Karna: The Tragic Hero of the Mahabharata

Karna, a complex and compelling character in the Indian epic The Mahabharata, is a tragic hero whose life weaves together themes of loyalty, friendship, and an unwavering quest for honor. His story is marked by an array of emotions, from unwavering friendship to bitter rivalry, and is characterized by the relentless pursuit of his principles despite adversities.

In exploring Karna’s life, we delve into his early years, illustrious career, significant roles, major events, contributions, sayings, and the intricate dynamics of his relationships with various characters.

Early Life and Lineage

Adoptive fatherAdhiratha
Adoptive motherRadha
Other namesRadheya, Anga-raja, Vrisha, Vaikartana, Vasushena, Sutaputra, Suryaputra
Killed byArjuna

Karna’s birth remains one of the most poignant episodes in the Mahabharata. Born to Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas and the sun god, Surya, Karna’s life began with a series of extraordinary events. During her maidenhood, Kunti had received a boon that allowed her to invoke any deity and have a child with them. Curious to test the power of the boon, she invoked the sun god Surya and gave birth to a radiant baby boy, Karna.

However, the circumstances of Karna’s birth led Kunti to abandon him, and he was later adopted by a suta or charioteer named Adhiratha and his wife Radha. Karna is also popularly called Radheya because he was brought up by Radha. Despite being raised in humble circumstances, Karna’s inherent qualities of courage and nobility began to shine through.

Karna became King of Anga

After observing the proficiency of the sons of Dhritarashtra and Pandu, Drona, in the presence of several prominent figures, including King Dhritarashtra, arranged a demonstration of their skills. Drona meticulously prepared a spacious, treeless area for a grand event.

Elaborate viewing stands were erected for the king, women, and citizens. On the designated day, King Dhritarashtra, Bhishm, Kripa, Gandhari, Kunti, and other prominent figures arrived at the viewing stand.

The princes of the Bharata lineage, Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Duryodhana, demonstrated agility, balance, and mastery with swords and shields. At the end of the event, Drona announced the arrival of Arjuna, praising him as dearer and skilled in all weapons than his son.

Arjuna demonstrated his unparalleled skills by employing various divine weapons to create and manipulate elements like fire, water, wind, and rain. Arjuna’s prowess remained unmatched with all kuru princes. The musical instruments were silenced as the tournament neared its end, and the crowd started dispersing.

As the tournament approached its end, a powerful sound like thunder reverberated from the gate, signifying immense strength and vigor. The spectators were startled by the noise.

Adorned in his natural armor, Karna entered the arena with a radiant face, wielding his bow and sword, appearing like a walking mountain. As he entered, all eyes were fixed on him, filled with wonder and curiosity about his identity.

Karna, addressing Arjuna in a booming voice, declared his intention to perform feats that would surpass Arjuna’s accomplishments. This declaration stirred the spectators, causing them to rise in excitement. Duryodhana rejoiced at Karna’s words, while Arjuna felt a sudden anger and humiliation.

After getting permission from Drona, Karna displayed his exceptional skills in battle, matching or even surpassing Arjuna’s previous feats. Duryodhana and his brothers enthusiastically welcomed Karna, acknowledging his strength and inviting him to join them. Karna expressed his desire for friendship with Duryodhana and challenged Arjuna to a duel. Feeling insulted, Arjuna warned Karna of his impending defeat. However, Karna emphasized the arena’s openness to all and urged Arjuna to let their arrows speak for them. With Drona’s approval, both warriors prepared for battle, supported by their respective allies.

As the duel between Arjuna and Karna approached, the sky filled with thundering clouds, and divine signs manifested. Karna remained visible despite the clouds covering the sky, while Arjuna was obscured. The assembly, including women, was divided into two factions. Kunti recognized Karna and fainted, who was later revived by Vidura. Kripa, knowledgeable in dharma, prompted Karna to reveal his lineage before the duel.

Kripa, addressing Karna, identified Arjuna as Kunti’s youngest son and a Kuru lineage member, asserting that he would engage in a duel with him. He urged Karna to disclose his parentage, lineage, and royal dynasty to determine if Arjuna would accept the challenge.

In response to Kripa’s words, Karna’s face reddened with shame, akin to a lotus wilted by heavy rain. Duryodhana intervened, citing sacred texts outlining three kingship paths: noble birth, valor, or military leadership. He proposed to bestow kingship upon Karna by installing him as the ruler of Anga if Arjuna refused to fight Karna.

Immediately, Karna was ceremoniously appointed as the king of Anga with elaborate rituals, including offerings of roasted grains, flowers, and golden water pots, accompanied by chanting of mantras. He was honored with a golden seat, an umbrella, and ceremonial whisks waved beside him.

Major Roles

Karna’s journey in the Mahabharata is multifaceted, and his roles evolve as the epic unfolds:

Friendship with Duryodhana:

Karna’s deep bond with Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, is a defining aspect of his life. Recognizing Karna’s exceptional skills and noble character, Duryodhana elevated him to the position of a close friend and ally. Karna’s loyalty to Duryodhana became a central theme in the Mahabharata.

