Karna’s Parentage

A tale of Karna, son of the Indian sun-god, Surya, and his fate. Myths & Legends of India

Karna’s Parentage 

Karna, who is the Pandavas’ half-brother, but fights on the Kaurava side, is one of the most fascinating characters in the Mahabharata. In this extract, the main narrator of the epic, Vaisampayana, tells King Janamejaya the story of Karna’s parentage, in order to explain why Karna’s skin is as golden as the sun and why he wears a pair of radiant earrings. 

Karna was born to Kunti before she married Pandu. A famous sage called Durvasas was so pleased by her gracious hospitality to him that he gave her a mantra that would allow her to summon – and become pregnant by – any god that she chose. She chose Surya, the sun-god, and Karna was born of their union. 

Indra, king of the gods, was later so impressed by Karna’s golden skin-armor that he persuaded him to give it to him in exchange for a spear that never missed. At Draupadi’s Svayamvara, Karna hit the required target with Indra’s spear, but she rejected him because she thought he wa the son of the low-caste charioteer Adhiratha, who was actually his adoptive father. Because of this insult, Karna joined the Kauravas. In the battle of Kurukshetra, Karna was killed by Arjuna. When the Pandavas learnt, after his death, that he was their half-brother, they mourned him deeply, gave him full funeral rites, and made provision for his widow and dependents.  

Marharaja, that vow-observing girl 

(continued Vaisampayana) 

Began with a pure heart to gratify 

The vow-strict Brahmin. 

‘O Indra among kings,’ the excellent Brahmin 

Would sometimes say, 

‘I will be here in the morning,’ and come 

At evening or night. 

But that girl, whatever hour, 

Entertained him 

With delicious food and drink, and 

Prepared his bed. 

Her devoted service to him regarding 

Food, seat, and bed, 

Instead of diminishing, actually increased 

Day by day. 

Even if the Brahmin scolded her, 

Criticizing and speaking 

Harshly, Kunti did not do anything 

Disagreeable in return. 

Often the Brahmin would come late 

Or never turn up; 

He would ask for food almost impossible 

To procure.  

But Kunti always said, ‘It’s ready,’ 

And served his meal. 

Like a disciple, like a daughter, like 

A sister, sincerely, 

That faultless gem-like girl kept 

Attending on him, 

And gave that excellent Brahmin exactly 

What he wanted. 

The finest of the twice-born ones 

Was greatly gratified 

By her unceasing devotion to his 

Need and pleasure. 

Her father would ask her every 

Morning, ‘Daughter, 

Is the Brahmin pleased with 

Your attentions?’ 

And that marvelous girl would reply, 

‘Yes, very pleased.’ 

The noble-minded king Kuntibhoja 

Was overjoyed. 

When a whole year passed, and 

That best of meditating 

Brahmins found no fault with Kunti 

Devotedly serving him, 

He was so delighted that he called 

Her and said: 

‘Gentle, graceful girl, I am greatly 

Pleased with you. 

‘Auspicious girl, ask for a boon, 

A difficult one, 

Which will make you more famed 

Than all other women.’ 

‘O best of Veda-knowers,’ said Kunti, 

‘my desires are granted 

See you and my father happy. 

I need no boon.’ 

‘Sweet-smiling one,’ 

Said the Brahmin, 

‘instead of a boon, take this god-invoking 

Mantra from me. 

‘Whichever god you summon by using 

The mantra, 

Gentle girl, he will completely be 

In your control. 

Whether he likes it or not, the god 

You invoke with 

This mantra will come and serve you 

Like a humble slave.’ 

She was afraid that if she refused 

Him a second time, 

The finest of the twice-born ones 

Would curse her. 

That brahmin then initiated that 

Faultless-figured girl 

Into the mantra that comes in the beginning  

Of the Artharva Veda. 

O Indra among kings, after thus 

Initiating her, 

He said to Kuntibhoja, ‘Pleased 

With your daughter, 

‘I have lived in your house. It 

Is now time 

For me to go.’ Saying this, he 

Suddenly vanished. 

The raja, seeing the twice-born one 

Disappear suddenly, 

Was awe-struck. He offered his puja 

To Kunti. 

* 

After the excellent Brahmin had left, 

Kunti, for personal 

Reasons, wondered if the mantra 

Would really work. 

What kind of mantra is this that 

The mahatma 

Has graciously given me? Let me test 

And find out. 

Even as she thought this, she noticed 

She was menstruating. 

