A student’s distinction lies in his devout pursuit of knowledge, and not merely in his heritage. This manifests in a splendid manner in Ekalavya’s life. He worshipped an idol of his ‘Guru’, learned his lessons in archery in the Master’s absence, and mastered the art. When his master desired the thumb of Ekalavya’s right hand as a fee, which might cripple him, Ekalavya smilingly sacrificed it. A boy who had grown up in the forest thus developed into a great personality – a fine example for others to emulate.
‘Gurur-Brahma Gurur-Vishnuh Gurur-Devo Maheswarah
Guruh-Sakshat Parabrahma Tasmai Sri Gurave Namah’
In our land, the teacher who imparts training is held in very high esteem. The teacher is respected as a father. As the above saying describes, the teacher is considered as the ‘Trimurtis’- Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva – all rolled into one.
In olden times, children who sought to learn had to live with their teacher faithfully attend to the chores assigned to them and pursue their studies with concentration as he taught them. Such stay of the pupil with his teacher was known as ‘Gurukulavasa’ (‘staying and learning at the abode of the master’).
The teacher was not merely teaching his pupil some subjects in a parrotlike manner. He would shape the boy’s character and personality too by instilling in him an awareness of the world around him, and how to lead a life useful to the society and face various problems one comes across in life. Thus the tutor, who trains young boys to face life in the future with success, came to be accorded a revered place in our culture.
The Brave Jungle-boy
This is a story of a boy who demonstrated to the world what an aspirant could achieve in life if he has faith and respect in his master and pursues his efforts. Some boast that they belong to distinguished families that they are taught by ‘so-and-so’. The hero of our story should open the eyes of such arrogant men.
This ideal disciple is Ekalavya.
Ekalavya was a jungle-boy. Belonging to the hunters’ community, he was a bold child. It was a time when such communities were considered socially inferior. But Ekalavya, by his actions and behavior, showed that one’s inferior or superior status lies not in which community one belongs to but in one’s vision and qualities of the heart.
Ekalavya resided in a small, charming forest, with his mother. They were leading a modest, contented life. His father Hiranyadhanu who was the chieftain there strove to bring up Ekalavya as a brave boy embodying good and noble qualities. But he passed away while the son was still a young boy. An ardent follower of the king, he died in a battle. Ekalavya then became the chief of the forest.
Lover of Animals
Ekalavya had developed a strong affection towards the animals amidst which he was growing up. He wanted these simple, harmless animals to grow lovingly under his care and ensured they came to no harm. If anyone troubled them, he would feel like killing him!
A large number of wolves lived in that forest and they often hunted small tender calves of deer and other animals. The calves wailing when caught by the wolves would be heart-rending, Ekalavya would upon hearing such cries, writhe in’ agony. ‘Can’t I save these poor animals? Can’t I possess enough physical strength to wipe out this menace?’ he pined, The hunters are born archers. Ekalavya too grew up mastering the art. However, he aspired to increase his physical prowess so that he can rid his forest of the wolves’ menace and make it a haven for deer and other animals. He, therefore, pursued his training in archery with total concentration.
Who will be the Guru?
Ekalavya’s mother, noticing her son’s restlessness, asked him one evening: ‘Son, why are you worried so much nowadays?’
‘Nothing to worry, mother’
‘No. no. There is something which is worrying you very much, Can’t you say what it is even to me?’
‘There is nothing, which I have to hide from you, mother I only I do not wish to unnecessarily add to your worries. Look, our dear calves, deer, etc., are becoming game to the big cruel wild animals. We can kill a wolf if we can sight it.
But often it will have made its kill and run away before we could see it, mother. Shoot wolf! But how to master archery to that extent? Which Master shall I turn to? This has been my worry.’
The mother felt glad when she heard these words. She was pleased to learn of her son’s concern for the harmless animals in the forest. She also felt sympathetic that her son, who was without a kill the unseen father, should take upon himself such an obligation at such a young age.
She said: ‘Ekalavya, heard of Dronacharya?’
‘No, who is he?
‘If you want to shoot at the wolves unseen, you should become his disciple to achieve the prowess you desire.’
