Adhiratha was the foster father of Karna in Mahabharata.
He was a Suta by varna.
A child born to a Kshatriya father and a Brahmana mother is a Suta.
Their position in the varna system is above the Vaishyas but below the Kshatriyas.
The professions assigned to them were narration of Puranas and that of charioteers.
Adhiratha was a descendant of Puru Vamsha.
His ancestor Brihanmana married two of Shishupala’s daughters.
Among them, Yashodevi was born from a Kshatriya woman.
The other Satya was born from a Brahmin woman making her Suta by varna.
Thus the Puru Vamsha split into two from here: one of pure Kshatriya blood and the other of Sutas.
तस्य पत्नीद्वयं चासीच्चैद्यस्यैते सुते शुभे।
यशोदवी च सत्या च ताभ्यां वंशस्तु भिद्यते। Harivamsha Parva.32.57
The son of Brihanmana and Satya was Vijaya who was superior to both Brahmanas and Kshatriyas; this statement from Harivamsha makes it obvious that he was a Suta.
Vijaya’s son was Dhriti.
Dhriti’s son was Dhritavrata.
Dhritavrata’s son was Satyakarma.
Satyakarma’s son was Adhiratha.
सत्यकर्मसुतश्चापि सूतस्त्वधिरथस्तु वै।
यः कर्णं प्रति जग्राह ततः कर्णस्तु सूतजः॥ - Harvamsha Parva,.32.58.
Adhiratha was not a poor charioteer as is commonly believed.
Karna’s mother Kunti conceived him as a blessing of Surya Deva.
She was unmarried.
Fearing ill repute, she put the child in a box and left it in River Ashwa.
From Ashwa, the box floated into River Charmanvati (Chambal River), from there into Yamuna, and from there into Ganga.
As the box was floating through Ganga, Adhiratha and his wife Radha came to Ganga.
They were childless.
They found the box floating in Ganga.
Radha asked her servants to pick up the box from the river.
Adhiratha and Radha opened the box and found the child inside.
Adhiratha told Radha: by divine grace we have got a divine child.
He was named Vasushena and also called Vrisha.
Since he was born with ear ornaments and armor, he was called Karna.
Karna grew up in Angadesha,
Dhritarashtra being his friend, Adhiratha sent him to Hastinapur.
There he learned warcraft from Dronacharya and Kripacharya.
He also learned advanced archery from Parashurama.
When Pandavas and Kauravas completed their learning, a demonstration of their skills was held.
Drona introduced Arjuna to the crowd.
Arjuna created fire with Agneyastra, water with Varunastra, storm with Vayavastra, clouds with Parjanyastra, earth with Bhaumastra, and mountain with Parvatastra.
He could change his size as he wanted.
He made himself invisible with Antardhanastra,
As this was happening, Karna entered the scene.
Karna already had become very famous for his valor, skill, and bravery.
He told Arjuna: don’t be arrogant, I can things much better than you.
Karna did everything that Arjuna had done.
Duryodhana was Karna’s friend.
He embraced Karna and congratulated him.
Then Karna wanted to have a duel with Arjuna.
Arjuna said: those who come uninvited and those who give unsolicited advice reach horrible worlds; I will send you there.
Karna said: This ground is a public place; only those with strength and valor can be called kings.
If you have courage, let your arrows talk.
Only the weaklings insult with words.
Arjuna took permission from Dronacharya and got ready for the fight.
Kunti who knew the secret behind Karna’s birth fainted.
The spectators divided themselves into two groups: one supporting Karna, and the other supporting Arjuna.
Kripacharya said: This is Arjuna, the youngest of Kunti’s sons, a gem that adorns the famous Kuruvamsha.
Now you also disclose the names of your parents and which vamsha you belong to.
Only after knowing this, the duel can begin because princes of the royal bloodline do not fight directly with those who are inferior to them.
Karna’s head bent in shame.
Duryodhana said: Someone can be a king due to any of these three reasons: he belongs to a royal lineage, he is valorous, or he commands an army.
Karna is already valorous.
I am appointing him as the king of Angadesha right here and now.
The rajyabhisheka of Karna took place with the permission of Dhritarashtra and Bhishmacharya then and there following the proper procedure.
At that time, Adhiratha walked in.
Bhima insulted Karna pointing to his foster father that a whip would suit him more than the bow and arrows.
He belonged to the vamsha of charioteers and did not even deserve to die at the hands of Arjuna.
He did not even deserve to be a king.
Duryodhana intervened: Nobody can say for sure the origin of great rivers and great warriors.
A Kshatriya should look at only the capability of his opponent.
Vajrayudha was born from the bones of Dadhichi Maharshi.
Agni was born from water.
Karthikeya is considered to be the son of Agni, Krittikas, Rudra, and Ganga.
Vishwamitra was born a Kshatriya and then became a Brahmana.
Droncharya was born from a small bowl.
Kripacharya was born from a bunch of arrows.
A deer can never give birth to a lion.
Those who do not agree, get ready for a fight with me.
By that time the Sun started setting and everyone went back to their own places.
Upon hearing about Karna’s coronation as the king of Angadesha, Adhiratha came to the ground where the demonstration was taking place.
Tears of joy rolled down his cheeks.
Karna got up from the simhasana, prostrated before Adhiratha, and kept his head adorning the crown at Adhiratha’s feet.
Adhiratha lifted him up and embraced him.
In the Udyoga Parva, Karna tells Lord Krishna:
I know that Kunti only gave birth to me but she abandoned me.
It was the Suta called Adhiratha who gave me a home and a mother.
My mother’s (Radha) breasts secreted milk in affection as soon as she saw me.
She only cleaned up my excreta.
I know dharma; I can not disown them or leave them.
That Suta has always looked upon me as his own son and for me, he is my father,
He only did all my samskaras and gave me the name Vasushena.
Even if you offer me the entire world, I will not break my relations with them.
Even after becoming a king, I have been always with Sutas; I have done many yajnas with them, and I have performed many rituals befitting the Sutas.
It may be noted here that Sutas had the right to perform yajnas similar to Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas.
Bhima’s contention was that Karna did not belong to a pure Kshatriya lineage and because of that, he was not eligible to fight with Arjuna.
Even that was rectified when he was coronated as the king of Angadesha.
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