Karna's birth-story is somewhat different and not opened to all as he was born to an unmarried matter. Kunti, who was the young princess, attended the sage Durvasa for a full year. The sage was pleased with her service and granted her a boon that she could call upon any god of her choice and mothers a child in his image. Kunti was still an innocent maid and wanted to test the boon out of her curiosity. The unmarried princess called the sun god Surya, who granted her a son as radiant and as powerful as his father.
Through his divine power Kunti retained her virginity. Thus Karna was born against his mother's wish. Surya gifted his son an armor (Kavacha) and a pair of earrings (Kundala), those were dipped in Amrit and attached with Karna's body to protect him. Kunti did not want to face the world as a maiden mother and abandoned Karna, setting him afloat in a box in a river.
The child Karna was picked up from the river water by Adhiratha, who was the charioteer of King Dhritarashtra and brought up by Adhiratha and his wife Radha. Karna was given the name Vasusena as he was born with wealth due to his natural set of armor and earrings. The charioteer and his wife never hid from Karna that they were not his biological parents. Karna was also renowned as Radheya after the name of his foster mother Radha. The bond between Karna and his surrogate family was one of love, respect and affection. Karna gave his introduction as 'Sutaputra' meaning the son of a charioteer and honoured Adhiratha in front of all the warriors.
As Karna grew up, he decided to be a warrior. Karna approached Dronacharya who was the trainer of Kuru princes. But Drona refused Karna, as he was of low caste, a Sutaputra or the son of a chariteer. Karna sensed that his caste would be a barrier in his quest for knowledge. Karna decided to approach Parashurama, who taught the Brahmins alone. Karna lied to Parashuram that he was a Brahmin and was accepted as his student. Karna was an efficient and diligent student. Parashurama trained Karna and declared that he was equal to his guru in the art of warfare.
As Karna's training was about to complete, Parashurama came to know the truth about Karna's origin. One afternoon Parashurama requested Karna to bring a pillow, as he wanted to sleep outside in the shade. Karna offered him his lap instead of the pillow. When Parashurama was sleeping on the lap of Karna, an insect perched on Karna's thigh and bit him. Karna tolerated the pain as he didi not want to disturb in his Guru's sleep. The insect bit deep in his leg, causing the blood to ooze out. Parashurama woke up by the warmth and feel of the blood. He deduced at once that Karna was a Kshatriya as only a warrior could withstand such a pain without cringing. He cursed Karna that when he would require an Astra (weapon) the most, he would not be able to recall its conjuration. Karna pleaded with him again and again but a curse could not be taken back.Parashuram then pacified Karna by saying he would eventually achieve great fame and his name would be immortal.
Departing from Parashurama's ashram, Karna roamed for sometime. He madfe another mistake by killing one cow as he thought it was a wild animal. The Brahman who owned the cow cursed Karna that in the most crucial battle of his life, his wheel of chariot would get stuck in the mud leaving him vulnerable to the enemies.
Returning home, Karna informed his family of his training but kept the curses a secret. He also decided to seek out a position in the Hastinapura court.
On the other hand, the Kuru princes along with Pandava completed their education under the charge of Dronacharya. Drona arranged a tournament to display the skills of Kuru princes. Arjuna was the chief attraction of the tournament as a gifted archer. Karna then appeared in the scene, he successfully imitated the shows of Arjuna and then challenged him in the duel. However Karna was refused to perform the duel as he was asked to introduce him by Kripacharya and was said that only a prince could challenge another prince. Then, Duryodhana, the eldest of Kauravas, offers Karna the throne of Anga so that he became a king and could be eligible to duel his cousins. Karna was emotionally stirred at this incident. He asked Duryodhana how he could repay him, Duryodhana told him that he only wanted his friendship. Karna had already given him his heart.
This event was a key event of Mahabharata that established the relation between the characters. There was a strong bondage between Duryodhana and Karna, an intense rivalry with Arjuna and as a whole Karna had an enmity with the Pandavas.
Karna earned a strong reputation in the court of Hastinapura. He was friend and advisor of Duryodhana. Being a courageous warrior Karna always wanted to prevent Duryodhana from adopting the path of deceit and trickery. He always told Duryodhana that ways of cowards were doomed with failure and asked him to obtain what he wanted through valor.
Karna also aided Duryodhana in his marriage as Karna appeared in the Kashi court, seized the princesses of Kashi and brought them to Duryodhana to marry them. Karna also helped Duryodhana to marry the princess of Chitragandha. The princess rejected Duryodhana who wanted to carry them away with force. The other Kings and princes challenged Duryodhana. Karna single-handedly faced all of them. Among the kings present there were Jarasandha, Shishupala, Dantavakra and Rukmi. Jarasandha was impressed by Karna's bravery and as a token of appreciation; Jarasandha gifted Karna a portion of Magadha.
Karna is well renowned for his generosity. When he was appointed as a king, he took an oath to not to return anyone empty-handed when they approached him with any request in the mid day, when he worshipped the son. This practice earned him a lot of fame, also the downfall, as Indra and Kunti took advantage of it.
Karna was also present at the Swayambhar of Draupadi. Unlike the other suitors, Karna was able to handle to string the bow and hit the target successfully. However Draupadi rejected Karna by telling that she was not ready to marry a Suta(charioteer). Karna was enraged and stormed out the arena. Pandava brothers were also there in the guise of Brahmins. When Arjuna successfully tackled the target and won Draupadi's hand, he also had a duel with Karna. Karna expressed his admiration for the skill of that Brahmin but later when he knew that the Brahmin was none other than his eternal enemy Arjuna, Karna's feelings of rivalry further intensified.
