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Ekalavya, Arjuna and Drona -
The Eternal Entanglement - Part 2
by Indrajit Bandyopadhyay Bookmark and Share

Continued from Ekalavya, Arjuna and Drona - The Eternal Entanglement – Part-1

We are living in the Age of Narratives. As many brain-minds so many repositories and production units of narratives! We all live in our own universe, and that universe is multiverse, analogous to Vedic monotheism – ‘One but many manifestations’. Courtesy ‘Narrative Revolution’ akin to the Industrial Revolution, gone are the childhood days of innocence and ignorant bliss. Whether you want or not, various narratives from various production centres will constantly try to invade and colonize your mind.

My consciousness demands I become aware of the narratives bombarded on my mind every now and then from varied sources, and I examine and explore them to find Truth on my own.

It is well known and well established that modern politics cannot do without Mahabharata (in fact, Bharatiya politics could never do without Mahabharata, the manifesto of Bharatavarsha). So, it is natural that Bharata-India and her people need all – Drona, Arjuna, and Ekalavya – as symbols, and the symbol hunt has therefore, degrees of naturalness. No disputes on that count. However, my concern is when a Mahabharata character is constructed as a symbol that has nothing to do with the Mahabharata-Text. I do not agree with Out-Vyasa-ing Vyasa, and hence my methodology: Return to the text.

Take Drona and Ekalavya in this case.

In present political discourses of certain quarters, Ekalavya is taken as representative of the ‘Dalit’, and Drona in this particular episode of ‘thumb severing’ the typical representative of ‘Brahmanism’ or ‘Brahmanya-vada’ (whatever that means); so that, Drona’s ‘dismembering Ekalavya’ (‘asking Ekalavya to sever his thumb and give him gurudakshina’) is taken as the ‘evil Brahmana, the product of Brahmanism or Brahmanya-vada’, victimizing the ‘Dalit’, thus rendering the episode as a narrative of ‘Brahmanism / Brahmanya-vada vs. the Dalit’.

Now, politics not being my interest or concern here, I shall not definitely name any political parties to give free propaganda to them through this article. So, I shall examine the popular political narrative on Drona and Ekalavya in the light of Mahabharata text.

To examine the above political narrative, we have to examine the Mahabharata-Text, so that, we have to question like –

a. what is the Ekalavya Drona Arjuna narrative in the Mahabharata-Text?
c. what is ‘Dalit’? Does Ekalavya fit with that definition of ‘Dalit’?
e. what is the actual narrative in the text? What is the Itihasa in Mahabharata?

Mahabharata had been read and narrated down the ages (and that is sanctioned by Mahabharata herself). One inevitable outcome is the accumulation of cultural memories. Various interpretations will throng the mind hindering a fresh approach to the text. Since none reads the Mahabharata for the first time, and sides are often already taken even before actually reading the text, such positions naturally mar a ‘neutral reading’.

Mahabharata offers us this challenge to read and comprehend impartially. Unless we try to do that, we are actually reading this or that propaganda narrative, not Mahabharata certainly!

4. Reading the text, surprise, Drona never said ‘sever your thumb’…

Neither Drona nor Ekalavya nor their Itihasa exists outside the Mahabharata-Text and cultural memory retained in Puranas and Folk Mahabharata.

Reading the Mahabharata text carefully, the first surprising thing we find is: Drona never said to Ekalavya – ‘sever your thumb and give me’. Drona never said ‘dismember yourself’. Here is what Drona said in response to Ekalavya’s promise that he was ready to give anything as gurudakshina: tvayangushtho dakshino diyatam mama (1.123.35c).>[i]

Angushtha connotes: thumb (of hand), great toe (of foot), and may carry the sense and import of ‘having the length or size of a thumb’. In the first two cases, it is ‘concrete’ finger, in the last case it is ‘abstract’ with reference to ‘concrete’ thumb.

Dakshina connotes ‘the right (hand or arm)’ (RgVeda); ‘straightforward, candid, sincere, pleasing, compliant’ (Ramayana, Mahabharata), and may also assume the meaning of ‘able, clever, dexterous’ (Panini). [Monier-Williams]

Taking all these, a plain reading of Drona’s words suggest, Drona said –

1. ‘give your right thumb to me’
2. ‘straightforward, candidly, sincerely, pleasingly, compliantly, give me your thumb’
3. ‘give your dexterous or best thumb to me’

Guru cannot refer to Shishya’s great toe; so, I would not doubt that ‘tvayangushtho’ refers to ‘your thumb’ of hand though not explicit.