‘Where is he, mother? Tell me. I will become his disciple’, Ekalavya exclaimed with pleasure and anticipation.
‘He is in Hastinavati teaching archery to the princes of Bharata clan. He is the ‘guru’ to the Kauravas who are the sons of emperor Dhritarashtra and their relatives. You have heard of Bhishmacharya, son of Gangadevi. It is said none can match him in battle. He was the person who suggested that Dronacharya should teach archery to the Kaurava princes. Drona’s fame has spread far and wide and many princes from various other states also go to him for training.’
‘How did Bhishmacharya discover Dronacharya?’
‘He came to Hastinavati. He had learned archery from his father sage Bharadwaja, besides being a disciple of Parashurama. It is said that persons matching Dronacharya in the art of wielding the bow and arrow are rare in the world.
It appears he was very poor, and in the course of travels, he came to Hastinavati. Bhishma heard about him. There is an interesting story about this also.’ And she narrated that story.
The Kaurava and Pandava princes were then young boys. One day, while they were playing, their ball fell into a well. However much they tried they could not recover it and were looking for help. Nearby an impressive looking, dark-complexioned brahmin was standing. The boys went to him for help.
Upon listening to their request, he took out a sheaf of dry grass cuttings (used in worship), consecrated it with holy prayers and threw one piece at the ball, following it he sent down several grass of leaves all of which were now attached to the ball forming a straight line leading to the top of the well. He pulled at it and drew the ball out! The boys were surprised at this ‘magic’ and queried:
‘O distinguished brahmin, what is your name?
Where did you come from?’
Dronacharya: ‘Go and narrate what you saw to Bhishmacharya, your grandfather, and you will know everything.’
The boys ran to Bhishma and excitedly told him about the brahmin’s feat. At that time, Bhishma was thinking about equipping the princes in archery with thorough training, as they had to look after the kingdom when they grew up and protect it from enemies. He was on the lookout for a suitable tutor for the boys.
He had heard about Dronacharya, son of the sage Bharadwaja and disciple of Parashurama, as a master archer. The enthusiastic narrative of the princes convinced him that the brahmin they had seen must have been none other than Drona. He immediately went to Drona and offered honors requesting him to stay in the capital and be the princes’ master. Drona agreed and set up his residence in Hastinavati.
‘He Alone is my Guru’
Ekalavya became excited as he heard the story of Dronacharya from his mother. “0, mother! How lucky are the Kaurava and Pandava (read about Veda Vyasa here) princes! Can Acharya Drona teach archery to me too?”
‘Go and try, son. I wish you lucked. Do not forget ‘ that he is a distinguished’ elderly man.
Conduct yourself with dignity and respect. Never retort. Behave with humility, and accomplish your task’ blessed the mother and sent the boy.
Filled with enthusiasm and happiness at the prospect of meeting Dronacharya, he set out for Hastinavati.
Before The Guru’s Image Satisfied at having achieved something new and significant, Ekalavya returned to his forest.
There he prepared an idol of Dronacharya, installed it in a particular place, and began to worship it reverently by offering flowers, fruits, etc.
Ekalavya would get up early in the morning, bathe himself and offer ‘pooja’ to the master’s idol. Enshrined in his mind were the words, actions and training methods of Drona he had witnessed. He faithfully followed the instructions and continued his practice, and his prowess increased as days passed.
While Arjuna had personally mastered archery from Drona, learning from him first hand, Ekalavya achieved equally impressive skill while worshipping the Master in absentia. If he could not accomplish a particular technique, he would rush to Drona’s image and present his problem and would wait in meditation until a solution appeared in his mind. He would then proceed further.
Ekalavya’s training progressed in this manner.
Who is This Expert Archer?
The Kaurava and Pandava princes once went to the forest on a hunting expedition. Their leading dog was running forward. Ekalavya, dressed in a tiger-skin and wearing strings of conch-beads, was engaged in his practice. The dog, on approaching him, began to bark. Probably wishing to show off his workmanship, he sent down a series of arrows in the direction of the barking dog and the arrows filled its mouth. It ran back to the princes. They were astonished at this expertise in archery and wondered who the archer was.
