The forest dweller Ekalavya was a gifted boy in many respects. One of these was that he had an intense desire to excel. He was ambitious too. He wanted to excel in archery and had heard that the great teacher Drona was teaching martial arts to the Kuru boys at an akhada (training centre) nearby. He wanted to join the akhada and learn from him.
Thus he went to meet the celebrated teacher one day and as a gift he took two boars. Those days brahmins ate meat and there was no prohibition against eating boar meat; in fact, boar meat was served on special occasions, such as marriages, sraddha(annual ritual for forefathers), etc. Those days a prospective pupil took some gift for the teacher, whatever was affordable on his part; one would not go to the guru empty-handed. In fact, all this was part of the ritual for the initiation of education.
Drona was happy. The poet Sarala hasn’t written anything explicitly about it, but we can guess that he must have been impressed with the boy who was ambitious and highly motivated to learn – which teacher wouldn’t be when the pupil is so promising! He told him right away that he accepted him as his pupil. But Duryodhana objected. Being a low forest-dweller, he could not learn with boys of the royal household, he emphatically told Drona. The forest dwellers were in any case outside the cultured society and must remain so, and not aspire to mingle with the princes and learn what they learn. Yudhisthira did not agree. He did not invoke any high moral principle here. His consideration was materialistic and his logic simple: there would always be an advantage in having a forest-dweller in the akhada, he said. He would bring useful things from the forest: boar, honey, etc. Arjuna echoed his brother’s view. But Duryodhana’s opposition was vehement – a forest-dweller simply had no place in their akhada, he told them all, and in Drona’s presence, he asked Dussasana to take him away and give him a sound beating. An obedient younger brother, he enthusiastically did what he was asked to do.
Drona could do nothing, he did not say a word, and he simply put up with the insult. Neither could the Pandavas do anything. They were only the children of the former king, who was dead, leaving behind his wife Kunti who looked after them. Gandhari, the queen, did not have a comfortable relation with her or even her children. Duryodhana was the king’s son. And the Pandavas, Kauravas, and Karna were not studying in Drona’s ashram; he had none. He was the employee of king Dhritarashtra. He knew the king loved Duryodhan too much for anyone’s good. He couldn’t risk the king’s displeasure and invite trouble for himself and his son Aswasthama, the motherless child (the mother, Krupi, having died of childbirth, in Sarala’s version, when Aswasthama was born) whom he loved very much.
Ekalavya felt humiliated and miserable, but he was not the one to give up. He was not merely highly motivated and focused; he was very intelligent and enterprising too. He made a small tunnel like opening in the forest through which from his end he could watch the body movements of Drona at the other end, as the celebrated guru taught archery to his pupils. He observed them intently and intelligently, and practised them. His wife disliked these activities of her husband and scolded him often for wasting so much time and effort on things entirely unnecessary. A forest dweller didn’t have to achieve such skill and expertise of archery, she would tell him. She didn’t think anything good would come of all this and said it to him in no unclear terms. Besides, a learner needed a guru, she would tell him, and would challenge him asking who his guru was. Ekalavya saw sense in what she said, so he made a murti (an image) of Drona in clay, seated him at an elevated place in his akhada and put a garland round his neck. That was his puja (worship) of his guru. With that he ritually formalized his relationship with Drona and continued learning archery from a distance as before. But in Drona’s training centre he was completely forgotten; no one talked about him after he was thrown out.
Some years passed. One day Drona asked his pupils to get a boar from the forest in connection with the observation of the annual sraddha ritual his deceased wife, Krupi. A boar was not to be found easily. Karna and Bhima had gone to the forest together in one direction, and in a few days did manage to get one, but the Kauravas had gone deeper into the forest in another direction and had not returned. They didn’t find a boar, but came across a lake, the waters of which were clean and pure. Then they saw a beautiful young woman, a forest-dweller, walking towards to the lake. They hid behind the trees and watched her as she undressed, bathed in the lake, put on her clothes, collected water in her pitcher and started walking back homeward with unhurried grace. Dussasana marvelled at her beauty and natural elegance. He rushed out of his hiding and grabbed her. This was one doing, in Sarala Mahabharata, of Dussasana that he had done at his elder brother’s behest. She was fit for a king alone, he told her; she could not live in a forest and be owned by a forest dweller, he barked. This is the familiar way the powerful view the world: the world is there for their pleasure. Princes, pampered by their doting parents, firmly believed that everything in their kingdom, including humans, was their personal property and they could enjoy the same as and when they pleased, and in the manner they liked. The poor, harassed woman was shocked and scared and shouted for her husband to rush to her help.
Her husband came running with a crude bow and arrows. He charged out against the molester. Dussasana said that the ugly and crude forest dweller that he was, he had no right to have such a beautiful woman. He must be killed and his wife must be taken away for the princes’ pleasure, he said. The forest-dweller was angry and attacked him with his arrows. The ninety nine brothers of Dussasana joined him, but they were no match for him. In no time he killed them all.
