Karna shooting an arrow in the battlefield

Karna: The Tragic Hero

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Karna was the son of the Sun in the Mahabharata. His Kshatriya mother Kunti abandoned him and a Suta (low-caste) family adopted him. A series of unfortunate events, along with bad company, made him the tragic hero of the Mahabharata.

Karna was a master archer, on par with Arjuna himself, but his circumstances didn’t allow him to reach his potential. His desperation eventually led him to join Duryodhana and his unrighteous allies. He had righteous heart, but he commited many unrighteous deeds. So was Karna a tragic hero, or did he deserve his fate. That will up to you to judge after reading this post.


  • Father: Surya (the sun god)
  • Mother: Kunti
  • Foster Father: Adhiratha
  • Foster Mother: Radha
  • Brothers: Sangramjita, others
  • Half-Brothers: Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, Sahadeva
  • Sons: Vrishasena, Vrishaketu, Chitrasena, Satyasena, Sushena, Shatrunjaya, Dvipata, Banasena, Prasena

Karna’s Birth: Left in the River

This story is in the Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Chapters 301-306

Kunti was the adopted daughter of King Kuntibhoja of Kuntirashtra. Once, Durvasa rishi (sage) visited the palace and stayed there for one year. Kuntibhoja assigned Kunti to take care of him. Kunti perfectly served him with a lot of devotion and care. Durvasa was pleased with Kunti’s service and at the time of his departure, gave her a divine mantra. If Kunti invoked any god and chanted the mantra, that god would appear in front of her and would bless her with a child equal to him in glory.

Kunti, who was still young, wanted to test the mantra. She recited the mantra and invoked Surya (the sun god). Surya appeared in front of her in his divine form. Kunti said, “I invoked only out of my curiosity, Lord. Please go back to your abode.”

“You have invoked me with the special mantra that gives children. I cannot disobey the mantra, or the purpose of invoking me will be futile. I must bless you with a child. Or if you refuse, I will curse you and all of your loved ones,” Surya ordered.

Kunti was in a plight. If she obeyed him, she risked disapproval from her family (it was sinful to have a child before marriage). If she disobeyed him, he would curse her. Kunti finally made up her mind. She said, “I will have to obey you. However, bless me so that I retain my chastity and that my son is born with an invulnerable chestplate and earrings.

Surya granted her wish and impregnated her. In ten months, Kunti gave birth to a boy, but she kept it secret. Only her nurse was privy to the boy’s birth. The boy was born with a golden chestplate and earrings. In the middle of the night, Kunti hesitantly put the boy in a box and floated the box on the Asva River.

From Kshatriya to Suta

This story is in the Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Chapter 307

The box floated from the Aswa River to the Charmanavati River to the Yamuna River and then to the Ganga River. It eventually ended up in the city of Champa, on the banks of the Ganga River.

At that time, Adhiratha, who was the charioteer of Dhritarashtra and a Suta (low-caste), and his wife Radha came to the banks of the Ganga. They opened the box and were amazed to see a boy who was shining like the sun. Adhiratha and Radha were childless, but they had always wanted a child. They decided to adopt the boy in the box. They named him Vasusena. Meanwhile, Kunti learned of Karna’s situation through her spies.

Soon after, Adhiratha and Radha begot more children. Vasusena became known as “Karna” because of his golden earrings. They didn’t tell Karna about his true parentage. From childhood, he was a righteous boy. He was respectful and enjoyed donating to Brahmins.

Drona to Parshuram

This story is in the Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Chapter 307 and Shanti Parva, Chapters 2-3

When Karna became older, Adhiratha sent him to Hastinapura to learn under Drona, the instructor of the Pandavas (the five sons of Kunti and Pandu) and Kauravas (the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari). Karna became a very talented archer. However, he was often jealous of the Pandava Arjuna. Drona always favored Arjuna and bestowed upon him divine weapons. He slowly developed hate towards the Pandavas and befriended Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava. Because of this bad company and his jealousy, Karna started straying from righteousness.

