Ekalavya is one of the minor but significant characters in the Mahabharata. He is the son of Hiranyadhanush, a Nishada chieftain who lives in one of the forests surrounding the Kuru kingdom.
Ekalavya desires to have Drona, the preceptor of the Kuru princes, as teacher. But on being rejected by Drona, he teaches himself the art of archery and surpasses even Arjuna in skill.
However, his progress is cut short by a chillingly ruthless act by Drona. In this post we will examine the story of Ekalavya and Dronacharya in full.
(For a comprehensive resource on Drona, see Drona: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Who is Ekalavya?
Ekalavya appears in the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata. He is described as the son of a Nishada chieftain named Hiranyadhanush. He is first introduced to the reader as an aspiring archer who seeks the tutelage of Dronacharya.
At this time, Drona is fully employed in his role of being preceptor to the Kuru princes. At this time in the story, the Kuru princes are mere children; their graduation ceremony is a few years away still.
When Ekalavya approaches Drona, the latter refuses to teach him. Undaunted by the snub, Ekalavya returns to his settlement, builds a clay idol in Drona’s likeness, and begins practicing the bow and arrow by himself.
In time, Ekalavya trains himself to become a master bowman, matching even Arjuna in skill.
Interestingly, the word ‘Ekalavya’ means ‘one-thumbed’. The only purpose of Ekalavya’s presence in the Mahabharata story seems to be to give up his thumb. We do not have any record of what his name might have been before the incident involving Drona.
Why did Drona reject Ekalavya?
Drona refuses to teach Ekalavya because of three reasons:
(1) He is employed by Bhishma as preceptor to the princes of the Kuru house; (2) He promises Arjuna that he will make him the best archer in the world, and Ekalavya is clearly a competitor; (3) Ekalavaya is a Nishada, and as such, is considered unfit to train under a Brahmin.
At the time of Ekalavya’s approaching Drona and requesting him to accept him as a student, Drona has already been employed by Bhishma as preceptor to the Kuru princes. He is properly compensated for these services in wealth and in kind.
In this capacity, Drona is probably disallowed from teaching the art of war and weapons to students outside of the royal house.
While we cannot believe that a contract had been drawn up between Drona and Bhishma to this effect, some agreement of this sort must have taken place.
Also, the keen-eyed Drona will have spotted Ekalavya’s remarkable talent with the bow, and even at this early stage, he would have thought this Nishada prince would later compete with Arjuna with his skill.
Since Drona has already given his promise that he will make Arjuna the best archer in the world, coaching another prodigious talent would have been foolhardy.
Finally, the varna system observed by society as described in the Mahabharata place Brahmins and Nishadas on opposite ends of the spectrum. While Brahmins belong to the highest order, Nishadas count themselves among the lowest.
It hardly ever happened, therefore, that a Brahmin teacher would take on a Nishada student for instruction in any art form – let alone that which is considered the sole domain of Kshatriyas.
Due to the above three reasons, Drona does not accept Ekalavya as his student.
(Suggested: Why did Drona not teach Ekalavya?)
Was Ekalavya better than 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 Hiranyadhanush, the king of the Nishada settlement not far from here. I am also a dutiful pupil of Drona, and I forever labour for mastery in the science of arms.’
Hearing this, Arjuna is plunged into envy and embitterment. He complains to Drona in private as soon as he reaches home. ‘You promised me that I will be the best archer in the world,’ he says.
‘But here is a Nishada prince in our own kingdom who is better than I. And he claims that you have taught him, sir. Why this unfairness? Why do you give a word that you do not intend to keep?’
The question of whether Ekalavya is better than Arjuna at this point in the story is difficult to answer for certain. But at the very least, we can say for sure that Arjuna felt that Ekalavya was better than him. And that is perhaps all that matters.
Later, when Drona accompanies the Kuru princes to the forest in order to see Ekalavya in person, he also makes an assessment that is similar: Ekalavya exhibits skill with the bow and arrow that leaves Arjuna in the shade.
(Detailed Answer: Was Ekalavya better than Arjuna?)
Why did Ekalavya cut off his thumb?
Here, Drona is in a dilemma. On the one hand, he has promised Arjuna that he will make the Pandava prince the best archer in the world. As a paid employee of the Kuru court, all his incentives are structured such that he makes good on his word.
But on the other hand, here is a Nishada prince who claims to be his disciple. Yes, his self-taught skill is amazing, but Ekalavya has placed Drona in a precarious position with his employer.
