Story of Ekalavya
Stories from Mahabharata
Near the Ashrama of Drona, where Arjuna and his brothers used to take lessons in various arts, there lived a small bright boy, a Nishada by caste (lower caste). His name was Eklavya. He had a great desire to learn the art of archery from the best teacher of the art of being an archer, Dronacharya. But his mother had told him that as a Nishada, Acharya Drona would not accept him ( Eklavya) as his disciple. She told him that it will be futile to dream of such a privilege.
But the boy was not be put off, his determination knew no bounds. Near his house, under a tree, Eklavya installed a clay idol of Dronacharya that he worshiped as his Guru! Daily, morning and evening, this devotee, Ekalavya, put flowers and natural perfumes in front of this image and took Self-Lessons in the art of the bow and the arrow. The talented young Eklavya soon acquired a very high knowledge in archery. He attributed this success to his Guru Dronacharya.
One day, as it happened, Acharya Drona and his student Arjuna were passing near the hut of Eklavya. It was a pleasant and peaceful afternoon and people were taking their normal rest. However, the tranquility and silence of the afternoon was broken by the constant barking of a dog. Eklavya did not like this, and therefore, he shut the mouth of the dog with a volley of arrows! Dronacharya and Arjuna were surprised to see the dog with his mouth sealed with arrows!
Naturally the curious Arjuna asked his Gurudev as to who could have done this delicate job. Even Dronacharya was amazed and knew the archer must be exceptionally skilled artist. They decided to trace this skillful fellow and reached the spot where Eklavya was practicing wonders with his bow and arrow in front of the clay image of Drona. It took no time for Dronacharya to understand the situation. He realized that Eklavya was superior to Arjuna in some respects. Dronacharya loved Arjuna very much and had declared him to be the best archer on the earth. Hence the Guru thought for a while and came to a decision to eliminate Eklavya as a competitor to Arjuna. Dronacharya had actually promised Arjuna to make him the best archer, and now felt that whatever it took, he had to keep this promise.
Dronacharya went to Eklavya and said, “O young man, who has taught you such wonderful skills in archery! Who is your Guru?”
Seeing the Guru in front of him, the boy Eklavya was more than overjoyed and said, “Why, O Gurudev, this all is your grace! I worship you as my Guru. Look you are there in that image!” Drona was angered by what he thought was Ekalavya’s unscrupulous behavior, claiming to be his student despite his rejection of him. He is also worried that if Ekalavya maintained this level of skill, he would one day become warrior par-excellence than himself. The more important and personal reason seems to have been his partiality towards Arjuna. In addition though, Dronacharya did not want to teach a Shudra. He felt that the art of archery was the domain of the Kshatriyas.
Dronacharya had forgotten the boy. He asked Eklavya what he done to the dog. Eklavya replied that it was disturbing him by barking, so he had stopped the dog from barking by filling its mouth with arrows. For this purpose he had shot several arrows at the same time. The dog was not harmed because it was not his intention to harm the dog. It was a stunning blow to Dronacharya’s mind. Here was a boy who was not even a Shudra and more skilled than the best of Kshatriyas. All his worlds, previous, this and next were shaken at the same time. He understood that this Nishad boy could be troublesome for Kshatriyas and thereby to dharma. Dharma says that only Kshatriyas should wield arms. Then he asked the boy who was his teacher. Eklavya bowed to him and told that his teacher was none other than great Dronacharya himself. Dronacharya was surprised and introduced himself. He then added that he had never taken any Nishad boy as his pupil and had never taught any Nishad boy the archery. Then Eklavya pointed to clay idol of Dronacharya under the tree and said it was the idol of his Guru Dronacharya. Thus he was his Guru .
Some say that Dronacharya was pleased with the dedication of Eklavya, and said, “I bless you my son. But as is customary, won’t you give me my fees – Guru-Dakshina!”
[It is customary in India to give to the Guru whatever he demands as his fees – Guru-Dakshina for the knowledge the Guru has given to the disciple.]
