Known for his bravery, loyalty and generosity Karn was indeed one of the legends in the Mahabharat. Karn’s story is full of incidents that can make one feel sad and sorry. Here’s the story that’ll make you appreciate your life:
- Abandoned by mother
Kunti, the then princess of Kuntibhoj was blessed with a boon by Sage Durvasa. The boon gave her powers to invoke any god of her choice and the god invoked would bless Kunti with a son. One day, to check if the boon really worked, Kunti invoked the Sun god. The boon worked and a shocked Kunti paid obeisance to the Sun god. Kunti asked the Sun god to return but the bound the by spell of the mantra, Sun god blessed Kunti with a son. The infant was born with a shining armour, a sparking pair of earrings and had a glowing face. Fearing difficult questions from her parents and judgement from the society on the mysterious birth of the child, Kunti placed the infant in a basket and set it afloat on a river. An infant, a result of his mother’s curiosity and impatience, drifted into the unknown.
- Adopted by a Suta
Adirath, the royal charioteer of Hastinapur heard the cries of a baby as he walked by the banks of a river. Having discovered the abandoned basket, he picked up the infant rushed home to his wife Radha who was elated to see the beautiful boy. Childless that they were, Adirath and Radha adopted the infant and raised him as their own. They named him Karn and did the best they could to give him the best of education. It was also a norm for a son to follow the professional footsteps of the father hence Karn’s future was more or less clear. The society was divided and Karn’s foster parents were of the lowest class, the sutas, for which Karn was insulted all his life. Even after being born to a divine father and a royal mother, Karn was called a Sutaputra.
- Denied training
Adirath started training Karn to be a charioteer. Like his father, Karn was to become a royal charioteer hence Adirath trained him on the skills needed both in royal processions and battlefields. Karn, however had other interests. He wanted to learn the martial arts. Bows and arrows, spears and swords, maces and axes excited Karn. In the era, martial arts were a thing for the royalty, the kshtriyas. Adirath tried his best to explain the ways of the world but Karn didn’t budge. Karn was different and his resolve was firm. Giving in to Karn’s insistence, Adirath finally took Karn to Drona. An inimitable warrior, Drona was also the best martial art trainer of the time. Upon hearing Adirath’s request, Drona unabashedly refused to accept Karn as his pupil stating that he only trained children from royal families, the rajputras. Karn’s caste came in the way of his learning.
- Trained but cursed
Unmoved by the treatment he got from Drona, Karn kept looking for a martial art teacher. That’s when he came across Parshuram. The immortal, axe-wielding, short tempered sage who was known to loath the kshtriyas. However, Parshuram would accept only brahmins as his disciples. This time, fearing yet another rejection, Karn dressed as a brahmin and an unsuspecting Parshuram accepted Karn as his pupil. Karn learnt all martial arts, mastered archery and attained divine weapons. Impressed with his skills and dedication, Parshuram declared Karn as one of the finest archers of the time. One day, as Parshuram napped with his head resting on Karn’s lap, a deadly scorpion stung Karn’s thigh. So as to ensure his guru’s rest wasn’t disturbed, Karn sat still bearing all the pain. However, blood oozed and Parshuram was up. Brahmins weren’t known to be able to bear pain. Parshuram realized Karn wasn’t one. He thought only a kshtriya could bear pain the way Karn did. Feeling cheated, without a second thought, Parshuram cursed Karn. His curse meant that Karn would forget lessons he learnt from Parshuram at the time he needed them the most. Karn’s learning came with a curse that nullified all the learning, in a way.
- Insulted when challenged
Drona’s pupil, the royal heirs of Hastinapur had completed their martial art training and a grand show was organized for the princes to exhibit their weaponry. The king, queens, gurus, court men, generals and citizens arrived for the grand event. All the young princes – Yudhisthir, Duryodhan, Bheem, Dushasan, Nakul, Sahadev played war games. Sharp spears, shining sword and heavy maces were used. The spectators were spellbound with the kind of warriors Drona had produced. Though undercurrents between the Kauravs and Pandavs were visible, Hastinapur’s future seemed to be in safe hands. Then Drona invited Arjun, the archer, to exhibit his skills. Arjun’s arrows produced fire, rain, storms, mountains, illusions and what not. It was indeed the most spectacular displays of firepower the event had seen. Elated with the applause from one and all, Drona stood up and declared Arjun to be THE finest archer of the era, much to the cheering of the crowd. Karn, upon hearing Drona’s words, came forward and openly disagreed with what was stated. He challenged Arjun into a duel to decide who’s the finest. Karn was asked to introduce himself. Upon learning that he was a sutaputra, he was reminded that the exhibition was organized for princes. And, since Arjun was a prince, a rajputra, Karn was in no position to challenge Arjun. All this was said and heard by one and all. This time, Karn’s caste came in the way of an opportunity to display his skills.
