Nara and Narayan: Past life of Karna as Dambhodbhava/Sahasra Kavacha
In Treta yuga there lived two sages called Nara and Narayan. They incarnated on earth for the welfare of mankind. Nara and Narayan were avatar (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu himself. These two sages were twin sons of Dharma and Murti (daughter of Daksha), where Nara means mortal or human, whereas Narayan means deity or Lord Vishnu. These Two sages were inseparable. According to Mahabarata Nara and Narayan was the previous birth of Arjuna and Lord Krishna. Nara and Narayan performed great penance in Badrinath. There is a temple dedicated to them in Badrinath. The story of Nara and Narayan comes under Bhagavata Purana and Mahabharata.
Narayana and Nara grew up in the ashram and were well versed in the art of warfare. They started ascetic penance from a very young age. Once Lord Shiva came to test their power of meditation and hurled Paashupathastra on meditating sages. Their meditation was so intense that Paashupathastra lost its power. This incident brought huge fame to these young sages (Nara and Narayan).
Lord Vishnu took birth as Nara Narayan to kill a demon called Dambhodbhava. Dambhodbhava was powerful Asura king. He was called Mahayodha (no one can match him in warfare) and did severe penance for the sun god. Pleased with his prayers, the Sun God appeared before Dambhodbhava and grants him a boon. Dambhodbhava immediately asked for immortality to which Lord Surya declined his wish saying it is against the rule of nature and creation. What is born must die and that is the ultimate truth and within the rules of nature. Lord Surya told him to ask for something else. To which Dambhodbhava thought for a while, he then replied to grant him a boon the protection of Sahasra Kavacha (thousand armours). He further added that each armour could be removed only by a person who would have done a thousand years of penance before fighting with him and he can only be defeated by a human combatant and even if the armour is damaged then combatant would die. That means removing the second armour he must again do penance for a thousand years before fighting with him.
Having received an extraordinary boon, Dambhodbhava was now called Sahasra Kavacha. Now no one dared to fight with him hence he easily captured the entire world. He started challenging everybody to fight with him. Seeing this Bramha suggested that Dambhodbhava should challenge the twin sages Nara and Narayan who were in deep penance near Badrinath. When Dambhodbhava reached Badrinath, Narayan had just finished his Thousand years of penance and started fighting with Dambhodbhava while Nara sat down for penance. After 1000 years Narayan was successful in removing one armour of Dambhodbhava and immediately Narayan died, but Nara managed to revive Narayan back to life using ‘Mritunjay Mantra’ (mantra which brings the dead back to life). Now Narayan sat for penance and Nara started fighting Dambhodbhava. This went on. The minute Dambhodbhava’s armour was broken, the person fighting with him fell dead only to be brought back to life by the other. In this way, Sahasra Kavacha lost 999 armour from his chest. Now the last armour was left and Nara came to fight. By this time Sahasra Kavacha realized that it was impossible to fight with the twins, so he ran for his life. Nara started chasing him finally Sahasra Kavacha was able to find asylum behind Lord Surya. However, it was not that difficult for Nara to find the hiding place of Sahasra Kavacha. Nara reached Surya Loka and demanded Lord Surya to hand over Sahasra Kavacha to him. To which Surya disagreed, saying “Sahasra Kavacha is my devotee, and me he has come to me for help, and it is my Dharma to help those seek asylum from me”. This angered Nara, Nara took some water from his kamandalam and threw on Surya cursing him to be born as a human.
By this time Treta yuga had come to end, there was Pralaya (complete destruction) on Earth due to the change of the Yuga. By this time Sahasra Kavacha could escape from losing his last armour, but all of them had to reincarnate in the Dwapara Yuga. Sahasra Kavacha was born as Karna, due to curse Lord Surya was the father of Karna, and even Nara Narayan was Arjun and Lord Krishna respectively. Karna was born with Kavacha. Since it was Nara’s turn to kill Dambhodbhava, Arjun killed Karna while Krishna was sitting as a charioteer. Arjun would have died killing Karna, but Lord Indra took away Kavacha before the war began. Karna was a real hero in Dwapara yuga and was known for his bravery, honesty and charity. He was one of the most powerful and also the most tragic warriors in the Mahabharatha as the difficulties which Karna had to face was due to his previous life as Dambhodbhava.
The important lesson this teaches us that all our past lives and karma we accumulate have to be accounted for in this life or the next.