Insights from Mahabharata-II: Karna, Krishna, and the Fear of Abandonment

Being abandoned by his mother was something that must have affected Karna. How it shaped his life and personality is of course a matter that many have hypothesized about over thousands of years.

In the previous article, we saw how Karna’s like could be viewed as a cautionary tale against distractions. Let us now look into another aspect of Karna’s life.

Karna was abandoned almost immediately after his birth. His mother, Kunti, “flung” (ch 104, Adi Parva) him into the river, where he was found by Adhiratha, adopted by his wife Radha, and grew up as the son of a charioteer. He later became the king of Anga, the lifelong friend of Duryodhana and a mortal enemy of Arjuna.

UntitledA question comes to mind – why did Kunti need to fling her first-born son into the water? It was because of a boon granted by the “fearsome” sage, Durvasa. His boon to Kunti was thus – “Whichever gods, you summon through the use of this mantra, will grant you sons through their grace.” Durvasa had granted this boon to Kunti because “he knew that she would face the dharma that is indicated for times of distress.” Once, Kunti had this boon, she became “curious.” Curiosity led her to invoke the boon, summon Arka (the sun god), who placed an embryo in her womb. Thus, Karna was born, and almost immediately thereafter, abandoned by his mother.

Being abandoned by his mother was something that must have affected Karna. How it shaped his life and personality is of course a matter that many have hypothesized about over thousands of years. I wrote (link) about how Karna’s life was marked by a series of distractions that marked the difference between him and Arjuna. Whereas Arjuna had Krishna as his charioteer during the eighteen days of the Mahabharata – an image that draws comparison, inevitably to the Katha Upanishad – Karna had to settle for Shalya. The difference between Krishna and Shalya on the one hand and between Arjuna and Karna was both literal and metaphorical.

In some ways, can one not argue that Karna’s predilection towards distraction was an unfortunate gift from his mother? Was not Kunti’s action of summoning Tapana (the sun god) a rash one, driven perhaps as much by the impulse of youth as by the inability to handle such power? In chapter 143 of the Udyoga Parva (in the Karna-Upanivada Upa Parva), she laments, “Thinking about that brahmana [Durvasa] and bowing down before him, I was overcome by curiosity and behaved like a child.” For, was not the power to summon a god, any god, a fearful power that would have tested even the mightiest of people? Perhaps, it was the rashness of youth, perhaps it was fate. Perhaps it was curiosity. We can only speculate.

Add to this, the fact that Kunti had herself been given away by her father Shurasen to Kuntibhoj. Wasn’t then abandonment in the destiny of both Kunti and Karna? Kunti was abandoned, in a manner of speaking, by her father, and Karna was abandoned by her mother? Kunti harboured some anger and resentment at this treatment, and she confessed as much to Krishna, “While I was still playing as a child, with a ball in my hands, my father gave me away to Kuntibhoja, like a wicked man gives away riches. I was given to Kuntibhoja, a friend, as a mark of great-souled friendship. O scorcher of enemies! I have been deceived by my father and my fathers-in-law.” How would Karna respond to Kunti, when they met, for the first and last time, as mother and son? We will soon see.

Perhaps, the embedded memory of the consequence of his mother’s distraction is what wrote Karna’s destiny. The fear of abandonment led him to stay closely bonded with Duryodhana; a bond that would not break even when pressed upon by Keshava and then his mother.

Many years later, war had become inevitable. Karna, now the King of Anga, found himself courted by Krishna. Krishna had made the last attempt at peace. He had gone to Hastinapura to prevent the terrible fratricidal war that loomed, and failed. That is another story in itself, though.

How serious Krishna was about preventing war can be gauged from how assiduously he tried to woo Karna over to the Pandava camp. Not only did he reveal to Karna the secret of his birth – that he was indeed the eldest Pandava – but also offered the Pandava throne to him: “I will myself instate you as king. … Yudhishthira… will ascend the chariot behind you and hold a white umbrella. … Bhimasena will hold a giant white umbrella above your head when you are consecrated… I will myself follow you and so will all the Andhakas, Vrishnis and Dasharhas.

Krishna also tried to tempt Karna. He asked him a pointed question – “O Karna! Are you not tempted by the offer of a kingdom? Do you not desire to rule the earth that I will give to you?

Not only did Krishna offer the throne to Karna, but he also made it clear that Draupadi, as the wife of the Pandavas, would be Karna’s wife also!

Karna refused all – temptations, reasoning, fear, and the revelation of the secret of his birth.