MYTHBUSTING: Most people believe that Karna was rejected by Drona and thus, he went to Parshuram for instruction in weaponry. However, Karna was actually accepted by Drona. In Vana Parva Chapter 307, it states, “Seeing that in process of time his son had grown up, Adhiratha sent him to the city named after the elephant. And there Karna put up with Drona, for the purpose of learning arms.” This is also stated in Adi Parva Chapter 134. Drona didn’t just teach the Pandavas and Kauravas. He taught Karna, Vrishni and Andhaka princes, and many others. This brings up the question of why Drona rejected Ekalavya. We can assume that Drona accepted Karna only because of Adhiratha’s position as Dhritarashtra’s charioteer. This also means that Drona, the Pandavas, and the Kauravas knew Karna before the weapons tournament.

One day, Karna approached Drona and requested, “I want to learn the knowledge of the Brahmastra weapon. Please give it to me.” However, Drona knew that Karna was associating with the wicked Duryodhana. He also slightly favored Arjuna. Thus, he said, “Only worthy Kshatriyas and Brahmins can receive the Brahmastra. I cannot give it to you!”

Karna was extremely disheartened. He decided to leave Drona’s hermitage and went to Parshuram, the famed Avatar of Vishnu. But he knew that Parshuram would only teach a Brahmin. Thus, he approached Parshuram in the guise of a Brahmin and lied, “I am a Brahmin of the Bhrigu dynasty. Please teach me the art of weaponry.” Parshuram gladly accepted him and taught him the art of using divine weapons.

Curse One: Chariot’s Wheel

Once, while Karna was practicing archery, he accidentally shot a cow and killed it. He rushed to the Brahmin owner of the cow and begged, “Please forgive me. I killed the cow accidentally.” But the Brahmin was enraged and cursed, “You have killed a cow. You deserve to die. I curse you that just like this helpless cow, your chariot wheel will get stuck in battle and you will die helplessly!” Karna tried to pacify the Brahmin, but the Brahmin didn’t relent. Dejectedly, Karna returned to Parshuram.

Curse Two: Forget the Brahmastra

In due time, Parshuram taught Karna the Brahmastra weapon. One day, Parshuram was sleeping on the lap of Karna. At this time, a poisonous insect approached Karna’s thigh and started biting it. Karna was unable to kill it because he didn’t want to awaken Parshuram. Thus, he silently suffered the pain. When Karna’s blood reached Parshuram’s hand, he woke up and asked what had happened. Karna pointed to the insect. Parshuram glanced at it and the insect immediately died.

In place of it appeared a Rakshasa (monster). The Rakshasa folded his hands and said, “Thank you, Lord Parshuram. You have liberated me from the body of this insect. Many years ago, I had abducted the wife of Bhrigu rishi. Bhrigu had cursed me to become an insect. When I asked when the curse would end, he said that his ancestor Parshuram would free me. Today, you have liberated me!” Saying this, the Rakshasa bowed and left.

Parshuram then turned towards Karna and angrily said, “You are no Brahmin! A Brahmin could never endure such pain. Only a Kshatriya can do so.” Karna then revealed his true identity. Parshuram was enraged and cursed, “I curse you that you will forget the knowledge of the Brahmastra when you most need it.”

The Tournament: Arjuna vs. Karna

This story is in the Mahabharata, Adi Parva, Chapters 138-139

When the Pandava and Kaurava princes completed their education, Drona arranged a friendly tournament to display their martial skills. When Karna learned of this tournament, he realized that this was the perfect opportunity for him to exhibit his prowess. Arjuna was exhibiting various divine weapons and engaging the audience. In the midst of the excitement, Karna entered the arena. All of the spectators wondered who he was.

“I shall do everything that Arjuna has just done. In fact, I shall excel what he has done,” Karna proclaimed. Duryodhana was delighted, while Arjuna was enraged. With the permission of Drona, Karna exhibited an impressing range of divine weapons.

King of Anga

The Kauravas embraced Karna and Duryodhana said, “I am truly fortunate to have you. Ask for whatever you want, and I shall give it to you.”

“I only desire your friendship and the chance to combat Arjuna,” Karna replied. Thus, Karna and Arjuna got ready to fight. Seeing her two sons fight, Kunti fainted. But before they fight could begin, Kripa interrupted, “Arjuna is a Kshatriya. But from what caste are you. A Kshatriya cannot fight a person of a lower caste.”

