Girish Karnad was born in Matheran, Maharashtra in a Saraswat Brahmin (SB) Konkani family to Rao Saheb Dr Karnad and Krishna Bai Mankeekara. Krishna Bai was a widow and was serving as a homemaker for Rao Saheb and his bedridden wife for about five years. Rao Saheb and Krishna Bai married according to Arya Samaj tradition. His initial schooling was in Marathi. In Sirsi, Karnataka, he was exposed to travelling theatre groups, Natak Mandalis as his parents were deeply interested in their plays. As a youngster, Karnad was an ardent admirer of Yakshagana and the theater in his village. His family moved to Dharwad in Karnataka when he was 14 years old, where he grew up with his two sisters and niece. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and statistics from Karnatak Arts College, Dharwad (Karnataka University), in 1958. Upon graduation Karnad went to England and studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Lincoln and Magdalen colleges in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar (1960–63), earning his Master of Arts degree in philosophy, political science and economics. He is married to Dr. Saraswathy Ganapathy and they have two children. He lives in Bangalore. Girish Karnad, while working in Madras for Oxford University Press on his return from England,met his future wife Saraswathi Ganapathy at a party. They decided to marry but the marriage was formalised after 10 years, when Karnad was 42 years old. Saraswathi was born to a Parsi mother, Nargis Mugaseth and a Kodava father, Kodandera Ganapathy.
Karnad is most famous as a playwright. His plays, written in Kannada, have been widely translated into English and all major Indian languages. Karnad's plays are written neither in English, in which he dreamed of earning international literary fame, nor in his mother tongue Konkani. Instead they are composed in his adopted language Kannada. When Karnad started writing plays, Kannada literature was highly influenced by the renaissance in Western literature. Writers would choose a subject which looked entirely alien to manifestation of native soil. His directorial debut came with the movie VamshaVruksh, based on a Kannada novel by S.L. Bhairappa. Before this, Karnad acted in a movie called Samskara, based on a novel by U.R. Ananthamurthy and directed by Pattabhirama Reddy. That movie won the first President's Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema. Later, Karnad directed several movies in Kannada and Hindi. Some of his famous Kannada movies include Tabbaliyu neenade magane, Ondanondu Kaaladalli, Cheluvi and Kadu.