Karna (Sanskrit: कर्ण, IAST transliteration: Karṇa), originally known as Vasusena, is one of the main antagonists in the Hindu epic Mahābhārata. The epic describes him as the king of Anga (present day Bhagalpur and Munger).

A 19th century artist's imagination of Karna
ChildrenVrishasena, Vrishaketu, Banasena, Chitrasena, Prasena etc.
RelativesKunti and Surya (biological parents)
Adhiratha and Radha (adoptive parents)
Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, Sahadeva (brothers)

Karna was the son of Surya and Kunti, born to Kunti before her marriage with Pandu. He was the eldest of all Pandavas. Karna was the closest friend of Duryodhana and fought on his behalf against the Pandavas (his brothers) in the Kurukshetra War. It is believed that Karna founded the city of Karnal, in present Haryana.[1]


The name he became renowned for in the epic was "Karna", meaning the cutter/peeler of his own skin/natural armor. Lord Indra granted this name for Karna's act of donating his natural armors.

Birth, education and curses

As a young woman, Kunti, the princess of the Kunti Kingdom, had been granted a boon by sage Durvasa to be able to invoke any deity to give her a child. Eager to test the power, while still unmarried, she called upon the solar deity Surya and was handed a son- Karna wearing armour (Kavacha) and a pair of earrings (Kundala). Afraid of being an unwed mother and having an illegitimate son, Kunti placed the baby in a basket and set him afloat on a river. The child was found by Adhiratha, a charioteer of King Dhritarashtra of Hastinapur. Adhiratha and his wife Radha raised the boy as their own son and named him Vasusena. He also came to be known as Radheya, the son of Radha.

Karna became interested in the art of warfare and approached Dronacharya, an established teacher who taught the Kuru princes. But he refused to take Karna as his student, since Karna was not a Kshatriya. However, according to some versions of the tale, appreciating Karna's boldness, Drona tells Adhiratha to call his son "Karna".[2] After being refused by Drona, Karna wanted to learn advanced skills of archery and hence he decided to learn from Parashurama, Drona's own guru.

As Parashurama only taught Brahmins, Karna appeared before him as such. Parashurama accepted him and trained him to such a point that he declared Karna to be equal to himself in the art of warfare and archery. One day, towards the end of his training, Karna happened to offer Parashurama his lap so his guru could rest his head and take a nap. While Parashurama was asleep, a bee stung Karna's thigh. Despite the pain, Karna did not move, so as to not disturb his guru. When Parashurama woke up and saw the blood oozing from Karna's wound, he at once deduced that Karna was not a Brahmin. Enraged, Parashurama accused Karna of stealing knowledge, and laid a curse upon Karna that he would forget all the knowledge required to wield the Brahmastra.

Upon Karna's pleading, Parashurama relented and modified his curse, saying that Karna would only lose the knowledge when he needed it most while fighting against a warrior greater than him. This curse would come to haunt him in his final fight against Arjuna. Rewarding Karna's diligence, Parashurama gave him his personal celestial weapon Bhargavastra which no one else possessed.[3]

Meeting Duryodhana

To display the skills of the Kuru princes, their guru Dronacharya arranged a friendly tournament. His student Arjuna, third of the Pandava brothers, was a gifted archer. Karna arrived at this tournament, uninvited, and displaying Arjuna's feats, challenged him to a duel. Kripacharya refused Karna his duel, asking first for his clan and kingdom; for according to the rules of duelling, only a prince could challenge Arjuna to a duel. Due to his low standing, Karna was not allowed to fight Arjuna. He was further insulted by Bhima who compared him to a stray dog, for his mixed caste and lineage. This incident marks the beginning of a feud between Karna and the Pandavas.[4][5] Duryodhana, the eldest of the one hundred sons of the king Dhritarashtra, was envious of the martial prowess of his cousins, the Pandavas. Seeing Karna as a chance to get on even terms with them he immediately offered Karna the throne of the kingdom of Anga, making him a king and hence eligible to fight a duel with Arjuna.[6] Neither of them knows that Karna was in fact Kunti's eldest son, born to the Sun God Surya. When Karna asked him what he could do to repay him, Duryodhana told him that all he wanted was his friendship.[7] Karna later married women belonging to the Suta caste, as per the wishes of his foster father Adiratha.

