Reading Guide. Just when it looks like Arjuna is the winner of the contest, a mysterious stranger appears: Karna. You might remember his birth story: he is the son of Kunti and the sun god, born when she was but a girl, before she married King Pandu and gave birth to his sons. Kunti abandoned the baby, and he was found and raised by a low-caste charioteer. He will now show up at the tournament, and neither he nor Arjuna realize that they are brothers, the sons of Kunti.
Image. In the illustration, you can see the ceremonial yak-tail whisk being waved over Karna during his installation ceremony.
Source. Indian Myth and Legend by Donald A. Mackenzie (1913). [800 words]
Evening came on, and it seemed that the tournament was ended, but then the people beheld approaching an unknown warrior who shook his weapons so that they rattled loudly.
So came mighty Karna, son of Surya, the sun god, and of Kunti. He was comely as a shining god, clad in golden armor and wearing celestial earrings, and in his right hand he carried a great many-colored bow. He paused in the center of the plain and surveyed the people with pride. Then he, the eldest son of Kunti, spake to Kunti's youngest son, Arjuna, the brothers being unknown one to another, and he said, "Whatever feats thou hast performed this day with vain boast, Arjuna, these will I accomplish and surpass, if Drona will permit me."
Duryodhana and the other sons of Kuru heard the challenge with glad hearts, but Arjuna remained silent, while his eyes flashed fire.
Then Drona gave the warrior permission to display his skill. Karna was well pleased, and he performed every feat which had given Arjuna fame on that great day.
Duryodhana proclaimed his joy with beaming countenance, and he embraced Karna, whom he hailed as "'brother," saying, "I bid thee welcome, thou mighty warrior. Thou hast won the honors of the field."
But Arjuna was moved to great wrath and cried out, "Uninvited chief! Boasting thus, thou wouldst fain be regarded as mine equal, but I will so deal with thee that thou wilt die the death of a braggart who cometh here an unbidden guest, speaking boastfully before thou art spoken to."
Said Karna, answering proudly and calm, "Waste not words, Arjuna, nor taunt me with coming hither uninvited. The field of combat is free to all warriors; they enter by their valor, and do not await until thou dost call them; they win their places by strength and skill, and their warrant is the sword."
Arjuna at once strode forward, fully armed, and he was supported by Drona and Bhishma. Duryodhana and his band stood by Karna.
Thick clouds gathered in the sky; lightning flashed and thunder pealed; the mighty Indra guarded his son Arjuna, who stood in shadow. Surya, the sun god, cast a shaft of light athwart the darkening plain, and Karna's golden armor gleamed bright and fair.
The noble dames looked on, and some praised Arjuna and others praised Karna. Kunti, the mother of both heroes, was alone divided in her love. She knew her firstborn by his voice and noble bearing and by his armor, and her heart was torn with grief to behold the two brothers ready to slay each other.
Kripa, the foster-brother of Bhishma, performed the duties of herald and, as Arjuna strode forth to combat, he proclaimed, "Behold! This is mighty Arjuna, of Bharata's great line, son of Pandu and of Kunti. Unknown chief," he said unto Karna, "declare now thy name and lineage."
Karna heard, but was silent. Duryodhana, perceiving his discomfiture, cried out to Kripa, saying, "Valor is not reckoned by birth but by deeds. Karna hath already shown himself to be the peer of princes. I now proclaim him the Rajah of Anga."
Karna then spake to Duryodhana and said, "With generous heart thou hast conferred upon me a kingdom. O prince, speak and say what service thou wouldst have me to render unto thee."
Said Duryodhana, "But one boon do I ask of thee, O king. Be my comrade and, O valiant warrior, be my helper also."
Karna said, "As thou desirest, so be it."
Then Duryodhana and Karna embraced one another to confirm their loyal friendship.
Lo! Now a charioteer drew nigh; he was a scantily-clad and wearied old man, and he stooped, leaning heavily upon his staff. He was the aged sire of Karna, and rejoiced in his heart to see his son so highly honored among princes. Karna cast aside his weapons, knelt down, and kissed the old man's feet. The happy sire embraced the crowned head of the warrior and wept tears of love.
The Pandava brothers gazed upon father and son, amused and scornful. Bhima spake to Karna, saying, "So thou, with such a sire, hast presumed to seek combat with a Pandava! Son of a charioteer, what hast thou to do with weapons of war? Better were it that thou shouldst find thee a goad and drive a bullock-cart behind thy sire."
Karna grew pale with wrath; his lips quivered, but he answered not a word. He heaved a deep sigh and looked towards the sun.
Duryodhana walked by Karna's side and took him away to his own palace, glad of heart, for he no longer feared Arjuna's valor and skill at arms.
Even Yudhishthira doubted Arjuna's worth; he feared that Karna was the greatest hero in the world of men.