Because she was still unmarried, this 

Filled her with shame. 

One day she was resting in a  

Luxurious bed in 

Her room when she saw the mandala-sun 

Rising in the east. 

Both eye and mind of the slim-waisted 

Beauty was riveted 

On the sun. She did not feel 

Its fierce heat. 

She had a sudden divine vision. 

She saw the 

Radiant deity dressed in armor and 

Wearing earrings. 

She became eager to test the mantra 

Then and there. 

The lovely girl decided to invoke 

The sun-god. 

Restraining her life-breath, 

She invoked the 

Day-creator. And soon he appeared 

Before her: 

Honey-yellow skin 

Powerful arms 

Conch-shell neck 

Bracelets-wearing 

Diadem-crowned 

Everywhere-flaming. 

Through yoga he divided into two, 

One giving heat, 

The other appearing before her. He said 

Gently to Kunti: 

‘Gentle girl, the strength of your mantra 

Has put me in 

Your power. Tell me what you desire. 

I will give it.’ 

‘Sun-god,’ said Kunti, ‘return to 

The place where 

You have come. I was only curious. 

Be kind to me.’ 

‘Slender-wasted beauty,’ the sun-god 

Said, ‘I will go, 

As you have asked. But invoking a god 

In vain is not right. 

‘Fortunate girl, your desire is to have 

A son by Surya, 

A son with gold armor and earrings, 

Unrivalled in bravery. 

‘Elephant-gaited girl, give yourself 

Up to me. 

Lovely-figured one, you will then have 

Your desired son. 

‘Sweet-smiling one, after intercourse 

With you, I will leave. 

If today you refuse to do as I have 

Sweetly asked you, 

‘I will in anger curse you, the Brahmin, 

And your father. 

They will be destroyed because of 

Your unwillingness.  

‘I will destroy your foolish father, 

Who knows nothing 

Of this, and the Brahmin who gave 

You the mantra 

‘Without knowing your character and 

Your desires. 

The gods in heave, led by the 

Great Indra, 

‘Are laughing at me, seeing me 

Deceived by you. 

Look at them with your celestial 

Gift of vision, 

Lovely girl, the same vision by which 

You saw me.’ 

The princess beheld  

The gods in their various 

Abodes in heaven, 

Exactly as she 

Had earlier beheld 

The radiant sun-god. 

Seeing them, the girl 

Felt suddenly ashamed. 

She said to Surya: 

‘Go, radiant lord! 

I am a virgin. 

You have insulted me. 

‘Only father or mother 

Or guru are entitled 

To give me to another. 

I am firm in my dharma. 

Nothing is higher 

Than a woman’s chastity. 

‘Lord of radiance! I was girlishly 

Curious, I only 

Wanted to test the mantra. Forgive 

An impulsive girl.’ 

‘Because you are girlish,’ 

Said Surya, ‘I am gentle. 

I would not be with others. 

O lovely Kunti, 

Give me your body, 

And get peace of mind. 

‘Beautiful girl, you are the one who 

Invoked the mantra. 

I will not leave till I have 

Enjoyed you. 

‘Lovely one, if I go away, I will 

Become the fool 

Of the world. All the golds will 

Laugh at me. 

‘Come, have intercourse with me. 

The son born to you 

Will be like myself, and you will be 

Praised in the worlds.’ 

* 

The noble-minded girl tried every 

Sweet persuasion, 

But she could not make the thousand- 

Rayed god relent. 

When all her entreaties to the 

Darkness-dispeller failed, 

Fear of the curse made her reflect 

In this manner: 

What is the best means of saving 

My innocent father 

And the Brahmin from the curse of 

The angered sun-god? 

Innocent young people should be very 

Careful and not 

Go foolishly near men of energy  

And tapas. 

I have behaved impulsively and am 

Now in Surya’s power. 

How can I allow this odious surrender 

Of my body? 

Thoughts of the curse weighed heavily 

On Kunti’s mind. 

She was paralyzed, she could not decide  

What to do. 

Lord of the world, excellent king! 

Afraid of the 

Censure of her friends, afraid of 

The threatened curse, 

She said, trembling with shame, to 

The sun-god: 

‘My father, my mother and my relatives 

Are living. 

As long as they are alive, how can 

I defy custom? 

‘O sun-god, if I have illicit 

Intercourse with you, 

The honor of my race will be 

Forever sullied. 

