It needs no mention that Ekalavya is an immortal character of Mahabharata. However, it needs mention what we mortals do with the immortals.
How Guru Drona dupes Ekalavya in giving away his Thumb as gurudakshina is well known. It is also popularly known (and attested by certain scholars) that Ekalavya was a “Tribal” – a Non-Aryan non-Kshatriya – who dared to master archery like Ucca-Varnas (High-Caste) and therefore, earned Drona’s frowning wrath.
This believed Tribal status of Ekalavya has transformed him into an Icon and Symbol of the Dalit – true to the nature of We Indians who need Mahabharata to bash Mahabharata, just like we need the Indian Constitution to bash the Indian Constitution.
In this article, I intend to –
1) Discuss Ekalavya’s life-story as depicted in Mahabharata & Harivamsha & Other Mahabharata through discussion of his Name and deeds
2) Examine whether Ekalavya can really be considered a Tribal and/or Non-Aryan
3) Explore the Kavyik value of the Ekalavya narrative; that is, whether we may interpret all the Imageries in the narrative – “Drona”, Nishada, Thumb, Dog, Bow and Arrow – as allegories and metaphors of Vyasa’s message and Darshana.
And through this discussion, I think and hope, it would be possible to gain a glimpse of ourselves – We Indians – in relation to our Tradition and running History …
I will begin with etymology …
1. Why Etymology?
Mahabharata cannot be understood without Nirukta (Etymology) – so says the main narrators of Mahabharata – Vyasa’s chosen Shishya Vaishampayana, and Vyasa’s other Shishya Lomaharshana’s son Ugrashrava Sauti.
I do believe that Vyasa-Kuutas which are usually taken to be Shlokas (that is, the Belief that “Vyasa composed some Shlokas difficult to decipher”) are actually to be found more in Names of characters. In other words, it is the Names (and not Shlokas only) that are to be considered more as qualifiers for Vyasa-Kuutas.
The word Vyasa-Kuuta never finds mention in Mahabharata. The actual Shlokas from which the idea of Vyasa’s Kuuta has originated are as follows:
granthagranthim tada cakre munirguudham kutuuhalat // 25
yasmin pratijnaya praha munirdvaipayanastvidam /
ashtau shlokasahasrani ashtau Shlokashatani ca //26
aham vedmi shuko vetti sanjayo vetti va na va /
tacshlokakuutamadyapi grathitam sudrdham mune // 27
bhettum na shakyateharthasya guudhatvat prashritasya ca /
sarvvajnohapi ganesho yat kshanamaste vicarayan // 28
tavaccakara vyasohapi shlokananyan bahuunapi / 29a
So, the actual word is Granthagranthim - Granthim of the Grantha – that connotes “Knots” and “Cowdung” – and they are called guudham - that is, mysterious, mystic and with deeper layers of meaning.
What is implied is: these guudham Granthim need to be decoded for proper understanding of Mahabharata.
Now, Mahabharata compares herself with Cow – and the Granthim are therefore, Cowdung. (See - Mahabharata: The Holy Cow and Cow-Imagery in Narratives)
Dear reader, do not please make the mistake of crying “Shit Shit” over this Cowdung. It is Cow-shit literally, but not from the point of view of Kavya. Mahabharata hails Cowdung as the very residence of Shrii-Lakshmii.
Therefore, the popularly known Vyasa-Kuutas or actually Granthim are to be considered the very interracting or meeting point or blending point of Shri-Lakshmi and Sarasvati. They are the Twilight or Joint where Shri-Lakshmi and Sarasvati merge into One.
If Vyasa’s Divine Muse is Sarasvatii, then his Human Muses are all the Great Feminine of Mahabharata – his mother Satyavatii, Kunti, and particularly Draupadii. It is in Draupadii, that Shri-Lakshmi and Sarasvati merge in one. (See - Draupadi, the Brhati Shyaamaa, the Lost Sarasvati)
In Vidura’s narrative, Rshi Hamso says that the Knots in the Heart needs to be untied with Dhrti, SHama, and observing Satya-Dharma, and only then can one bring the duality of dear and undear under Control of the Self –
etat karyam amarah samshrutam me; dhrtih shamah satyadharmanuvrttih /
granthim viniiya hrdayasya sarvam; priyapriye catmavasham nayiita, 5.36.4).