Hearing Kripa’s words, Karna didn’t know what to say. Understanding his friend’s plight, Duryodhana announced, “I will now install Karna as the king of Anga. When he becomes a king, according to the scriptures, he is eligible to fight Arjuna.”

Duryodhana then performed Karna’s coronation ceremony. At that time, Adhiratha entered the arena. Karna bowed down and embraced his father. Afterwards, Bhima insulted Karna, saying that the son of a charioteer is not worthy of kingship. However, Duryodhana defended his friend and argued that heroism isn’t based on caste, but rather on merits.

By this point, the sun had set and the tournament was concluded. Everyone left, some in support of Arjuna, and others in support of Karna.

Karna Defeats Jarasandha

This story is in the Mahabharata, Shanti Parva, Chapters 4-5

Karna now passed his time in either Champapuri (the capital of Anga) or in Hastinapura with Duryodhana. Duryodhana and Karna became increasingly good friends.

MYTHBUSTING: Many believe that Karna was involved in the Varnavrata episode. The BORI scholars have concluded that he was not. The Varnavrata episode was the doing of Duryodhana. Karna did not believe in using immoral ploys to defeat the Pandavas; he believed in battle.

Once, Chitrangada, the king of Kalinga, hosted a Swayamvara (self-choice marriage ceremony) for his daughter Bhanumati. Hundreds of kings and princes, including Duryodhana and Karna, arrived at Rajapura, the capital of Kalinga. When they were all seated in the hall, Bhanumati entered and went around the hall. When she passed by Duryodhana, he was infuriated. He couldn’t tolerate the rejection. He got up and seized Bhanumati. Duryodhana got into his chariot and started riding away. Karna followed in his own chariot. The enraged suitors pursued Duryodhana, but Karna successfully defeated all of them. Disheartened, the kings left, while Duryodhana took Bhanumati to Hastinapura and married her.

This incident made Karna famous across Bharatvarsha as a powerful warrior. Jarasandha, the king of Magadha, challenged him to single combat. A fierce battle took place in which both used various divine weapons. When their arrows ran out, they began wrestling with their bear hands. The fight continued for hours. Finally, when Karna was about to win, Jarasandha surrendered. Impressed with Karna’s valor, Jarasandha gifted him the city of Malini.

Draupadi’s Swayamvara

This story is in the Mahabharata Critical Edition, Adi Parva, Chapter 179

Duryodhana and his brothers, Karna, Shakuni and others decided to attend Draupadi’s Swayamvara. King Drupada of Panchala had arranged a competition for his daughter’s hand. The challenge was to lift and string a bow, and shoot an arrow to pierce the eye of a golden fish only by looking at its reflection in the water. All of the kings were unsuccessful in stringing the bow. Finally, it was Karna’s turn. He tried to string the bow, but failed by the “breadth of a hair”. In the end, a Brahmin, who was Arjuna in disguise, accomplished the task and took Draupadi. All five Pandavas ended up marrying her because of Kunti’s accidental orders.

MYTHBUSTING: There are two versions of Draupadi’s Swayamvara in canonical versions of the Mahabharata: Karna was rejected because of his caste or he failed to string the bow. Modern media and many Mahabharata sources including KMG and M.N. Dutt include the first one. But to decipher the truth, we have to go back in history:

During the 1600’s, Neelakantha Chaturdhara composed a extensive commentary on the Mahabharata called “Bharatabhavadipa“. In his commentary, he included all of the stories he had heard of the Mahabharata, including Karna’s rejection. Over time, Neelakantha’s commentary became the standard version of the Mahabharata that everyone referred to. Translators such as KMG simply used Neelakantha’s commentary. In the 1900’s, Mahabharata scholars realized that Neelakantha’s commentary was all-inclusive and that there is no critical edition of the Mahabharata. BORI decided to take up the task. Instead of using modern commentaries like Neelakantha, they referred to ancient manuscripts and realized that only a few included Karna’s rejection. Also, the southern recensions never mention Karna’s rejection. Thus, BORI excluded it from the critical edition and instead mentioned his failure.

