One day when Guru Drona was sitting alone, a young boy came to meet him; his skin was dark and his manner pleasing. He introduced himself as Eklavya, the son of the king of the Nishadas, fell at the guru’s feet and asked to be accepted as a disciple. Drona told him that it would not be possible for him to accept the boy as his disciple as he only taught Kshatriyas and the Nishadas were a lower caste.
The boy retreated into the forest where he made a statue of Drona out of mud. He called this mud image his guru. He worshipped this statue every day and practiced archery. Eklavya’s one-pointed devotion to learning this art soon made him an adept and he mastered the art of archery.
One day the Kuru princes went into the forest for a picnic. The Pandavas had taken a pet dog with them. The dog had wandered away into the forest. Here the dog saw a strange person dressed in leopard skin. This was Eklavya who, over the years, had grown into a young man. By then, he was an expert archer and could not resist the temptation to close the mouth of the dog with seven arrows. The arrows had been shot so artistically that they completely sealed the mouth of the dog. The dog ran away back to where the Pandavas were camping. Everyone was amazed at the skill with which the arrows had been woven around the dog’s mouth; it was sheer poetry. They went in search of the archer.
After a long search they found Eklavya, who introduced himself as Guru Drona’s disciple, deep in the jungle. Arjuna, the guru’s favourite disciple, was not happy with this and went back to remind Drona of his promise of making him the greatest archer in the world. He topped it up by saying that it looked like Drona had given the same promise to someone else as well. Drona did not know what Arjuna was talking about and so together they went into the jungle. Drona had forgotten everything about the young boy who had come to meet him. When Eklavya saw his guru he ran to greet him and then he told him the whole story of how he had acquired the knowledge at the feet of his statue.
Drona was shocked that someone could acquire this great knowledge just by worshipping a statue. In his heart he was happy, but he remembered his promise to Arjuna. He paused a moment and told Eklavya that as he was his guru, he should offer ‘gurudakshina’ to him. In return for the art that Eklavya had learnt from him, Drona asked Eklavya to give to him the thumb of his right hand. Eklavya did not flinch for a moment; he took out a crescent shaped arrow from his quiver, severed his right thumb, and gave it to Drona. Both Arjuna and Drona then returned to their resting place.
Many events in the Mahabharata look cruel and full of injustice on the surface and the story of Eklavya is a peculiar one. Here, Guru Drona comes out as a cruel and vicious person full of injustice and favouritism for Arjuna. Also, Eklavya is seen as a devoted student full of sacrifice and deep reverence for his guru. If one tries to look beyond the obvious, one can see the deeper message that the great Rishi Vyasa is trying to portray.
On the spiritual path we progress in two directions simultaneously. One is our level of being and the other our level of knowledge. Many of us gather a lot of knowledge but our being remains at the same level – we suffer from the same irritation, we have the same complaints, we live the same mechanical reactive life we did before; with all our knowledge nothing has changed at the level of being.
Our being is like a ladder with different levels; each moment of our lives we have the choice to rise or fall in our being. Now Eklavya was a Nishada, this translates as ‘shada’ to sit and ‘ni’ to sit lower. Thus Eklavya, despite the appealing story, represents a lower level in our ladder of being. Arjuna is a ‘kshatriya’ meaning a higher level of our ladder of being. We should not mix this with social classes but see them as two different levels within our psychic structure. Drona refuses to take Eklavya under his tutelage because at that level of being, we are not worthy of the knowledge that we aspire for. Within ourselves, when we rise to a higher level, then from the level of Eklavya we have come to the level of Arjuna. At this level we are now ready to digest the higher knowledge that the guru gives us.
Even though Drona had refused to take him as a student, Eklavya did not understand that he was not worthy of the knowledge but tried to get it by making a mud statue of Drona. Eklavya did not have the awareness to realise that Drona’s refusal to be his master was a sign that he had to rise first in his level of his being, worthy enough to be a disciple. Eklavya comes from the root ‘lu’ meaning to pierce. He used the power of his one-pointed attention to gain the knowledge which was not meant for him, at his level of being. This symbolises that secret knowledge can be acquired by dark ways.
Whenever, by indirect means, we acquire esoteric knowledge of which we are not worthy, we have to pay for it or undergo some kind of suffering. This suffering is symbolised by Eklavya having to sacrifice his thumb for the knowledge wrongly acquired by him. The thumb is symbolic of power and will, two qualities that are of great importance on the path of spirituality.
In our spiritual quest, we must always strive to bring our level of being closer to our level of knowledge. A point should not come where we have more knowledge than we can ever hope to live up to. A great enlightened master said, “Once you have known a truth, start living it immediately otherwise that very truth will destroy you”.