In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.
(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 6: Pandu Dies.
To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
The Seed of Gautama
There lived, in the time of King Shantanu’s reign upon Earth, a sage called Gotama who has a son born with arrows in his hand. This boy, Saradwata (also known as Gautama, the son of Gotama), shows no interest in Vedic education.
He is bent on learning and practicing warfare. So as soon as he is able, he begins to acquire knowledge of weaponry by means of his austerities.
Indra, as is his wont, becomes agitated by the penance of this young sage, and sends a celestial damsel named Janapadi to distract him. When Saradwata first meets Janapadi, he gets overwhelmed with delight and desire, but with great focus of the will, controls himself.
However, despite his best efforts, he succumbs over a fallen clump of heath.
Alarmed at this occurrence, and fearing for the future of his austerities if he continues to yield to temptation this way, Saradwata leaves his weapons (bow and arrow) and deer-skin behind and flees to the safe environs of his hermitage.
The vital fluid that leaves his body, however, divides into two parts and from it spring two children, one boy and one girl.
(Though this story is told in this way, what must have happened ‘in reality’ is that Saradwat begat upon Janapadi the twin children the normal way. It is hard to believe how a man’s sperm, without fusing with a woman’s egg, can produce infants even in the mythical universe of the Mahabharata.)
Kripa and Kripi
Now it so happens that a soldier from Shantanu’s army chances upon that way and finds the two kids. The king, seeing them, says, ‘Let them become my children, and let them be reared at the court of Hastinapur.’
He names them Kripa and Kripi, alluding to the notion that they were brought to the royal palace out of kindness.
Gautama, having learnt that his two children are now being fostered by the king, comes to the palace in due course, and teaches his son the four branches of the science of arms.
Under the guidance of his father, Kripa soon becomes a renowned professor in the arms, and he becomes the first teacher to the Kauravas and Pandavas.
For her part, Kripi later becomes the wife of Dronacharya and begets Ashwatthama.
Drona is Born
Drona, the teacher who takes over from Kripacharya the duties of furnishing the Kuru princes with their higher education, is born like Kripa and Kripi, by the unintentionally released sperm of a sage.
This time the culprit (so to speak) is Bharadwaja, one of the great sages, and the celestial damsel in question is Ghritachi.
It is said that once the sage was performing ablutions at the source of the Ganga and saw Ghritachi, with her upper garment strategically displaced by the breeze. Overcome by desire and yet ashamed of it, Bharadwaja releases his fluid into a vessel (a ‘drona’). And after a few months of care, an infant boy develops inside it.
A few years prior, the sage Bharadwaja had presented to Sage Agnivesa the Agneyastra. On the occasion of Drona’s birth, Agnivesa gives the boy the knowledge and science of the divine weapon.
Friendship with Drupada
Bharadwaja is friends with a Panchala king named Prishata, whose son, Drupada, is of the same age as Drona. Throughout Drona’s childhood and early youth, Drupada comes to Bharadwaja’s hermitage to gain training from the sage. Both Drona and Drupada thus grow up together.
Their paths diverge with the deaths of their fathers; Drupada becomes the king of Northern Panchala whereas Drona continues to live at his father’s hermitage, engaged in the Brahmin way of life.
Around this time he marries Kripi. How he meets her is a mystery because she is being reared at the royal court; but if we’re forced to guess, we could surmise that Saradwat probably had something to do about it.
Marriage to Kripi brings the young sage transforms into a householder, and a son is duly born to them.
At the birth of the infant, he neighs like the divine steed Uchaishravas, and a voice proclaims from the sky: ‘Since this boy has the voice of a horse, he shall be called Ashwatthama.’
Training under Parashurama
Drona lives with Kripi and their son Ashwatthama in grinding poverty. One day, when he hears that Parashurama, the son of Jamadagni, is giving away all his wealth, he hurries to the Mahendra mountains.
But by the time he arrives, the last of the Brahmins had left the abode of Parashurama, and Drona finds the warrior-sage standing alone in front of his hut, surrounded by all his weapons.
‘You have come a little late, O Sage,’ Parashurama says after the introductions are complete. ‘All I have left to give are my body and my weapons. You can have either of them; decide quickly.’
‘In that case, sir,’ says Drona, ‘present me with your weapons, along with the knowledge of how to use them best.’
And over the next few days, the son of Jamadagni trains the son of Bharadwaja on the science of weaponry, and at the end of the period, gives him all the tools he had used to wipe out the Kshatriya race twenty one times.
Armed with his newfound skills, Drona makes for Panchala, the capital of Drupada, his old friend, in hope that the king would look after him. But a surprise awaits him there.
Snubbed by Drupada
When Drona appears at Drupada’s court, the king pretends not to recognize him. When pressed, he says, ‘A king and a Brahmin can never be equal companions, O Sage. If you wish, I shall give you the respect due a man of your learning, but your insistence upon friendship is nothing short of amusing.’
Slighted by his once-friend, Drona leaves Panchala in anger, vowing silently that he will one day see to Drupada’s pride. Now the family moves to Hastinapur, where Drona makes use of Kripa’s hospitality to get a foothold in Kuru’s royal quarters.
This enmity between Drupada and Drona will come to have deeper repercussions in the future. A summary of how this thread develops:
- Drona becomes teacher to the Pandavas, and as guru dakshina, asks them to subdue Drupada in battle.
- The Pandavas succeed in this mission, and Drona becomes the ruler of Panchala.
- In a show of magnanimity, Drona gives half of the kingdom back to Drupada and keeps the remaining half.
- This whole episode infuriates Drupada. He performs a yajna to procure a son who will vanquish Drona. Thus is born Dhrishtadyumna, who will go on to behead a meditating Drona in the Mahabharata war.