If Angushtha is meant in the abstract sense of ‘having the length or size of a thumb’, then Drona actually said: ‘give me that having the length or size of a thumb’. Does it make sense too? Yes it does. I shall come to that.

However, even if all above possible meanings are taken together, what becomes obvious: Drona said ‘give your right thumb’ but DID NOT SAY ‘SEVER YOUR RIGHT THUMB AND GIVE ME.’ In other words, Drona did not command Ekalavya to dismember himself. So why did Ekalavya do that? Why did he interpret Drona’s words as asking him to dismember his thumb? Why this imagination of a violent command in Drona’s mind? Why this self -inflicted violence?

One recension has it that Drona said: ekangushtham dakshinasya hastasyeti matam mama (1.123.35d*1394_02). This means Drona said: ‘In my opinion, give one thumb of your dexterous hand to me.’ [Drona did not specify which hand. We may also focus on the other meanings of ‘dakshina’. However, one hand is expected to have one thumb; so, if Drona said ‘give one thumb’, he was certainly not meaning ‘right hand’ by ‘dakshina’, because ‘right hand’ is expected to have ‘one thumb’, so saying ‘ekangushtham’ is redundant.]

In the light of this recension and reading the CE Shloka 1.123.35c again, the one who would still insist that ‘Drona said to SEVER the thumb’ despite the original Shloka not having ‘sever’, may explain why Ekalavya would think of dismembering the thumb though he was not asked to! What is clear: it was Ekalavya’s own interpretation of Drona’s words, based on which he severed his thumb, though Drona had not asked him to dismember himself.

Fully aware that this would sound ‘pro-Drona’ to the taken for granted belief system, let me make clear the following –

1. I view Mahabharata as a political narrative with the Darshana of Dharma at its core, and therefore, I do not view Mahabharata as Itihasa of ‘good vs. bad’ or ‘white vs. black’ (God forbid! Not skin colour!), or in any ‘absolute good character’ or ‘absolute bad character’. In my opinion, if anyone views Mahabharata in that bipolar fashion, it’s sheer nonsense because Mahabharata being Itihasa, it cannot be against the very nature or Svadharma of Itihasa, which defies any polarity of any conceivable sort.

2. I am not under any obligation to take sides before reading the text, or to interpret the text in this way or that to please somebody.

3. Yes, I would definitely have a reader’s opinion of the episode at the end, call it ‘my opinion or judgment’ if you wish. For now, to cater to the ‘teaser’ or ‘trailor’ fashion, this much needs to be said -

a. Am I absolving Drona entirely of the outcome? No I am not.
b. Am I holding Ekalavya liable for what happened to him? Yes I am.
c. Am I holding Ekalavya SOLELY liable for what happened to him? No, I am not.

Since Drona had not said ‘sever your thumb and give me’, and Ekalavya did that terrible thing, it is obvious – and I consider these Ekalavya’s tragic flaws or immaturity depending on what his age could be at that time -

1. Ekalavya did not listen to Drona’s words carefully [the significant ‘Shruti’ is missing in the would-be Shishya; a Shishya is supposed to listen, reflect and weigh Guru’s words first before taking action.]

2. He did not ponder over what a Guru might do with a piece of human flesh - severed thumb - as gurudakshina? Or, how does that qualify as gurudakshina? He did not ponder over how severed thumb could be the ‘price’ or ‘m?lya’ that Shishya is supposed to pay to the Guru. He considered his severed thumb of immense value sufficing gurudakshina.

