Mahābhārata – Episode 79 – Karṇa Becomes Commander-in-Chief

This article is part 79 of 112 in the series Mahābhārata


After the death of Droṇa, on the fifteenth day of the Kurukṣetra war, Duryodhana retired to his camp and discussed the further course of action with his ministers. Aśvatthāma suggested that Karṇa should be made the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava forces and the war should continue.

Duryodhana was pleased with his suggestion and addressed Karṇa. He said, “Dear Karṇa! I know how talented you are and how loyal you have been to me. You are a dear friend to me. Bhīṣma and Droṇa, who claimed to be atirathas, are dead now. It is now your turn to lead the Kaurava army. You are certainly stronger and more capable than those aged and fragile men. Moreover, they were partial to Arjuna. I respected them as per your words. You will need to bring me victory and there is no doubt that you will. The Pāṇḍavas and the Pāñcālas will be scared once you enter the battlefield!”

Karṇa happily consented to be the commander-in-chief and lead the army formations the next morning. He stood at the head of the army. Śakuni and Ulūka stood at the eyes of the army. Duryodhana stationed himself in the middle with the rest of the forces. Arjuna arranged his army in a semi-circular formation. He requested Bhīma and Dhṛṣṭadyumna to be stationed at its ends and he was at the centre along with Yudhiṣṭhira. Conches, war trumpets, and battle-drums gave the war cry and the battlefield resounded with their loud calls. The day’s battle began.

Bhīma killed Kṣemadhṛti and Sātyaki killed Vindya and Anuvindya. Bhīma and Aśvatthāma got into a one-on-one combat and injured each other in a shower of rows. As they were about to faint, their charioteers took them away from the battlefield. Karṇa fought Nakula, who fled from the battlefield. Śalya defeated Śṛtakīrti and Sahadeva prevailed over Duśśāsana. Arjuna vanquished the Saṃśaptakas and Yudhiṣṭhira defeated Duryodhana that day in the battlefield. There was a great loss of life on both sides, thanks to the valour and skill of the arch-rivals, Arjuna and Karṇa. As it turned dark, the Kauravas returned to their camps, dreading a night-battle. The Pāṇḍavas considered themselves victorious that day. The sixteenth day of the war thus came to an end.

Back at the camp, when Karṇa met Duryodhana, who looked deeply disturbed. Squeezing his hands in disappointment, he said, “Arjuna is skilled, has immense strength, and is brave in warfare too. They have Kṛṣṇa on their side and he devises masterly strategies and guides him. Arrows strike often and we are deceived today. I will make sure that none of his plans are successful tomorrow!” He tried to console and convince the distressed Duryodhana.

As the seventeenth day dawned, Karṇa rushed to Duryodhana and declared, “Duryodhana! I will face Arjuna today and will surely kill him. If I do not succeed, he will kill me. It is either he or I! As I had to fight at many fronts yesterday, I could not focus on Arjuna. Duryodhana! You will need to keep in mind yet another fact. Arjuna is no match for me in archery. He can’t beat my swiftness, agility, accuracy, skill, sustenance, and force.  His Gāṇḍīva is no match for my bow. This one was made by Viśvakarma for Indra. Indra vanquished the asuras with this bow and handed it over to Paraśurāma, who went around the world twenty-one times eliminating all the kṣatriyas. I have inherited the bow from him. You should also know in what way I am inferior to Arjuna. He rides the chariot gifted to him by Agni and immortal horses pull the divine chariot. He has Kṛṣṇa as his charioteer. He has a quiver which is inexhaustible. I do not possess any of these. Thus, to equal him, I will need a charioteer who knows the heart of the horses. Śalya might be a good choice for this purpose. I also need swift and powerful horses and a large supply of arrows and weapons in my chariot. With these, I will equal Arjuna and he cannot overpower me!”

