The Karna-Arjun Battle in The Maha-Bharat – Beyond Adjectives

Rarely have we ever thanked an author so profusely for a book as we wish to thank Adam Bowles for his translation of Karna-Parva of the great epic Maha-Bharat. (Maha-Bharat, Book Eight, Karna, Volumes 1 & 2 – published by The New York University Press and the JJC Foundation.)

Getting You in the Proper Frame of Mind


We have read about many great battles of antiquity and seen the movies depicting these battles. These include the Achilles-Hector battle in Iliad, the battles of Alexander, the battles of Chandra-Gupta, Ashok and other through history.  Celebrated warrior battles such as Achilles-Hector were one-on-one battles fought with weapons wielded by hand. Conquests of Alexander, Chandra- Gupta were battles between armies and not among individual warriors. That has been true of modern battles such as the many battles of World War II.

Only recently have we seen weapons that would allow one man to fight and destroy many at a great distance. An early example was the stinger, a shoulder-launched missile that could shoot down a helicopter filled with soldiers or a plane, either a fighter plane or a troop transport. In the horrific coverage of Iraq, we have seen one man use a rocket propelled launcher carried on his shoulder to launch a short missile to destroy an armored personnel carrier.

At a different level, we know that USA and Russia have ballistic missile MIRVs in which one missile can launch Multiple Independently Targetable Vehicles. Such a missile could be aimed at multiple targets or at a couple of targets redundantly. The US MIRVs contain 3-12 independent rockets each.

Now imagine a shoulder launched rocket launcher with MIRV capability, a single rocket fired from a man’s shoulder that would launch in mid-flight multiple independently targeted rockets and not 3-12 rockets but over 100 independent rockets. Also imagine that each of the independent rockets is itself a MIRV that further launches another 100 independently targeted rockets. A man with such a weapon could singlehandedly cause the death of several hundred soldiers on the opposing side.

We read today of the  micro-militarization  of nuclear weapons, nukes so small that  they can be aimed at a small geographic area with a controlled explosion to contain the blast and the radiation to a very small area.

Now imagine our shoulder launched MIRV rocket launcher, with each rocket fitted with miniaturized warheads with nuke explosives or other similarly powerful explosives.  A man with such a weapon could destroy thousands of men , even a small mechanized division single-handedly.

Now imagine that such multiple shoulder launched missiles can be intercepted and destroyed by anti-missiles launched by the opposing side.  Thousands of missiles flying in one direction intercepted by  thousands of anti-missiles, each launched by mobile warriors who can move rapidly on the battleground.

None of this seems unlikely or impossible given the progress technology has made in the last few decades. Such shoulder launched missiles, thankfully, have not been developed yet, let alone used.

But such missiles and anti-missiles were used in the Maha-Bharat War and the destruction the weapons caused was immense. The description of such weapons is explicit and detailed in the Maha-Bharat. These missiles were mounted on powerful arrows and launched once the arrow was launched. The carnage caused by these arrows was immense. Over 2 million soldiers died in this war in 18 days, probably the most destructive war in history.

Weapons used by Karna and Arjun in their battle

Using such weapon, Maha-Bharat describes Arjun killing over one Akshohini (109,350 infantry soldiers and 21,870 chariot-based warriors) single-handedly in a single day.

Both Arjun and Karna had been successful in obtaining such missiles from revered Gurus during their life. In addition, in the months before the War, both Arjun and Karna traveled far and wide to seek such weapons from Gurus that were masters of the weapons. 

One of the more well-known missiles used by Arjun against Karna was the “Agneya-Astra” or the Fire Weapon.  When Arjun launched it, the book describes it launch as  “Covering the earth, sky, directions and the pathways of the sun, its form began to blaze. Completely encompassed by flames, all the warriors fled from there with their clothes burning. And a horrendous noise detonated there, like when a bamboo grove is consumed by fire in a forest.”

The anti-missile for the Agneya-Astra was the “Varun-Astra” or the Water Weapon. When Karna launches this missile, “a rapidly rolling bank of clouds covered all directions in darkness. Their walls the equal of mountains, they swamped everywhere with water. As a result of their immense force that fire was extinguished despite its ferocity. Indeed the sky and all directions were covered by these clouds.”

The Fire Weapon and its anti-weapon the Water Weapon were known to many great warriors. Arjun and Karna had acquired far more powerful weapons which gave them the ability to destroy thousands of merely great warriors.