[Ekalavya dismembering himself looks like ‘sacrifice’, but ‘in appearance is deception’. It is ‘sacrifice’ to himself, but no real sacrifice ‘for Drona’, because unless the act involves transcending self -interest ‘for the sake of the other’, it is no real sacrifice. An unwanted piece of flesh does not qualify as ‘for the sake of the other’]

3. He did not apply common sense

I shall come back to explain these with reference to the text. Let us note what Vyasa says:

ekalavyas tu tac chrutva vaco dronasya darunam/ pratijnam atmano rakshan satye ca niratah sada// tathaiva hrshtavadanas tathaivadinamanasah/ chittvavicarya tam pradad dronayangushtham atmanah// (1.123.36-37)

This is how KMG translates: 'Hearing these cruel words of Drona, who had asked of him his thumb as tuition-fee, Ekalavya, ever devoted to truth and desirous also of keeping his promise, with a cheerful face and an unafflicted heart cut off without ado his thumb, and gave it unto Drona’ (trans. KMG)

KMG translates –

1.‘dinamanasah’ as ‘an unafflicted heart’; I think ‘humble mind’ would be better. Now, ‘dina’ may also connote ‘miserable, wretched’ – pointing to guilty feeling.

2. ‘chittvavicarya’ as ‘cut off without ado’; I think KMG misses the most significant word here - Avicarya.

Let us read the line - chittvavicarya tam pradad dronayangushtham atmanah.

Chittvavicarya! Chittva Avicarya! Severing without considering, unreflectingly! Severing, not requiring deliberation!

Vyasa makes it clear; Ekalavya severed his thumb without doing vicara (avicarya), that is, without applying his discernment, his intelligence, his common sense.

Does Vyasa then blame Ekalavya entirely?

Vyasa being the Rshi-Kavi is above and beyond any Blame-Gaming. Yet, as a reader of the text, I would say ‘Not entirely, but yes’! I shall come to that.

Vyasa says, ekalavyas tu tac chrutva vaco dronasya darunam ('Hearing these cruel words of Drona’) - vaco dronasya darunam – Drona’s words were ‘daruna’.

However, ‘daruna’ to whom? To Vyasa? To Ekalavya? To Drona’s own ears? If Drona’s words appear ‘daruna’ to Vyasa, he is then giving a judgment against Drona; however, if ‘daruna’ refers to Ekalavya’s understanding?

That ‘Drona’s words were daruna’ may or may not suggest an objective ‘daruna’. That Drona’s words were ‘daruna’ might be Ekalavya’s subjective interpretation; or, just as Vyasa comments on Ekalavya’s ‘avicarya’, he might be commenting on Drona’s inner-mind (of already understanding and foreseeing that Ekalavya would misunderstand him and sever his own thumb and therefore, saying ‘give your thumb’), and so Vyasa says ‘Drona’s words were daruna’. However, the possibility that it was Ekalavya’s ‘subjective hearing’ is also prominently there - ekalavyas tu tac chrutva vaco dronasya darunam – that is, ‘Ekalavya heard Drona’s words as cruel’. If ‘Ekalavya heard’, then it is Ekalavya’s ear and mind working, that is, it is Ekalavya’s subjective perception.

Is there any scope to imagine that Drona’s words ‘diyatam mama’ loaded the implication or suggestion of ‘sever and give’?

No, there is not. What Guru imparts to the Shishya is DanaShiksha Dana; and what the Shishya gives in return is Dakshina – fee. ‘Diyatam’ is not Dana though having the same root ‘da’. ‘Diyatam’ suggests giving what is rightful – as in Yudhishthira’s Rajadharma principle ‘sarveshamdiyatamdeyam’ (2.12.7d*145_1), which means “Give unto each what is due to each.” So, ‘diyatam’ does not imply ‘sever and give’, it suggests ‘give what is due’. Drona was leaving the matter of ‘giving’ to Ekalavya, and Vyasa says Ekalavya ‘severed without reflecting’ - Avicarya!

There is this Brhadaranyaka Upanishad narrative in which Brahma uttered ‘da’; and the Devas, Asuras and humans interpreted that in three different ways. The narrative suggests, one interprets according to one’s own nature. [T. S. Eliot has used this narrative in ‘The Waste Land’.]

So, if one interprets ‘‘diyatam mama’ as ‘dismember your body and give’, the responsibility of the interpretation lies solely with him/her.

Imagine the scenario: you tell your student ‘give me your thumb’; and your student sever his thumb and give you. Would you mind being held liable?

And what is Drona’s role here? Remembering that the word ‘daruna’ is there in the Shloka, even if it is Ekalavya’s subjective perception, the very presence of that word leads me to take it as Vyasa hinting at the fact that Drona knew in heart that Ekalavya would be incapable of doing vicara.

