On the seventeenth day of the battle, Karna faces and defeats Bhima and Yudhishtira in the battle. Keeping his promise to Kunti, Karna doesn’t kill them. Enraged by the death of his young son, Karna defeats Nakula as well and spares his life too though fully aware of the fact that Nakula was instrumental in Vrishasena’s death. Karna finally comes face to face with his most intense rival, Arjuna in the battlefield. Deprived of his impregnable earrings (Kundal), armor (Kavach) and his most powerful weapon, Karna has to face the widely equipped Arjuna on the basis of his skills alone. Putting up a dazzling display of archery, Karna pins Arjuna to the chariot with a rain of arrows. Arjuna, too, lives upto his name and the intense fight continues with both the heroes, matched equally for skill and bravery, are unable to overcome each other.
During the course of the battle, the earth is pressed deep due to the weights of the chariots and the elephants. And Aswasena, a snake who was hostile to Arjuna for having killed its mother at Khandava, rises from the nether region. Recollecting the death of his mother and the enmity that he had harboured against Arjuna, the brave snake rises to the skies and thinking that it was the right time for gratifying his animosity towards the wicked Arjuna, enters Karna’s quiver assuming the form of an arrow, the Naga Astram. Karna, though, is unaware and when he shoots that arrow at Arjuna, Krishna recognizes the Naga-Astram and he plunges the chariot into the ground as a desperate measure. The arrow strikes Arjuna’s diadem instead, saving Arjuna from sure death.
The snake returns to Karna and says, “You sped me, O Karna, without having seen me. It was for this that I could not strike off Arjuna’s head. Please shoot me once again, after seeing me well. I shall then slay your foe and mine too.”
To which Karna asked, “Who are you to have possessed such fierce form?”
The snake answered, saying, “Know me as one the one who has been wronged by Arjuna. My enmity towards him is due to his having slain my mother. Do not disregard me. Do my bidding. I will slay thy foe. Shoot me without delay.”
Hearing those words, Karna said, “Karna never desires to have victory in battle today by relying on another’s might. Even if I have to slay a hundred Arjunas, I will not still shoot the same shaft twice.”
Aswasen implores Karna, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Krishna exhorts Arjuna to slay the snake. Deprived of Karna’s mighty bow, the brave snake perishes.
The fierce combat continues until Karna’s chariot wheels get stuck in the ground. Karna tries to remove the wheel from the ground. Krishna exhorts Arjuna to attack Karna. Arjuna lets out a powerful volley of arrows at Karna.
Struck by the arrows, Karna falls down to the ground. Wounded, but not dead. Arjuna continues to fire arrows at Karna but the arrows don’t pierce Karna’s body. They become a garland of flowers and fall on his head. Puzzled, Arjuna seeks to Krishna for help. Krishna smiles and shows Arjuna that it is the Goddess of Righteousness who is protecting Karna. Krishna says that Karna has been so righteous throughout his life that the Goddess herself seeks to protect him. Krishna concludes that the only way to slay Karna would be to deprive Karna of all his righteousness.
Assuming the form of a poor Brahmin, Krishna walks upto the fallen warrior and says that he came all the way to meet Karna to ask for a favor. Karna, ever the generous says, “The only thing I have now is my life. If you want, I’ll happily give it to you.”
Krishna laughs and says “I do not seek your life.What good will it do?“
Karna implores the Brahmin, “Ask for anything you want. “
Waiting for this moment, Krishna says,” I have sinned greatly and I need the fruits of your good deeds to save myself from hell. I want all the righteousness that you have in yourselves. All the Dharma you have. “
Without thinking Karna slices his navel and spills his righteous blood on the poor Brahman’s hands remarking that the Brahman has given the lowly born Karna an opportunity to redeem himself. Karna finally is deprived of the one last thing that set him apart from mortals. Krishna, touched by his generosity grants him vision of his Viswaroopa. Krishna asks him to ask for a boon.
Karna replies,” Please make my pyre on the most Barren place on earth, so no man may suffer the pain I did in case it’s reborn.”
Having done that, Krishna walks back to Arjuna and tells him to kill Karna. Dutifully Arjuna fires a volley of arrows upon Karna and the Great Warrior finally dies.
Upon his death, Karna’s wife Vrushali, his Mother Kunti and the Goddess of Righteousness mourn his death. Arjuna asks Krishna “Why is the Goddess mourning Karna’s fall?”
To which the Goddess replies, “In this World of greed, power and betrayal, Only Karna has followed the path of righteousness. And I am mourning the death of my only son in all the three worlds.”
Kunti then, in her grief reveals that Karna was her eldest son and the true heir to the throne.