They also listed storyline evidence to support their decision to omit this unreal situation. Firstly, Draupadi, who had just been born from the fire, could not have been familiar with Karna. Secondly, during a Swayamvara, the bride didn’t have a choice on how to marry. She was obliged to marry the competitor who completed the proficiency test, in this case archery. Lastly, Draupadi follows a random man (Arjuna in disguise) without questioning him. She doesn’t ask about his caste or status. She doesn’t even question when Yudhishthira proclaims that she will marry all five brothers. Why then, would she question Karna’s status. Hence, the overwhelming evidence proves that in actuality, Karna failed to string the bow. (Source)

Gambling: “Draupadi is unchaste”

This story is in the Mahabharata, Sabha Parva, Chapters 67-68

Duryodhana became envious of the Pandavas’ wealth in Indraprastha. Shakuni invited them to a gambling game. The plan was to rid them of all of their possessions and enslave them. Karna didn’t like the plan (he always preferred battle), but he went along with it. When Draupadi was won and dragged into the hall, Karna was one of the four people who laughed and clapped (the other three were Duryodhana, Shakuni, and Dushasana).

At that time, Vikarna came to Draupadi’s defense and said, “Yudhishthira is being kept here unwillingly. Along with that, Yudhishthira has already betted himself. Thus, he cannot bet Draupadi. This means that Draupadi was never betted justly and Duryodhana does not have any right to Draupadi.”

Hearing Vikarna’s words, Karna was enraged and said, “Vikarna, you are immature and do not know what you are saying. It was Yudhishthira’s own decision to bet Draupadi. Everyone agrees that Yudhishthira rightfully betted.”

“One woman should only have one husband. But this Draupadi has five husbands. Therefore, she is unchaste. Even bringing her into this court naked would be acceptable for such a woman. Disrobe Draupadi and the Pandavas!”

-Karna’s Words to Draupadi

Thus, Dushasana began disrobing Draupadi. But Lord Krishna saved Draupadi by continuing to magically add more to her cloth. After a long time, Dushasana gave up. At that time, Dhritarashtra objected and granted the Pandavas and Draupadi all that they had lost. But after that, a second gambling match occurred and the Pandavas were sent into exile for 12 years and incognito for one year. If they were identified during the incognito year, they would repeat the exile and incognito year.

Dushasana pulls Draupadi's robes, but Krishna is supplying more robes. In the background, Duryodhana is laughing while the Pandavas are mourning

ANALYSIS: If Karna was a virtuous man, why did he affront Draupadi by calling her “unchaste” or “courtesan” (Bibek Debroy translates it as “courtesan”). This derogatory language is obviously not acceptable. It is difficult to ascertain Karna’s true intentions. In various proses of the epic, Lord Krishna has mentioned Karna as wicked but also virtuous. At his most fundamental temperament, Karna was a righteous soul. He donated to the Brahmin and advocated for women’s rights. But due to his jealousy towards Arjuna and his anger due to various insults (dog, sutputra, etc.), a plethora of sentiments seemingly overtook his righteous disposition and he uttered such heinous words without thinking. As I have elucidated earlier, he had no such rancor against Draupadi. His grudge was merely against the Pandavas, predominantly Arjuna. Later in the epic, Karna repents for his actions and himself tells Krishna that he acted without thinking.

Karna’s Military Campaign

This story is in the Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Chapters 251-255

Shakuni and Karna suggested that they go see the exiled Pandavas. The Kauravas brought all of their riches and set up a luxurious camp next to the Pandavas’ hunt. However, the Kauravas got into a fight with the Gandharvas led by Chitrasena. Karna fought valiantly, but in the end, even he fled. Duryodhana and his brothers were taken captive. The remaining Kaurava forces appealed to Yudhishthira for help. Yudhishthira sent Arjuna and Bhima, who were successful in defeating the Gandharvas. The Kauravas were released and they went home shamefully. After what happened, Duryodhana decided to kill himself. Dushasana, Shakuni, and Karna tried to dissuade him, but he didn’t oblige. In the end, the Asuras had to intervene. They encouraged him, saying that they would help him, and managed to dissuade him. (For the full story, see the Ghosh Yatra section of Duryodhana)

When Bhishma heard of what had happened, he talked to Duryodhana and said, “You have seen the Pandavas’ prowess in battle yourself. While the Pandavas triumphed, your friend Karna fled the battlefield. You must realize that you are not equivalent to the Pandavas. Therefore, make peace with them.”

