THE Pandavas and the Kauravas learnt the practice of arms first from Kripacharya and later from Drona. A day was fixed for a test and exhibition of their proficiency in the use of arms in the presence of the royal family and as the public had also been invited to witness the performance of their beloved princes. There was a large and enthusiastic crowd.
Arjuna displayed superhuman skill with his weapons and the vast assemblage was lost in wonder and admiration. Duryodhana's brow was dark with envy and hate.
At the close of the day, there came suddenly from the entrance of the arena a sound, loud and compelling like thunder the sound made by the slapping of mighty arms in challenge. All eyes turned in that direction. They saw enter through the crowd, which made way in awed silence, a godlike youth from whom light and power seemed to emanate. He looked proudly round him, cast a negligent salute to Drona and Kripa, and strode up to Arjuna. The brothers, all unaware, by the bitter irony of fate, of their common blood, faced one another; for it was Karna.
Karna addressed Arjuna in a voice deep as rumbling thunder: "Arjuna, I shall show greater skill than you have displayed."
With Drona's leave, Karna the lover of battle, then and there duplicated all of Arjuna's feats with careless ease. Great was Duryodhana's exultation. He threw his arms round Karna and said: "Welcome, O thou with mighty arms, whom good fortune has sent to us. I and this kingdom of the Kurus are at your command."
Said Karna: "I, Karna, am grateful, O king. Only two things I seek, your love and single combat with Partha."
Duryodhana clasped Karna again to his bosom and said: "My prosperity is all thine to enjoy."
As love flooded Duryodhana's heart, even so did blazing wrath fill Arjuna, who felt affronted. And glaring fiercely at Karna who stood, stately as a mountain peak, receiving the greetings of the Kaurava brothers, he said: "O Karna, slain by me thou shalt presently go to the hell appointed for those who intrude uninvited and prate unbidden."
Karna laughed in scorn: "This arena is open to all, O Arjuna, and not to you alone. Might is the sanction of sovereignty and the law is based on it. But what is the use of mere talk which is the weapon of the weak? Shoot arrows instead of words."
Thus challenged, Arjuna, with Drona's permission, hastily embraced his brothers and stood ready for combat. While Karna, taking leave of the Kuru brothers, confronted him weapon in hand.
And, as though the divine parents of the heroes sought to encourage their offspring and witness this fateful battle, Indra, the lord of the thunderclouds, and Bhaskara of the in finite rays, simultaneously appeared in the heavens.
When she saw Karna, Kunti knew him as her first born and fainted away. Vidura instructed the maidservant to attend upon her and she revived. She stood stupefied with anguish not knowing what to do.
As they were about to join in battle, Kripa, well-versed in the rules of single combat, stepped between them and addressed Karna:
"This prince, who is ready to fight with thee, is the son of Pritha and Pandu and a scion of the Kuru race. Reveal O mighty armed thy parentage and the race rendered illustrious by thy birth. It is only after knowing thy lineage that Partha can fight with thee, for high-born princes cannot engage in single combat with unknown adventurers."
When he heard these words, Karna bent down his head like a lotus under the weight of rainwater.
Duryodhana stood up and said: "If the combat cannot take place merely because Karna is not a prince, why, that is easily remedied. I crown Karna as the king of Anga." He then obtained the assent of Bhishma and Dhritarashtra, performed all the necessary rites and invested Karna with the sovereignty of the kingdom of Anga giving him the crown, jewels and other royal insignia.
At that moment, as the combat between the youthful heroes seemed about to commence, the old charioteer Adhiratha, who was the foster-father of Karna, entered the assembly, staff in hand and quaking with fear.
No sooner did he see him, that Karna, the newly crowned king of Anga, bowed his head and did humble obeisance in all filial reverence. The old man called him son, embraced him with his thin and trembling arms, and wept with joy wetting with tears of love his head already moistened by the water of the coronation.
At this sight, Bhima roared with laughter and said: "O he is after all only the son of a charioteer! Take up the driving whip then as befits thy parentage. Thou art not worthy of death at the hands of Arjuna. Nor shouldst thou reign in Anga as a king."
At this outrageous speech, Karna's lips trembled with anguish and he speechlessly looked up at the setting sun with a deep sigh.
"It is unworthy of you, O Vrikodara, to speak thus. Valor is the hallmark of a kshatriya. Nor is there much sense in tracing great heroes and mighty rivers to their sources. I could give you hundreds of instances of great men of humble birth and I know awkward questions might be asked of your own origin. Look at this warrior, his godlike form and bearing, his armor and earrings, and his skill with weapons. Surely there is some mystery about him. For how could a tiger be born of an antelope? Unworthy of being king of Anga, didst thou say? I verily hold him worthy to rule the whole world."
In generous wrath, Duryodhana took Karna in his chariot and drove away.
The sun set and the crowd dispersed in tumult. There were groups loud in talk under the light of the lamps, some glorifying Arjuna, others Karna, and others again Duryodhana according to their predilection.
Indra foresaw that a supreme contest was inevitable between his son Arjuna and Karna. And he put on the garb of a brahmana and came to Karna, who was reputed for his charity and begged of him his earrings and armor. The Sun god had already warned Karna in a dream that Indra would try to deceive him in this manner.
Still, Karna could not bring himself to refuse any gift that was asked of him. Hence he cut off the earrings and armor with which he was born and gave them to the brahmana.
Indra, the king of gods, was filled with surprise and joy. After accepting the gift, he praised Karna as having done what no one else would do, and, shamed into generosity, bade Karna ask for any boon he wanted.
Karna replied: "I desire to get your weapon, the Sakti, which has the power to kill enemies." Indra granted the boon, but with a fateful proviso. He said: "You can use this weapon against but one enemy, and it will kill him whosoever he may be. But this killing done, this weapon will no longer be available to you but will return to me." With these words Indra disappeared.
Karna went to Parasurama and became his disciple by representing to him that he was a brahmana. He learnt of Parasurama the mantra for using the master weapon known as Brahmastra.
One day Parasurama was reclining with the head on Karna's lap when a stinging worm burrowed into Karna's thigh. Blood began to flow and the pain was terrible. But Karna bore it without tremor lest he should disturb the master's sleep. Parasurama awoke and saw the blood that had poured from the wound.
He said: "Dear pupil, you are not a brahmana. A kshatriya alone can remain unmoved under all bodily torments. Tell me the truth."
Karna confessed that he had told a lie in presenting himself as a brahmana and that he was in fact the son of a charioteer.
Parasurama in his anger pronounced this curse on him: "Since you deceived your guru, the Brahmastra you have learnt shall fail you at the fated moment. You will be unable to recall the invocatory mantra when your hour comes."
It was because of this curse that at the crisis of his last fight with Arjuna, Karna was not able to recall the Brahmastra spell, though he had remembered it till then. Karna was the faithful friend of Duryodhana and remained loyally with the Kauravas until the end.
After the fall of Bhishma and Drona, Karna became the leader of the Kaurava army and fought brilliantly for two days. In the end, the wheel of his chariot stuck in the ground and be was not able to lift it free and drive the chariot along. While he was in this predicament, Arjuna killed him. Kunti was sunk in sorrow, all the more poignant because she had, at that time, to conceal it.