“As long as you have the beautiful earrings, Arjuna cannot vanquish you in battle, even if Indra himself becomes his arrows.” Karna’s earrings and armour, embellishments that he is born with, make him invincible. His friendship with Duryodhana—founded on the Kaurava prince’s disregard for caste and his subsequent grant of the country of Anga to Karna—ensures that in the eventual war, he will fight from the side of the Kauravas. This pits him in direct conflict with Arjuna, a warrior of matching abilities.
Given Karna’s invincibility, any battle between him and Arjuna is likely to result in the latter’s defeat. Indra, the king of gods and Arjuna’s father, cannot let that happen. He plans to approach Karna in a brahman’s disguise and ask him for his earrings and armour. Karna’s reputation as a generous donator is something that is well-established, and Indra is convinced that in order to protect that reputation, Karna will make the donation even if it is against his interests. But Karna, we must remember, is also the son of a god (although he doesn’t know it yet).
Karna’s father Surya (the sun god) gets to know of Indra’s plan, and approaches Karna as a brahman named Vibhavasu, to warn him of Indra’s impending visit. But Vibhavasu’s words have the opposite effect on Karna. Instead of alerting him to his self-interest and making him think of tactics to avert Indra’s request, Karna’s head is filled with ideas of fame and glory. “I desire for fame in this world. The famous one attains heaven,” Karna says, convinced that his grant of his boons to Indra will become the ultimate testament to his donating spirit.
Vibhavasu then advises Karna to make the donation a conditional one, to ask Indra ‘for an invincible spear that will destroy all [his] enemies.’ When Indra eventually comes, Karna indeed asks for an ‘invincible shakti that kills large numbers of enemies on the field of battle’. Indra grants the shakti to Karna on a single-use basis, which is to say that Karna is allowed to use it to decimate any one army completely, after which the shakti is to return to Indra’s hand. Karna specifies that if it comes to single use, he would like it to be used on a single person (Arjuna) only. Hearing that, Indra informs
Karna that Arjuna’s welfare is guarded by none other than Lord Vishnu, though this information does not really daunt Karna from his designs. Eventually, they agree that Karna can use the shakti whenever he is faced with supreme danger.
After the agreement on the shakti is arrived at, Karna begins to cut the armour and earrings off his body, a process which—he is convinced by Indra—shall leave no lasting scar. Nevertheless, as he cuts himself, celestial drums begin to beat and cosmic creatures roar. This lament is the epic’s way of telling us that a great deception, one which will inevitably lead to tragedy, has taken place.
The writer is reading the unabridged Mahabharata