Eklavya was overwhelmed to see Dronacharya had accepted him as his disciple! Out of gratitude, he said, “O Honorable Teacher, whatever you ask, this humble disciple of yours will try his utmost to offer you as Guru-Dakshina! I am blessed.”
And now comes a very touching and pathetic incidence in Mahabharata.
Guru Drona said, “O Eklavya, I am pleased with your respect for your Guru. I want the thumb of your right hand as my fees – Guru-Dakshina.”
The trees and atmosphere around stood still for a minute! Even Arjuna was stunned on listening to the unusual and almost cruel demand of his Guru. To ask for the thumb of an archer was equivalent to almost kill him! How could Dronacharya demand such a heavy prize from one disciple to protect the honor of the other!
But Eklavya had no such remorse. Unruffled and with due humility, cheerfully and without protest, he cut his right thumb and placed at the feet of Dronacharya. Gods in the heaven silently praised the greatness of Eklavya’s sacrifice.
This incident in Mahabharata raises key issues regarding the Guru/Shisya relationship. Should Dronacharya have asked for the thumb of Ekalavya? Despite being the Guru of Arjuna and whom he had declared as his best student, did Dronacharya act fairly towards Ekalavya? Should the Guru’s commands always be followed? Is the Guru always right? Is a Guru beyond reproach?
If you think about it in more mundane terms than you will find in the Mahabharata, Ekalavya’s crime was simple. He dared to acquire knowledge for himself that had always been in the hands of a privileged few. Dronacharya made it quite clear when he told Ekalavya he would not teach him: only the twice-born higher castes were permitted to learn his skills. That was obvious, a given that needed no explanation. Ekalavya flouted it; he had to pay.
In the normal course of things, Ekalavya should have had the freedom to learn whatever he set his mind to. Perhaps you think that is a modern idea, perhaps it is unfair to apply it to events from a time when standards were entirely different. Fair enough. Still, for all his great learning and wisdom, Dronacharya’s treatment of Ekalavya shames him. But it matters little. Throughout the Mahabharata, he is a revered father figure, an example to us all. And if the man who would not allow Ekalavya to learn, who destroyed him for learning nevertheless — should he be an example today?
The hero of the story is Eklavya who does not abandon his quest for
knowledge despite being rejected by Drona. Eklavya teaches us by his refusal to accept that Dronacharya would not teach him, that there are no impediments to learning if ambition is matched with determination. One of the tragedies of human beings is their lack of one pointed attention and determination to succeed. Success is not only a matter of ambition. It is not only a matter of vision. It is a matter of action, of doing, of goal centered behavior. One is reminded of Krishna’s famous statement in Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6 verse 6. “Let a man lift himself by himself. Let him not degrade himself by himself.”
Ekalavya demonstrated that if you have a passion, a strong desire for achievement and if you are prepared to sacrifice through commitment, then the sky is the limit. Ekalavya’s achievement was such that Dronacharya was afraid that he would have outclassed Arjuna in terms of archery skills. One of the other aspects of Ekalavya’s achievement was his ability to learn through self effort and practice. It is true that he made an image of Dronacharya and worshipped him as his Guru. However he never came into contact with Dronacharya. Then, how did he achieve so much? Ekalavya in his moments of meditation before the image of Dronacharya would have been engaging in the fine art of envisioning, projecting at the level of the mind what he wanted to accomplish. The power to imagine, and envision is a most important asset. The act of imagining releases creative energies that dictate action steps towards the realization of the goal or desire.
