It is certainly not the Salman – SRK starrer Karan Arjun that I am referring to. I am referring to the two sons of the Rakhi Gulzar of Mahabharat, Kunti; one who was born before her marriage to Pandu and one who was born after. The reason I have picked this topic for my writing is that every time one reads a different version of this epic, one’s opinion of the character and military prowess of the two brothers gets dented and painted (no offence to Abhijit Mukherjee). The reader gets emotionally attached to either of the two characters and insists on defending his / her favourite. However, like the countless other questions it raises, the Mahabaharata does not clearly answer even this, that who out of these two archer sons of Kunti was a better warrior. However, in the end Arjun does kill Karna. But does this make him a superior warrior? Let’s try to figure this out.
One should always be aware of the pros and cons of the boons and also trust the god (devata) or God (one of the three manifestations of the Almighty; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) from whom he/she receives them. If the receiver doesn’t, the unexpected happens. This “unexpected” in Kunti’s case was a son born with celestial armor and earrings. As a result of extraordinary hospitality she had offered to him, Kunti had received a boon from Rishi Durvasa that enabled her to conceive a child (some versions say “a son”) from any god she summoned. I am sure Indra would have been elated at this gracious boon of Durvasa and would have started waiting for his turn. Anyways, a teen aged and unmarried Kunti, out of curiosity, summoned the Sun-god and after a series of censored events conceived a child. Though being a Kshatrani (woman of a Kshatriya caste), she wasn't probably as audacious as Preity Zinta of Kya Kehna and so abandoned the child in a wooden box in river Ganga. This box was discovered by the charioteer of the Hastinapur King Dhritarashtra, Adiratha, who raised this new born as his own son. This child grew up to be known as a master-archer called Karna.
After her marriage to Pandu, Kunti did not get many opportunities to conceive a child from her husband for different reasons stated. Some state that he was busy in wars and conquering kingdoms (D’oh), others state that he was sterile; some say that he abstained from touching Kunti fearing the curse of Rishi Kindam. (Rishi Kindam had cursed the already sterile and unfortunate Pandu that his moment of intimacy with his wife will be his moment of death as Pandu had hunted down Rishi Kindam and his wife while they were getting intimate in cervine form in a forest). So after years of celibacy on realizing that he might die childless, Pandu shared his concern with Kunti. Knowing her husband’s limitations (pre and post curse), Kunti suggested of conceiving sons through Durvasa’s boon. So began the process of summoning the gods one by one. Long story short, Indra finally got lucky and eventually Kunti and Pandu got a son named Arjun (third in line, after Yudhishthir from Dharma-god and Bheem from Wind-god).
Analyzing Karna and Arjun on the basis of skills of a warrior.
Training: (Karna = Arjuna)
Though raised by a charioteer, Karna always had this inexplicable urge to learn archery. Driven by his love for his son, his father, Adirath (Dhritrashtra’s charioteer) took him to Dronacharya and requested him to take Karna as disciple. However, Dronacharya did not accept Karna on the grounds that the school was meant only for Kshatriyas or royals and Karna was neither. Karna was thus denied mentor ship of an invincible fine teacher but only to receive it from some one much greater; sage Parshuram, the sixth avatar of Vishnu himself and also the teacher of Dronacharya himself. The epic states that Karna became Parshuram’s favourite student perfect in all martial arts and celestial weapons.
Note: Parshuram had agreed to train Karna only because he was made to believe Karna is a Brahmin (Parshuram is believed not to have mentored any Kshatriya, except for Bheeshm, because of his disliking for the ostentatious Kshatriya valour that went against humanity time and again). Later, when Parshuram devised that Karna’s veins overflow with strength of Kshatriya blood, he felt deceived and thus cursed Karna to forget his most important teaching (the use of Brahmastra – the weapon of Brahma) on the day he would require it the most.
Arjun, however, managed to get the training of Dronacharya much easily as he was recognized as a Kshatriya from the very beginning and his teacher could, thus, accept him as a student. Arjun’s dedication towards learning archery impressed Dronacharya greatly and he vowed to make Arjun the best archer on earth. Arjun learnt the skill of shooting at night (hence came to be known as Gurakesh), using the bow with both hands and conquering his sleep(...boy!). Pleased with his unconditional dedication for his teacher, Dronacharya also blessed Arjun with the mantra for the Brahmastra.
- Teachers: Equal
- Shooting skill: Both never missed a target, hence, equal.
- Celestial weapons: Equally matched
Valour: (Karna = Arjun)
In this context, neither could beat the other one clearly. Both Karna and Arjun had displayed their valour and fearlessness at many instances. If Arjun had saved his teacher from a crocodile as a child, slain numerous demons in the forest and won many provinces, Karna too had displayed his valour and had proved his mettle during his Vijay-yatra.
Draupadi’s Swayamvar: (Karna < Arjuna)
There is no doubt in the fact that Karna was equally capable of piercing the fish’s eye like Arjun. Draupadi, however, did not allow Karna to contest for her hand. Some say it was on Krishna’s advice, some say she did not want to marry a charioteer’s son. Whatever may be the grounds, she did make the statement, “My varmala will not embellish the chest of a charioteer’s son.” So, Arjun got a chance and won Draupadi for marriage, only to share her later with her four brothers.
However, after this when the kings had decided on abducting Draupadi to throw her in a pyre and avenge their (so called) insult, there followed a brief conflict between Karna and Arjun where Arjun did beat Karna.
Note: This conflict does not have much relevance in terms of the military prowess as Arjuna was disguised as a Brahmin and Karna withdrew out of surprise.
Possessions: (Karna = Arjun)
Karna was blessed with the following possessions based on his birth and Karma:
- Celestial Armor and Earrings – They had the capability of resisting attack of any celestial weapon.