Duryodhana told Karna about what Bhishma had said. Karna realized that he had to prove his prowess to Bhishma. He decided to embark on a military campaign across Bharatvarsha. Amassing a large army, Karna defeated Drupada at Panchala. He then defeated Bhagadatta, Rukmi, Nila, Shishupala’s son, Pandya, Nagnajita, the princes of Mrittikavati, Kosala, and numerous other kings and their respective kingdoms.

Karna amassed a lot of wealth and returned to Hastinapura. Duryodhana and Dhritarashtra lovingly greeted and praised him. Duryodhana used the wealth to perform the Vaishnava sacrifice. On the day of the sacrifice, Karna told Duryodhana:

Hear me, O elephant among kings! So long as I do not slay Arjuna, I shall not allow any one to wash my feet, nor shall I taste meat. And I shall observe the Asura vow and whoever may solicit me (for any thing), I never shall say, ‘I have it not‘.

– Karna’s Vow, KMG Mahabharata

Indra Takes Karna’s Chestplate and Earrings

This story is in the Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Chapter 298-300 and 308

During the start of the Pandavas’ incognito year, Indra (the king of the gods and god of rain) decided to approach Karna to take his earrings and chestplate. If you don’t remember, Karna was born with these earrings and chestplate. They made him invincible. Indra wanted to take them to protect his son Arjuna.

Surya ascertained Indra’s intentions. He appeared in Karna’s dream in the guise of a scholarly Brahmin. Surya said, “Indra is going to visit you and ask for your earrings and chestplate as donations. He knows that you are very charitable. When he asks you, don’t give it to him. Otherwise, Arjuna will kill you in battle.”

Karna asked who the Brahmin is, and Surya revealed his identity. Karna then said, “I will not break my vow, even if it means that I lose my life. This vow has given my eternal fame, and I do not want to lose that fame.”

Surya again beseeched Karna , but Karna didn’t oblige. Surya then said, “If you give away your earrings and chestplate, then ask Indra for an infallible divine weapon which you can use to slay your enemies.” Saying this, Surya disappeared.

The next afternoon, while Karna was offering his devotion to Surya, a Brahmin visited him and asked for his chestplate and earrings. Karna replied, “I can give you anything else. But I cannot give you these earrings and chestplate. I am born with them. They make me invincible. If I give them to you, I will be defeated by my enemies.”

But the Brahmin insisted. Karna smiled and said, “I know who you are now. You are Lord Indra, king of the gods. I will let you take my earrings and chestplate only if you give me a weapon.” Indra said, “I will give you the Vasavi Shakti weapon. You can use this weapon to kill anyone, but only if you are in a peril. I know you want to use this weapon to kill Arjuna. But Arjuna is undefeatable because he is protected by Krishna.”

Karna cut off the chestplate and earrings attached to him and gave them to Indra. In return, Indra gave him the Vasavi Shakti.

Virata War: Death of Sangramjita

This story is in the Mahabharata, Virata Parva, Chapter 54

During the end of the Pandavas’ incognito year, the Kauravas attacked the disguised Arjuna at Viratapuri. Arjuna single-handedly fought off the entire Kaurava army led by Duryodhana and his brothers, Karna, Shakuni, Kripa, Drona, Bhishma, Ashwastamma, and others. In the midst of the battle, Arjuna slew Sangramjit, Karna’s brother. Upon seeing his brother’s death, Karna was enraged. He attacked Arjuna with vigor. An epic battle took place between Arjuna and Karna. In the end, Arjuna’s arrows overwhelmed Karna, who retreated from the battlefield.