Fight with Drupada

As per guru dakshina, all students of Drona were ordered to fight with king Drupada and defeat him. Duryodhana requested Karna to help him. So, all Kauravas with Karna attacked Panchala. In the battle, Karna showed his prowess by killing huge number of soldiers. Karna decimated large army. Then, Drupada formed Chakravyuha. Karna led Kauravas and entered into Chakravyuha. Inside chakravyuha, Karna fought valiantly but he was unaware of destroying Chakravyuha. Drupada, extremely well versed in warfare techniques, defeated and arrested 100 Kauravas and Karna. Drupada appreciated Karna for Karna’s warrior skills. Later Arjuna with remaining Pandavas destroyed chakravyuha and Arjuna alone defeated Drupada and made Kauravas, Karna free. [8]

Hostilities with the Pandavas

The relationship between Karna and the Pandavas, particularly Arjuna, were hostile.[9] The Mahabharata mentions Karna as the main challenger of Arjuna at sporting and skills competitions.[10] At martial sporting events, Arjuna and Karna were often equal,[11] though in his self-bragging style Karna once announced, states McGrath, that "he will perform any feat that Arjuna has accomplished and do it better".[12][13][14]

Draupadi Swayamvara

Pandavas secretly went from Varnavrat after saving themselves from evil plan of Duryodhana, Shakuni and Karna. Still in hiding, the Pandavas disguised themselves as Brahmins and attended the Swayamvara of Panchala princess Draupadi. Out of all of the great kings and other Kaurava princes, only Arjuna was able to do the established challenge. The test is to lift, string, and fire Pinakin to pierce the eye of a golden fish only by looking at its reflection; Drupada had designed this test with Arjuna in mind. All Kings including Karna and Shalya failed to string the bow and got defeated in task. At last Arjuna came forward and lifted bow with just one hand and hit the target, hence he won Draupadi. The assembled kings in the Swayamvara argued that a Brahmin was ineligible and they took their weapons and attacked the disguised Arjuna. Arjuna defeated all of them. Later Karna attacked Arjuna out of jealousy but Arjuna easily defeated him. When Karna asked about his real identity, Arjuna smiled and said that he is Brahmin. Then Karna praised him by comparing him with skill of Drona or Bhishma. Arjuna threatened to kill Karna which made Karna flee from battlefield. [15][16] [17]

Fight with Bhima

Pandavas performed Rajasuya yaga. According to this, they have to either defeat or make alliance with other kingdoms. When Bhima came to Anga Kingdom, Karna didn’t accept to make alliance due to which a terrific war took place between Bhima & Karna. Bhima and Karna both were very good archers. Each used some of their prominent weapons on the other. Bhima broke Karna’s bow. Then both of them fought with the mace. At last Bhima defeated Karna but failed to kill because of Karna’s Kavacha Kundal.[18]

Insulting Draupadi

After Shakuni won a Pachisi, game of dice by trickery, Draupadi, now queen to all five Pandavas, was dragged into the court by Dushasana. Duryodhana and his brothers attempted to strip her. Karna insulted Draupadi by saying that a woman with more than one husband is nothing but a whore, to which Arjuna took an oath to kill Karna for insulting the sacred lady.

Fight with Chitrasena

After Pandavas lost in dice game and went on for exile, Duryodhana planned to humiliate Pandavas by showing them the luxuries enjoyed by all Kauravas and Karna. So all of them had set to forest where Pandavas were living. In the course of Journey, Duryodhana abducted a lady without knowing that she was a Gandharva. Then Gandharvas attacked entire Kauravas and Karna. Kauravas and Karna got defeated. Karna tried run away from battle-field after getting defeated by Chitrasena but he couldn't since Gandharvas captured all Kauravas and Karna.[19] On knowing this, Yudhishtira asked Arjuna to free them since its Hastinapur which would be insulted. Arjuna followed his eldest brother's order and first requested Chitrasena to release Kauravas and Karna. Chitrasena rejected and asked Arjuna to fight with him in order to free Kauravas and Karna. Thus a battle took place. Arjuna defeated many warriors. Chitrasena became invisible and started fighting with Arjuna. Arjuna used Shabdavedi astra and captured Chitrasena. During the fight with Chitrasena, Arjuna had performed extremely impossible feats as he killed 10 lakh Gandharvas (4.5 akshouni) in single shot by using Agneyastra.[20] Apart from Arjuna, no warrior ever achieved this impossible feats even in dreams. Finally Arjuna made Kauravas and Karna free.