5. Why Drona sought the thumb? Upanishadik significance

Drona did not ask for a severed thumb. So, what is the significance of his saying ‘give me your thumb’ to Ekalavya?

In the rituals of initiation (Upanayana or Paite), there is one ritual in which the Shishya offers his righthand thumb to the Guru who holds it and enwraps it in his palms. So, it is possible that Drona was thinking of initiating Ekalavya, because he had already asked gurudakshina from him, implying his accepting Ekalavya as his Shishya on receiving the ‘fee’. We can only speculate on what might have happened, had Ekalavya, instead of imagining violence and acting without discretion, simply forwarded his thumb to Drona. The ritual would have been complete with Drona holding that thumb in his palms.

The moment Drona asked for gurudakshina, and Ekalavya paid it, the Guru Shishya relation would have been finalized. The acknowledgment was already there once Drona asked for gurudakshina. Had Ekalavya applied common sense, he could have been Drona’s Shishya with thumbs intact, instead of being a Shishya with severed thumb.

Those who construct narratives like ‘Brahmanya-vada vs. Dalit’, just overlook this fact conveniently that Guru Shishya relation was complete once Ekalavya gave the ‘fee’. Had Drona been really set on not accepting Ekalavya as Shishya, he would not have asked the ‘fee’. So, despite rejecting Ekalavya initially out of ‘State compulsions’, Drona changed his mind on seeing Ekalavya’s talent.

The Upanishads enlighten us on the significance of this ‘thumb ritual’.

‘Drona’ literally means the Pot that holds milk or Soma-Rasa. One metaphoric significance of Soma-Rasa is the Soul or Atma. Interestingly, ‘thumb’ is also the symbol of Purusha and Atma in the Upanishads.

In the Katha Upanishada, ‘The Purusha, of the size of a thumb, dwells in the body. (Realizing Him as) the Lord of the past and the future, one does not (henceforward) want to protect oneself. This verily is that (thou seekest). The Purusha of the size of a thumb is like a smokeless flame and is the Lord of the past and the future. He certainly exists now and shall certainly exist tomorrow. This verily is that (thou seekest).’ (2-I-12-13). Again, ‘Purusha of the size of a thumb, the inner Self, is ever seated in the heart of all living beings. One should, with steadiness, separate Him from one’s own body as stalk from the Munja grass. One should know Him as pure and immortal; one should know Him as pure and immortal.’ (2-III-17)

In the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, ‘Assuming a form of the size of a thumb, by virtue of intellect, emotion, imagination and will, the Infinite Being dwells in the hearts of creatures as their inner self. Those who realize this become immortal’ (III-13). Again, ‘Subtle as the point of a goad, and pure, effulgent and infinite like the sun, He alone is seen assuming as another the size of a thumb on account of the finiteness of the heart (in which He appears), and associating Himself with egoism and Sankalpa on account of the limitations of the intellect.’ (V-8)

The symbolic meaning of Shishya offering the ‘best thumb’ to the Guru is to offer his Atma to the Guru. So, here it means, Drona was asking Ekalavya’s Atma. Indeed the Shishya is required to submit his Atma to the Guru who would then be the Guide of the Atma.

It may be argued, if Drona was asking the thumb as a symbolic gesture with this ideology in mind, how would Ekalavya know that?

First of all, Ekalavya was from a Vedic kingdom (his father’s name Hiranyadhanu, the Rashtra’s name ‘Nishada’ and his own name ‘Ekalavya’ are all Vedic names); so it is expected he had studied the Vedas. [Latter we would see, Ekalavya, his sons and the Nishada Rashtra – all conformed to Vedic rituals.]

If it is argued that Ekalavya was at that time a child and had no knowledge of Vedas, such argument does not hold ground because –

1. A child could not have travelled alone from Nishada Rashtra to Hastinapura, which was matter of days and not hours in those days. So, definitely, Ekalavya was not a child. How could he have sustained himself for days, and that too alone!

2. If Ekalavya had been a child seeking first initiation, then he would not have even known what a bow and arrow are or how to prepare them. However, after Drona had rejected him, we find him practicing with bow and arrows. So, he already knew the use. Otherwise, we have to conclude that he was stealthily learning from the princes in training. This amounts to theft.