Karna Learns his True Parentage

This story is in the Mahabharata, Udyoga Parva, Chapters 240-246

After the Pandavas’ exile, war was declared between the Pandavas and Kauravas. Karna obviously sided with the Kauravas. After Krishna’s failed peace mission in the Kaurava court, he talked to Karna. Krishna told him about his true parentage. Karna was shocked. He was the son of Kunti and Surya! He felt like his whole life was a lie.

Krishna continued, “Hence, you are a son of Pandu. You’re a Pandava! Join the Pandava side and Yudhishthira will grant you the kingship. You will be the lord of the entire world. The sons of Pandu will be at your command. Draupadi will become your wife. You will have endless wealth!”

Karna silently contemplated upon everything Krishna was saying. Could he leave his friend Duryodhana to join the Pandavas? But Karna had already made up his mind.

“I know that Duryodhana is on the side of unrighteousness. I know that the Pandavas are ordained to win because the gods are on their side. But I cannot abandon Duryodhana. Madhava, you must understand. He has done so much for me. It would also be unrighteous to leave him,” Karna said. “Please do not tell the Pandavas about my parentage.” Krishna promised and then left.

Karna’s Promise to Kunti

Meanwhile, Kunti was also thinking about Karna. She knew that either Karna or Arjuna would die in the war. But she couldn’t bear to lose either son. In the morning, Kunti approached Karna and revealed his birth secret. She also urged him to join the Pandavas and become king.

“You say you are my mother, but you abandoned me. Adhiratha and Radha raised me lovingly. They gave me the parental love that you didn’t. Duryodhana and his brothers were the ones who accepted my friendship and crowned me a king. They have done so much for me. I cannot abandon them,” Karna said, frustrated.

Kunti started weeping. Karna let himself calm down and then said, “I will not abandon Duryodhana. But I assure you that I will not kill Yudhishthira, Bhima, Sahadeva, or Nakula, even if I have the chance. Either Arjuna or I will survive, but not both. Thus, you will have five sons left after the war.”

Karna rejects Kunti

Kurukshetra War and Death

This story is in the Mahabharata, Udyoga Parva, Drona Parva, and Karna Parva

Karna brought his entire Anga army to fight for the Kauravas. He also brought his sons and his brother. Bhishma was the first commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army.

When Bhishma was describing and rating the warriors on the Pandava and Kaurava side before the war, he said about Karna, “This evil braggart, your friend Karna, always boasts before the battle but ends up fleeing. Thus, this wicked-minded Karna is only equal to half of a rathi (the lowest level of warrior is rathi).” Drona then said, “Yes, you are right. Karna is truly one half of a rathi.”

Karna couldn’t tolerate the insult. He furiously replied, “Grandsire, why do you always insult me like this. I tolerate it only for Duryodhana’s sake. You have called me a coward. You are unable to judge properly. Duryodhana, you should abandon Bhishma. He always seeks to disunite everyone. I shall now enter the war only when Bhishma is subdued. After Bhishma dies, I will fight and destroy the Pandava forces!

Bhishma was subdued on the tenth day of the war. He was made to lay on a bed of arrows. Thus, on the eleventh day, Drona became the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. Karna and his ministers and family entered the war.

Eleventh Day: The eleventh day was not very eventful. Drona tried to capture Yudhishthira, but Arjuna saved him. Karna was mostly fighting against King Virata.

Twelfth Day: On the twelfth day, Susharma and the Sampshapatakas volunteered to distract Arjuna. Drona almost captured Yudhishthira, while Duryodhana and Karna watched. At midday, after Bhagadatta’s death by Arjuna, Karna fought Arjuna. Bhima, Satyaki, and Dhrishtadyumna killed his supporting warriors. Overpowered, Karna fled from the battlefield.

Thirteenth Day: On the thirteenth day, Drona set up a chakravyuha. On the Pandava side, only Arjuna and his son Abhimanyu knew how to break it. Again, Susharma distracted Arjuna and took him far from the battlefield. Thus, Abhimanyu entered the chakravyuha with Yudhishthira, Bhima, Sahadeva, and Nakula behind him. Jayadratha used his boon to single-handedly stop all four Pandavas from entering. Abhimanyu was alone. He destroyed the vyuha and reached the center. He first defeated Dushasana and Shalya, and then engaged with Karna. Abhimanyu swarmed him with arrows and the overwhelmed Karna retreated. Abhimanyu then slaughtered Karna’s six ministers. Karna asked Drona how they would kill Abhimanyu. Drona hesitantly suggested that they should all attack him together, even though it’s against the rules. Karna came from behind and cut off Abhimanyu’s weapons. Five others warriors attacked him from the front. Eventually, he was overwhelmed and Dushasana’s son killed him.