Duryodhana went to Śalya, bowed down to him with respect and said, “O King of Madra! I have a request. This is for the destruction of the Pāṇḍavas and for our welfare. Just as Brahmā was the charioteer of Rudra during the Tripuradāha, I request you to drive Karṇa’s chariot in this war.  Vāsudeva is the charioteer of Arjuna but the current charioteer of Karṇa is no match for Vāsudeva. We have only two mahārathas left on our side – Karṇa and you. Today, Karṇa will fight Arjuna. He is confident that with you as his charioteer, he will be able to vanquish Arjuna in not time. As you both enter the battlefield on the chariot, just like Aruṇa and Sūrya enter the skies, the Kaunteyas, Sṛñjayas, Pāñcālas, and everyone on their side will be doomed in darkness and will flee the battleground”

Śalya was annoyed hearing Duryodhana’s words. With a frown on his face, he asked Duryodhana, “O king! It is not befitting on your part to put me on such a job! Can a superior one ever be made the charioteer of an inferior person? I have honour of being the crowned king of my kingdom and I’m a kṣatriya by birth! I’m born in the family of rājarṣis. Should I be made the charioteer of this sūtaputra? You speak as though he is more capable as a warrior than me! I feel humiliated and do not want to take part in the battle. Permit me to head back home!” With these words, he tried leaving the place.

Duryodhana, however, stopped him and tried to console him. He said “O king, Śalya! You are right – everything that you have just said is true! I will clarify my intent. Pray hear me out! Neither Karṇa nor the other kings are better than you. Karṇa is only better than Arjuna. Vāsudeva is no match you either. Karṇa is only better than Arjuna in his usage of weapons, however, you excel Kṛṣṇa both at aśvahṛdaya (knowledge of a horse’s heart) and also in your fighting skills!”

Śalya was happy listening to these words. “I’m happy that you have recognised my talents and consider me to be more capable than Kṛṣṇa. I shall drive Rādheya’s chariot against Arjuna’s in the battlefield. I, however, will do so only on one condition. I shall speak whatever comes to my mind to Karṇa. None should stop me!” Duryodhana agreed to the condition.

Karṇa’s chariot was made ready. Śalya took the charioteer’s seat and Karṇa climbed on to the chariot too.  Looking at them, Duryodhana said, “I was under the impression that Bhīṣma and Droṇa, mahārathis of world renown will easily vanquish Bhīma and Arjuna. They weren’t able to achieve that. Karṇa! You will do whatever they were unable to! Destroy the Pāṇḍava army! May victory be yours!”

As the trumpets were blown and the drums were beaten, the chariot headed towards the battleground. The earth trembled as Karṇa went towards the Pāṇḍavas. Meteors and comets rained from the skies. Fire blazed at the horizon in all directions. Flags quivered. Yet, the Kaurava team motivated Karṇa to go ahead and cared little for the bad omens. 

As they neared the Pāṇḍava army, Śalya said, “Look there, Karṇa! Do you hear Arjuna’s chariot wheel? Do you see his Kapidhvaja (flag with Hanumān’s image). He is heading to fight the Saṃśaptakas once again! He will fight them with great vigour!”

An agitated Karṇa said with a voice filled with irritation, “Yes, the enraged Saṃśaptakas have surrounded him. He has vanished amidst them like the sun getting covered by the clouds!”

Śalya said, “Can someone defeat Varuṇa in a battle with waters? Can the fire be put off with fire-wood? Can Vāyu be bound by an object or can the sea be drunk? Arjuna cannot be defeated even by the combined forces of the devas and asuras! If these words bring you joy, so be it!”

The two armies collided with each other and the war started.

Karṇa tore the Pāṇḍava army apart and defeated Yudhiṣṭhira who was their commander-in-chief. Bhīma came forward for a one-on-one combat with Karṇa. He fought valiantly and Karṇa fainted on the battlefield. He could have even killed Karṇa. As Śalya reminded Bhīma of Arjuna’s vow, he let Karṇa live. Śalya drove Karṇa’s chariot far away from the battlefield. The Kauvrava army pounced upon Bhīma, who killed several younger brothers of Duryodhana.

On the other side, Aśvatthāma instigated Arjuna, who was fighting the Saṃśaptakas, into a battle. He was defeated by Arjuna. By then, Karṇa regained consciousness and scattered the Pāṇḍava army with his valorous combat. As Bhīma was fighting Karṇa, Arjuna came there and got to know that Yudhiṣṭhira was injured and had returned to the camp. His heart wouldn’t let him act any further and he hurried to their camp to see the state of Dharmarāja. Yudhiṣṭhira was free of any mortal danger. Yet, he was gravely injured and was reduced to the bed. Yudhiṣṭhira, who saw that Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna had come there together, he assumed that they had killed Karṇa and congratulated them on their victory. Arjuna told him that he had fought the Saṃśaptakas and Aśvatthāma till then and when he got to know that Dharmarāja was injured, he had rushed to the camp. He said that he would fight Karṇa as soon as he spotted him again.