- Shiva’s bow (received from Parshuram) – An unbreakable bow with multiple strings from which hundreds of arrows could be shot in one go.
Arjun was blessed with the following possessions:
- The bow “Gandiva”: Arjun received this bow from the Fire-god and it equaled Shiva’s bow in strength and capacity.
- Divine Chariot: Th Fire-god blessed Arjun with a divine chariot as well that could run faster than any other chariot and could be summoned by chanting a mantra.
- Celestial weapons: On his visit to Swarga, Arjun received many celestial weapons from his father, Indra.
If Arjun received celestial weapons from his father, Indra, then Karna received celestial armor and earrings from Surya. These could resist all celestial weapons that Arjun possessed, making the both equal.
Arjun does possess a divine chariot that Karna doesn’t but since during a combat the chariots are supposed to be stationary and do not create any difference to the performance otherwise, Karna and Arjun are again equals in this context.
Note: Karna’s celestial armour and earrings were taken away by Indra when he came to Karna disguised as a priest. The generous Karna did not turn him away, in spite of knowing the repercussions of his generosity. However, Indra gifted him his “Shakti” that Karna would be able to use in war, but only once.
The Final Day of War:
As of now, Karna and Arjun are equally matched with an exception of Brahmastra (that Arjun had but Karna did not). What then creates the difference that ultimately leads to Arjun's triumph and Karna's death? What are the reasons that Karna’s situation is so pathetically hopeless when compared to Arjun’s on the day of their final combat?
Krishna’s revealing of truth followed by Kunti’s emotional drama:
The master strategist of the Pandavs, in hope of averting the war, disclosed to Karna the secret of his birth and tried to bribe him with five brothers, Indraprastha and Draupadi. While Karna rejected Krishna’s proposal staying faithful to Duryodhan, he was much deeply struck by the fact that in the war he will have to fight his younger brothers and was hence rendered emotionally handicapped. He still requested Krishna to keep this a secret so that Pandavs would not be affected by this information while they fight. Later, Kunti met Karna and after a whole lot of emotional drama requested him to spare the lives of her sons. A grief-stricken Karna was highly disturbed on discovering that even at the eleventh hour his mother thought of well being of Pandavs but did not display a zilch of affection for him. He still promised Kunti that she will forever be known as mother of five sons. He will not harm the sons of Kunti, except for Arjun.
Hence, on the day of final combat Karna was under a huge emotional pressure of killing his own younger brother and keeping the promise to his friend at the same time. Arjun, however, had no such pressure but was rather equipped with the strength of his hatred towards the son of the charioteer who had horrifyingly insulted his wife, Draupadi, in the court and had hacked his son, Abhimanyu, to death, unfairly, in the battlefield.
Note: Arjun was not in the best state of mind either as he had slayed down Bheeshm and had witnessed the unjust and brutal killing of his beloved teacher followed by the news of his sixteen year old son being hacked by the elite Kaurav warriors. But on the day of his combat with Karna, he was comparatively in a better state as he had risen above that grief for that moment. Krishna, in fact, had to remind him of these instances to goad him to shoot a disarmed Karna.
Since Shalya had been duped into fighting for the Kaurav side, the Kshatriya code of conduct expected him to fight for Kauravs but his enmity for them made his heart side with the Pandavs. When Karna requested Shalya to become his charioteer, trying to honour him by comparing his charioteer skills with Krishna, Shalya took it as insult to his status as a king and a warrior. Shalya thus made a point that during the war he will bog down Karna by infesting him with fear for his opponent Arjun and his charioteer Krishna.
During the war, he constantly praised Arjun and Krishna while demeaning Karna and making him realize his lower status in the society and his limitations as a warrior. Karna was thus stripped of the most important armor of a warrior, confidence, while he was facing his younger brother on the day of final combat. Arjun, on the other hand, was under the divine protection of Krishna who bolstered his confidence every time he became apprehensive or was awed by Karna's extraordinary skills.
The effect of Curses:
Karna was burdened with two curses on the day of final combat. One, by Parshuram, would make him forget the mantra to be chanted to call the Brahmastra and the other one by a sage would push his chariot down into the earth at the most crucial moment of the war. Both these curses took effect on the final day and Karna could escape neither. When he requested Shalya to push the chariot out, he refused saying that it was below his dignity as a king. When he tried to summon the Brahmastra, he failed. Karna, thus, had to descend from his chariot to pull it out.
In spite of all these strengths and weaknesses of the two, the combat was equally matched. Still, when Karna was alighting from his chariot he had this hope that Arjun would resist from shooting till the time he is back on chariot as this was a code of war. He pleaded Arjun to stop his arrows until he pulled out the wheel. Krishna, however, did not want Arjun to wait. He goaded the reluctant Arjun to shoot at Karna while he was busy pulling out the chariot wheel.
This makes one wonder: Why? Why did Krishna goad Arjun to kill a disarmed Karna? Did he fear that once Karna would return to his chariot it will take Arjun monumental effort to beat him? Maybe, Arjun would not be able to beat Karna at all. Maybe, he wanted Karna to realize that people who break the code of war (like Karna did in case of Abhimanyu), deserve to die by the same means. Maybe, he considered the wheel in Karna’s hand a logical equivalent to a weapon as Abhimanyu, in his dying moments, had fought with a wheel. Maybe, he wanted Karna to receive a death of honour, the honour that he had been deprived of throughout his life. (A warrior like Arjun, having to kill Karna when unarmed made Karna receive a warrior status almost equal to the mighty Bheeshm.) Maybe, he did not want to answer this question explicitly that who was a better warrior out of the two great sons of Kunti. Maybe, he just wanted us to ponder upon their situations and understand their contexts.