‘But if, O finest of radiant ones, 

You consider intercourse without  

Family consent is dharma, I will 

Satisfy your desire. 

‘Irrefusable deity, you are the source 

Of dharma, fame, 

Honor and life – grant I remain virgin 

After intercourse with you.’ 

‘Sweet-smiling one,’ Surya 

Said to Kunti, 

‘your father, mother and elders are helpless 

In this. Listen. 

‘Love girl, you are a virgin, a 

Kanyaand kanya 

Derives from Kama, to lust; a kanya 

Is one who 

Desires every man. For this reason, 

She is free to choose. 

‘Beautiful girl, you will certainly not be 

Violating dharma. 

How can I be guilty of adharma, who 

Seeks the welfare of all? 

‘Exquisite-complexioned girl, human nature 

Is such that men and 

Women lust for each other. The contrary 

Is the unnatural. 

‘Even after intercourse with me, you will  

Remain a virgin. 

You will have a mighty-armed and 

Highly illustrious son.’ 

‘Dispeller of darkness,’ said Kunti, 

‘if I have your son, 

Let him have a gold armor and 

Gold earrings, 

Let him be brave and mighty-armed 

And hugely powerful.’ 

Your son, gentle one,’ said Surya, 

‘Will be mighty-armed, 

He will be born with ambrosia-made earrings 

And impenetrable armor.’ 

‘If both the armor and earrings  

Of the son you 

Will have by me are made of ambrosia,’ 

Said Kunti, 

‘Then have intercourse with me, as 

You have desired. 

May he be strong, handsome, dynamic and 

Dharma-firm like you.’ 

‘Princess, lovely, gentle girl,’ said 

Surya, ‘I will give

Him the earrings Aditi presented me,

And this armor.’

‘O deity, O lord of light,’ Kunti

Replied, ‘if my son

Will be as you have described, 

Then enjoy me!’

‘Very well,’ said Surya, the sky-travelling 

Foe of Rahu;

With yogic energy, he entered Kunti;

He touched her navel.

Stunned by the energy of the 

sun, lovely

Kunti collapsed as if bewildered

On her bed.

‘Lovely kanya,’ said Surya, ‘I 

Will now depart. 

You will have a son who will be the 

Greatest arms-wielder.’ 

O Indra among kings, the orgasm – 

Ecstatic girl gazed 

Shyly at departing Surya and said, 

‘So may it be.’ 

Kuntiraja’s daughter 

Asked for a son 

Shyly from Surya, 

And fell down exhausted, 

Like a torn creeper, 

On her auspicious bed. 

The hot-rayed deity 

Made her bewildered 

And penetrated her 

By means of his yoga, 

But did not defile her. 

Then she recovered. 

* 

Lord of the earth (said Vaisampayana), 

Like the moon in  

The sky, Kunti conceived on the 

First day of 

The bright fortnight of the eleventh 

Month of the year. 

The lovely-hipped girl, afraid of 

Scandal among her 

Friends, hid her pregnancy, so that 

No one really knew. 

None except a nurse know about 

Her condition, because 

Kunti stayed within the seclusion of 

The female apartments. 

In course of time the delicate 

Complexioned beauty 

Gave birth to Surya’s son – a boy 

Who was god-like. 

Like his father he wore natural 

Armor, he had 

Flaming gold earrings, leonine eyes, 

And bull-like shoulders. 

As soon as he was born, Kunti, 

With the nurse’s  

Help, placed the baby in a basket, 

Covered with sheets, 

A comfortable, smooth, wicker-work 

Basket, and an 

Expensive pillow. Weeping, she floated 

It down the Asva. 

O king, she knew it was improper 

For an unmarried 

Girl to be a mother, but she loved him, 

And wept bitterly. 

Listen to the words which Kunti 

Spoke, even as she 

Wept, and floated the basket down 

The Asva river. 

‘Son, 

My little one, 

May the beings of the sky protect you, 

And the being and the celestial regions, 

May the beings of water protect you. 

May the paths you tread be holy! 

May no one obstruct you. 

Son, may the minds of those who meet you 

Never be hostile to you. 

‘May Varuna, raja of waters, 

Protect you! 

May Vayu, god of wind, 

Sky-encompassing, everywhere-wandering, 

Protect you! 

‘Son, 

May your heat-dispersing father,  

Who gave you to me by decree of fate, 

Protect you wherever you are. 

‘May the Adityas 

Vasus 

Rudras 

Sahyas 

Visvadevas 

Maruts 

And the points of the universe 

Presided by Indrai; 

May their guardians 

Protect you! 