Twelve days passed and the Kauravas did not return. Drona was worried. He started out with Karna, Bhima and Arjuna to look for them. They found them dead. Drona was surprised. Who could have killed them all, he wondered. It occurred to him that only a pupil of his alone had the skill and the knowledge involved in the killing. But there was no such pupil of his. The Kuru boys were his first pupils. Any way, he kept such thoughts to himself.
Meanwhile Arjuna had gone looking for his cousins’ killer. Seeing him, the forest-dweller came out of his hut menacingly, angry and agitated, muttering things that were neither clear nor intelligible, and soon Arjuna and he were engaged in a terrible fight. Arrows in hundreds swished past. None was yielding, they were equals. Hearing the swish of the arrows Drona came and saw his pupil Arjuna and a stranger engaged in a fierce fight. He was amazed at the latter’s archery; he knew that his pupil alone was capable of such feat, but he had never taught the stranger. He never knew him. So how was it possible?
He shouted for them to stop fighting. The fighting stopped. The guru went to the stranger and asked him who he was and who his teacher of archery was. He said that he was Ekalavya and his teacher was Drona. Drona remembered things now, how he had gone to his akhadato learn archery from him and how he was humiliated, beaten up and thrown out. He told him that he himself was Drona, but how could he be his teacher when he did not teach him, he asked. Ekalavya prostrated at his feet and told him how he had learnt from him. Because of that he considered himself as his pupil. Drona was very pleased with his accomplishment (which guru would not be!) and very affectionately seated him next to him. He then asked him about the Kaurava brothers. Ekalavya recounted how they were trying to molest his wife and how he had to fight them to protect her. They were all dead, he told his guru. Drona said that he now wanted to give him a test: he must give back life to the dead Kauravas. Ekalavya at once invoked the life-giving sanjeevani mantra and empowered an arrow with it and shot it at the hundred dead. In an instant they all came back to life.
Duryodhana was very upset. He complained to Drona that they learnt archery from him, the one who was Parshurama’s student and was beyond comparison, and yet, they were defeated so easily by a mere forest-dweller. Drona told him that Ekalavya was his pupil too, and that they all should treat him as their guru bhai (brother by virtue of having the same teacher). These words comforted the eldest Kaurava prince. Had he reconciled himself to that new bond between the forest dweller and him which he knew was completely beyond him to destroy? This must have been the case; Sarala says nothing explicitly and leaves it to his audience’s imagination.
It was time to take leave. Drona told Ekalavya that he was abandoning the training centre in the forest and going to Hastinapura where he would open a training centre. He blessed him that he would be without an equal in archery and that he would be defeated by none. An immensely happy and grateful Ekalavya fell at his feet, and requested him to ask for his guru dakshina (the teacher’s fee). When the guru said that he was no more going to use the training centre in the forest to teach military arts, Ekalavya knew that his own learning from him had come to an end. And Ekalavya knew that end of one’s education was the time for the shishya (pupil) to offer dakshina to his guru, whether he wanted it or not.
Drona said he would tell him what he wanted as dakshina only if he took an oath to the effect that whatever he asked from him, he would give. He would willingly give his head, if he wanted it, said Ekalavya. Everyone who knows the story knows what he asked for and how Ekalavya did not fail him. Having offered him his dakshina, Ekalavya told him that he asked him for his right thumb because he was afraid for the Kauravas but in the process had injured him permanently. Ekalavya then told him that he had not forgotten what had happened in the akhada and what humiliation he had undergone. He had not forgotten that Duryodhana was the one who had deprived him of the opportunity to be the celebrated teacher’s pupil, neither had he forgotten that someone called Yudhisthira had tried to intercede on his behalf. He had not forgotten too that he had been beaten up at the behest of Duryodhana. He told the guru that since those days he had nursed a grouse against Duryodhana and would have destroyed his entire clan one day. He, the kind-hearted guru that he was, had now gone to the extent of disabling him, his pupil, in order to protect him.
It was not Ekalavya alone from whom guru Drona had asked for a difficult dakshina. The dakshina he asked from the Kauravas and the Pandavas was to bring king Drupad a prisoner to him. It was obviously no mean task. It meant war not just with an individual named Drupad, in the form of say, a single combat, but with the armed might of the kingdom of Pancala as well. The guru dakshina convention required the shishya to fulfil the guru’s wish on his own effort. So his shishyas were expected to defeat Drupada without the support of the kingdom of Hastinapura. They could meet death while fighting Drupad and his army. The Kauravas failed, but the guru was not displeased. He happily exempted them from guru dakshina. The Pandavas brought Drupad a prisoner to Drona’s presence and gave him their dakshina. What he asked Karna, who was not a Kaurava but neither a Pandava, and later Shikhandi and Dhristadyumna, Drupad’s sons, for guru dakshina, we do not know. Sarala hasn’t told us.
As the guru took leave, he told Ekalavya that from then on he must learn to shoot his arrows with the remaining four fingers and he must do so without any wrist band or some such support. Having disabled him, he blessed him that he became a great archer and that he remained undefeated. He great shishya did become a superb archer and did remain undefeated, but we need not tell those stories here.