Karnabharam (the anguish of the Karna) is a well-known Sanskrit play written by the legendary playwright Bhasa centuries ago. In the “Karnabhara”, the whole scene is depicted as a conversation between Karna and Salya. Karnabhara is the shortest of the epic plays. It is a very beautiful piece and it contains matter which does not run for more than ten printed pages of a book. Ganapati Shastri, Woolner and Saruo take the title of the play to mean “Karna’s responsibility or task” referring to the generalship of Karna in the great Kuru war. The main vehicle for this creation is, of course, the working of Karna’s mind.  Karna is presented in the most favourable light. The play simply informs us of the generous nature of the high-souled Karna.

The Title of the Play 

In Karnabhara, Bhasa is not attempting to reproduce the epic story. He is creating here the personality of Karna and his method is that of psychological synthesis. From the beginning of the play we notice that Karna’s mind is weighed down with dismal premonition. Everything that happens now on the memory of the curse and the realization of the futility of the missiles increases the pressure on Karna’s mind, though he tries to fight heroically against his falling spirit. But then comes the parting with the Kavacha-kundala. And in spite of his pleased smile, Karna, now knows fully well that though he has won the battle against Indra, he has lost his battle with life! It is a pain, therefore, that the “Bhara” in the title means “burden”; not the physical but the psychological burden. It is a psychological burden, according to Dr. G. K. Bhat, to which the word Bhara in the title Karnabhara refers. It must be admitted that the word Bhara is a very intriguing word as it lends itself to several interpretations. It is difficult to resist the temptation to interpret it in the most usual sense- burden, responsibility, as the commander-in-chief of the vast Kaurava armies. M.M. Ganpatishastri, however, remarks, “That if the title Karnabhara .i.e. responsibility of Karna as a commander is to be significant, it seems probable that the play can have at least one act more to describe the feats of Karna.” Dr. Pusalkar thinks the word Bhara refers to “the burden of the ears”- कर्णयोर्भार भूतानि कुण्डलानिकर्णयोर्भार भूतानि कुण्डलानि and he clarifies his view in the following words “During the interval of time that elapsed between the verbal gift of the Kundalas and their actual delivery, those Kundalas were felt as if a burden to his ears.” Dr. Winternitz, however, does not agree that the word Bhara could mean “coat of mail” and translates the line thus, “With horses that exert themselves for the burden.” He interprets the title ‘Karnabhara’ as ‘the difficult task of Karna’ viz. his vow that he would not refuse anything to a Brahmin.

Sources of the Play

The story of Karna is related in various Parvas of the Mahabharata.

  • The Vanaparva of the Mahabharata, in Sub-parva .i.e. Kundal-harana Parva 300-310, In the 301st chapter Surya has already warned Karna in a dream about the wily intentions of Indra on behalf of his son Arjuna, So Surya begs him to demand a magic lens in return for the gift of the Kavacha and Kundala. Karna accepted to do so, which he used to kill Ghatotkacha. This incident is also narrated in the sub-Parva called ‘Sambhava-parva’ of the Adiparva- Adhyaya 68.44-45, and Adhyaya 120.39-53, and in the Santiparva Adhyaya 5.
  • The story of his fight with Arjun and his death is narrated in the Karnaparva. Karna takes over the Kaurava army and undertakes to fight Arjuna, whose Charioteer is Krishna. Karna asks Salya as his charioteer to drive his chariot to the battle field. After a good deal of persuasion Salya accepts the position but he tries to dishearten Karna, by praising his adversary, by pointing out evil omens and by picking up a quarrel. Karna fights heroically despite his disparagement with Salya, at last Karna meet Arjuna and is killed by Arjuna.
  • The story of acquisition of his knowledge of the weapons, and the curse of Parshurama is narrated in Karnaparva, Adhyaya 36 and in Shantiparva, Adhyaya 3.

