Readers Write In #354: On the caste origins of Karna

Posted on April 13, 2021

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(by Sudharshan Garg)

Loved the movie and the review, but a few…mythological and historical quibbles.

Karna’s foster parents were not from the ‘oppressed’ classes. If anything Adhi his dad was from the lineage of the mighty king Jayadrata of Anga. Ratha was a suffix this line took, Jaya + Rata > DhratvaRata > Satkarma > AdhiRata. Go further back and Adhirata was born in the Chandravanshi line, flowing from King Yayati to Bali (not the Kerala Bali but the Bengal Bali). There are 10 other ratha suffixed kings and nobles in this Titkkshu Chandravamshi line. Adhirata was also linked by birth to Romapada, a brother in law to Shigra, who was a descendant of Dasharatha (of the Ramayana fame)

Adhirata himself was the chief charioteer of Bheesma first and King Dhirdhrastra next. Not only this, he represented the Suta clan in the Kings council and also was a close friend of the King himself. Now, what is a Suta you might ask…the offspring of a Brahmin and Kshatriya was a Suta caste.

So when Arjuna refers to Karna as Sutaputra, it is explicitly not an insult but a statement of fact. The roots of the conflict between the Kauravas and Pandavas goes back to the gurukul they all studied in. Karna also studied in the same Gurukul Karna was constantly mocked for being poor (class) and not caste. As a member of an ‘oppressed class’ Karna would have not been even allowed entry into the Gurukul but this was not the case. Once in though, he was definitely bullied for aspiring to leap social classes, and being in the same class (pun unintended) as the princes of the royal families. The only difference in training was Drona refused to teach Brahmastra to Karna because he had his own reservations. He did teach this to the scions of a Suta royal line, the Kekayas (so this was also not about caste).  Karna calls himself a suta when he owns up the truth to Parasurama. The closest advisor to King Dhirarastra, Sanjaya, the one blessed with the gift of divine vision was also a member of the Suta class.

Even in the infamous arena where Karna challenges Arjuna, he is not denied his request for a duel because of his caste, but because Guru Kripa fearing the death of his treasured student Arjuna, applies the law that only princes might duel princes, and Karna had no kingdom he was from, and thus could not claim to be a prince.

There has been a lot of modern revisionist interpretation of the Mahabarata, and caste discourse is but one, but this has no basis in the original texts of the epic.

The second one is far easier, there is no known record of only Kshatriyas being allowed to be cavalry officers. If anything from what we know of Chola, Vijayanagara or even Maratha armies (for whom we have a lot of historical facts), these were equal opportunity to all castes BUT Brahmins. In general Brahmins were banned by many states (Mauryan, Vijayanagaran) from bearing arms. Outside of this rule though, anyone could and did join the military and many even rose to high rank.