Now, Drona has to prove his loyalty to Arjuna, and at the same time think of some way by which Arjuna’s supremacy in archery is established beyond doubt.
Therefore, when he sees Ekalavya, Drona says, ‘If I am your teacher, then you must give me dakshina.’
Ekalavya bows to his preceptor and replies: ‘Anything you ask for will be yours, Acharya.’
And Drona, ruthlessly, asks for Ekalavya’s right thumb. This is so that the journey of Ekalavya the archer will at least be curtailed by a few years as the young boy learns to shoot without using his thumb.
Despite the cruelty of the request, Ekalavya smiles and cuts off his thumb with a smile on his face.
(Detailed Answer: Why did Ekalavya cut his thumb?)
Could Drona have employed Ekalavya?
If Drona had reacted to the situation with more maturity, he might have brought Ekalavya to the notice of Bhishma. The grandsire might have then asked the young man to enter the service of the Kuru army.
Maybe Ekalavya would have been brought into the fold of the royal palace. Maybe he would have been taught by Drona alongside the Kuru princes.
Ekalavya would never have had the same opportunities for wealth or privilege as the Kuru princes – far too much social distance separate him from them – but he might have become a famed atiratha in his own right.
But then, maybe this is all wishful thinking. Archery is considered the sport of kings, so perhaps Bhishma and Drona would have pushed the young man into a role more ‘suited to a Nishada’ – that of a foot-soldier or a supply-carrier in the army.
Still, it is tempting to think how different Ekalavya’s life would have been if Drona had been kinder to him. Alas, it was not to be.
What happened to Ekalavya?
After this incident, Ekalavya disappears from the Mahabharata storyline. Arjuna is reinstated by Drona’s actions to his ‘rightful’ spot as the best archer in the world.
Arjuna’s confidence is shaken once again during the graduation ceremony when another warrior – Karna – appears out of nowhere and puts on a show. But crucially, Karna’s skills never properly surpass Arjuna’s.
At his very best, Karna can only match Arjuna. With Ekalavya, the impression is that he is far beyond Arjuna’s reach – at least at the time when the two men meet.
In the Bhagavata Purana, Ekalavya is mentioned as one of Jarasandha’s many allies as the Magadha king tries to re-take Mathura after Kamsa’s death.
(The context here is that Krishna and Balarama kill Kamsa through subterfuge and trickery, not through open war. Jarasandha, as king of Mathura’s parent-kingdom Magadha, naturally wants to take his land back.)
Why Ekalavya assists Jarasandha here is not clear. In these battles between Krishna and Jarasandha, Ekalavya dies.
Who killed Ekalavya?
Ekalavya is killed by Krishna during one of the many battles that occur between Mathura and Magadha following Kamsa’s death.
As it happens, Krishna and Balarama lose the war against Jarasandha, and are forced to migrate westward to found the shore-side city of Dwaraka. Jarasandha thus succeeds in regaining control of Mathura after Krishna briefly wrests it away from him.
During the closing stages of the Mahabharata war, Krishna mentions (to Arjuna) in passing that it is he who has caused the deaths of Ekalavya and Ghatotkacha, and that the two men were incarnations of Asuras who had to be put away.
Without killing Ekalavya, Krishna says, the victory of Dharma in the war of Mahabharata might have been harder to achieve.
A Note on Nishadas
We will close this discussion about Ekalavya and Dronacharya by mentioning that in the Mahabharata universe, Nishadas are often used as convenient plot-devices.
A lot of casual violence happens to Nishadas throughout the story. The narrator does not seem to think of Nishadas as completely human, because no apologies are given for brutalities heaped upon this race of men.
- In a story – also in the Adi Parva – of Garuda feeling hungry, his mother Vinata points him in the general direction of a Nishada kingdom, and instructs him to eat them. Garuda does so, and no mention is made of the Nishadas again.
- Later on, during the events of the house of wax, Kunti thinks nothing of sacrificing the lives of a Nishada woman and her five children to make it seem that she and the Pandavas have died in the fire.
So it is not surprising that Drona, when faced with the prospect of a Nishada boy surpassing his favourite pupil Arjuna, chooses to smother and suppress the young man’s talents rather than develop them.
While it is tempting to cast Drona in particular in bad light here, we must also note that this kind of behaviour toward Nishadas was common among everyone in the Mahabharata universe.
Drona’s behaviour is only showcasing the biases of the society in which he lived.
If you liked this post, you will probably also enjoy: Arjuna: 50+ Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.