The purpose of Vyasa’s Granthim is thus a challenge to obtain True Sattva Guna or Shuddha Sattva through understanding of Nirukta (Etymology) of words – that enables going to the Deep Layer of Words. This understanding is actually the understanding of the significance of Vishnu because Vishnu represents the Twilight or Joint (Shatapatha Brahmana-18.104.22.168).
Opposite of this is to be stuck at the Surface Layer of Words – or to take things literally – and Mahabharata considers that drawback as Asurik quality. (From our contemporary experience, we already know these “wordy” people – to be found mostly among Politicians, Lawyers and Academicians – a phenomenon that Shri Ramakrshna effectively regarded as Shukno Panditya (“Dry” Scholarship or Rasa-less Scholarship).
In other words, the conflict between understanding Nirukta and not understanding Nirukta is the same as Vishnu’s conflict with Asuras. Bhuubharaharana is therefore, not merely “deburdening the Earth”, but “deburdening the Earth from those Asuras who insist on and unleash an exploitative/oppressive regime based on literal interpretation of Words.”
To me, this is one true significance of Deva-Asura Conflict.
Now what is the basis of my Theory that Vyasa-Kuutas, or Granthim are to be found more in Names than in Shlokas?
According to Aitareya Aranyaka (22.214.171.124), Vak is the rope of breath (Prana), and the Names are the Knots. Vak being Anushtup Chanda (Aitareya Aranyaka – 126.96.36.199), Vyasa’s “Knots” – Granthagranthim, popularly known as Vyasa-Kuuta – are therefore, to be found in the Names that occur in Anushtup Chanda (Metre) verses.
So, even before going into the Itihasa-Kavya narrative of Ekalavya, we should start with the Etymology of “Ekalavya.”
2. Ekalavya etymology
Ekalavya = eka + lavya
Eka means “one”, or “alone, solitary, single, happening only once, that one only”; eka also means “single of its kind, unique, singular, chief, pre-eminent, excellent.”
Lavya means “to be cut or mown or hewn down”; and “hewn” connotes “cut or shaped with hard blows”; and “mown” connotes “cut down with a hand implement”.
We already begin to see how the Ekalavya narrative unfolds in his very name …. And his name assumes allegorical proportions …
Ekalavya, therefore, would mean –
1) One who is cut down/ One to be cut down
2) One who is shaped with hard blows
Now, why would his father Hiranyadhanu – literally “The Golden Bow” – name his son thus, even before he lost his thumb?
Perhaps, Hiranyadhanu originally wanted to mean – “That One and one only, the unique, pre-eminent, excellent one, who is capable of cutting down (opponent) singlehandedly.”
Life’s irony transforms that into – “One who is cut down”; and despite the loss of this thumb, Ekalavya’s Inner Strength re-transforms himself into “One who is shaped with hard blows.”
Again, we may take Ekalavya as from - Eka + lava [láva m. (√luu)]
Now, lava means – “the act of cutting, reaping (of corn), mowing, plucking or gathering” or “anything cut off, a section, fragment, piece, particle, bit, little piece.”
Therefore, Ekalavya would mean –
1) One who reaps alone or by oneself (“The Solitary Reaper”!)
2) One who gathers alone or by oneself
3) One whose fragment/section is cut off
The life-story of Ekalavya contains all these narratives. When he practices alone, he is indeed “One/Unique One who reaps alone or by oneself”; when Drona takes away his Thumb, he is indeed “One whose fragment/section is cut off”; and thereafter when he is on his own, he is again “One/Unique One who reaps alone or by oneself.”
The other meaning - “One who gathers alone or by oneself” – gains significance in the light of a very different information on Ekalavya’s life story found in Madhavacarya’s Mahabharata-Tatparya-Nirnaya.