Arjuna, seeing this, was not only surprised but felt anxious too. He wanted to be recognized as the world’s foremost archer. His fame was spreading across many states.
Now witnessing an instance of this extraordinary prowess, he was concerned that there may be another strong contender for that superior position.
The princes went in pursuit of the archer who had hit their dog and saw Ekalavya.
Ekalavya was standing there, a dark-complexioned young man looking like a chiseled creation, there was the bow in his left hand and an arrow in the right.
The princes wondered: Was this youngster the one who shot those arrows? How did he acquire his training? Who taught him to use the arrows with such precision in this forest?
Arjuna felt restless. Here was a person matching him. He felt defeated.
The princes asked Ekalavya: Are you the person who sent down those arrows into the dog’s mouth?’
‘Who are you? What’s your name?’
‘I am the son of Hiranyadhanu, the king of Nishada. I am the chieftain of this forest. Ekalavya is my name.
‘Your prowess in archery is tremendous. Who is your master?’
My master is Dronacharya’ replied Ekalavya humbly, Arjuna was taken aback at the mention of Drona’s name. Is this true? Could his dear teacher teach so much to an aboriginal boy? If so, what about the Master’s promise to him?
The Guru’s Promise
Drona had developed a special affection towards Arjuna. He was pleased with the extraordinary interest of Arjuna evinced in his training.
There was a king named Drupada who also had learned archery with Drona. He had learned archery with Drona. He had promised Drona that he would help him when he assumed the throne.
But later when the poor Dronacharya went to see him, the king dismissed him saying ‘Do you think a king can keep friendship with a wretched person like you?’
Dronacharya was enraged and retorted:
‘remember this! Some day one of my disciples will bring you to me bound like a slave!’ Since then, this one thought was constantly nagging in the Acharya’s mind.
Drona called in his disciples and told them
“Sons, I am fulfilling the onerous responsibility of training you. I am sure all of you will meet with expected success. I have a desire to be fulfilled.
You should accomplish it after your training is completed. Will you promise?’
The princes stood in silence before their tutor, listening to his words. After a while, Arjuna felt that it was not proper for them not to respond to their Master. Should they remain silent at Drona’s plea? Were they cowards? Rushing forward, Arjuna said: “O Master, should you ask us this? Your word is the law to us. Whatever may be your wish, I shall fulfill it.”
Dronacharya felt happy to discover a pupil of his heart’s desire. His affection flowed forth towards Arjuna, ‘I will train you to be unmatched in the world’, and he promised him.
Another incident, once when Drona and the princes were having their dinner, the light was suddenly extinguished by a drought of wind.
The darkness encouraged Arjuna to ponder, thus:
‘now, in this darkness, our eyes cannot spot our hands or mouth. And yet the hand with food is correctly moving towards the mouth. This is the result of our practice. So, if we have thorough practice, even in darkness we can hit our target.’
No sooner was the meal over, than he rushed out, and started target practice in the dark.
Drona was pleased with his dedication.
‘Do Not Insult My Guru’
Arjuna grew up with the strong conviction that none in the world could match him in archery, and he was Drona’s closest disciple.
The sight of a jungle-boy that could challenge him to set him worrying. And the boy said he was a disciple of Drona. Can a respectable person like Dronacharya fail to keep his word?
“Is it true that Dronacharya is your master?,” asked Arjuna of Ekalavya.
‘Don’t be so arrogant as to question my word.
My father did not live long to teach me archery completely. But he taught me to be truthful and not to tolerate untruth. Are you doubting me?
Who are you to doubt even my Master?’
At this retort from Ekalavya Arjuna replied in an equally spirited tone: ‘I am the son of King Pandu. My name is Arjuna, and my Master is Dronacharya. He hails from a distinguished clan and would never teach a jungle-boy like you. All his disciples come from superior races.”
Ekalavya felt like laughing at Arjuna’s words but without making fun, he said: ‘Arjuna, my Master does not bother about these class distinctions. It matters to him little whether a disciple is an ‘Arya’ or a hunter. Why should it matter in one’s learning of archery? As our Master says, the disciple should possess determination and concentration in practice to achieve excellence.