Arjuna realizing the gravity of his action laments that he killed his own brother. To which Krishna replies that Karna was not killed by one man alone. Six other people were involved in killing Karna.
Krishna explains to an inconsolable Arjuna, “Parushuram’s curse ensured that Karna would forget the incantation of the most powerful Brahmastra when he would require it the most. A poor Brahman, whose son he had killed mistaking it for a deer, had cursed Karna saying that the wheels of his chariot would get stuck in the ground during battle. Your father, Indra disguised himself as a Brahmin and asked for Karna’s invincible Kavach (Armor) and Kundal (Earrings) thereby rendering him vulnerable to death. Your mother Kunti, extracted a promise out of him that he would not kill any of your brothers except you. And that he would use a divine weapon only once against you. Shalya, Karna’s charioteer refused to help him when his Chariot wheels get stuck into the ground. And finally when all this failed to kill the Great Man, I myself, robbed Karna of all his righteousness left him to the dead. You have killed a man already killed six times by his own people.”
Lord Krishna, remembering Karna’s dying request and being the God himself, made Karna’s pyre on his palm.
His acts of generosity are unmatched. One goes that a Brahmin, who required sandalwood to cremate his departed wife approached Karna for the same. It was raining heavily and the Brahmin needed dry sandalwood (An alternate version is that there was a shortage of sandalwood in the city)Karna, unable to procure sandalwood from the market, noticed that the pillars of his palace were of sandalwood, and calling for an axe, cut them down to give the Brahmin his wood. His palace collapsed, much to the dismay of the Brahmin, but he told him that as a King, He could rebuild it easily.
Some little known facts about Karna would be that he was the most handsome person in the Mahabharata. All the ladies of Hastinapura used to stare at him when he used to go to the Ganges for a bath. Being the son of the Sun-God himself, the radiance on his face was irresistible. He had defeated Arjuna in the battle once but spares his life pulling back his arrow realizing that they would not reach Arjuna before sunset (End of the day’s battle). Later when Durydhona asks Karna about it, he replies that as the commander of the Kaurava army, he would adhere to the rules of combat so that the future generations cannot complain that the Sutaputra Karna killed the Kshatriya Arjuna by cheating. A folly, considering the way he had to die later.
Two moments that test and define Karna’s unwavering loyalty and strong character would be when Krishna comes to Hastinapura at the end of the Pandavas thirteen years of exile and to negotiate a peace settlement as Duryodhana refuses to give the Pandavas their kingdom. Instead of negotiating, Durydhona tries to capture Krishna. Before leaving, Krishna tries to win Karna over to the Pandava’s side by reasoning with him. Though Krishna is aware of the kindness that Duryodhana had shown Karna, he argued that Karna had a higher duty, to follow him on the path of righteousness.
It is here that the depth of his character is seen. Apologizing for his role in Draupadi’s attempted molestation, Karna tells Krishna he knows that Duryodhana is wrong, and in supporting him he is doing the wrong thing and moreover, that he will certainly face death and defeat for it. But he resolves nevetheless to stick with him. He tells Krishna “All my life, I have been a Sutaputra first and a warrior and King later to the world. Duryodhana alone has seen me, not just as a warrior and king, but as his equal and friend first. Never has he seen me as a Sutaputra. Now that this one friend of mine is in need of a friend, do you expect me to desert him?” Krishna then reveals to him the secret of his birth – that he is Kunti’s eldest son. Upon Krishna’s exhorting him to join his brothers, Karna is steadfast in his refusal to join the Pandavas. He replies with bitterness in his voice “Kunti may have given birth to me, but her first act was to cast me into the river. Why should I consider her a mother, when I grew under the love of another? The Pandavas may be my brothers by blood, but they have shown me envy and hatred alone throughout. Why should I join them and desert Duryodhana, who has shown me the love of a brother?”
Karna requests Krishna to keep his identity a secret. If Yudhishtira were to know, he would renounce the kingdom rather than fight an elder brother for it, and Karna does not want him to give up.
The second time is when Kunti, fearing the war, approaches Karna and reveals her identity to him. In one of the most touching scenes in the Mahabharata, she tells him to drop the name ‘Radheya’ (Radha’s firstborn) and call himself ‘Kaunteya’ to which Karna replies that it was what he always wanted and craved for. Upon her requesting him to come over to their side, a request Surya himself reinforces from the skies, Karna refuses.
The scene between Karna and Kunti is brilliantly captured by Rabindranath Tagore which I came across while researching for this post. It is very touching, though it loses a bit of it’s flair having been translated from Bengali, it still deserves a separate post.
I cannot help but wonder if only we people possessed a little bit of the goodness that Karna has the world would have been a much better place to live in.
Regards Dharamvir Gaba aka Dhruv Gaba P.S. Don't remember the source.