Mahabharat Episode 17: Karna – Doomed from Birth
In this Mahabharat episode, we follow Karna from his remarkable birth, and watch as his longing for glory leads him to great skill, but also into the snare of a double curse.
Being an unwed mother of fourteen years of age, she did not know how to face the social situation. She put the child in a wooden box and let him float in the river, not knowing what his fate would be. She struggled with that, but she was a woman with a sense of purpose. Once she was clear about the purpose, she would do anything. Everything was warm about her, except her heart.
Adhiratha, a charioteer in Dhritarashtra’s palace, who happened to be at the riverside, noticed this ornate box, picked it up and opened it. When he saw the little infant, he was delighted. He was childless and considered this as God’s gift to him. He took the box with the baby to his wife Radha. Both of them were overjoyed. Looking at the nature of the box, they knew it could not be from an ordinary home, that a queen or king must have abandoned this baby. They did not know who, but they were too glad they got this child, who filled their childless life.
Karna, as he came to be known, was a child of destiny, and that too, an extraordinary one. As an infant, he already had golden earrings and a kind of natural armor around his chest. He looked phenomenal. Radha brought him up with utmost love. Being a charioteer, Adhiratha wanted to teach him how to drive a chariot, but Karna was burning to become an archer. In those times, only Kshatriyas, members of the fighting class, were entitled to receive training in martial arts and weapons. This was a simple way of protecting the power of the king. If everyone learnt how to use weapons, there would be no control over their usage. Not being a Kshatriya, Karna was not accepted by any teacher.
Rejected by Drona
At that time, Parashurama was one of the most proficient warriors in the land. He was also Drona’s teacher. Prior to handing over his astras to Drona, Parashurama put a condition that Drona should never teach a Kshatriya anything about these powerful weapons. Drona promised him this but went straight to Hastinapur and sought employment with the king to teach the Kshatriyas how to use these weapons. That is how he was – an ambitious man; principled but unscrupulous. He knew all the dharma, shastras, rules, and scriptures, but he had absolutely no scruples. A great teacher, but a crooked and greedy human being.
Before Drona came to Hastinapur, both the Pandavas and the Kauravas were trained by Kripacharya in martial arts. One day, the boys were playing ball. In those times, balls were not made of rubber, leather, or plastic – they were usually made of weeds that were rolled up tightly. The ball accidentally fell into a well. They saw it floating in the well but no one had a clue how to get it out, because the well was deep and did not have steps.
Drona came by, looked at the situation, and asked, “Are you not Kshatriyas?” They said, “Yes, we are.” “Then don’t any of you know archery?” Arjuna said, “Yes, I am an archer, and I want to be the greatest archer in the world.” Drona sized him up and replied, “If you are an archer, why can’t you get this ball out?” They asked, “How can we get a ball out from a well with archery?” He replied, “I will show you.”
He took a stiff blade of grass and shot it into the ball. It stuck out from the ball, and he shot a succession of blades into each other, so that they formed a kind of rod with which he could pull out the ball. The boys were amazed at his skill – it almost seemed like magic. They asked him to teach them how he did it. Drona said he would not, unless they accept him as their guru. The boys took him to Bhishma. Bhishma immediately recognized Drona – he knew who he was and he appreciated his competence. He employed him as the Rajaguru, which is a teacher of future kings.
The training under Dronacharya started, and with it, the competition between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. After a few years of training, they all grew to become great warriors. With the lance or the spear, Yudhishthira was the best. With the mace, Bhima and Duryodhana were equal. They would fight themselves to exhaustion without one being able to beat the other. When it came to archery, Arjuna stood out. In swordsmanship and horse riding, Nakula and Sahadeva dominated.
The Suta Putra’s Deception
In his desire to become a great archer, Karna went to Drona, but the latter rejected him, calling him a suta putra, which literally means “son of a charioteer” and implied that he was low-born. This vilification stung Karna deeply. The constant discrimination and insults he faced turned a very honest and forthright man into an extremely mean one. Every time he heard someone call him suta putra, his meanness rose, to levels that were uncharacteristic of his original nature. Since Drona rejected him for not being a Kshatriya, Karna decided to go to Parashurama, who was the greatest martial arts teacher.
In those times, martial arts included not only hand-to-hand combat but all kinds of weapons training, with a particular emphasis on archery. Karna knew Parashurama would accept only Brahmanas as disciples. In his eagerness to learn, he put on a fake sacred thread, went to Parashurama, and pretended to be a Brahmana. Parashurama took him as a disciple and taught him everything he knew. Karna learnt extremely fast. No other disciple had that kind of natural skill and competence. Parashurama was greatly pleased with him.