Fourteenth Day: On the fourteenth day, Arjuna was furious. He had only one target: Jayadratha. Jayadratha had caused the death of his son. He vowed that he would either kill Jayadratha today or kill himself. Drona formed a large Shakatvyuha, which Jayadratha positioned at the end. For most of the fourteenth day, Karna was just standing next to Jayadratha. Arjuna entered the vyuha, and soon Satyaki and Bhima also entered the Vyuha.

Bhima killed many Kaurava warriors and soon confronted Karna. Both started firing arrows at each other with rapid speed. Bhima came closer to Karna’s chariot, intent on destroying Karna with his mace. Both warriors took up maces and started swinging at each other in fury. They again took up bows and fired at each other. Suddenly, Bhima cut down Karna’s bowstring and killed on of his charioteers. Karna immediately took up a golden lance and hurled it at Bhima. Bhima easily countered with crescent-headed arrows. Karna took up another bow and the battle went on. Bhima cut Karna’s bowstring once again. He rapidly killed Karna’s horses, broke his chariot and showered arrows at him. A shocked Karna went onto Durmukha’s chariot. Bhima also killed Durmukha and destroyed his chariot. An injured Karna went on another warrior’s chariot and left. Bhima ended up defeating Karna three more time that day!

Meanwhile, Arjuna continued approaching Jayadratha. Krishna tricked the Kauravas and covered the sun with his Sudarshan Chakra. The Kauravas thought it was sundown, meaning the end of the battle. But suddenly, the sun appeared again and Arjuna killed Jayadratha. The armies kept fighting well past sunset. Ghatotkacha, Bhima’s son, started destroying the Kaurava army. Ghatotkacha even overwhelmed Karna with maya. Duryodhana realized that Ghatotkacha couldn’t be stopped. He told Karna to use his Vasavi Shakti on Ghatotkacha. Karna refused, saying that he was saving it for Arjuna. Duryodhana forced Karna to use it and Ghatotkacha was killed.

Statue of Ghatotkacha attacking Karna's chariot, Karna shooting arrow
Statue of Ghatotkacha attacking Karna

Fifteenth Day: On the fifteenth day, the Pandavas killed Drona through deceit. This day was uneventful for Karna.

Sixteenth Day: After Drona’s death, Karna became the commander-in-chief. He attacked the Pandava army with renewed vigor and created havoc. He defeated Nakula, but spared him, remembering Kunti’s promise. Karna then completely destroyed the Panchala forces. Various Pandava warriors surrounded Karna, but Karna was fighting like the destroyer himself. He massacred the Pandava army and defeated all of the warriors. Finally, Arjuna approached Karna and the sun set for the day.

Seventeenth Day- The Fall of Karna: On the seventeenth day, Karna promised that he would kill Arjuna. He made Shalya his charioteer to match Krishna’s ability. Shalya initially refused, but finally agreed. As they approached the battlefield, Shalya started a tirade of insults to discourage Karna. Karna and his sons once again started creating havoc in the Panchala forces. He then single-handedly defeated Bhima, Nakula, Sahadeva, and Yudhishthira. Unable to tolerate Yudhishthira’s defeat, Bhima attacked Karna and made him unconscious. Karna then came back in the battlefield and defeated Bhima. Karna then once again defeated Yudhishthira, Nakula, and Sahadeva. Yudhishthira was badly wounded and went to the camp. Arjuna went to see him. Meanwhile, Karna then invoked the Bhargava weapon, which launched millions of arrows that started raining down on the Pandavas. Karna then defeated Uttamaujas.

