Complexity and ambiguity lie at the heart of the Mahabharata, the latter of the two great Hindu itihasas (~ epics).
Krishna as both the supreme-being (Vishwaroopa) and the mendacious, scheming man; Duryodhana as both the greedy, vengeful cousin and the loyal friend to Karna; Kunti as both the devoted, long-suffering matriarch of the Pāndavas and the stricken mother willing to sacrifice her first-born Karna; Yudhisthira as both the apostle of truth and the crazed gambler who stakes his wife at dice; Bhishma as both the wise grandsire and the unscrupulous kidnapper of Amba, Ambika, and Ambālika – these are the poles (of behaviour) within whose bounds flash the characters’ all-too-human sparks.
The character of Dronacharya is another example of such complexity. The churn of his birth, his upbringing, and his deep hurt at Drupada’s abandonment (having grown up together like brothers in Drupada’s father’s court, Drupada refuses as king to even acknowledge a now-impoverished Drona) are all responsible for creating the Drona who meets Ekalavya in the forest.
Justly reviled for his treatment of Ekalavya during their meeting, I try in this reimagining to understand Drona’s motivations.
Drona and Ekalavya — A Reimagining
A cold fear gripped Drona’s heart. He wasn’t prepared for this. He thought he had banished all feeling years ago. Since that humiliating day in Drupada’s court, he had taught himself to believe that men’s hearts carried no goodness or kindness; that they throbbed only to the beat of selfish desires. Engaged as the princes’ tutor, he had focussed on instructing them precisely, remaining grave and aloof at all times; so that the princes had come to think of the least word of praise from him as the highest honour. Arjuna may have thought he was Drona’s favourite, but he would have been disappointed to know that Drona felt nothing like love or affection for him. He went so far as to respect Arjuna without going further. Proud, single-minded and acutely sensitive, Drona had never recovered from his last meeting with Drupada: he looked now upon Arjuna as the best means to avenge his hurt and mortification.
But now, before him stood this wonderfully dark tribal boy who had just displayed marksmanship that Drona himself had never believed possible. And who should he call his teacher but Drona himself! Drona was more touched than he had been in years — but he could see the light of envy in Arjuna’s eyes and he knew what he had to do. It was the only way to achieve his goal. He had not striven ascetically for years to be moved by the beauty and skill and candour of a tribal boy! He was Drona, brahmin, and foremost among archers; and he himself had trained Arjuna. He could not afford to be sentimental now, or all his years of unceasing labour would go to waste. Arjuna would lose heart, and then who would defeat Drupada?
And so concealing the storm within his heart, Drona said coldly: “If you truly think that I am your Guru, boy, then I am entitled to a Guru-Dakshina, am I not?”
“Indeed you are, sir,” replied the Nishāda boy eagerly, “Nothing would give me more pleasure than giving you a large Guru-Dakshina. All I have I owe to you. But I’m only a poor hunter’s son.”
From behind him, to his right, Drona could feel Arjuna’s eyes burning into him, and it was all he could do to keep from shouting at Arjuna; from telling him that this dark-skinned boy was the greater archer.
“I do not want any riches, boy, I have everything I need already. However, there is one thing…”
“Yes, sir, please tell me what it is. What can I give you?”
Drona’s breath caught in his throat. He felt awash with shame — shame at what he had to say and shame at the memory of what Drupada had done to him. Silently the two struggled, but the memory was too strong, too vivid and his bitterness won through. He felt as selfish and arrogant as Drupada.
“So be it, boy,” he said. “Give me your thumb then — your left thumb.”
He looked around as he said this and felt sickened to see a flame of elation leap in Arjuna’s vivid eyes. Here was one as cruel as himself, he thought. Here was one who was willing to sacrifice an innocent boy to his selfish desire. He had not misread human nature! All was depravity and greed! Heartened, Drona turned again towards the boy — and nearly cried out at what he saw. The boy held his bloodied left thumb in the palm of his hand, as the chopped-off stump gushed a dark-red blood. In his right hand was a crude hunting knife. He was smiling.
“Here you are, sir,” he said. “I hope you will accept this with my humble gratitude.” He hesitated: “And if you don’t mind, sir, would you please bless me before you leave, for I do not know if we shall ever meet again.”
Struck dumb, but retaining a trembling command of himself, Drona took the proffered thumb before silently laying his hand over the smiling boy’s head. ‘God bless you, my child,” he murmured and then even more softly — so that no one but he could hear it — “and forgive me.”
He then turned abruptly and strode away, that none might see the tears that glistened like raindrops in his eyes. Through the haze, he seemed to hear Arjuna’s protestations of gratitude, but his mind was fixed upon Ekalavya’s dark-eyed smile.
1. Guru-Dakshina (lit. preceptor-gift): In ancient India, a student in the Gurukula (preceptor’s āshrama) usually acknowledged his debt to his Guru through a gift. Not necessarily monetary, the dakshina could take the form of a milch cow or a task that the guru wanted done or some such thing.
2. Nishāda: A hunter-tribe mentioned in the Mahabharata, described as dark-skinned and generally considered lowly.