One such elite weapon was the “Mahendra” Missile or the Thunderbolt.  This weapon was given to Arjun by Indra the Lord Protector of Heaven. When Arjun launches it against Karna, “..immensely sharp razor, Pranjalika..arrows came forth …, by the thousand, their force equal to a thunderbolt’s.”

Karna possessed unique elite weapon, the “Bhargava” Missile, given to him by Ram Bhargava (also known as Parashu-Ram). Karna uses the Bhargava missile to neutralize the Mahendra missile “After cutting down clusters of the Pandava’s arrows that were launched from the head of the Mahendra weapon, and striking down that weapon with his own weapon, Karna destroyed chariots, elephants and foot-soldiers in the battle. Because of the power of the Bhargava weapon, the effects of the Mahendra weapon were heeded no more”.

Military Formations in the Karna-Arjun battle


Unlike the folklore we had heard, Karna and Arjun did not face each other in isolation. Each was supported by “wheel-protectors”, major warriors in chariots who guarded the flanks of these two warriors. These “wheel protectors” were backed up by thousands of cavalry and infantry. The wheel-protectors, cavalry and infantry from the Kaurav side, all of them simultaneously attacked Arjun and similarly Arjun’s wheel protectors and flankers attacked Karna. This was while both Karna and Arjun were launching their weapons at each other. 

Here is what Arjun faced – “…Kripa with the bold Magadhas (army from today’s Bihar) was positioned on the right flank. On their outer flank, was …the mighty warrior Uluka …with unflappable Gandhari (today’s Afghans)horsemen wielding gleaming lances and unconquerable mountain men…Twenty four thousand warriors refusing to retreat protected the left flank. On their outer flank were positioned Kambojas and the Shakas long with the Greeks challenging Arjun with their chariots, horses and foot-soldiers…In the middle ..stood Karna.”

Karna faced a similar phalanx of chariots, cavalry and infantry of the Panchals and Somakas that guarded the flanks of Arjun.

The morning of the seventeenth day – the day of final Karna-Arjun Battle

The skill of the charioteer was deemed to be absolutely critical to the success of the Chariot-based Warrior. This is why each great warrior
was trained to be an expert charioteer. Arjun’s charioteer in Maha-Bharat was the greatest man in the world at that time, Shri Krishna (deemed to be the Avatar of God on earth). Shri Krishna did not fight in the war but acted as Arjun’s charioteer. There was only one charioteer on earth who could match Shri Krishna’s skill as a charioteer and that King Shalya, the King of Gandhar, today’s Afghanistan. Shalya had agreed to become Karna’s charioteer on the sixteenth day of the War. Arjun and Shri Krishna were the best of friends and of one mind as a charioteer and warrior. Karna and Shalya were not. You will see that this turns out to be a major difference.

The next day, Shri Krishna said to Arjun ” Today is the seventeenth day of this horrendous massacre of men, elephants, horses, O son of Bharat, and it continues! The army of your men together with our enemies had once been vast. After engaging one another in battle, o lord of the people, few remain.”

Shri Krishna has decided that it was time for Arjun to meet Karna in the final battle that day. So, to get Arjun in the proper frame of mid for the enormous battle, Krishna began to praise Arjun for his great exploits and valor. This exhortation fills 20 pages of Adam Bowles’s book.

When Krishna is done, Arjun is ready for the battle. He says “Krishna, my victory is certain, there is no doubt about it since you, the entire world’s guru, are content to drive my horses and chariot! That terrific battle bewildering to the triple world is at hand. People will recount it for as long as the world exists!”

Karna, on the other hand, got a different treatment from his charioteer Shalya, who as a King is unhappy at serving as a charioteer to a low-born Karna who is himself the son of a humble non-military charioteer. Shalya said to Karna “great warriors say that Arjun cannot be beaten even when he is on his own. How much harder will it be with Krishna protecting him? Who could defeat him now?”

Karna had no doubt of what faced him. He said “As far as we know there’s no  warrior in this world as remarkable as him. Perhaps he will lead me to disaster today; but once Karna is dead, then all will be dead……The very thing I want today, to do battle with the son of pandu, isn’t far off! Soon that extraordinary and unparalled spectacle will take place! By killing those two (Arjun and Krishna) in battle I will ruin them or today the two Krishna’s will destroy me!”

You get the clear sense that there was no tomorrow for Karna. He was going to give his all on that seventeenth day.