The teacher should be genuinely interested in his pupil. My Master Dronacharya has heartily blessed me, and I am confident that I will become a master archer with his blessing.’
Arjuna could not accept Ekalavya’s words. ‘No’, he protested, ‘What you are saying is false. I won’t believe it. Did Master Dronacharya deceive me?
Arjuna’s words angered Ekalavya. He suddenly whipped out his bow and shouted at Arjuna: ‘You keep your mouth shut Say one word insulting my Guru, and I shall cut off your tongue!’
Sensing that the war of words was getting out of hand, Dharmaraya, the eldest of Pandavas, pacified Arjuna saying, 0 dear Arjuna, why this unnecessary acrimony? Let us go and ask Dronacharya himself.’
The Next Course
No sooner did they return to Hastinavati than Arjuna rushed to Dronacharya. His face was red and his eyes showed his anxiety. He explained to the Master what transpired in the forest and lamented: “A hunter-boy has gained superiority over me. 0 Master, he boasts that you are his ‘Guru’. How can this be possible? What about your promise to me?”
Dronacharya was perplexed: He remained silent for a while. He could guess what happened. He was caught between two foremost disciples, both dear to him.
Dronacharya was pleased with the enterprise of this disciple who stayed in the forest and had mastered the art of archery relying only upon the name of the Guru. ‘O, what an adventurous boy! What determination! Anybody should appreciate his capabilities when he could wield the bow and arrow so well as to humble Arjuna’, Drona thought and felt happy within himself.
He was very pleased with Ekalavya’s devotion to the Master and thirst for acquiring a thorough training. He decided to show Arjuna the real qualities of Ekalavya.
And Drona also came to a painful decision concerning his obligation as the teacher to the princes. ‘God, Thy will be done’, he prayed and set about his task.
Accompanied by Arjuna and Ashwatthama, he proceeded to Ekalavya’s forest.
Here Comes My Guru!
Ekalavya’s joy knew no bounds when he learned that Dronacharya was visiting him. He tidied up the whole forest to welcome the Master. Thinking that Drona should not miss his path amidst darkness or shadows thrown by tall trees, he positioned his fellow tribesmen all along the route to guide his teacher to the destination without hindrance.
He decorated the idol he was worshipping with colorful wildflowers. He prayed before it again. He kept the bow and arrows properly arranged. He was full of anticipation.
Horns blew heralding the arrival of Dronacharya. Ekalavya rushed out and saw him majestically walking down. Approaching him, Ekalavya fell at his feet, tears rolled down his cheeks in sheer excitement. His desire to welcome the Master was great; it was total surrender. Ekalavya also formally welcomed Arjuna and Ashwatthama, who had accompanied the Master.
The Guru’s Agony and Ecstasy
Ekalavya treated the distinguished guests to a feast of delicious fruits, milk, etc. He later demonstrated to them his prowess in archery.
Arrows flew in all directions in novel formations.
Ekalavya gratefully told Drona: ‘Sir, all this is the result of your kind blessing. As long as I remember you, none of the arrows I send forth can fail to hit the target, Acharya, I have also learned to aim at the source of any sound! I sat in prayer before your idol and during the worship, the whole knowledge came to me. How can I forget your generosity?’ His eyes were closed in reverence.
Dronacharya was thrilled at the words and actions of Ekalavya. His heart melted with a deep affection for this unique pupil. Seeing the devotion with which be worshipped his idol, his eyes swelled with tears of emotion. I am lucky to have such a pupil’, he told himself. When he remembered the object of his visit, Drona shuddered in agony. Should this poor boy suffer because of a promise I made to a prince? Should his life’s ambition collapse shatteringly? Drona felt grieved.
Arjuna and Ashwatthama sat transfixed upon witnessing Ekalavya’s skills. They forgot themselves and began applauding him.
Drona awakened from his emotional state and remembering his objective instructed Ashwatthama to go out and make arrangements for their return journey. He was concerned that his son might oppose him.
After Ashwatthama went out, Drona, in a low voice, summoned Ekalavya.
‘Your learning has been enormous, son. I am deeply satisfied. With utter devotion and practice, you have achieved something magnificent.