He offered several reasons for doing so – his loyalty to Duryodhana (“I have obtained refuge with Duryodhana“), his love for his adopted parents, who accepted him (“O Madhava! She [Radha] accepted my urine and excrement“), whereas his mother had abandoned him – “Kunti did not think of my welfare and cast me out as one undesired“), and his desire to uphold dharma. Were he to accept the crown from Krishna, he would hand it over to Duryodhana, out of his friendship and sense of debt.

He calmly accepted the inevitability of the battle that loomed – “O Hrishikesha! I know that where dharma exists, victory exists there.

Karna also used his meeting with Krishna to lighten a load that had been on his heart for many years, and confessed – “O Krishna! I regret the harsh words I used against the Pandavas to please Dhritarashtra’s son. I am now tormented by the deed.”

Karna also made this important request to Krishna, “Always keep this conversation between us secret.” He even questioned why Krishna was telling him all this, “Knowing everything, why did you wish to confuse me?

Karna ended his secret meeting with Krishna by wishing- “If we remain alive, we may perhaps see you again after this great battle. … O Krishna! Otherwise, we will certainly meet in heaven.” The two departed, after “Karna embraced Madhava tightly.

The meeting between Karna and Kunti was even more poignant, and it is difficult to find a more fascinating study of human emotions, in all their frailty and faults.

Karna would not abandon Duryodhana. Such was the bond of friendship between the two. Such was the hostility Karna harboured for Arjuna. Or, such was Karna’s fear of abandonment that he could not bring himself to do to Duryodhana, what had been done to him by his mother. The fear of losing what he had, turned out to be far greater than winning what Krishna promised him.

Note: I have used Dr. Bibek Debroy’s unabridged English translation of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute’s Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, published by Penguin, as my reference.

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Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.
Abhinav Agarwal is a son, husband, father, technologist and an IIM-B Gold Medalist.
  • Rama

    I did not know Krishna offered Draupadi to Karna. What right Sri Krishna have in this respect to offer someone’s ( plural) wife to Karna? Did He consult Draupadi or her husbands on this? Just wondering.

    • Jitu

      If the world knows Karna is Kunti’s son, by the then prevalent laws, he automatically becomes a Pandava. So as a Pandava, he automatically becomes a husband to Draupadi.

      Same as the throne as well as the kingdom. Krishna did not ask Yudhisthir either. As as per law, the eldest son of Kunti would be the king. So by accepting his birth family, Karna automatically becomes the eldest Pandava, the crowned prince… overriding Yudishthir’s right to throne.

      Krishna merely stated what would happen. He did not offer anything that would not automatically be his if he chose to accept his birth family.

      • Rama

        Few problems with this. Karnan (with Duryodana and co) was laughing at Draupadi when she was shamed in the assembly following gambling loss. He will be the last person she will choose to marry, even at the request of Krishna.She is not Krishna’s property to be given away. Did anybody cared for her opinion? Here I take Krishna as a human being only and not an Avatara for I worship Krishna, the supreme Brahman. The whole Arjuna’s marriage to Draupadi and the subsequent events make it interesting reading.That is the beauty of Mahabharatha.. Obviously, Arjuna would have married Draupadi in Vedic ways, doing sabtha padis.( No mangala sutra though). He would have taken oath to protect her and dharma. Why did he not protest when Kunti asked her to shared with others? Plus the fact that the other 4 Pandavas were clearly lusting after Draupadi, wife of one of their own brothers. Why did not they protest? Anyhow, when Kunti said that Darupadi need to shared equally, she said out of ignorance and the matter should have been put to rest by the rest of the Pandavas. But they did not. Their own desire overcame their dharmic sense. Anyhow, Arjuna is not such a holy guy himself. He never cared for the feelings of his wife or wives for he went on a marrying spree. There is a proverb in Tamil. You can count the number of grain of sand in the river bed but you cannot count the number of wives of Arjuna.

        • Jitu

          Your point being??

          Arjun was not holy. So? How does that prove or disprove anything?

          Arjuna would have married her in Vedic ways? Again… what has that got to do with anything?

          Arjuna married many women? So??
          So did Krishna and all other royal men. Probably Karna did too. Who knows. How is that relevant to the discussion??

          Kunti asked Arjuna to share his prize in ignorance. After realizing that the prize was a wife, she could have interjected. But she didn’t. Maybe because she was shrewd enough and didn’t want a rift between the brothers.

          Are we judging a character from 5000 years ago by the morals prevalent today??