3. When Drona asked gurudakshina, Ekalavya said: ‘Command me; for there is nothing, O foremost of all persons conversant with the Vedas, that I may not give unto my preceptor’ (na hi kim cid adeyam me gurave brahmavittama; 1.123.35a). Quite obviously, if Ekalavya at that time knew the use of Vedic-Upanishadik words (‘Brahma’) to say ‘brahmavittama’, he was grown up enough.


6. Why Drona rejected Ekalavya, student cannot dictate sylabi

After Bhishma had appointed Drona as the Acarya of the princes, (Vaishampayana narrates) “Thereafter Drona began to teach Arjuna the art of fighting on horse-back, on the back of elephants, on car, and on the ground. And the mighty Drona also instructed Arjuna in fighting with the mace, the sword, the lance, the spear, and the dart. And he also instructed him in using many weapons and fighting with many men at the same time.”

What we find here: Drona was not teaching archery only. He had his curriculum. It was all round teaching in Gurukula. [Arjuna’s proficiency in mace should not be surprising; Kurukshetra War shows Bhima’s prowess in archery in defeating Karna. So, ‘specialization’ should not be stereotyped]

Now comes an interesting Shloka

tasya tat kaushalam drshtva dhanurvedajighrkshavah /
rajano rajaputrash ca samajagmuh sahasrashah // (1.123.9)

‘And hearing reports of his skill, kings and princes, desirous of learning the science of archery,[ii] flocked to Drona by thousands.’

Who is this “tasya” (=his) in the phrase tasya tat kaushalam? Drona or Arjuna?

Normally it should refer to Drona; that is, seeing Drona’s skills as Guru, many flocked to be his Shishya. However, going by the glorious uncertainty of Mahabharata narrative, this “tasya/his” might be Arjuna too. In that case, the Shloka would mean – “seeing Arjuna’s talent, many flocked …”

Both meaning fits with our own common experience. We want to send our children to the best Teacher , but we are also inclined to consider the quality of a Teacher from the ‘result’ of a student under his tutelage. In short, just as a Shishya is nothing without a Guru, a Guru is nothing without a Shishya. It is the quality of Shishya that is directly propotional to Guru’s fame, and fees.

Now, let us focus on this important part – “flocked to Drona by thousands (samajagmuh sahasrashah)”…

Will it be logical to expect that these “thousands” were all ‘pedigree’ Kshatriyas? Of “pure blood” (if there is any such red liquid at all!)?

Obviously, these ‘thousands’were from different Rashtras, and there was no bar in their coming to and seeking admission in Hastinapura institution. Therefore, many like Ekalavya (in Varna or Rashtra identity, if not in talent) must have come to Drona, and have been admitted or rejected. Vyasa singles out and narrates the case of Ekalavya’s rejection because of Ekalavya’s talent and the turn of events. Now that does not mean it was the ONLY case of rejection, because Drona cannot be expected to be tutoring ‘thousands’ of students.

So, the arguments that Drona’s rejection of Ekalavya is a ‘caste’ matter have no merit.

Vyasa says –

tato nishadarajasya hiranyadhanushah sutah /
ekalavyo maharaja dronam abhyajagama ha // (10)
na sa tam pratijagraha naishadir iti cintayan /
Shishyam dhanushi dharmajnas tesham evanvavekshaya // (1.123.11)

KMG translates: “Amongst those that came there, O monarch, was a prince named Ekalavya, who was the son of Hiranyadhanus, king of the Nishadas (the lowest of the mixed orders). Drona, however, cognisant of all rules of morality, accepted not the prince as his pupil in archery, seeing that he was a Nishada who might (in time) excel all his high-born pupils.”

KMG has already a pre-programmed Varna-equation in view; so, rather explanatorily, he adds in bracket – “Nishadas (the lowest of the mixed orders).” Needless to say, Vyasa has nothing to do with this bracketed kingdom of translation. And here we may consider KMG’s translation as a very human case of projecting one’s own ideas current in contemporary background to the target Text.

