Mahabharat Episode 18: When Arjuna Met Ekalavya
In this Mahabharat series, we receive a glimpse into Arjuna’s uncompromising desire to be the greatest archer, spawning an insecurity which led him to a cruel and cold decision.
On a certain day, a boy named Ekalavya came to Drona. He was not an Arya but a Nishada, which is one of the indigenous tribes of India. This is how the scriptures describe him – when he walked, he was like a panther. He was dark-skinned, dreadlocked, a graceful human being with enormous strength. He expressed his wish to learn archery. Drona said, “You are not a Kshatriya, so I cannot teach you.”
The boy fell at Drona’s feet and said, “I understand the social norm. Just bless me. With your blessing, I will learn.” Drona looked at this humility and sincerity, put his hand on his head and said, “I bless you.” Ekalavya went into the forest. With the clay from a river, he started sculpting the form of Drona, as if obsessed. If you want to be a great singer, you not only need a great voice – you need great ears. It is your sense of hearing that makes you a musician. Similarly if you want to be an archer, it is not only about your hands, it is about the keenness of your eyes – how keenly you can observe something, and how keenly you can maintain your attention.
The Eye of the Bird
Arjuna had displayed these qualities. One day, when they were training, Drona wanted to check the Pandavas’ and Kauravas’ archery skills, so he put a small wooden bird on the top of a tree and told them to aim at the eye of the bird. One by one, the Kauravas and then the Pandavas aimed. Drona asked them, “What do you see?” They said different things – “A leaf, the tree, a mango, the bird, the sky.” Drona dismissed them all. Finally, it was Arjuna’s turn. When Drona asked him, “What do you see?” Arjuna replied, “I see a bird’s eye.” Drona said, “You are the only one who is ready for advanced training,” and he taught him the fine art of archery, which included shooting blind, shooting in the darkness – hitting the target without even seeing it. He made Arjuna eat his food in a pitch dark cell every day. He told him, “If you can put food into your mouth without seeing it, why can’t you put the arrow into the heart of your enemy without seeing him?”
Ekalavya’s Unwavering Focus
Arjuna trained in all these advanced techniques and believed he was the best archer in the world. But then Ekalavya came, received Drona’s blessings, and went back into the forest. When Ekalavya came to Drona, he paid attention to even the minutest detail about Drona. This is the quality of an archer – his vision does not miss anything. Someone who misses details when looking at something will definitely miss them when he shoots too. Because he took in Drona’s image, he went and created a clay image of him and bowed down to this image and started practicing with Drona’s blessings.
One day the Pandavas and Kauravas went into the forest hunting. Their hunting dog went ahead of them. At some point, the dog started barking. They thought it had found prey and started pursuing it. Then the dog became silent. They thought a tiger or a bear must have killed it. They went in search of the dog, but then the dog came back to them with six arrows around his mouth, clamping his mouth in such a way that it could not bark.
When they saw this, the first question that Bhima asked was if Drona was somewhere in the forest, because no one else could do this, not even Arjuna. Someone would have needed to shoot six arrows in a split second for them to become a clamp around the dog’s mouth. They went in search of him and found a strapping youth who was like a panther – dark-skinned, dreadlocked, with his arrow pointed straight at Arjuna’s temple because as soon as Ekalavya had seen the five brothers, he realized Arjuna was an archer and that he should be eliminated first. Arjuna saw Ekalavya and gasped because he knew these eyes. He knew someone with such an unwavering focus will not miss. He knew the boy must have been the archer who had silenced the dog with this clamp of arrows. Arjuna was distraught that there was a better archer than he.
Drona Demands Guru Dakshina
Arjuna asked him, “Who are you? Where did you learn this? You are not even a Kshatriya!” The boy said, “I’m Ekalavya. Drona is my teacher.” Arjuna ran straight to Drona and cried, “You promised me that I will be the greatest archer, but you have made someone else better than me. This is not fair.” Drona asked, “What are you talking about?” He said, “There is this boy in the jungle who is better than me, and he says you are his teacher. He has got your statue and is practicing archery.”
Drona being who he is, said, “Yes, I have promised you to make you the best. You are important for this kingdom, and I will not get my fee if you are not the best. Let me fix this for you.” He went into the forest and met Ekalavya. Ekalavya saw the one he considered as his guru, though he had not taught him anything, and fell at Drona’s feet. In great ecstasy, he welcomed him and brought him flowers and fruits. But Drona had something else on his mind. He said, “It is wonderful that you have become a great archer, but where is my guru dakshina?” In those days, the custom was that unless the guru gets his donation, he would not let his disciple go and use what he had learnt.
Ekalavya said, “Master, whatever you want is yours.” Then Drona said, ‘I want your right thumb.” In traditional Indian archery, the bow was drawn with the right thumb. Without the right thumb, you could not be an archer. Archers were valued so highly in those days because they could kill from a distance, unlike swordsmen or lancers. They could kill without risking their own lives to the extent that close combat warriors had to. This made them most valuable and efficient.
When Ekalavya dutifully pulled out his sword to cut off his own right thumb, Drona told him to stop for a moment, and he looked whether Arjuna would relent. But Arjuna looked on coldly, as if it was a ritual that had to be done. Though Arjuna had many wonderful qualities, he was ruled by insecurity. He wanted to be the best archer on the planet, and with Ekalavya’s thumb cut, once again, Arjuna was the best.
To be continued...
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published in Isha Forest Flower July 2016. Download as PDF on a “name your price, no minimum” basis or subscribe to the print version.