          As far as Karna is concerned… I have read somewhere, that before Arjuna arrived for the Draupadi’s swayamvar, before Karna was disqualified for not being a ‘kshatriya’, Draupadi, after perusing through all the candidates had liked him the most of all and had hoped he wins. After all, Karna had the qualities of all five brothers. He is described as… ‘Balanced as Yudhishthir’, ‘Macho/strong as Bheem’, ‘Talented as Arjun’, ‘Handsome as Nakul’ and ‘Soft-spoken/patient as ‘Sahadev’. Seems Krishna reminded her of the purpose of her birth from fire… that is to be the cause of destruction of Kauravs and Pandavs who had humiliated Drupad at the behest of Dronachayra. To achieve that goal, she had to become a wife of Arjuna, be shared by the Pandavas, and make Kauravas jealous. THAT is when, she insulted Karna as a Soodputr and disqualified him before he could even compete. If all of this is a part of the original Vyasa Mahabharata, then it goes to show that Draupadi too was neither above lust nor above manipulation.

          Nothing wrong with it. Mahabharatha does teach… the once the goal is set, one should try and achieve it by all means. Even if it means disqualifying a candidate you like.

          Question is, was this, Draupadi’s latent attraction for Karna explained in the original vyasa narration explicitly or is this a part of a narrative appended much later.

          Also remember, Draupadi was not a weak hearted Disney’s damsel in distress. She was the one who urged Bheem to get the blood of Dushaasan and applied it to her hair. By today’s morals, that’s barbaric. She was the one who prodded Bheem to rip open Keechak. She was the one who asked Bheem to rip Duryodhan’s thighs. So she was not an ordinary girl. Not by any standards.

          Last thing, Krishna was a reincarnation of Vishnu/Supreme God in the story. All the characters in the story, including Draupadi, accepted that and treated him with the due reverence. Duryodhan and Kansa were the ones who refused to accept it, and within the premise of the story… they are the villains. So I see no problem in Draupadi or the pandavas accepting and keeping Krishna’s promise to Karna. Whether or not you consider Krishna divine, He is supposed to be God in the story. There ends the discussion.

          In the Harry Potter series, he, Harry, is the chosen one. One can argue…. ‘I do not consider him the chosen one’. Well, the author wanted him to be the chosen one. End of matter. Our opinions do not count.
          Similarly… our acceptance or rejection of Krishna’s divinity makes no difference to a 5000 year old story. The author wanted it that way and the other characters accepted it.

          If you are using the filters of today’s morals and your own ideologies to judge characters of a book, then the fault lies with you and not with those characters.

          All I am saying is… Krishna did not cross any moral line while telling Karna what could be his if he chose to accept that he was a Pandava. The reason being, those were not things Krishna was snatching from someone else and giving to Karna. Those were things that would automatically be his should he choose to accept.

          • Rama

            Thanks for your response.The question is simple. My point? Did Krishna get prior permission from Draupadi to make this offer? If not, then, it was not right. I have read the translation of Vyasa Mahabharatha by Cho Ramaswamy. I cannot recall reading anything about Draupadi lustful.Even if she was of low morals is it not the duty of the Lord to consult her before making such an offer? She is not a commodity to be traded willy nilly. The point about Arjuna and Vedic wedding is simple. He had married a woman under Vedic oath to carry out Dharmic life together. Marrying many women is hardly the way to go about, hence my comment about his character and other Pandavas. Lord Rama set an example on monogamy and we cannot dismiss Arjuna’s multiple marriages as a done thing for Kshatriyas in those days. If MB is to be analysed critically,, then as much blame should be heaped on Pandavas too. That is my point. Yuthistra gambling away his wife is height of immorality.How low one can get to ? MB should be read as it is and one should make judgement by taking account of everything .And our tradition allows us to question, even the Lord and no one is beyond criticism. Hence my question about Lord Krishna’s bribery to Karna.The story of Nakiran and Lord Shiva comes to mind on this. Yes, I am a ardent Hindu and I do understand the intricacies of upholding dharma in those times. Your future inputs probably will help me to understand it better and my thanks for comments posted.

          • Jitu

            I agree about the Pandavas being equally responsible for a lot of ills. And yes, they are not beyond criticism.

            In fact, their personal flaws, makes me wonder how ‘Dharma’ is on their side?? After all, they were arrogant, boastful, prone to jealousy and many other vices, including gambling. So why are they considered to be on Dharma’s side?

            I actually have not found any concrete answer to that question, besides the one point that Krishna sided with them. So since God sided with them, dharma is considered to be on their side.

            Another argument made in their favor could be… that the Pandavas were prone to vices, yes, but the Kauravas… led by Duryodhana, were far more evil a bigger danger to the society. Hence it was a choice between the lesser of two evils.

            Our traditions allow us to question, that is why we are able to pray to the Krishna on one side and critique his characteristics on the other. And yet on another side, people love him for his human foibles. Guess, that is the beauty of our traditions. 🙂 🙂

            About Draupadi being lustful… I don’t have a veracity. Like I have said in my other comment, I have not read the unabridged translation of MB yet. Have read many versions but all were abridged or retold. So makes me wonder which parts were added later.