The Disney Corporation which succeeds because of the ability of it as people to be highly creative have coined a term to describe the dual process of imagining and doing. The word is ”Imagineering.” You may ask, well, what is Imagineering. It is , says Disney, a state of mind. It is a freedom to dream, to create and mostly to do. The word Imagineering is a marriage of the words imagining and engineering. The human mind is capable of imagining anything. It is also capable of achieving it. Ekalavya imagined greatness and acted to achieve greatness. We may create a small formula which would read as follows: Greatness/Excellence = f( Vision x Ambition x Passion x Action)
To achieve, one must have a vision. The clearer the vision combined with the strength of the desire to achieve that vision, the greater the success would be. There is an old saying which says, ”I will believe it when I see it.” I believe however that unless you first see it you will not be able to achieve it. Belief is a fundamental step to achievement. Beliefs condition behavior, or one may say, beliefs inspire action. What you believe you experience. This is a truism. Having been rejected, Ekalavya could have gone on to say to himself that he was incapable of any achievement as an archer. He could have gone on to believe Dronacharya. His motivation could have been eclipsed. But he refused to be conditioned by the rejection inflicted by Dronacharya. How many of us have been told things about ourselves as kids and even as adults and because these things were told to us by sources that are deemed to be authoritative, we have gone on to believe them to the point where we grow up acting out those beliefs to our detriment. For example, how many of us have been told , “you will never be able to do as good as your brother or sister,” and we grow up believing this and never do well. Ekalavya did not let Dronacharya limit his potential. We do this as parents with our children. Our role as parents is to foster the creativity of our children by helping them to realize their ambitions. Our role is not to discourage them. Sometimes we discourage them because we are unconsciously reflecting our own experiences a s a child. Little do we realize that we are transferring our fears and failures to them. We limit their capacity for success. Having said this we must also look at other aspects of the Ekalavya story.
It would appear that in Ekalavya’s case he was facing deep prejudice in the society of his time where caste considerations came to affect the perception which Dronacrarya had of him. Ekalavya was a Nishada like Guha and not a Kshatriya like Arjuna. For this reason he was also rejected. Ekalavya’s excellence as an archer demonstrates that the ability to excel is not a function of birth and circumstance, that an individual can rise above his circumstance and achieve and be the best. Too often we blame the environment for what a person becomes in life or, as we say turns out in life. There is a school of thought that suggests that a person is a function of his environment. In addition there is a school of thought that suggest that a person is a product of his genes. This is the famous nature-nurture argument. It appears that both genes and the environment help to shape the personality, beliefs and behaviors of a person.
The case of Gandhiji is interesting in this regard. In his autobiography, Gandhi gives an insight into his early life and upbringing. In his autobiography, Gandhi relates that he was born into a vaishnava family, devotees of Lord Vishnu. He admitted that being so born he had to go to the haveli. However it never appealed to him. He did not like the glitter and pomp. “I gained nothing from the haveli, “ he has written. But in his autobiography he continues: “what I failed to get there I obtained from my nurse an old servant of the family whose affection for me I still recall. I have said before that there was in me a fear of ghosts and spirits. Rambha, for that was her name suggested, as a remedy for this fear that the repetition of ramanama. I had more faith in her than in the remedy, and so at a tender age, I began to chant ramanama to cure my fear of ghosts and spirits. This of course was short lived, but the good seed sown in childhood was not sown in vain. I THINK it is due to this good seed sown by that woman Rambha that today Ramanama is an infallible remedy for me.” Gandhi also tells in his autobiography about how he came to love the Ramayan. It occurred during the time when his father was very ill. His father used to invite a famous singer of the Ramayan to chant the Ramayan of Tulsidas every evening to him. Gandhi who used to take care of his father writes about the singer Ladha Maharaj. “He hasd a melodious voice. He would sing the dohas and chaupais and explain them.ing himself in the discourse and carrying his listeners along with him. I must have been thirteen at that time, but I quite remember being enraptured by his reading. That laid the foundation of my deep devotion to the Ramayana. Today, I regard the Ramayana of Tulsidas as the greatest book in all devotional literature.” Environments do have a profound impact on the mind of a person. Equally, there are incidents in Gandhi’s life which show how friends and the desire to experiment led him astray if only for a while. However his strong values inculcated in his home brought him back to a life of truth.