The Karna-Arjun Battle

This was the epic battle of the greatest epic ever written. The translation of Maha-Bharat’s detailed description of the final battle between Karna and Arjun is 85 pages long. To summarize this level of detail is far beyond the scope of this article. We encourage all readers to buy or borrow the translation by Adam Bowles (Karna, Volume II) to read it in its entirety. We will be content to relate a couple of scenes that have been retold through out history.

At a later stage of this battle, Karna readies the special weapon that he had reserved for Arjun. His Charioteer, the King Shalya, advised Karna to lower the trajectory of the weapon. This was good advise but Karna did not trust his Charioteer completely because of the history between them. Karna launched that blazing weapon at Arjun.

Shri Krishna, Arjun’s Charioteer, saw this weapon launched and instantly pushed down the lever of the Chariot. With that signal, the four magnificent horses driving Arjun’s Chariot immediately and simultaneously dropped to their knees. As the chariot sunk into the ground, the weapon launched by Karna hit Arjun in the crown rather than in the head or the neck.

The crown was an incredible work of strength and brilliance gifted to Arjun by Indra himself (Indra – the Lord Protector of Heaven – Arjun was thereafter nicknamed the Wearer of the Crown because of this gift). The strength of the crown  absorbed the power of the weapon and Arjun was saved. He was dazed by the power of the blow and he tumbled to the ground. But the daze was temporary and Arjun quickly climbed back into the Chariot to resume the battle. Arjun and Shri Krishna were of one mind as the Warrior and the Charioteer. But, Karna and Shalya were not. That made the difference.

Later near the end of the day, Arjuna summoned his great “Aindra” weapon. Then “those powerful arrows made up of fiery energy emerged from the chariot of Pritha’s son (Arjun) and came into view not far from Karna’s Chariot. But, Karna with is own missiles “rendered these arrows useless and they lay down before him”.

Then, Shri Krishna said to Arjun “Use that incomparable weapon”. Arjun took out the Raudra missile given to him by Bhagwan Shankar himself and readied it. 

At that precise time, one of the wheels of Karna’s chariot sunk into the ground. Karna got down from his chariot, grabbed the wheel with both of his arms and tried to pull it out. As he was doing so, Karna asked Arjun to hold off. Karna used the term Dharma (just law) to ask Arjun to not attack him while he was trying to raise the chariot wheel.

Then Shri Krishna said the immortal words to Karna. The words of Shri Krishna are the very basis of morality in war and have been recited around the world since then. In our childhood, we recall reciting the exquisite translation of these words by the 18th century great Marathi Poet Moropant.  

Shri Krishna recites to Karna his evil deeds during his life time, punctuating the recital by the immortal phrase “kva te dharma:h ta da gatah?” or “where was your Dharma at that juncture?”

After hearing the words of Shri Krishna, Karna lowered his head in embarrassment and said nothing further.  Instead, he lifted his bow and attacked Arjun with all his might and skill while standing on the ground.

Then Karna took out a special arrow, terrifying in its dispatch as a blazing fire. It flew with extraordinary velocity and penetrated Arjun’s shoulder. Arjun’s armor took the brunt of the blow but it shook Arjun. He dropped his weapon launcher and sank into the chariot.

Taking this opportunity, Karna grabbed the wheel of his chariot and tried to lift it. Arjun recovered and grabbed his great bow Gandiva. Shri Krishna asked Arjun to launch his weapon before Karna could mount his chariot.

Acknowledging the words of Shri Krishna, his guru and friend, Arjun took out his “Anjalika” weapon which has been described as “equal to Indra’s thunderbolt or the staff of the Fire-god and was like the most extraordinary beam of light from the sun.” The Anjalika weapon was mounted on a massive and magnificent arrow. Arjun launched this weapon at Karna. As the Maha-Bharat describes it, “With the exceptional Anjalika arrow, which had been magically consecrated together with a mighty missile, towards the end of day, Arjun, the son of mighty Indra, cut off Vaikartana’s (Karna’s) head.” The epic battle of the greatest epic ever written was over.

The Maha-Bharat writes “Once he’d been felled, fiery energy spread out from Karna’s body and entered the sky and the sun”. This was presumably because Karna was the immaculate conception of the Sun, or the brightness attribute of God.  

We are indebted to Adam Bowles and the Clay Sanskrit Library for bringing this
translation of the Book of Karna from the Maha-Bharat.

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