The Plot of the play

The generalship of the Kaurava army falls upon Karna after Drona. After the benedictory stanza, the stage-manager notices that a messenger from Duryodhan is hurrying towards Karna to inform him that the hour of battle has come. Karna, however, is ready in his war-dress and is proceeding to the battle field with Salya; so the messenger makes his exit as there is no need to deliver the message. And then Karna tells Salya to take his Chariot to where Arjuna is. But he remembers the promise he has given to his mother, Kunti as the elder brother of Pandavas. He then narrates the story of learning Astras(weapons) from Parashurama under the guise of a Brahmin. But one incident makes Parshurama angry and he cursed Karna that his astras would fail at the time of need.  The incident being, One day Karna had gone to the forest to bring fuel and fruits with Parshurama, while searching Parshuram felt weak and he slept on the lap of Karna. A spiteful worm- Vjramukha- approached Karna and bored through his thighs. He, lest his preceptor should awake, suffered the worm to do its pleasure, though the pain was intolerable; Karna bore it with heroic patience and continued to hold Parshurama’s head on his lap. The cold blood, however, oozing out of his thigh disturbed Parshurama’s sleep and he got angry and learnt the truth and cursed him. Now Karna wants to check the astras but all failed. In spite of that he invokes peace and blessings to all, and bracing himself up for the fight asks Salya to drive his chariot towards Arjuna in the battle-field, but he is stopped by a Brahmin who begs for a significant boon from Karna. Karna offers him cows, horses, elephants, gold, the whole earth, the fruit of Agnihotra or even his head, which are all rejected as he only wants the armour of Karna. Salya, seeing through the deceit of Indra sounds a note of warning, but Karna after stating that sacrificial merits and gifts alone are permanent in this world, satisfies the Brahmin who is really Indra in disguise. Indra departs after receiving the armour, but being filled with remorse, sends in return Vimala Astra, through an angel to Karna, who refuses to take a return for a gift, but then when told that it was a Brahmin’s bidding, accepts it. Then Karna ascends his chariot, and asks Salya to drive it to the battle field. The usual epilogue concludes the play.

The Deviations

  • The incident of Indra coming to Karna for Kavacha and Kundalas occurs earlier in the original story where as the poet transferred the incident to the battle field to make it more sentimental to the audience.
  • In the epic, Surya comes to warn Karna of the trickery of Indra but here in Karnbharam the poet ignores this altogether.
  • According to Mahabharata, Karna himself demands Shakti from Indra in return for the armour at the bidding of Surya. In this play Karna is depicted as more noble so he refuses to take a gift in return but he was told that it was a Brahmin’s bidding, which he dare not disobey.
  • In the original, Salya insulted Karna many times and used harsh words on him, but in Karnbharam he does not speak harsh words, more over he warns Karna to not giveaway his armour. Salya is sympathetic to Karna in this play thus making him a better character.
  • It is a curious feature of the play that although, as in the original, Indra appears in the guise of a Brahmin, yet he is made to talk Prakruta Sanskrit.


In Karnbharam there are only three characters Karna, Salya and a Brahmin.

  1. Karna- Bhasa’s Karna is utterly selfless. He does not ask for a return gift from Indra. And when Indra sends his Angel to present the gift of an invincible missile Karna straightaway refuses to accept it. He is finally forced to take it simply because the words of a Brahmana cannot be transgressed. Bhasa’s picture therefore is of a personality that is far nobler in its limitless magnanimity of heart. The limitless generosity of Karna is the central fact and the strongest point of his character. Karna is thrown into a depressing gloom. He becomes reminiscent and narrates the story of the curse hanging on his missiles. But he braces himself up and proceeds to his destination. Just then he is interrupted by a Brahmin who demands the gift of Kavacha-Kundala from him. This episode occupies the better part of the play and our sympathy for Karna grows in our mind as also hatred towards Indra. The end of Karna’s life at the hands of Arjuna, is clearly foreshadowed by mighty unmistakable suggestions. The transplanting of the Kundala-harana episode on the battle field besides lending the play its structural unity serves a dramatic purpose as well. As it comes here it helps to focus the central idea of impending doom that awaits Karna. To realize this, the characterization of Bhasa must be properly understood.
  2. Salya- Bhasa’s Salya is very kind to Karna. There is need to create and stir profound sympathy for the personality that is central in the tragic presentation. Salya also warns Karna not to give his armour. The abuses and quarrel that the epic Salya heaps on Karna definitely shake the foundation of our sympathy; for, one wonders whether there may not be something really wrong with Karna. And so, in Bhasa’s play, the sympathy for Salya becomes harmonious with the pathos that the play is filled with throughout. The sympathetic Salya serves the same artistic purpose.
  3. Indra- Bhasa has created a neat little character in his Brahmin with his peculiar mannerisms, his greed and his irrepressible craving for those things only which are likely to be useful to him. When Karna is going to the battle field, he comes in to beg. Karna is ready to offer all things but Indra only wants his armour- the natural gift of Karna, this scene makes us angry with the Brahmin; it evokes profound pity for Karna; it also brings forth a sorry laugh as we realize the absurdity and ridiculousness of the whole situation.