Lakshmana’s Swayamvar

Duryodhana arranged a swayamvara for his daughter. Many young princes attended for it. Duryodhana became arrogant after seeing Krishna’s son Samba at swayamvara (Samba & Lakshmana were already in love) since he didn’t like a Yadava marrying his daughter. Hence Duryodhana attacked Samba. Samba defeated Duryodhana. As per order of Duryodhana, all warriors attacked Samba & arrested him. Knowing this, Lord Krishna attacked Hastinapur. A great battle took place in which Krishna defeated all warriors including Karna. After being defeated by Krishna, Karna attacked Pradyumna. Pradyumna defeated Karna but refused to kill him remembering Arjuna’s oath. After defeating all kurus, Krishna made Samba free and later Samba married Lakshmana[21]

Virata war

Hearing about the death of Keechaka, Duryodhana surmises that the Pandavas were hiding in Matsya. A host of Kaurava warriors attack Virata, presumably to steal their cattle, but in reality, desiring to pierce the Pandavas' veil of anonymity. Full of bravado, Virata's son Uttar attempts to take on the army by himself while the rest of the Matsya army including rest of Pandavas has been lured away to fight Susharma and the Trigartas. As suggested by Draupadi, Uttar takes Brihannala with him, as his charioteer. When he sees the Kaurava army, Uttar loses his nerve and attempts to flee. There, Arjuna reveals his identity and those of his brothers'. Switching places with Uttar, Arjuna takes up the Gandiva and Devadatta. Eager to defend the land that had given him refuge, Arjuna engaged the legion of Kaurava warriors. Many warriors including Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, Karna and Ashwatthama attacked Arjuna altogether but Arjuna defeated all of them multiple times. During the war, Arjuna killed Sangramjit- the foster brother of Karna. Instead of taking revenge, Karna took heroic fight in order to save his life from Arjuna. Karna tried to fly away but he couldn't since Arjuna invoked Sammohanaastra which made entire army fell asleep. [22][23]

Prelude to War

Indra realized that Karna cannot be killed as long as he had his Kavach and Kundal. He approaches Karna as a poor Brahmin during Karna's sun-worship. Surya warned Karna of Indra's intentions, but Karna thanked Surya and explained that he was bound by his word and could not send anyone from his door empty-handed. Actually, Karna was aware of the fact that he could not kill Arjuna with the armor, as he was defeated many times before. Hence he needed some special weapon to do it. When Indra approached Karna and asked for his Kavacha and Kundal as alms, Karna revealed that he knew the Brahmin's true identity and asked for a powerful divine weapon in exchange of his armor. Indra became happy and took his normal form. Karna handed his armors to Indra. Indra became happy and asked Karna what he wanted. Karna asked Vasava Shakti. Indra then granted the boon as Vasava Shakti, with the stipulation that Karna could only use the weapon once.[24] Following failed peace negotiations with Duryodhana, Krishna is driven back to the Pandavas by Karna. Krishna then revealed to Karna that he is the eldest son of Kunti, and therefore, technically, the eldest Pandava. Krishna implored him to change sides and assures him that Yudhishthira would give the crown of Indraprastha to him; even Duryodhana will happily see his friend get the crown. Shaken from the discovery, Karna still refuses these offers over Duryodhana's friendship. Krishna accepted his decision, promising Karna that his lineage would remain a secret. In addition, Karna was elated to learn that his true father was none other than Surya.[25] Krishna told Kunti that it is up to her to make a decision to choose between Karna and her 5 other sons. As the war approached, Kunti met Karna and in desperation to Karna alive to join the Pandavas. Kunti revealed the truth about Karna's birth. Kunti also told Karna that he would be killed as he was on the side of Adharma & also was defeated by Arjuna in many instances. Surya Deva also validated the words of Kunti. Still his hatred against Pandavas didn’t become weakened and could not dispose of his jealousy towards Arjuna.[26][27] But Karna rejects the offer of Kunti again. Knowing that Karna will fight against Arjuna with a motive to kill, Kunti extracted a promises from Karna that he will not kill any of the Pandavas except Arjuna.[28] Karna requested his mother to keep their relationship a secret till the end of the war, as pandavas will not fight against their own brother in the Dharma Yuddha if she reveals the truth to them, due to dharma against fighting a brother/father figure. If they wouldn’t fight; Karna would lose an opportunity to prove that he was better than Arjuna according to his false conception. After the end of the war she is supposed to reveal his birth identity to everyone and also promised that at the end of the war she would still have five sons, the fifth one be either Arjuna or Karna himself. Kunti requested Karna to at least remain neutral to be alive. Karna wanted a war to prove that he was better than Arjuna but he told Kunti that he wouldn’t leave his friendship with Duryodhana. So he rejected Kunti’s words again. [29]