At that time, Parashurama was already old. One day, when they were training in the forest, he felt very tired and faint. He told Karna that he needed to lie down. Karna sat down so that Parashurama could put his head on Karna’s lap, and Parashurama dozed off. A blood-sucking worm crawled into Karna’s lap and started sucking on his thigh. He was in great pain and bleeding, but he could not remove the worm without disturbing his guru’s sleep, which he did not want to do. Slowly, the blood started to reach Parashurama’s ear, and this sensation woke him up. He opened his eyes and saw that he was full of blood. “Whose blood is this?” he asked. Karna said, “It is mine.”
Then Parashurama noticed the open wound on Karna’s thigh, with the blood-sucking worm biting deep into the muscle, and still, this boy just sat there, unmoving. Parashurama looked at him and said, “You cannot be a Brahmana – if you were, you would have screamed. You must be a Kshatriya to bear this kind of pain and not even wince or move.” Karna said, “Yes, I am not a Brahmana. Please don’t be angry with me.” Parashurama flew into a rage, “You idiot, you think you can come here, wear a false sacred thread and deceive me to get all this out of me? I will curse you.” Karna begged, “Please – I am not a Brahmana, but I am not a Kshatriya either. I am a suta putra, so it was only half a lie.”
Longing for Glory
Parashurama did not listen to him. The moment he saw the situation, he rightly presumed that Karna was a Kshatriya, and he said, “You have deceived me. You will enjoy what I have taught to you, but when it really matters, you will forget the mantras that you need, and that will be your end.” Karna fell at his feet and begged, “Please don’t do this. I am not a Kshatriya, and I had no intention of deceiving you. It is just that I have been dying to learn and no one else was willing to teach me. You were the only one who would allow a non-Kshatriya to learn.”
Parashurama’s temper cooled and he said, “But still, you lied. You should have explained the situation to me. You should have debated with me. But you should not have lied to me. I cannot take back the curse, but I see your longing is not for archery, kingdoms, or power – your longing is just for glory, and you shall have it. People will always remember you as a glorious warrior, but you will neither have power nor a kingdom, nor will you be known as the greatest archer. But your glory will live for always, and that is all you are longing for.”
With this curse on him, Karna wandered on. He was glad he received this training, glad about his own talent – but where to express it? Only a Kshatriya could enter a battle or a competition. He could shoot anything blind, but he could not show off his skills. All he sought was glory, but it was denied to him. Despondent, he walked southeast and sat on the seashore, somewhere near Konark in the present state of Odisha, at the spot where the sun’s grace could be best received.
He started performing austerities and sat in meditation for days on end. There was nothing to eat, but in spite of that, he continued to sit and meditate. When he got very hungry, he caught a few crabs and ate them, which nourished him but only increased his hunger. After a few weeks of sadhana, his hunger was bigger than anything else. In this state, he noticed an animal moving in the bushes. He thought it must be a deer, took his bow and arrow, shot it blindly, and heard the arrow hit the mark. He pictured satisfying his hunger with venison. But when he went into the thicket, to his horror, he found it was a cow.
Killing a cow was considered the worst that an Arya could do. Horrified, he looked at the cow, and the cow looked back at him with a soft, gentle glance, before closing her eyes for good. He was distraught – he did not know what to do. Just then, a Brahmana came by, looked at the dead cow, and started wailing. He said, “You have killed my cow! May you be cursed. You look like a warrior, so I curse you that when you are in battle and it really matters, your chariot will sink into the earth so deeply that you cannot recover it anymore. And you will be killed when you are helpless, as you killed this helpless cow.” Karna fell at his feet and begged, “Please – I was too hungry. I did not know it was a cow. If you want, I will give you a hundred cows instead.” The Brahmana said, ‘This cow was not just an animal for me. She was dearer to me than anything else. For this offer to replace the irreplaceable, I curse you even more.”
With this double curse, Karna moved on, not knowing where to go. He could shoot a speck of dust with his arrows, but what was the use? He was not a Kshatriya – no one would let him join a contest, let alone a battle. He kept wandering around, aimlessly.
To be continued...
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published in Isha Forest Flower May 2015. Download as PDF on a “name your price, no minimum” basis or subscribe to the print version.