How was Karna born and how did he end up becoming a king?

·4-min read

Karna’s story is one of pathos and tragedy. 

A boy born of a god and a princess, abandoned and later adopted by a lowly charioteer, Karna lives a life filled with ridicule and disdain. The story of Karna really starts with a young princess named Pritha, whose father Shursena sends her off to Kuntibhoja, a king and a friend who had no children of his own. By virtue of being the daughter of Kuntibhoja, Pritha comes to be known as Kunti.

Relief carvings at Kailasa or Kailash Temple at the Ellora Caves in Maharashtra, India
Relief carvings at Kailasa or Kailash Temple at the Ellora Caves in Maharashtra, India

One day the sage Durvasa appears at the palace doors of Kuntibhoja and requests to stay there for some months. Happy to host such a great sage, Kuntibhoja assigns his daughter Kunti to ensure his guest, the sage Durvasa, is comfortable. Happy with the hospitality, Durvasa is pleased and teaches her a mantra that would give her the power to summon any god she desired and have a child with the god.

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The young teenager Kunti is curious and one morning decides to try out the mantra to see if it indeed works. To her surprise, the sun god descends to her chambers and grants her the baby she had asked for. Horrified, because she was still unmarried, Kunti asks the god to take the baby back. Except that isn’t how the mantra works. The sun god goes back and Kunti is left holding a child. Her child.

Not knowing any better but with a heavy heart, Kunti places the child in a basket and sends it downstream and believes that would be the last she’d hear of him. Eventually, Kunti gets married to Pandu and becomes known as mother to the Pandavas.

Meanwhile, a charioteer discovers the child and promptly brings him home where he and his wife decide to call him Karna. As it turns out, the charioteer is in the employ of the king Dhritarashtra. So Karna gets an opportunity to learn in the ashrama of Dronacharya along with the other Kuru princes.

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He learns diligently and becomes an ace archer. But with Arjuna being his guru’s favourite, Karna rarely gets the opportunity to shine. He does, however, catch the eye of the young prince Duryodhana who sees in him a match for Arjuna and the two become friends.

At the end of their education Drona organises a show of skills that involves the participation of all the princes. Karna wishes to participate but is shut down since he isn’t a prince. Kunti, who’s in attendance, sees Karna and immediately recognises him but doesn’t say a word. However, Duryodhana rises to his defence and anoints him the king of Anga, a region that covers the present day Bihar and Bengal.

Grateful for the gesture, Karna thanks Duryodhana and asks what he’d like in return. The Kaurava prince smiles and says he needs nothing but Karna’s lifelong friendship. In Duryodhana, Karna finds the one person who sees him for who he is and not for who his parents were.

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Throughout his life Karna is ridiculed for being the son of a charioteer but Karna does his best to rise above this ridicule and behave in a gentlemanly manner. He earns a reputation of being kind and generous and yet no one including the Pandavas care to show him any recognition. It is only after his death that Kunti reveals to her sons that the great warrior on the pyre was, in fact, their oldest brother: one she bore by mistake and wished she hadn’t abandoned him.

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In a private conversation, Sahadeva, who is known to have the knowledge of all that has passed and all that is about to happen, reveals to Krishna that the only way to avoid a war was for all the Kauravas and all the Pandavas to retire in the forest and leave the empire to Karna.

Instead, Karna, abused and ridiculed his entire life, is killed by Arjuna, while still unarmed, trying to get the wheel of his chariot out of the ground.

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