Kurukshetra war

Sitting out

Bhishma is appointed as the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. Giving the reason that Karna had humiliated Draupadi and disrespected their shared guru, Parashurama, Bhishma refuses to take him in the Kaurava army. At the tale of Rathi's and Atirathi's, Bhishma called Karna as Artha Rathi (Half a Rathi) warrior since Karna had a very bad habit of flying away from the battlefield after being defeated as he flew away from Arjuna after Draupadi Swayamvara war and Virata war. Karna then scolds Bhishma. Duryodhana wanted Karna to fight in the war from the beginning. Bhishma reminds the way Karna scolded their common teacher Parashurama, sacred lady Draupadi and threatens that he will not fight if Karna is in the army. Duryodhana considers instead installing Karna as the commander-in-chief. Bhishma gave Duryodhana option to choose himself or Karna. Intelligent Duryodhana selected Bhishma. Karna was not eligible as General of the Army because of his selfish skills. He used to target only Arjuna & didn’t bother about the army. Duryodhana required a good leader who was well expert in leading army. Thus Bhishma was appointed. Even after death of Bhishma, Drona was appointed because of the same reason. Lord Krishna requested Karna to stay with him and Pandavas in Pandavas camp and insists Karna that he may join Kaurava side whenever the Bhishma has slain. But Karna politely dismissed Lord Krishna's appeal that he has dedicated his life to fight for his friend Duryodhana and will not do anything that is unpleasant to him.[30] Only after Bhishma falls on the eleventh day did Karna enter the war.

Joining the battle

Karna along with his 9 sons and 8 foster brothers entered battle-field on 11th day of war. Drona took the commander-in-chief position. Drona took the commander-in-chief position.