Here, Ekalavya is indeed a “gatherer” or “collector” of arms; and this might be one reason, why Drona decides to take away his Thumb. I will come to that in details.
Now, if the Ekalavya narrative is allegorically contained in that very name (just like “Karna” as I have discussed elsewhere), it might prompt the question: is the Ekalavya narrative then a late-creation for the sake of Kavya?
This line of thought is bolstered by the facts that Ekalavya finds no mention in the two ‘Mahabharata-Briefs’ by Ugrashrava Sauti and Vaishampayana, no mention in Parvan counting and summary of the Parvans, and in the Puranas.
It should be good food for thought; however, I would not, I should not, and I cannot go that extent of eliminating Ekalavya from the Mahabharatan universe. Since he is mentioned in Mahabharata, and in Folk Mahabharata, he existed, and he exists. That’s all.
3. Who is Ekalavya?
In Mahabharata, Ekalavya is Nishada King Hiranyadhanu’s son.
Other than this realistic human identity, Ekalavya has a Mythical identity too; and that brings him at par with all the Major and prominent characters of Mahabharata.
We know, the Mythical Background of Mahabharata is the Bhuubharaharana (De-Burdening the Earth). This Mythical Narrative marks the transformation of Itihasa into Purana. The later poets, the agents of this transformation, do not even have the pretention of impartiality. They clearly think of the Kuru-Pandava Conflict in terms of Asura-Deva Conflict, in which, the Pandavas and most of their allies are Devas born for the purpose of Bhuubharaharana; and the Kauravas and most of their allies are therefore, the Asuras, Danavas, and Rakshasas.
Going by that logic, since Ekalavya is opposed to Krshna, and dies at Krshna’s hand, his natural share is that of the Asura. Thus, in the Mahabharatan Mythical Narrative, Ekalavya is hailed as one from the Gana (tribe) of Asuras called Krodhavasha (1.61.58c).
Krodhavasha connotes “subservient to anger”.
The logic of the later poets is simple.
Krshna’s Dharma and Yudhishthira’s Dharmarajya precludes the dominance of Kama and Krodha. As Krshna’s antagonist, Ekalavya therefore, has to be on the side of Kama and/or Krodha.
Salutes to the later poets, but they are no Kavi like Vyasa.
Surely Vyasa did not compose a simplistic Kavya of Good vs. Evil. (See - Why Krishna Red-Carded Duryodhana out of Dharma-Raajya?)
Let us remember that Vyasa never shows Ekalavya as a Asurik figure dominated by Krodha. On the contrary, he is full of praises for Ekalavya, and the words that Vyasa uses about the nature and conduct of Ekalavya are the very words of SHraddha (Reverence, Respect, Awe) - that he reserves for Krshna and Arjuna and persons of the highest of merits. We will read them soon.
In Harivamsha, Ekalavya is Krshna’s father Vasudeva’s sister SHrutadeva’s son by Kekaya King -
shrutadevaprajatas tu naishadir yah parishrutah /shrutadevat tu naishadih so 'smabhir yahparishrutah | HV_24.27*410 |
ekalavyo maharaja nishadaih parivardhitah // HV_24.27 //
The word parishrutah suggests hearsay – unconfirmed news or rumour. Ekalavya’s origin is therefore, shrouded in mystery.
Thus, as per Harivamsha, Ekalavya is Krshna’s cousin; and the irony is: Ekalavya dies at Krshna’s hand. The Kuru-Pandava fratricide is therefore, nothing new. It is Krshna’s case too!
However, Krshna being Krshna, we get an understanding of Ekalavya’s merit and achievement through Krshna’s voice, and the same Shraddha for Ekalavya is shared by one of Krshna’s foremost adversary – Shishupala.
A friend will praise a friend – it is normal and natural – unless that friend is of the “not-in-need” variety; however, when one and one’s strongest enemy are univocal about the merits of an other who is an enemy of the former one, then the merit of that other cannot be doubted.
Sounds complex? Well, Mahabharata is the mother of Complexity …
To be continued …