Was Karna a better archer than Arjuna?

·3-min read

Throughout the grand epic, the Mahabharata, Arjuna is referred to as the greatest archer alive at the time. Over the years and through several retellings, this particular claim (among many others) has been questioned by several people.

Carving of Arjuna story from Mahabharata at Hoysaleswara temple at Halebidu District Hassan State Karnataka India
Carving of Arjuna story from Mahabharata at Hoysaleswara temple at Halebidu District Hassan State Karnataka India

After all, Arjuna never really competed against two of his best known competitors, Eklavya and Karna. Even though he did engage with Karna in the Kurukshetra war, he managed to kill Karna when the latter was defenceless and unarmed. While Krishna is able to rationalise this by arguing that the Kauravas showed no regard for the rules of the warfare while slaying young Abhimanyu, one can argue that even though the duel ended with Karna being slayed, it doesn’t conclusively decide who the better archer was.

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With regards to Eklavya too, the young boy who showed promise was asked to cut off his finger by Drona just because he built a statue of the guru, and prayed to it every day before he started the practice.

While this has largely been the argument made against Arjuna, one can single out a particular battle in the epic that established Arjuna as the superior archer.

Related read:Why did Krishna’s army fight against their own king in the Mahabharata war?

The incident takes place towards the end of the Pandavas’ exile when Duryodhana decides to show off his wealth and power by bringing his entourage to the same forest where the Pandavas were living in a hut. Among those in the entourage include Karna.

Unfortunately, at the same time, in the same forest, a group of gandharvas are picnicking. As is wont a skirmish breaks out and blows up into a full-fledged battle. The mortal Kauravas are no match for the divine gandharvas who defeat everyone including Karna and kidnap Duryodhana and some of the female members of the royal family.

The few remaining soldiers turn to the Pandavas for help. Though displeased with the order, Arjuna follows Yudhishthira’s instructions and goes into battle with Chitrasena, the leader of the gandharvas.

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The gandharvas are divine creatures with supernatural powers and Karna was easily defeated by them. However, during his time in exile, Arjuna had managed to learn to wield several divine weapons and even fight in the dark. So when Chitrasena became invisible, Arjuna was still able to fight him and eventually defeat him.

This is the battle that really makes Arjuna stand out as an archer and a warrior. Karna, though being a great archer, was clearly unable to upskill himself and learn advanced fighting skills like Arjuna. And so, in the end, even though he was killed in an unfair combat, this particular battle clearly proved that he was no match for Arjuna’s skills.

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