Role in the Kurukshetra War:

Karna played a pivotal role in the Kurukshetra War, fighting on the side of the Kauravas against the Pandavas. His martial prowess and unwavering commitment to Duryodhana made him a formidable battlefield adversary.

Contributions as a Warrior:

Karna’s skills as an archer were unmatched. His feats in battle, including defeating several renowned warriors, added to his reputation as a formidable warrior.

Participation in Rajasuya Yagna:

Karna participated in the Rajasuya Yagna conducted by the Pandavas, showcasing his valor and skill. His presence in the grand event added a layer of tension, foreshadowing the conflicts that would unfold later in the epic.

Role as a Charioteer:

Karna briefly served as Duryodhana’s charioteer during the Virata Parva, demonstrating his versatility and humility. This incident showcased Karna’s willingness to set aside his pride for his friendship with Duryodhana.

Major Events:

Karna’s life was shaped by significant events that unfolded with profound consequences:

Karna’s Encounter with Parashurama:

Karna’s attempt to learn the art of archery from Parashurama, who only taught Brahmins, led to a series of deceptions. Karna concealed his true identity as a Kshatriya, resulting in a curse from Parashurama when the truth was revealed.

The Insult at Draupadi’s Swayamvara:

Karna’s exclusion from Draupadi’s swayamvara due to his low birth angered and humiliated him. This event laid the foundation for his resentment towards the Pandavas and contributed to his alliance with the Kauravas.

The Boon from Lord Surya:

Karna’s unwavering devotion to his father, the sun god Surya, earned him celestial armor and earrings. These divine gifts were crucial in protecting Karna during the Kurukshetra War.

The Battle with Arjuna:

Karna has saved up a weapon for Arjuna, which he has to use to kill Ghatotkacha. The epic confrontation between Karna and Arjuna, particularly on the seventeenth day of the war, is one of the most iconic events in the Mahabharata. Karna displayed incredible valor but ultimately met a tragic end in this fierce battle.

Revelation of Karna’s True Lineage:

Karna’s true lineage as the son of Kunti and Surya was revealed during a critical moment in the Kurukshetra War. This revelation added a layer of complexity to his relationships and further intensified the tragedy of his life.

Major Sayings

Karna’s character is marked by profound philosophical insights and poignant sayings that reflect his principles and struggles:

On Friendship and Loyalty:

“I would rather live in misery with my friend than happiness with my enemies.”

Karna’s commitment to Duryodhana is encapsulated in this saying, highlighting the depth of his loyalty and the sacrifices he was willing to make for his friend.

On Fate and Destiny:

“Man is the master of his destiny, and everything is predestined. But hard work can change your destiny.”

Karna’s philosophy on fate underscores his belief in individual agency and the power of perseverance in shaping one’s destiny.

On Dharma and Duty:

“I was born to fulfill my duties, not to reap the fruits of my actions.”

Karna’s adherence to dharma, even in the face of adversity, is evident in this saying. It reflects his selfless commitment to fulfilling his responsibilities without expectation of personal gain.

On Discrimination and Identity:

“In this world, a man’s pedigree is not determined by his birth, but by his virtues and actions.”

Karna’s words challenge the societal norms that marginalized him due to his birth, emphasizing the importance of character over lineage.

Friendship and Rivalry with Various Characters

Karna’s relationships with various characters in the Mahabharata added layers of complexity to his character:

Friendship with Duryodhana:

The friendship between Karna and Duryodhana is one of the most enduring and central relationships in the Mahabharata. Karna’s unwavering loyalty and sacrifice for Duryodhana defined his character.

Rivalry with Arjuna:

Karna’s rivalry with his half-brother Arjuna is a central theme in the epic. The conflict between the two warriors culminated in a dramatic and tragic confrontation during the Kurukshetra War.

Complex Relationship with Kunti:

Karna’s relationship with his birth mother, Kunti, remained shrouded in complexity. The revelation of their true relationship added an emotional dimension to the narrative.


Karna’s legacy is one of tragedy, sacrifice, and unyielding principles. His character resonates with audiences across cultures, symbolizing resilience in the face of adversity and the complexities of human relationships. Karna’s life, with its highs and lows, continues to evoke empathy and contemplation, making him an enduring and unforgettable figure in the Mahabharata.

His unwavering commitment to his principles, even at the cost of his own life, positions Karna as a timeless hero whose story transcends the boundaries of mythology.

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We, a group of youths born into Hindu families, were raised in the rich culture of Vedic Sanatan Dharma, embracing its cultures and traditions. Post-graduation, recognizing the immense value of our Sanatan Dharma for humanity, we initiated the "Why Hindu" project. With guidance from our elders, we aim to create awareness about Hindu Dharma, delve into Vedic scripture, explore Vedic mantras, and elucidate the significance of festivals. Through this endeavor, we strive to share the profound teachings of our heritage, fostering understanding and appreciation for the timeless principles of Sanatan Dharma.

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