May your achievement become ideal for all to emulate.’ Drona blessed his disciple whole-heartedly.
Ekalavya was overwhelmed. Thank you, 0 Gurudeva! I only wish my mother had heard your noble words. But, Sir, you blessed me with this training. You asked me in Hastinavati to pursue my training in my forest and said I too was a disciple of yours. Otherwise, I do not know whether I could have accomplished this much. May your kind blessings protect me for all time, Acharya!
Drona said – ‘If you accept me as your Master, you are obliged to pay my fee (‘Guru-Dakshina’). Think it over.’
Ekalavya smilingly replied:
‘What is there to think over, Sir? I am your disciple and you are my ‘Guru’. This is as true as the existence of my mother, my forest here and my dear animal friends. Should I hesitate to pay my obeisance to you? Please say what you wish, Sir. I will fulfill it even if I have to sacrifice my life in the effort.’
Words failed Drona. He could hardly respond to the glorious devotion of the boy. He felt utterly helpless and was obliged to tell him:
‘Ekalavya, your achievement is unparalleled. Any master should feel proud of such a disciple. But, son, now it has fallen to my lot to promise I made.’
‘Oh, Master what are you saying? Do you have to break a promise? Impossible it will not happen.
And that too because I got trained in this art?
Bhagavan! Please tell me how I can help you solve this problem. Everything that is mine, my whole being is at your disposal.’
‘Please Accept My Fee’
‘Ekalavya, I have to demand a supreme sacrifice from you to fulfill my word. Pardon me, son!
Can you please give me the thumb of your right hand as my fee?’
Ekalavya stared at Dronacharya for a while.
He could sense the Master’s agony. He then stood up and walked. To the idol with determination, he placed his thumb upon a stone and cut it off with an arrow from his left hands in an instant.
Blood started gushing out.
Meanwhile, Arjuna was keenly listening to the dialogue between Drona and Ekalavya. He was worried whether he could match Ekalavya in the skills of archery but felt confident that Drona would keep his promise. When the Master asked Ekalavya’s thumb as his fee, Arjuna was shocked. By the time he collected his thoughts and turned to Ekalavya, the thumb had already rolled down to the floor.
Ekalavya then prostrated before Drona who was sitting with his eyes closed and said: ‘0 Master, please accept my fee.’ Opening his eyes, Drona saw the thumb soaked in blood; the disciple stood before him with a smile on his face. Drona, while feeling grieved at the injury he inflicted upon Ekalavya, was at the same time deeply touched by his ardent devotion. He embraced him saying: ‘Son, your devotion to the ‘Guru’ is unmatched. I feel a sense of fulfillment in having had a disciple like you. May God bless you.’
Arjuna was standing there dumbfounded.
Later, the threesome returned to Hastinavati.
Ekalavya scored the victory in defeat! With the right thumb gone, he could no longer wield the bow effectively. But he would not give up easily.
He continued his practice using his left arm and achieved distinction. His accurate marksman-ship became a byword. He demonstrated that nothing could be a hindrance to a totally sincere pursuit. But he was constantly nagged by one worry. As a heroic person like his father, he had desired to assist the king of the land in times of difficulties and he could not fulfill this ambition.
It was the time when the Great War of Kurukshetra was being fought. Lord Krishna, supporting the Pandavas, was thinking about talented and heroic people who may join hands with Kauravas.
Ekalavya’s father Hiranyadhanu had died in the service of Kaurava kings. Now his son might also assist Kauravas. Though he had lost his right thumb, he was still one of the world’s greatest archers, as Krishna knew.
It is said in the Mahabharata that Lord Krishna, not wanting Ekalavya to assist the Kaurava army, killed him before the war erupted, and blessed him with eternal salvation.
Ekalavya was an ideal pupil. An intense desire for learning makes one a good pupil. Consumed by this desire for learning, Ekalavya, though, not sitting before the Master in person, mastered archery by worshiping the ‘Guru’ in absence. A boy from the woods, losing his father early in life, achieved such great glory in the art of archery. When the Master desired his right thumb as his fee, he unhesitatingly cut it off and presented it to him.
Ekalavya is a name that lives in the memory of mankind eternally like a star again.”