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. His family moved to Dharwar in Karnataka when he was 14 years old, where he grew up with his two sisters and niece. He earned his Bachelors of Arts 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.
Girish Karnad went to England to join the Oxford University with a scholarship he secured on merit. He left for England from Bombay’s Ballard Pier by ship on 7th September 1960. His performance in Oxford was good and he even thought of settling down in UK. However, the appreciation and accolades for his first play Yayati, written while in India, received from the critics made him change his mind. After returning to India, he starts working in Madras for Oxford University Press. He met his future wife Saraswathi Ganapathy at a party within a few months of his joining duty. And quickly they decided to marry. But they could not formalise the marriage for next 10 years till when Girish Karnad was 42 years old. Saraswathi was born to a Parsi mother, Nargis Mugaseth and Kodava father, Kodandera Ganapathy. Both had met while studying medicine. In 1942, Ganapathy joined army during the II World War an d died in service. His wife Nargis was in the family way at that time and Saraswathi was born a posthumous child. Nargis came back to Madras and joined government medical service.
He worked for Oxford university Press, Chennai for seven years. Girish resigned his job and took up writing full time. During 1987–88, he was at the University of Chicago as Visiting Professor and Fulbright Playwright-in-Residence. He served as as director of the Film and Television Institute of India (1974–1975) and chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the National Academy of the Performing Arts (1988–93) and director of the Nehru Centre and as Minister of Culture, in the Indian High Commission, London (2000–2003). He has received Sangeeta Nataka Akademi award (1972), Padma Shri (1974), Padma Bhushan (1992), Kannada Sahitya Academy Award (1992), Sahitya Academy award (1994), Jnanapith Award (1998), Kalidas Samman (1998), Rajyotsava Award. He has also received awards for Best direction (1972), Second best feature film (1974), Best Screenplay (1978), Best feature film in Kannada (1978), Best non-feature film (1989), Best non-feature film on social issues (1990), Best film on envirnoment conservation (1993), Best feature film in Kannada (2000). He has also received several film fare awards, honorary doctorate from University of Southern California, Los Angeles (2011), and D.Litt from Karnataka University (1994). He has published an autobiography in 2011.
Girish Karnad has wirtten 14 plays with English translations, apparently rendered by himself or at least vetted by him. He has many translations, articles, research papers to his credit. He has conducted workshops, acted in 64 films and directed 13 films and TV serials. He has presided over various committees, and travelled on lecture tours.
He has two children – daughter Shalmalee Radha and son Raghu Ameya. He is a proponent of secularism followed by Indian National Congress and has opposed RSS, BJP and other Hindu organizations on several occasions. He publicly condemned the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and later spoke against the attempts to create controversy about the Idgah Maidan in Hubli. He has opposed Narendra Modi for Prime Minister post in the 2014 parliament elections. He has supported enthusiastically Indian Muslims, sympathised left extremist attitudes, and demanded freedom for Christians to convert others. He has supported late night life in Bangalore city. Glorified Tipu Sultan contradictory to the available facts. Based on his admissions in his biography, Girish Karnad may be safely termed as sexually liberated. He has supported live-in relationships. He has blamed Sir Naipal as anti-Muslim, Novvels of Dr. S. L. Bhyrappa as crappy.