Karna never supported Shakuni's plan to defeat Pandava's by the way of trickery and deceit. He always preferred the way of war. However, to please Duryodhana, he was always at his side, even during the dice game and 'Cheer haran' of Draupadi. Karna called Draupadi a 'whore' and also added that a whore had no right and thus there was no wrong in bringing Draupadi nude in the court. When Arjun heard the remark, he vowed to kill Karna.
During the Pandava's exile Karna helped Duryodhana to be established as the World Emperor. Karna led the army in different parts of the country to conquer the kingdoms of other kings. Many kings swear allegiance to Duryodhana or chose to die in the battles. In this military adventure Karna subdued the kingdoms of Kamboja, Shaka, Kekaya, Avantya, Gandhara, Madraka, Trigarta, Tangana, Panchala, Videha, Suhma, Anga, Vanga, Nishada, Kalinga, Vatsa, ashmaka, Rishika and numerous others including Mlecchas and many forest tribes.
Indra, the king of gods was the father of Arjuna, realized that Karna would be unvanquishable in the battle as long as he possessed the golden armour suit and earrings that he had from birth. During the Pandava's exile, when war was obvious, Indra took the responsibility upon him to weaken Karna. He approached Karna in the guise of a poor Brahmin during his mid-day worship. He knew that Karna would never refuse any request of a Brahaman or beggar at that time. His father, sun god Surya, warned him in his dream about Indra's plan. But when time came, Krana gave Indra his birthsuit Kavacha and Kundala by cutting from his body without any hesitation. Indra was ashamed at Karna's generosity and gave him his most powerful weapon Vasavi Shakti, though he had permission to use it once only.
Before the war Karna's mother Kunti also approached Karna as she wanted to stop the war. She revealed to Karna the mystery of his birth. Kunti also requested Karna to go with her and join his original brothers, Pandava. But Karna owed much to King Duryodhana and he could not change the side. Karna promised Kunti that though he would fight the Pandavas he would not kill them except Arjuna. Arjuna and Karna both took the vow of killing each other. So Kunti would always have five sons, either Arjuna or Karna. Kunti asked Karna to throw away his name 'Radheya' and introduce himself as 'Kaunteya'. But Karna refused saying that she should have done this before during the tournament when Karna was being insulted in front of a huge audience. Karna also requested Kunti to keep secret of his royal birth heritage until his death.
Karna fought the great battle of Kurukshetra with a great courage and grace. But he entered the battlefield only at the eleventh day, as he felt insulted because Bhishma, the chief in commander of Kaurava's side assigned Karna with a less important position. Bhishma knew that Karna was Kunti's son and he did not want that brothers fight among themselves. For that reason he wanted to put Karna away of battlefield. Karna entered the battlefield on the eleventh day, after Bhishma was struck down the previous day.
On the thirteenth day of the battle, Dronacharya organized 'Chakravyuha', a specific arrangement of the army. Only Arjun and Krishna knew how to invade the 'Vyuha' but they were purposefully taken to another side of the battlefield. Arjuna's son Abhimanyu knew how to go inside the Vyuha. He entered there alone and was killed by seven warriors, among which Karna was also present.
On the nightfall of fourteenth day, Bhima's son Ghtotkacha started killing the Kaurava army in a mass. Duryodhana requested Karna to stop him and Karna employed the shakti weapon on him. After being used once, Shakti returned to its real owner, Indra. Now Karna did not have any divine weapon to kill Arjuna while Arjuna had a wider range of divine weaponry. However, Karna knew that he must face Arjuna in the battle and one of them would certainly die.
On the fifteenth day of the war, Dronacharya, the guru of Kauravas and Pandavas died in the battle and Karna was appointed as commander-in-chief of Kaurava's side. Karna had individual confrontation with all the Pandavas, except Arjuna and he defeated all of them but did not kill anybody as he promised to Kunti.
On the seventeenth day of battle, Arjuna and Karna finally confronted. The two of them were greatest among all the warriors. Karna had a bow gifted by Parashurama known as Vijaya (Pinakin). On Duryodhana's request, Shalya who was the maternal uncle of Pandavas became the charioteer of Karna. Karna did not have the Shakti weapon with him any more. The battle was indeed an intense display of amazing archery, valour and courage. Since Karna had no divine weapon, he devised an intelligent strategy to defeat Arjuna, which was entirely based on his personal ability. Karna set naga-astram on Arjuna targeting his head. Krishna, being the charioteer of Arjuna, plunged the chariot in the earth to save Arjuna. The fierce arrow thus hits Arjuna's crown only saving his life.
During this severe combat, Karna's chariot wheel got stuck in loose soil as per the curse on Karna given by the Brahmin. Karna asked Shalya to get down and take the wheel out of the mud but Shalya refused. Then Karna got down by himself to take out the chariot and asked Arjuna for a recess in the battle. Arjuna agreed but Krishna reminded him Karna's merciless nature while killing his son Abhimanyu. Karna was not able to lift the chariot wheel nor he could recall how to use the 'Brahmastra' as per the curse of Parashurama. In the meanwhile Arjuna administered the terrible weapon 'Anjalika' on Karna and beheaded the great warrior.
After Karna's death Kunti revealed the secret of Karna's birth to her sons. Pandava grieved Karna's death. Yudhisthira was specially stirred at this incident. He cursed all women that henceforth they would not be able to keep a secret.
Karna was the tragic hero of the epic Mahabharata. He was a brave hero and a courageous spirit who fought against his destiny all his life. His death was also tragic though full of courage, valor and honor that took him to rise to immortality beyond the mortal death. Karna was famous for his generosity and an example of a futile life in spite of having all the good qualities.