The Greatest Battle in History

Arjuna then approached Karna and they finally came face to face. The final battle between the two heroes was about to begin. Karna had prepared for this throughout his lifetime. Their respective armies surrounded them. Arjuna first killed Vrishasena. Karna was upset and attacked Arjuna. Both heroes looked like literal gods fighting each other. Their arrows covered their sky. They fired numerous celestial weapons at each other. Tens of thousands of soldiers were annihilated in the battle.

Everyone watched in astonishment as the two warriors fought. Sometimes, it looked like Arjuna had the advantage, and at other times, Karna. At that time, a Naga named Ashwasena entered the battlefield. Ashwasena was the son of Takshaka, so he despised Arjuna because of the Khandava Vana Dahana. Karna thought that he had to use the Nagastra to kill Arjuna. Ashwasena secretly entered Karna’s Nagastra arrow. However, Krishna used magic to sink the chariot so that the Nagastra soared over Arjuna’s chariot. Ashwasena once again launched himself, but Arjuna destroyed him in mid-air.

Karna’s Curses Trigger

Karna then tried to invoke the weapon of Lord Brahma. But he just couldn’t recall the chant for the weapon. He tried so hard, but he couldn’t remember. Sadly, Karna remembered Parshuram’s curse. Karna then realized that his chariot’s wheel was sinking into the earth. Shalya tried to move the chariot, but it didn’t budge. Karna remembered the Brahmin’s curse.

Karna was wounded, but he kept fighting. He cut Arjuna’s bowstring twelve times. Arjuna was momentarily shocked. Using this to his advantage, Karna leapt out to lift his chariot wheel, but the wheel wouldn’t come out. Looking at Arjuna, he begged, “Please, give me a moment to lift my chariot wheel. It is the right thing to do. I am unarmed, so it is wrong to attack me.”

But Krishna said, “Where was your virtue when you insulted Draupadi in the Hastinapura court. Where was your virtue when you surrounded Abhimanyu with six other warriors. Where was your virtue when Yudhishthira was deprived of his kingdom! Arjuna, kill Karna at once”

Reminded of Karna’s sins, Arjuna invoked the Agneyastra. Karna at once mounted his chariot and countered with the Varunastra. Karna grabbed a huge steel arrow and shot it at Arjuna. It pierced Arjuna’s armor and Arjuna momentarily collapsed.

The Death of the Tragic Hero

Karna once again tried to frantically lift his chariot wheel, but to no avail. Karna started panicking. Krishna told Arjuna to kill Karna once and for all. Arjuna invoked the Anjalikastra and aimed it at Karna. He released the arrow. The arrow flew threw the air and cut off Karna’s head. A light emerged from Karna’s body and merged with the sun.

Arjuna aims his arrow at Karna, who is on the ground trying to lift his chariot

The Pandava warriors rejoiced, while the Kauravas mourned the death of their greatest warrior. Now, the war was truly over. There was no hope left for the Kauravas.

Warrior Killed by Karna in the Kurukshetra War:

Warrior KilledDay KilledKingdom/Territory
Chitra17th DayChedi
Chitrayudha17th DayChedi
Visoka17th DayKekeya
Ugrakarman17th DayKekeya
Ghatotkacha14th NightNorthern Rakshasa Territories
SenabinduPanchala South
Rochmana17th DayUraga
Dandadhara17th DayIndraprastha
Chandradeva17th DayIndraprastha


So now, after you have read this post, I ask you this question once again: was Karna the tragic hero of the Mahabharata, or did he deserve his fate.

And lastly, I would like to address the one argument that divides Mahabharata fans. Who was the better warrior: Arjuna or Karna. I don’t want to voice my personal opinion to create controversy, but I will say this. Both were extremely potent warriors, and both had their triumphs and their losses. For example, Karna defeated Jarasandha himself, but he lost to Arjuna in Draupadi’s Swayamvara. Likewise, Arjuna defeated all of the Kauravas at Viratapuri, but he was defeated by Drona during the Mahabharata War. Both were equally strong warriors. But what sets them apart were their motives. Karna focused his entire life on the death of Arjuna. That was his only goal in life. Meanwhile, Arjuna fought for righteousness and for Lord Krishna. Arjuna had God on his side, so he was bound to win in the end.

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