- Indebted to Duryodhan
Duryodhan, the eldest of the Kaurav princes, who hated the Pandavs saw Karn as a potential ally. Among the Kauravs, none could match Arjun’s skills with the bow. Duryodhan knew that and wanted someone who could stand up to Arjun, cometh the hour. Having witnessed all that had just happened, Duryodhan stood up and disagreed with all that had been said against Karn. He openly backed Karn and declared him as the king of Angadesh. From a nobody, Karn was suddenly a king and that give him the privilege of challenging Arjun. In one quick move, Duryodhan not just found a solution to the threat he saw in Arjun’s arrows. He had also guaranteed Karn’s staunch and unflinching loyalty. The rajputras, after all, liked and felt comforted by loyalists. Karn felt indebted to Duryodhan and vowed to remain by his side, always. Karn became an integral part of Duryodhan’s coterie and was too loyal to ever call Duryodhan wrong. Karn got a higher place in the society, but also ended up on the wrong side.
- Cursed, yet again
Karn was now a king and like all royalty, occasionally headed out into the wilds on hunting safaris. On one such occasion, Karn fired an arrow that accidentally killed a brahmin’s cow. The angry brahmin ran up-to Karn’s chariot and without allowing time for an explanation or apology, cursed Karn. He said that the chariot that Karn sits on and feels so powerful, will one day forsake him. He added that when Karn is in the middle of the fiercest battle of his life, confidence will elude him. Finally, he added that during his final battle, the wheels of Karn’s chariot would get stuck on the ground and refuse to move. Karn’s apologies and please fell on deaf ears. For what was absolutely unintentional and only a mistake, the curses Karn got were too severe.
- Insulted, yet again
All the warriors from far and wide kingdoms were in Panchal. Drupad, the king had organized an archery contest, the winner of which would be eligible for princess Draupadi’s hand in marriage. The contest was a difficult one. A warrior had to pick a divine bow and fire an arrow right into the tiny eye of a moving fish that was hung on the ceiling. Over and above that, one was expected to aim looking at the reflection of the moving fish in a pond of water kept right under it. Though there were many who tried, only a few were expected to crack the challenge. When Karn stood up for the challenge, Draupadi stopped him from participating in the contest. Stating that since she was royalty and Karn a sutaputra, she had strong reservations against the marriage. What Draupadi did was all at Krishna’s behest, since Krishna had other ideas in mind. The arrangement gave the bride the final say, hence there was no argument Karn could make and left the contest fuming. Yet again, his caste overshadowed his skill and capability.
- Krishna’s mind game
When Krishna’s attempt to bring peace between the Kauravs and Pandavs failed, Krishna met Karn and disclosed his real identity to him. Krishna told him that none other than Kunti was Karn’s mother and the Pandavs, who he was about to fight at the behest of Duryodhan, were none other than his own brothers. Krishna’s words made Karn feel miserable at his fate. All his life, Karn was deemed as a sutaputra while he was actually a kshtriya and a rajputra just like the mighty Kauravs and Pandavs. Shaken at the thought of fighting his brothers, Karn was mentally never the same warrior he used to be. Karn’s heart and mind were getting torn between his loyalty towards Duryodhan and his feeling towards his now found family. Krishna didn’t just end there. He made Karn an offer to join the Pandavs, which would not just end the feud between the warring cousins, but also by virtue of age, make Karn the king. Karn humbly denied the offer Krishna made, having resigned to his ill-fate. It was too much, too late in the day for Karn to accept and had left him shaken to the core.
- Kunti’s emotional appeal
After Krishna, it was Kunti who came to meet Karn. Krishna had sent her, with the same proposal. A weeping Kunti embraced and apologized to Karn for what she had done. He explained her situation then and detailed the circumstances that had led to her abandoning Karn, right after he was born. The mother-son meeting was am emotional one. Largehearted that Karn always was, he forgave Kunti. Kunti then requested Karn to accept Krishna’s proposal which Karn again declined. Karn stated that Duryodhan was the one who stood by him when no one else did and nothing could now separate him from Duryodhan. However, Karn felt that he should make up for not accepting his mother’s request and assured Kunti that he wouldn’t harm any of the Pandavs in the war, barring Arjun. Given Karn’s capability as a warrior, it was a big relief for Kunti. Seeking just forgiveness, Kunti ended up saving the other Pandavs from Karn’s wrath.
- Indra’s plot
Karn’s divine armour and earrings weren’t mere showpieces. Since Karn was Sun’s child, the armour and earrings were divine. They would ward-off all powerful weapons Indra’s son Arjun had accumulated, particularly to defeat Karn. The stories of Karn’s generosity were known far and wide and Indra was also aware of the fact that Karn never denied a wish right after his morning prayers. He decided to guise as a brahmin and ask for Karn’s divine ensemble as alms. Indra was convinced Karn wouldn’t deny and he would pave the way for Arjun’s victory. When Sun learnt of Indra’s plan, he warned Karn. But Karn being himself decided to do what he did best – give away. Sun advised Karna to ask for the all-powerful thunderbolt when Indra asks for a boon. Soon, Indra’s plot came to life. Upon being asked for, Karn stripped the armour and the earrings off his body. Karn’s pain was horrific as he bled but his face has no signs of regret. Impressed and ashamed, Indra appeared in his actual form and granted Karn a boon. Karn asked for the thunderbolt, which would deal a fatal blow when used. Indra had granted the boon and had to honour it. However, Indra limited the use of the thunderbolt to just once. Karn gave away something that was permanent, only to get something that was temporary.