There is a Pathetic note (KARUNA) pervading the whole play. The atmosphere of the play is serious and serene, relieved to some extent by high class character Indra in the disguise of a begging Brahmin speaking Pakrit and his peculiar mannerism which supply some sort of humour(Hasya). The poet has thus purposely used Pakrit in the mouth of the Brahmin to relieve the tension and hence there is nothing peculiar in it. The smile comparing the heroic Karna overwhelmed with grief with the sun covered by clouds is very finely expressed.

अत्युग्रदीप्तिविशदः समरेऽग्रगण्यः

शौर्ये च संप्रति सशोकमुपैति धीमान

प्राप्ते निदाघसमये घनराशिरुध्दः

सूर्यः स्वभावरूचिमानिव भाति कर्णः II4II

Resplendent in his fiercest majesty, foremost in the field and in deeds of valour, the wise one, goes forth, full of sadness; Karna appears like the sun, when summer comes, obscured by masses of clouds and yet shining in his natural splendor. 

Critical Remarks

Though the shortest among the one-act play, it is artistically perhaps the most perfect. But there is a progressive psychological movement from a mood of sadness and gloom, to a mood of serenity and a feeling of exultation that by his generosity Karna had triumphed over Indra. It has no female characters. Dr. Winternitz states that “the Karna of the Mahabharata is far more interesting than that of the play.” In its interpretation as “Karna’s task”, the play fails to create any impression whatsoever about Karna’s task, much less can it be taken to be incomplete. The central trait of Karna’s character- his limitless and self-effacing generosity, which unmistakably is the source of his own undoing- and puts him on par with the hero of a Shakespearen tragedy; “We ourselves are the authors of our proper woe” – and the impending doom of Karna, which is clearly foreshadowed, inevitably springs from his excessive generosity. It is not necessary to exhibit the actual death of the hero on the stage; for even without it the reader is moved by a sense of profound pity and sympathy by the deft manner in which the poet has used all the resources of drama and reminiscence, symbolism and suggestion, to depict the tragedy of Karna.

Comments of Scholars

  • Woolner writes, “Three times he (Karna) tells Salya to drive his car where Arjuna is and the play ends abruptly on that command.” It is really surprising that the suggestive richness of the sentence should have been completely missed. As the play opens, we hear Karna telling Salya to drive his chariot where Arjuna is: We immediately realize that Karna is on his journey to meet death! The command comes a second time when Karna has tested the futility of his weapons and has forsaken all hopes for himself. And finally the play closes with the same command. The repetition of the sentence at these very critical junctures in the play ends with an unmistakable suggestion that Karna has finally closed his account.
  • Prof. Jhala observed that, “By a stroke of dramatic imagination, the author of the play has synchronized these three stages of progressive action of Karna with his three utterances of the command to Salya to ‘drive the chariot where Arjuna is’ and made them visible symbols of the stages of his mental struggle which results in a progressively firm determination to march against the enemy.”
  • Dr. Pusalkar says that, “The play was written for didactic purpose, possibly to impress on the minds of the princes the importance of generosity.”