KMG’s translation is no doubt influenced by Nilakantha’s commentary that found implied Varna-equation in this Shloka. A recension further adds –

shishyo 'si mama naishade prayogo balavattarah (1)
nivartasva grhan eva anujnato 'si nityashah / (01,123.011d*1388_02

Now, let us read the Shloka in reference once again –

na sa tam pratijagraha naishadir iti cintayan /
Shishyam dhanushi dharmajnas tesham evanvavekshaya // (1.123.11)

Anvaveksh [anv-aveksh (√iksh)] connotes “to look at, inspect,” and anvaveksha [anv-aveksha f.] connotes “regard, consideration.”

Commenting on tesham evanvavekshaya, Nilakantha takes tesham as referring to the Princes (Kuru-Pandava), and comments on anvavekshaya as: “shreshthatva paryalocanaya” – that is, “considering the superiority of the Princes (in comparison to Nishada).”

However, anvavekshaya may be left as just “considering” – and Vyasa does not explain Drona’s consideration to us, that is, the inner script of the consideration. It could be multicoloured, like Drona might be thinking –

1) “Since, I am paid servant of Hastinapura, it is my duty to see that none excels the Princes in archery. In such a scenario, I will lose position and respect in Hastinapura just like my shala (brother-in-law) Krpa (and my aim of devastating Pancala with Hastinapura’s help would receive a jolt).”

2) “Empowering a Nishada-prince (and a Nishada-Rashtra, thus) would not be politically correct in the long run; the Nishada-Rashtra might turn into a thorn in Hastinapura’s (and mine) way”

3) ‘Ekalavya might excel my son Ashvatthama. Arjuna is superior to my son, that is OK. He would not violate me and kill my son. That cannot be expected from Ekalavya.’

The ‘inner script’ is my interpretation based on Drona’s conduct elsewhere. During his initial Acarya days, he had been partial to his son, only to realize soon that Arjuna’s merit far excelled his son, and merit must be recognized. This is a conflict every teacher is bound to face when his own child reads in the same class with a more meritorious student. Some teachers have moral lapse in preferring filial bond over merit; while some are firmly established in Dharma to remain impartial. Drona could be finally impartial, and even partial to Arjuna in teaching higher weapons in preference over Ashvatthama.

The Shloka 1.123.11, thus, may be trans-created as –

“Drona, being wise in Dharma, did not accept Ekalavya as his disciple for archery, thinking him to be a Nishada, and considering the matter with regard to the Princes.”

“Thinking him to be a Nishada” - naishadir iti cintayan - may be taken either way –

1. Drona considering Ekalavya to be of Nishada-identity (that is, ‘Ekalavya is Nishada Varna’ or ‘Nishada’s son’)

2. Drona considering Ekalavya to be of Nishada-culture

3. Drona considering Ekalavya to be of Nishada Rashtra

It would be good to remember at this point that dharmajnas has nothing to do with “religious mindedness”. Dharma is many things – all in one. Well-considered self-interest is also Dharma. And I suggest, Drona “being wise in Dharma” would mean that he had the foresight to look into the future.

We have noted that Vyasa writes ‘daruna’with reference to Drona’s words to Ekalavya. The use of the word ‘dharmajnas’ about Drona cancels the interpretation that Vyasa regarded Drona’s words ‘terrible’or ‘cruel’. Therefore, Drona’s‘daruna’ words actually refer to Ekalavya’s subjective perception, that is, he interpreted Drona’s words as ‘cruel’.

The other most important thing to note is: Vyasa specifically mentions that Drona refused to accept Ekalavya as his Shishya in Archery. That leaves open the possibility whether Drona could have no hesitation to accept Ekalavya as Shishya for other forms of learning Astra-Vidya or allround studies. This point is often not noticed that Drona refused to accept Ekalavya as “Shishyam dhanushi” only. We have already read that ‘thousands’ flocked Hastinapura to learn archery.

A student seeking admission in an institution must follow the rules of that institution, and must study the syllabi offered by that institution. In this case, if Ekalavya had desired to learn only archery, Drona could reject him on that count alone. No way that a Shishya was permitted to dictate syllabi.

Now, Drona’s rejection of Ekalavya is often taken in the sense of ‘rejection to admission for education of a lower caste by higher caste’, and it is with this narrative that the Drona Ekalavya episode is turned out to be a political narrative of ‘Brahmanya-vada vs. Dalit’.