- Bhishma’s partiality
The battle of Kurukshetra was about to begin. The Kauravs and Pandavs had amassed their armies and were firming up their war strategies. A great warrior and blessed with a boon that made him almost immortal, Bhishma was capable of annihilating the entire Pandav army within days. This made him Duryodhan’s obvious choice as the commander in chief of his army. Bhismha, however put forth a strange condition. He agreed to lead the Kaurav army if and only if Karn wasn’t a part of it. Stating that Karn’s behaviour towards the Pandavs, particularly Draupadi was absolutely uncivilized and his language unparliamentary, Bhismha couldn’t let such warrior be a part of his army. While Duryodhan was furious, he chose Bhishma over Karn. For the first nine days of war, Karn was made to sit out which was an insult for a warrior of his class. Duryodhan, Dushasan and Shakuni weren’t at their best behaviours with Pandavs, but only Karn was punished.
- Sacrificing the thunderbolt
Karn arrived at the battlefield when Bhishma was incapacitated by Arjun. The war was thick, and the momentum kept swinging on both sides. Someday, the Kauravs would make the Pandav army run amok, on the other day the Pandavs wreaked havoc. Many notable generals had perished, and battalions shrunk with each passing day. On the fourteenth day, Bheem’s son Ghatotkach was at his demonic best. He kept fighting long after sunset and by night, a demon that he was, his powers peaked. He killed thousands of Kaurav soldiers and defeated the likes of Drona, Kripa, Duryodhan and Karn multiple times. Ghatotkach’s supernatural powers carried on till the next day as he created illusions to disorient and firestorms to displace any Kaurav formation. Duryodhan tried to engage the giant and got severely injured. Helpless, Duryodhan ran to Karn for help pleading that if nothing was done immediately, the war would end very soon. Upon hearing Duryodhan’s desperate pleas, Karn used the thunderbolt. Ghatotkach’s painful cries filled the air as he perished. The thunderbolt was fatal after all. Duryodhan sighed relief. The only weapon saved for use against Arjun, got used. Karn was devoid of his most potent divine weapon.
- Shalya’s acrimony
Before the battle began, Duryodhan and Shakuni had tricked Shalya to join the Kaurav army. They plotted and made Shalya obliged to fight by their side. When Karn became the commander in chief of the Kaurav army, as agreed, Shalya became his charioteer. This was the time Shalya was looking forward to. He knew he had been tricked and wanted to give it back. As soon as he took over the reins of Karn’s chariot, he leaved no stone unturned to demoralize him. From reminding him of his misfortunes, Arjun’s stature as an archer, the lack of divine weapons against Arjun’s many, Duryodhan’s misdeeds, Krishna’s powers, the losses Kaurav army had already faced, Shalya was doing exactly the opposite of what a charioteer does. Mocking Karn’s war strategies and asking him to delay the Kaurav defeat as far as possible, Shalya was now fighting for the Pandav side. Karn paid the price of Duryodhan’s misdoings.
- Curses manifest
It was day seventeen. Karn and Arjun had had fierce duels but today it was known that its going be the last of them and obviously the fiercest. Within the first hours, both the warriors stood facing each other. Everyone stopped to watch the final spectacle of archery. Both Arjun and Karn blew their conches and primed their bows. The terrifying sounds shook heaven and earth alike. What followed was a barrage of mystic arrows from either side. For every attack, there was a counterattack. Neither would let the other dominate. It was difficult to predict the duration of this duel or the result of the same as for hours, neither showed signs of losing. Krishna and Shalya, as deft charioteers too played their roles. They anticipated and moved the warriors from one end to the other and kept their horses calm and controlled amidst the frenzy. Suddenly, Karn’s chariot got stuck in the mud and couldn’t move. The hoses were unable to pull the wheel out. It was the brahmin’s curse. Helpless, Karn tried to summon the brahmastra. Even after uttering the mantra again and again, the weapon didn’t turn up. It was Parshuram’s curse. Karn realized his end was near and got down to push the wheel of his chariot out of the mud. He requested Arjun to halt and Arjun complied. However, after a while, at Krishna’s behest Arjun fired a sharp and shiny arrow even as Karn was unarmed and helpless. The arrow was a divine one and, in a flash, Karn was beheaded. Nothing was fair, even in what turned to be his last day.
Read more about Duryodhan & Shakuni’s mind games with Shalya here: Mind Games in the Mahabharat – Part 1 of 2. Shakuni & the Kauravs
Read more about Krishna’s, Kunti’s & Shalya’s mind games with Karn here: Mind Games in the Mahabharat – Part 2 of 2. Krishna & the Pandavs
Read more about Indra’s plotting here: The Sons of Kunti & Their Inspirational Stories: Part 1 of 4 – Karn and his art of giving