            The reason I always make a point to read Abhinav’s posts is the same. His analysis helps me understand MB better. Whether or not I accept what he says without questioning, his points make me think and ask. Since he has been writing these as series… it is really insightful.

            What is the story of Nakiran and Shiva?? I do not know. Please tell.

          • Rama

            Madurai King had doubts about sweet smell that was eminating when he meets his queen after her bath. She said the sweet smell was from her hair. This intrigues him and he offeres thousand gold coins to anyone who can solve this puzzle. (Whether hair of women have natural sweet smell or not). A poor poet by name Dharmi prays to lord Shiva to help him to get the reward.. Shiva takes the form of poet and gives the answer to the puzzle in the form a poem. Dharmi recites the poem to the King and the King was elated that the answer he was seeking was clearly stated in that poem, that women do have natural sweet smell in their hair. He was about to pay the thousand gold coins to Dharmi when the court poet Nakiran intervenes. He maintaines that the poem was wrong in its assertion that women have natural sweet smell in their hair. Dharmi disappointed, later returns with lord Shiva who confronts Nakiran. Shiva then shows his true form and opens his third eye. Nakiran stands by his statement stating that Shiv’s assertion in that poem claiming women have natural smell was wrong . Fault is fault whether you open your third eye or not, Nakiran declares majestically . Shiva burns him to ashes. Later Nakiran gets his human form back after praying to lord Murugan.

          • Jitu

            Interesting story. Had never read it. Thanks.

          • Ramaswamy Lakshmanan

            Since you are familiar with Cho’s works on Hinduism, would request you to go through the Thiruvilayadal Puranam portion. The popular story narrated in the movie is not the same as it appears in the original. Nakkeeran, in fact, makes a mistake and Lord Shiva points out that.

          • Ramaswamy Lakshmanan

            Our great poets and Rishis of the past had the boldness to say things as they were. That is why Iti-ha-asa (Itihasa) means ‘Indeed as it happened’. If the controversial portion of Vaali’s slaying or Draupadi marrying 5 husbands were omitted or altered, the course of the story would not have changed. There would have been no embarassment to neo-Hindus. But the Rishis chose to say it happened / as they knew it happened. Even in Mahabharata there are places where Duryodhana is praised by Gods when Krishna had to hang his head down (I think after Duryodhana falls in the final combat with Bheema on 18th day)

            If Krishna had offered Draupadi to Karna, from my POV it is meant to tease & insult him. To bring out the repentance in him. Note the outcome after the conversation with Karna. Karna was basically a good person. Got it into negative company. In that company his ego was predominant & chance of his goodness manifesting was less. But in private away from the Kaurava company, he would have been his normal self. That is when he would have introspected about his behaviour in the court and wanted to repent. That repentance came out during his conversation with Krishna. Krishna enticed him with kingdom. He could have stopped there. But he reminded Karna about his erstwhile attitude towards Draupadi by bringing in that sort of offer.

            This is my way of understanding. 🙂

  • Ramaswamy Lakshmanan

    Requesting the author or anyone enlighten on one point – if it is mentioned in Mahabharata: How was Kunti able to hide her pregnancy (when Karna was in her womb) for a period of about 10 months? Did anyone else know? Is it mentioned anywhere?


    • Jitu

      Interesting question. Even I have wondered. From all the versions( abridged and retellings) that I have read… it does not mention a 10 month pregnancy. It merely mentions Kunti having a child.

      This would interesting to know if the unabridged texts mention whether or not there indeed was a pregnancy proceeding the birth.

      • krishnamoorthy

        By divine powers of the respective Devas like Surya, Dharmaraja, Indra, Vayu Kunti might have got a full fledged baby in her hands. Not necessary that bearing a child in her womb for 10 months.

        • Jitu


          That is how we were told the story.

          But I have not read an unabridged translation, so am wondering.

        • Ramaswamy Lakshmanan

          Yudhishthira, Bheema, Arjuna & the twins all were born through divine power. But I think the Kunti & Madri went through normal period of pregnancy. Each were born after a gap of about one year. When Pandavas returned to Hastinapur, Yudhishthira was 16, Bheema 15, Arjuna 14, Nakula & Sahadeva 13. Obviously we were told stories when we were young and not all details can be given. Even in TV Mahabharata it was shown as though they had child in their hands just like that. On the contrary, Veda Vyasa born to Paraasara & Satyavati came as an adolescent / youth. Satyavati’s virginity is maintained after birth of Veda Vyasa. Intriguing!