Ekalavya was not circumscribed by his environment which told him that archery was not for him. This was for the Kshatriyas. Like Vibhisana who lived in an evil kingdom, refused to be evil, to the point of rejecting his brother Ravan, and being kicked out of Lanka and dispossessed came to Rama, Ekalavya had a vision and lived to make it a reality. When Vibhisana came to Rama, everyone treated him as an enemy. They even wanted to put him to death. They accused him of being a spy. He wanted to be a devotee of Rama. In his palace in Lanka surrounded by demons he had a temple where he chanted the name of Rama. Hanuman had discovered this temple and the chanting which led Hanuman to form a friendship with Vibhisana. Therefore compare the attitude of Sri Rama to Vibhisana as against the attitude of DRonacharya to Ekalavya and you would see the vision and standards set by Sri Rama as a teacher. When everyone except Hanuman wanted to destroy Vibhisana Rama declared:
KOTI BIPRA BADHA LĀGAHI JĀHŪ
ĀEM SARANA TAJA-UM NAHI TĀHŪ
SANMUKHA HOI JĪVA MOHI JABAHĪ
JANMA KOTI AGHA NĀSAHI TABAHĪ
“I will not abandon the murderer of ten million Brahmanas if he sought refuge in me. As soon as any creature appears before me, the sins of his ten million lives are washed away.”
As the Lord, his nature is to be merciful, to show compassion, to help the one who wanted to elevate his spirituality. What is the nature of the Guru? The word Guru means the one who removes ignorance, darkness, the one who replaces the ignorance with knowledge. A Guru is described by Kabir in this couplet:
GU ANDHIYAREE JAANIYE, RU KAHIYE PARKAAS
MITE AGYAAN TAM GYAAN TE, GURU NAAM HAI TAAS
The word Guru consists of two letters in which Gu represents darkness and ru as
symbolizing truth itself.
One whose sacred knowledge removes the darkness of ignorance of a disciple is a guru.
Kabir goes on in another verse to describe the qualities of a Guru. He writes:
GURU TO AISAA CHAAHIYE, SHISH SON KACHCHU NA LEYA
SHISH TO AISAA CHAAHIYE, GURU KO SUB KUCH DEYA
A Guru should be selfless, abstemious and contented. He should not expect anything
from his disciples, because where a Guru is greedy and desires something from his
disciples, the dignity of a Guru gets hampered. But a disciple should be such who
is ready to offer all his possessions to his Guru; and only then is it possible to receive
true knowledge from him.
Using Kabir’s statement on the qualities of a Guru, what should we then think of Dronacharya. He refused to teach Ekalavya. It would appear that he refused for selfish reasons, reasons that involved Arjuna . Dronacharya could even be described as being partial to Arjuna. Is this the way of a Guru? It appears that Dronacharya was also caste conscious, a factor that excluded Ekalavya from being his student. Finally he asked Ekalavya for the ultimate sacrifice, to give him his thumb. Without his thumb Ekalavya could not function as an archer. Who is therefore greater, the Guru Dronacharya or the student though rejected, Ekalavya? There is no doubt that Ekalavya displayed the greatest devotion to Dronacharya as is expected by a student, (a shisya) towards the Guru.
Dronacharya was a great Guru, a great teacher of archery, the best, but even the best are humanly weak in many ways. Dronacharya exhibited the human weakness of jealousy despite his greatness. Dronacharya had a special affection for Arjuna. He had proclaimed Arjuna the best student, the best archer. He could not now go back on his word, or should he not have had the humility to recognize and give praise to Ekalavya? I would want to think that one of the endearing quakities of a Guru would be the Guru’s penchant for practicing equanimity, to look at all with an equal vision, to avoid partiality towards any one student or group of students.
We can compare the attitude and approach of Dronacharya with that of Sri Rama in the famous Rama Gita section of the Ramayan.