Killing Abhimanyu

The Kaurava commander-in-chief Dronacharya planned to divert Arjuna and Krishna away to chase an army of the samsaptakhas whom Arjuna defeated that very day. The Kaurava army was grouped into the giant discus formation, which caused great loss for the Pandavas. If the formation continued till end of that day, the pandavas would have no army by sunset. The only two people on the Pandava army who completely knew about how to enter and break this formation were Arjuna and Krishna, who were away. Abhimanyu's story came to prominence when he entered the powerful Chakravyuha battle formation of the Kaurava army As soon as Abhimanyu entered the formation, Jayadrath, the ruler of Sindh blocked the other Pandavas, so that Abhimanyu was left alone. Drona gave some places to all the warriors with Duryodhana being at centre protected by Dushasana & Drona himself. Other warriors were arranged in subsequent forward rows. Inside the Chakravyuha, the trapped Abhimanyu went on a killing rampage, intending on carrying out the original strategy by himself and killing tens of thousands of Kaurava soldiers. Abhimanyu killed many prominent heroes including Duryodhana's son Lakshmana, Salya's son, younger brothers of Karna , and many advisers of Karna, Rukmaratha, Kritavarma's son Matrikavata, Salya's brother, Shrutanjaya,Ashavketu (From Magadha), Chandraketu, Mahavega, Suvarcha, Suryabhasa, Kalakeya (Shakuni's brother), Vasatiya, and rathas from the Brahma-Vasatiyas and Kekayas,King of Kosala - King Brihadbala, King of Amvashtas and his son. and many others.[31] Abhimanyu defeated the mighty warriors of kauravas Side including the great Drona, Kripa and Karna.[32] No Kaurava warrior could escape his arrows. Abhimanyu killed all the remaining foster brothers of Karna due to which Karna became angry and attacked Abhimanyu but Abhimanyu defeated Karna easily. Abhimanyu refused to kill Karna because he knew that his father had taken oath to kill Karna. Abhimanyu defeated Karna 4 times in the war. It is said that Karna flew away from Abhimanyu. In this way, Abhimanyu defeated all the warriors. Duryodhana became so threatened that Abhimanyu could break Chakravyuha easily. Hence, a strategy was formed and a joint attack on Abhimanyu followed. On Duryodhana's advice, Karna broke Abhimanyu's bow from behind since it was impossible to face armed Abhimanyu.[33] Kripa killed his two chariot-drivers, and Kritavarma killed his horses; Abhimanyu took up a sword and a shield but these weapons were cut off by Drona and Ashwatthama (though in other versions of the story, the perpetrators change while the acts remain the same). Abhimanyu then took up a chariot-wheel and started fighting with it, but Kripa cut the wheel. In this way, many warriors attacked the sixteen year old Abhimanyu when he was unarmed. Abhimanyu's body was pierced by dozens of arrows. But Abhimanyu faced all of the Kaurava warriors and still managed to kill many enemy soldiers. At last all warriors at once stab Abhimanyu from all sides which leads to his death. In this way, Abhimanyu was killed unfairly by many warriors including Karna, Duryodhana, Ashwatthama , Drona, Shakuni, Dushasana, Kritavarma, Shalya.

Killing Ghatotkacha

Uncharacteristically, the battle on fourteenth day extended into the dark hours. Taking advantage of that was Ghatotkacha, Bhima’s half-Asura son, as asuras gained extraordinary power at night time. Ghatotkacha’s destroyed the Kaurava force and also injured Dronacharya. Seeing the desperate situation, Karna used his Vasava Shakti against Ghatotkacha, killing him.

Karna Parva

Karna Parva, the eighth book of the Mahābhārata, describes sixteenth and seventeenth days of the Kurukshetra war. A concern for the Kaurava forces is the perceived favour Arjuna has because of the skills of his charioteer, Krishna. To balance this, Duryodhana requests that the talented Shalya, the king of Madra and the Pandavas' maternal uncle, be Karna's charioteer. Though disconcerted over serving as a charioteer of Karna who was being a charioteer's son, Shalya agrees to the task as he was a humble person.

Sixteenth Day

As promised to Kunti, Karna aimed at killing only Arjuna. But Duryodhana gave Karna the responsibility of protecting Dushasana. Bhima breaks Karna’s bow. Knowing that Bhima was expert in mace fight, Karna picked sword. Bhima defeated Karna in sword fight. Immediately Karna picked mace and attacked Bhima. Bhima defeated Karna but spared him reminding Arjuna’s promise. Then Karna ordered his charioteer Shalya to move towards Arjuna, Karna deciding to finish him off for once and all. Karna then moved to kill Arjuna. In this gap, Bhima brutally killed Dushasana. Karna armed his Nagastra at Arjuna when Arjuna was fighting with troops. Intervening, Shalya tells him to aim at Arjuna's chest. Frustrated at Shalya's constant insults, Karna believes that the advice must be bad, and instead aims at Arjuna's head. Krishna saved Arjuna from certain death by lowering their chariot wheel into the earth; the arrow strikes Arjuna's helmet instead of his head. Before this incident, Krishna promised Arjuna that he won't apply any illusion. So Arjuna stopped attacking & started looking Krishna for the act Krishna did to save Arjuna's life. Taking this as advantage, Karna cut the string of Arjuna’s Gandiva twice but Arjuna retied it & resumed fight. Sun sets & day completed.