- In the same yajna, Draupadi is also born – and a divine voice proclaims that she will bring ruin to the Kuru dynasty.
So the small episode of rivalry between Drupada and Drona leads directly to the birth of Dhrishtadyumna and Draupadi.
A Blade of Grass
For a period of time, Drona lives privately in the house of Kripa, unknown to the royals. Then one day, the Kuru princes, playing with a ball, drop it accidentally into a well.
While debating among themselves how to bring it out, a lean and decrepit Brahmin arrives and asks them what the matter is.
On being told of the predicament, Drona laughs and says, ‘You are the mighty princes of the Kuru line, being taught by none other than Kripacharya himself. Are you not ashamed to accept defeat in the hands of a ball and a well so readily? If you promise to give me a meal from your kitchen, I shall be only too happy to extract your plaything for you, with nothing more than blades of grass.’
And by the power of his aim and that of his incantations, Drona brings out the ball. The astonished Yudhishthir bows to him. ‘Who are you, sir? No one we know possesses skills of this sort that can make missiles out of mere hay.’
‘Go,’ Drona tells them. ‘Narrate the incident as it has happened to Bhishma, your grandfather. He will know who I am.’
Bhishma Invites Drona
When Yudhishthir tells Bhishma about the incident, the grandsire immediately sees shades of Parashurama (whom Bhishma himself was taught by) in the Brahmin the children are describing.
He hurries over himself to Kripa’s house, meets Drona, and after pleasantries have been dispensed with, asks why the son of Bharadwaja has come to Hastinapur.
Drona tells him everything – about their penury, his wish to give Ashwatthama a life of comfort, Drupada’s promise and eventual betrayal, and now his desire to acquire royal pupils so that his knowledge could be put to good use.
Delighted at this coincidence – for he had been on the lookout for a teacher for the princes – Bhishma invites Drona to become the chief acharya to the Pandavas and the Kauravas. From this day on, he comes to be known as Dronacharya.
Partiality toward Ashwatthama
The theme of putramoha (excessive love for one’s offspring) is a recurring one in the Mahabharata. Dhritarashtra is the prime example of it, though it is also present to a smaller extent in Drona.
It is said that Drona would give the Kuru princes a vessel each with a narrow mouth. Sending them to the river, he would instruct them: ‘Return only when your vessels are filled, not before.’
The aim of the lesson is to teach the boys the value of patience, and how little deeds performed consistently add up to significant achievements. But to Ashwatthama, Drona would give a vessel with a broad mouth so that he might return much before the princes.
He would then use the extra time to teach his son some secret lessons about the science of arms that were kept from the others.
Arjuna sees through this ploy, though, and fills his vessel not manually but with the help of the Varunastra, so that he could return to Drona at the same time as Ashwatthama, and thus learn what the teacher had set aside just for his son.
Drona’s first instinct toward Arjuna is to thwart him, so he tells the royal cook never to give Arjuna his food in the dark. Why? Because he knows that for a boy as inquisitive as Arjuna, eating in the dark would grant special insight.
Eating in the Dark
The cook is obedient to Drona’s command, but one day, a gust of wind blows out the candle when Arjuna is eating. And the realization that Drona seeks to keep away from Arjuna comes to pass.
Arjuna notices that his hand continues to feed his mouth even in pitch darkness. ‘If my hand could be trained this way to function in the absence of light,’ he asks himself, ‘why can I not train my arms to shoot arrows in similar fashion?’
He sets out then and there, armed with a quiver and bow, and begins shooting blind. Hearing the twang of his bow, Drona comes to watch, and overcome by joy, gives the prince a promise: ‘I shall make you the foremost bowman in all Aryavarta. There shall be no archer equal to you in the world.’
Arjuna, thus, by the sheer strength of his thirst for learning and excellence, forces himself past Ashwatthama in Drona’s heart and becomes his favourite pupil.
The story of Ekalavya does not alter the story of the Mahabharata in any way, but it gives us a glimpse at Drona’s ruthless nature.
Ekalavya is a prince of a settlement of Nishadas, the lowest of all orders in Vedic India. No one in society of that time wanted to associate with these people, so when Ekalavya approaches Drona with a desire to be taught by him, Drona rejects him outright.
Ekalavya does not get disappointed by this, though. He returns to his settlement and creates for himself a mud statue of Drona. And in front of that statue, he practices shooting the bow and arrow. In time, he becomes as skillful with the weapon as Arjuna.
One day, the Kuru princes come to Ekalavya’s part of the woods as part of a hunting expedition. One of the hunting dogs begins to bark at the sight of the Nishada, but in the instant it takes for it to close its mouth, Ekalavya shoots seven arrows at it, prying open its jaws.
The princes are astonished at the lightness of the youth’s hand, and asks him who he is. ‘I am Ekalavya,’ he replies, ‘son of Hiranyadhanus, the king of the Nishada settlement not far from here. I am also a dutiful pupil of Drona.’
Hearing this, Arjuna is plunged into envy and embitterment. He complains to Drona in private as soon as he reaches home.
Drona calls Ekalavya to his side and teases out all details of the matter. Then, he smiles upon the boy. ‘You say I am your teacher. Do you not know that a pupil ought to give his teacher a suitable dakshina as fees for the lessons he has learnt?’
‘Ask me for anything, O Preceptor,’ says Ekalavya, without blinking, ‘and I shall give it to you.’
‘I seek the thumb of your right hand,’ replies Drona, his eyes hard as iron. ‘Cut it off and present it to me in exchange for all the knowledge you have gained.’
And Ekalavya, with a smile on his face, severs the thumb of his drawing hand. Thus Drona preserves the sanctity of the promise that he has given Arjuna.
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