A tale of Karna, son of the Indian sun-god, Surya, and his fate. Myths & Legends of India
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
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,
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
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
Is the Brahmin pleased with
And that marvelous girl would reply,
‘Yes, very pleased.’
The noble-minded king Kuntibhoja
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.’
Said the Brahmin,
‘instead of a boon, take this god-invoking
Mantra from me.
‘Whichever god you summon by using
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
Into the mantra that comes in the beginning
Of the Artharva Veda.
O Indra among kings, after thus
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
The raja, seeing the twice-born one
Was awe-struck. He offered his puja
After the excellent Brahmin had left,
Kunti, for personal
Reasons, wondered if the mantra
Would really work.
What kind of mantra is this that
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
She became eager to test the mantra
Then and there.
The lovely girl decided to invoke
Restraining her life-breath,
She invoked the
Day-creator. And soon he appeared
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
‘I will destroy your foolish father,
Who knows nothing
Of this, and the Brahmin who gave
You the mantra
‘Without knowing your character and
The gods in heave, led by the
‘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
‘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
But she could not make the thousand-
Rayed god relent.
When all her entreaties to the
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
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
‘My father, my mother and my relatives
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
‘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
Kanya – and 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
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
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,’
‘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
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
O Indra among kings, the orgasm –
Ecstatic girl gazed
Shyly at departing Surya and said,
‘So may it be.’
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 –
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.
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,
May Vayu, god of wind,
May your heat-dispersing father,
Who gave you to me by decree of fate,
Protect you wherever you are.
‘May the Adityas
And the points of the universe
Presided by Indrai;
May their guardians
‘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.
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
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
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
Adhiratha placed the basket on the
river-bank and forced
It open. Inside it he saw the baby
Glowing like the rising sun, with
Gold armor, its
Pretty face set off by the dazzle of
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
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
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
There the brave boy studed under
Drona to learn
Weapons-lore; there he became friends
From Drona, Kripa and Parasurama,
He learnt the use
Of different weapons; he became a
His friendship with Duryodhana made
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