7. Ekalavya’s tragic flaws

Every narrative in Mahabharata is ‘Part’ to the ‘Whole’, thus in an intrinsically linked relation to the Text . The implication is: a Part may be read in isolation, but its meaning cannot be accessed except in the context of the Whole. The obvious analogy: Atma the Part, and Paramatma the Whole.

I have mentioned Ekalavya’s tragic flaws – and let me add -

1. Ekalavya did not listen to Drona’s words carefully
2. He did not ponder over what a Guru would do with a severed thumb as gurudakshina?
3. He did not apply common sense
4. His obsession with archery

One may argue how Ekalavya could ponder over when Drona said ‘give me your thumb’. The counter argument would be: Drona did not tell him ‘give me IMMEDIATELY’. So, Ekalavya could well ponder over Drona’s words. This can be again countered with the narrative that ‘Ekalavya was too overwhelmed to see Drona in front of him so that he momentarily lost his power of discretion’. And this can again be countered – ‘Ekalavya had already seen Drona and touched his feet. In the present Shlokas there is no slightest indication that Ekalavya was overwhelmed. He severed his thumb being hrsht a but with wretched and miserable or humble mind’. And so on we may go on endlessly.

Vyasa presents various Guru-Shishya narratives in Mahabharata, so that we can ponder over what it signifies to be a Guru and a Shishya.

We have an Ahalya Cirakari Gautama narrative in the Shanti-Parvan (12.258). When Gautama came to know that Ahalya had sexual union with Indra, he considered it ‘an act of great fault’ and commanded Cirakari, saying, 'Slay thou this woman.' Having said these words without much reflection, Gautama, departed for the woods.

Gautama’s command to Cirakari to kill his own mother is a parallel to Jamadagni-Parashurama story in which Jamadagni ordered Parashurama to kill his mother, and Parashurama carried that out instantly (though later seeking boon from Jamadagni to bring her back to life).

Cirakari was not Parashurama. Though he assented to his father’s command, ‘in consequence of his very nature, and owing to his habit of never accomplishing any act without long reflection, began to think for a long while (upon the propriety or otherwise of what he was commanded by his sire to do).’ He began – what we may choose to call – an internal debate – ‘How shall I obey the command of my sire and yet how avoid slaying my mother? How shall I avoid sinking, like a wicked person, into sin in this situation in which contradictory obligations are dragging me into opposite directions?’

Finally Cirakari considered the Mother as superior to the Father – ‘The sire must be known to be a combination of all the deities together. To the mother, however, attaches a combination of all mortal creatures and all the deities.’ And he did not carry out the order of his father.

If Ekalavya had this quality to ponder over a command that ‘appears to be a violent command’, he would have paused to think if ‘give me your thumb’ could have alternate significances other than violent one. As we have already seen, there is indeed a significant alternate meaning to what Drona said - tvayangushtho dakshino diyatam mama. In the Upanishads, ‘Thumb’ is the symbol of the Atma.

This brings us to the question, why would Ekalavya think ‘violence’ to be the one and only one meaning of Drona’s words? Since Ekalavya was ‘dead sure’ about the meaning he had imagined, this implies, he was projecting violence of his mind to Drona’s words. And that would again suggest that he lacked genuine SHraddha for Drona.

Why I say ‘lack of genuine Shraddha’? For two reasons -

1. If a person imagines violence in another person’s mind without actually seeing any act of violence on his part, then this fantasy is definite indicator of ‘lack of genuine Shraddha’. If Ekalavya took Drona’s rejection of him as an ‘act of violence’, then too it is his mind’s interpretation according to his own nature. And indeed, as we shall see, Ekalavya’s cruelty to a dog betrays the violence in his own nature that he projected on Drona and to Drona’s words – imagining ‘severe your thumb and give’ instead of ‘give your thumb’.

Had Ekalavya no violence in his own mind (that shrouded his discernment and common sense thus), he could have just forwarded his thumb to Drona, or placed his thumb on Drona’s feet without dismembering himself.

Since Drona had already asked gurudakshina, Ekalavya’s submitting his thumb to Drona or placing his thumb on Drona’s foot (symbolic submission of the Shishya’s Atma to the Guru) would have rounded up the ritual.

That is common sense.

To be Continued


[i] All references from Critical Edition or CE unless otherwise specified

[ii] KMG translates ‘arms’, but the word in the Shlokas is dhanurvedajighr ksh avah

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