EKA BARA RAGHUNĀTHA BOLĀE
GURA DVIJA PURABĀSĪ SAB ĀE
BAITHE SADASI ANUJA MUNI SAJJANA
BOLE BACANA BHAGATA BHAYA BHANJANA
SUNAHU SAKALA PURAJANA MAMA BĀNI
KAHAUM NA KACHU MAMATĀ URA ĀNI
NAHI ANITI NAHI KACHU PRABHUTĀĪ
SUNAHU KARAHU JAU TUMHAHI SOHĀĪ
SOI SEVAKA PRIYATMA MAMA SOĪ
MAMA ANUSASANA MANAI JOĪ
JAU ANITI KACHU BHĀSAUM BHĀĪ
TAU MOHI BARAJAHU BHAYA BISARĀĪ
One Day summoned by Raghunatha, the Guru and the Brahmanas and all the other citizens assembled in the royal court. When the brothers, the sages and the nobles had gathered and taken their seats in the assembly, the Lord Rama who puts an end to the fears of his votaries addressed them as follows:
“Give ear to my words , all you people of the city. What I am about to say to you is not due to any sentimental attachment at heart. I would not say anything improper nor seek to use my authority over you. Listen to me and ten act as may seem good to you.
He is my servant and my best beloved who does my bidding. If I say anything that seems improper, then be not afraid to correct me.”
There Sri Ram takes on the role of the teacher, the Guru, and expounds on the value of human life. What is interesting is the approach of Sri Rama. Tulsidas in Uttara Kanda tells us that Rama did not make a distinction between whom he invited and whom he did not invite. He invited all the citizens of Ayodhya nd when they were comfortably seated he began to address them In addition he gave all of them the open invitation to question him and to challenge anything he said with which they might have disagreed. He also made it clear that he was not doing so out of any sentimental attachment to them. The treatment which Sri Rama meted out to Guha and the Nishada boatman stands in sharp contrast to the treatment meted out to Ekalavya by Dronacharya. Guha was also considered an outcaste. So too was the boatman. Sri Ram allowed the boatman to wash his feet before ferrying him across the river. He invited Guha to come to Ayodhya on his return, an invitation Guha accepted. Dronacharya failed to meet the expectations of a Guru in his biased approach to Ekalavya. A guru should not be attached to a particular student!
The story of Ekalavya is also a story of gratitude. In the relationship between Guru and Shisya, there comes a time when the student by tradition is expected to show gratitude to the teacher by engaging in Guru Dakshina, giving an appropriate gift to the teacher. Dronacharya exacts the ultimate dakshina from Ekalavya. On the other hand Ekalavya does not think twice . He fulfils what the tradition asks of him. He gives his thumb. The question will remain as to whether Dronacharya awas right in making such a demand. If you ask me, I will say that he should not have done that. It was an extreme demand, a decision based on a lack of proper reasoning on the part of Dronacharya. It was a decision that lacked compassion for Ekalavya as much as it was full of “love” for Arjuna. It was selfish in its intent.
Mundaka Upanishad gives two qualities of a Guru
- Śrotriya — must be learned in the Vedic scriptures and sampradaya
- Brahmanişţha — literally meaning established in Brahman; must have realised the oneness of Brahman in everything and in himself.
If a Guru is supposed to be Brahmanistha, then Dronacharya by his actions do not seem to fulfil this quality. One who is established in Brahman should see everyone as an embodiment of God. This should evoke qualities of fairness in treatment , of respect, of equal regard. All the great characters of the Mahabharata exhibit human weaknesses. Our encounter with them and with stories like that of Ekalavya should inspire us to lift our own vision of ourselves as human beings, and as well be motivated to transcend the human weaknesses of Dronacharya by first becoming aware of the existence of such human frailties.
Kabir has written a really interesting verse:
KAHATA HOON KAHI JAAT HOON. DETAA HOON HELAA
GURU KEE KARANEE GURU JAANE, CHELAA KEE CHELAA
Kabir gives a strict warning when he says: “I say time and time again and my final resolve is that a Guru will bear the consequences of his deeds and a disciple will bear the consequences of his deeds. None will bear the consequences of the deeds of the other”