‘May the gods protect you 

Wherever you may be. 

Even if you are in a foreign land, 

I will know you by your armor. 

‘Fortunate is your father, 

Lord of effulgence, 

Who sees you today with divine eyes 

As you flow down the river. 

‘Son of a god! 

Fortunate is the lady 

Who will take you as son 

And feed you the milk of her breasts.  

‘How lovely a dream for her – 

To have a sun-dazzling son, 

Clad in armor, 

Resplendent with earrings, 

‘With eyes as large as lotuses, 

And skin as lustrous as copper-colored lotus-leaves, 

With a handsome forehead 

And magnificent hair. 

Fortunate are they too, my son, 

Who will see you crawling on the ground 

And babbling sweet baby talk. 

‘Fortunate are they 

Who will see you grow into manhood 

Like a thick-maned lion of the Himalayas.’ 

King, when Kunti finished, she wept 

Loudly and bitterly; 

And then she floated the basket 

Down the Asva. 

Her nurse was at her side. 

Lotus-eyed Kunti, 

Looking again and again at her son, 

Weeping, at night 

Floated the basket on the water, 

And slipped sorrow –  

Laden into the palace, lest 

Her father find out. 

The basket floated down the Asva 

Into the river 

Charmanvati, from there to the Yamuna, 

Then to the Ganga. 

Carried by the waters of the Ganga, 

The basket with the 

Baby arrived near the city of Champa 

In the Suta kingdom. 

The child survived because of the 

Nectar-drenched armor 

And earrings – and because fate 

Had decreed it so. 

* 

Around this time (continued Vaisampayana), 

The charioteer Adhiratha, 

A friend of Dhritarashtra, came with his 

Wife to the Ganga. 

HIs wife’s name was Radha, a lady 

Of unrivalled beauty. 

This highly fortunate lady, however, 

Had no son, 

Though she had tried all possible means 

To have one. 

She saw the basket drifting down 

The river, 

Securely wrapped against danger, and 

Dyed bright saffron. 

It rushed past her down the waves 

Of the Ganga. 

Curiosity moved her, and she ordered 

It brought before her. 

This was done, and she reported it 

To Adhiratha. 

Adhiratha placed the basket on the  

river-bank and forced 

It open. Inside it he saw the baby 

(Said Vaisampayana), 

Glowing like the rising sun, with 

Gold armor, its 

Pretty face set off by the dazzle of 

The earrings. 

The eyes of the charioteer and his 

Wife widened in 

Wonder; taking the baby on his lap, 

He said to her:  

‘Lovely wife, I have never seen such 

A marvel since 

My birth. This baby, I think, must 

Be a god’s son, 

‘And because I have no son, the gods 

Have given him 

To me.’ With these words, he handed the 

Child to his wife. 

Radha adopted that divine-wombed 

Boy who had come 

Miraculously, who was graceful and lustrous 

Like a lotus. 

Destiny ordained that milk should swell 

Radha’s breasts. 

She brought him up in the required 

Manner; the child 

Grew to boyhood. Adhiratha had other sons  

during this time. 

Because the boy had golden armor 

And golden earrings, 

The twice0born called him Vasushena, 

The ‘Golden One’. 

So that boy of extraordinary strength 

And luster 

Became the charioteer’s son Vasushena, 

Also called Vrisha. 

The armor-skinned boy, the eldest 

Son of the charioteer, 

Grew up in Anga – and Kunti knew this, 

Through her informers. 

When the charioteer saw that his son 

Had come of age, 

He decided to send him to the  

Capital Hastinapura. 

There the brave boy studed under 

Drona to learn 

Weapons-lore; there he became friends 

With Duryodhana. 

From Drona, Kripa and Parasurama, 

He learnt the use 

Of different weapons; he became a 

World-famed bowman. 

His friendship with Duryodhana made 

Him antagonistic 

To the Pandavas; he sought a duel 

With mahatma Arjuna. 

Lord of the world! The very first time 

They laid eyes 

On each other, Karna challenged Arjuna, 

And Arjuna Karna. 

Maharaja, Surya of course was aware 

That Karna, his son 

By Kunti, was growing to manhood 

Among the Sutas. 

It hurt Yudhishthira to think that 

Karna’s gold armor 

And earrings made him invincible 

On the battlefield 

karna-vs-arjuna

Karna vs. Arjuna

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