Listening to this, Dharmarāja was greatly disappointed. He spoke in a tone filled with disappointment and anger, as he assumed that Arjuna had fled from the battlefield, unable to face Karṇa. He humiliated Arjuna by asking him to give away the Gāṇḍīva to Kṛṣṇa. As his elder brother, Yudhiṣṭhira had insulted him for no reason, Arjuna too felt very agitated. Enraged, his hand went to his sword. However, upon Kṛṣṇa’s advice and clarification, the two cooled down and repented for their behaviour. Arjuna fell at his brother’s feet and Yudhiṣṭhira embraced his brother and blessed him. Arjuna said, “I shall go at once and defeat Rādheya. I take a vow at your feet. I will not return from the battlefield without killing Karṇa.”

Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna headed back towards the battlefield.

To be continued.

This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form.

The original Kannada version of Vacanabhārata is available for free online reading here. To read other works of Prof. Krishna Shastri, click here.



Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.



Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh


Hari is a writer, translator, editor, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, education pedagogy design, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited 25+ books, mostly related to Indian culture and philosophy. He serves on the advisory board of a few educational institutions.

Prekshaa Publications

The Mahābhārata is the greatest epic in the world both in magnitude and profundity. A veritable cultural compendium of Bhārata-varṣa, it is a product of the creative genius of Maharṣi Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa. The epic captures the experiential wisdom of our civilization and all subsequent literary, artistic, and philosophical creations are indebted to it. To read the Mahābhārata is to...

Shiva Rama Krishna

சிவன். ராமன். கிருஷ்ணன்.
இந்திய பாரம்பரியத்தின் முப்பெரும் கதாநாயகர்கள்.
உயர் இந்தியாவில் தலைமுறைகள் பல கடந்தும் கடவுளர்களாக போற்றப்பட்டு வழிகாட்டிகளாக விளங்குபவர்கள்.
மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
தனிநபர்களாகவும், குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்களாகவும், சமுதாய பிரஜைகளாகவும் நாம் அனைவரும் பரிமளிக்கிறோம்.
சிவன் தனிமனித அடையாளமாக அமைகிறான்....

ऋतुभिः सह कवयः सदैव सम्बद्धाः। विशिष्य संस्कृतकवयः। यथा हि ऋतवः प्रतिसंवत्सरं प्रतिनवतामावहन्ति मानवेषु तथैव ऋतुवर्णनान्यपि काव्यरसिकेषु कामपि विच्छित्तिमातन्वते। ऋतुकल्याणं हि सत्यमिदमेव हृदि कृत्वा प्रवृत्तम्। नगरजीवनस्य यान्त्रिकतां मान्त्रिकतां च ध्वनदिदं चम्पूकाव्यं गद्यपद्यमिश्रितमिति सुव्यक्तमेव। ऐदम्पूर्वतया प्रायः पुरीपरिसरप्रसृतानाम् ऋतूनां विलासोऽत्र प्रपञ्चितः। बेङ्गलूरुनामके...

The Art and Science of Avadhānam in Sanskrit is a definitive work on Sāhityāvadhānam, a form of Indian classical art based on multitasking, lateral thinking, and extempore versification. Dotted throughout with tasteful examples, it expounds in great detail on the theory and practice of this unique performing art. It is as much a handbook of performance as it is an anthology of well-turned...

This anthology is a revised edition of the author's 1978 classic. This series of essays, containing his original research in various fields, throws light on the socio-cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu spanning several centuries. These compelling episodes will appeal to scholars and laymen alike.
“When superstitious mediaevalists mislead the country about its judicial past, we have to...

The cultural history of a nation, unlike the customary mainstream history, has a larger time-frame and encompasses the timeless ethos of a society undergirding the course of events and vicissitudes. A major key to the understanding of a society’s unique character is an appreciation of the far-reaching contributions by outstanding personalities of certain periods – especially in the realms of...

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective...


इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...