Seventeenth Day

On the seventeenth day of the war, Karna defeated all Pandavas except Arjuna in duels and spared all of them after insulting them with hard words. Later on the day, when the Kaurava troops were hard-pressed by their opponents, Karna used Bhargavastra against the Pandava army. As a result, heavy casualties were inflicted on the Pandava army.[34]. Arjuna was unable to counter this weapon. Immediately, lord Hanuman on the flag saved Arjuna from this destructive weapon. The two foes, Karna and Arjuna faced each other once more. As the battle intensified, Arjuna pushed back Karna's chariot 10 steps backward every time by the energy of the arrows, but Karna was unable to push Arjuna's chariot. When questioned by Arjuna, Krishna said it is impossible for any human ever to push his chariot backwards because the chariot of Arjuna contains both Hanuman and Krishna, thus holding the entire weight of the universe. Even to shake the chariot is an impossible task. Being pushed back by Arjuna, Karna began coming forward but then Karna's chariot wheel was trapped in the mud as a result of the curse he had received earlier from the goddess Earth. He still defended himself, but at the crucial moment, forgot the incantations to invoke Brahmastra, as a result of his guru Parashurama's curse. Karna got down from his chariot to free the wheel and asked Arjuna to pause, reminding him of the etiquette of war. Arjuna paused & gave time for Karna to recollect incantations to invoke Brahmasthra. Karna took his bow but failed to invoke Brahmasthra. Even then, Karna stood on land and used some powerful weapons on Arjuna, Arjuna countered them and at last used Anjalikastra to kill Karna which cut the head of Karna, leading to his death.[35]

It is said that, Duryodhana never shed a single tear drop for any of his real brothers who were killed in the battlefield, but when his beloved friend Karna was slain, he was inconsolable.


Following the end of the war, Tarpan vidhi were performed for all the fallen. Kunti then requested her sons to perform the rites for Karna and revealed the truth of his birth. The brothers were shocked to find that they had committed fratricide. Yudhishthira in particular was furious with his mother, and laid a curse upon all women that they should never thereafter be able to keep a secret.[36] In some versions it is said that right after the death of Karna, Kunti revealed the truth about Karna to her sons and the world, just as she promised to Karna. Yudhishthira went to Duryodhana and told that being the second eldest brother, only he owned the right to cremate Karna. Duryodhana protested and Krishna verified that Duryodhana had the highest right over Karna. Hence, Karna’s final ceremony was performed by Duryodhana, reducing the Pandavas to mere spectators of this event.[37] Karna's wife Vrushali committed sati on Karna's pyre after his death. A play is staged in South India known as Kattaikkuttu which is based on the events that occurred in Karna's life on the day of his death.

Secondary literature and media

The first Indonesian president, Sukarno was named after Karna. The Karna story has been retold and adapted into drama, plays and dance performances in India and southeast Asia. These versions vary significantly from each other as well as the Mahabharata manuscript.[38][39][40]


Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem, "Karna Kunti Sangbad" based on the meeting of Karna and Kunti before the war.[41] Karna also has been topic of various contemporary literary works. The marathi books of Radheya (1973) authored by Ranjit Desai and Mrityunjay (1967) authored by Shivaji Sawant bring forth a fictionalized account of Karna's private and personal life.[42] Sawant also received Moortidevi Award, instituted by Bharatiya Jnanpith, for his work[43] and was translated into nine languages.[44] Ramdhari Singh Dinkar in 1978 published an epic poem Rashmirathi (translation: One who rides the Chariot of light, 1952) which narrates Karna's life. The poem has later also been adapted as a play.[45]

Theatrical & Narrative Adaptations

Film and television

YearNameChannelPlayed by
1964KarnanN/ASivaji Ganesan
1977Daana Veera Soora KarnaN/AN. T. Rama Rao
1977KurukshetramN/AKrishnam Raju
1988MahabharatDD NationalHarendra Paintal/Pankaj Dheer[49]
1989The MahabharataN/ALou Bihler/Jeffrey Kissoon
1993KrishnaDD MetroGovind Khatri
2013MahabharatSTAR PlusGananay Shukla/Vidyut Xavier/Aham Sharma[51]
2015–2016Suryaputra KarnSony Entertainment TelevisionVishesh Bansal/Vasant Bhatt/Gautam Rode
2018Karn SanginiSTAR PlusAashim Gulati



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