Once there lived a woman named Kunti. She served sage Durvasa for a full year when he was a guest at her father’s palace. Pleased with her service, he gave her a boon that allowed her to bear a child from a God of her choosing. Kunti, who wanted to test the boon before even getting married, immediately worshipped the Sun God and used the boon to get a child in His image. A boy was born with golden armour and earrings attached to his body. He was named Karna. He also had the strength and radiance of his father. But since Kunti only wanted to test the boon and never really wanted a son, she abandoned Karna by setting him afloat on a river.
Baby Karna was then picked up by Dhritarashtra’s charioteer, Adhiratha (Shudra by caste). Karna was raised by Adhiratha and his wife Radha and hence Karna is also known as Radheya. Though Karna knew he was adopted by them, he never stopped loving them as his own parents. Once Karna grew up, he wanted to become a warrior and he approached Dronacharya. But Dronacharya refused to teach him, as Karna was a Shudra. Karna then knew his caste would hinder his path to becoming a warrior. So, he approached Parashurama, who taught Brahmans to become warriors. Karna went under the guise of a brahman and started to learn under Parashurama. Soon, he learnt everything and in fact exceeded Parashurama in terms of skill. But one day Parashurama came to know of Karna’s true identity and planned to keep a hidden test. He asked Karna to get a pillow so that he could sleep. Instead Karna offered his own thigh as a pillow and Parashurama agreed. Once he was asleep, an insect came and bit Karna’s thigh, but he did not flinch, in order to not disturb his guru’s sleep. But, the blood which flowed from the wound, woke Parashurama up. He then knew Karna was a kshatriya by caste and cursed him (because Parashurama hated kshatriyas and only taught brahmans) saying that he would forget the spell to call upon his weapon at the most needed time. Karna then pleaded with Parashurama saying that he was a Shudra and that any student would show such dedication towards their guru. Parashurama being unable to remove the curse, instead offered his personal bow, Vijaya and also told him that he would achieve everlasting honour.
On the way back to his home, Karna shot and killed a cow by accident. The brahmin who owned the cow, came and cursed Karna that during the most important battle in his life, his chariot wheel would get stuck and he would be open to attack from the enemy. Karna then went back home and informed his parents about the training he had undergone.
Karna now set out to join the court of Hastinapura. There, in a tournament, he faced difficulty to compete as he could not state from which clan he was. This was when Duryodhana stepped up and offered Karna the kingdom of Anga, so that he could compete in the tournament. Karna was overjoyed and asked Duryodhana as to how he could repay him. It was then that Duryodhana told him that his friendship was enough and since then Karna and Duryodhana became great friends.
Once he became king, he told the people in his kingdom that anyone who would come to him during midday and ask him for something, they would definitely get what they want. After this, the fame and generosity of Karna spread far and wide. His acts of generosity surpassed even those of gods. But this would eventually lead to his downfall, as we will soon see.
During the swayamvar of Draupadi, Karna shows exemplary skill, but is rejected as Draupadi does not want to marry a shudra. Karna gets angry and leaves the swayamvar. Arjuna eventually wins the hand of Draupadi. He then has a duel with Arjuna, where he gets impressed by the skills shown by him.
During the exile of the Pandavas, Karna establishes Duryodhana as the emperor of the world, by conquering numerous kingdoms and tribes. Lord Indra watches all this and comes to know that Karna will be undefeated until he has that divine armour attached to his body. So knowing that a great war is going to happen and since Karna is an ally of the Kauravas, He decides to go to Karna at midday in the guise of a poor brahmin to relieve him of his armour. Upon doing so, he asks Karna to give up his armour and earrings as alms. Karna immediately without any hesitation, cuts off the armour and earrings from his body and hands it over. Though Lord Indra made the plan, he was still impressed by the generosity of Karna and gave him a weapon called ‘Vasavi Shakti’.
Just before the war is about to break out, Kunti meets Karna and asks him to join the side of the Pandavas. He promises her that he will not kill any of the Pandavas, except Arjuna. But Karna, being faithful and grateful to the Kauravas, declines her proposal. He also tells her to keep his true identity a secret until his death. Once the war starts, Karna aids in the killing of Abhimanyu (Arjuna’s son) and Ghatotkacha. Due to Lord Krishna’s tactics, Duryodhana forces Karna to use his most powerful weapon against Ghatotkacha, which he had been saving in order to kill Arjuna.
Finally, the confrontation between Arjuna and Karna takes place. After a great amount of fighting, Karna’s chariot gets stuck in the ground (as cursed by the brahmin earlier) and he asks Arjuna to stop the fight while he frees his chariot. Arjuna obliges, but Lord Krishna then tells him that one must not be compassionate in times of war. Lord Krishna also reminds Arjuna how Karna butchered his son Abhimanyu without any mercy and how Draupadi was humiliated in the court of the Kauravas. Arjuna, paying heed to the words of Krishna, immediately fires an arrow, beheading Karna.
After the war, Kunti then tells the Pandavas the entire truth about Karna. The Pandavas become dejected and after that Yudhisthira (one of the Pandavas) curses all women that they will no longer be able to hold any secrets hereafter. To this day, Karna remains a symbol of generosity, loyalty and a brave hero who fought against discrimination.