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 answer the question: Was Ekalavya better than Arjuna?
(For a comprehensive resource on Ekalavya, see Drona and Ekalavya: A Story of Ambition, Envy and Sabotage.)
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.
Was Ekalavya better than Arjuna?
The question of whether Ekalavya was better than Arjuna is a subjective one, not least because the skill of archery – much like any other skill – does not lend itself to comparisons.
Often, the overall power and force that an archer or warrior brings to a battlefield depends on several factors. Like:
- Speed. The faster an archer is able to draw arrows from his quiver, place them on his bow, and let them fly, the more destruction he can cause.
- Aim. Along with speed, an archer who is able to hit his target more often will be seen as better than his peers.
- Quality of charioteer. Archers in the Mahabharata universe are driven around by charioteers. A superior charioteer can often become the crucial difference between two equally-matched warriors.
- Divine weapons. Generally speaking, a warrior with more divine weapons at his disposal will outmatch a warrior who is fighting purely with earthly arrows. This is regardless of their other qualities.
- Support from other heroes. Real battles are not individual events. You fight as a member of a team. Often, victory and defeat depend on how well you and your support crew work with each other.
Out of the above, when Ekalavya makes his first appearance in the story, he only gives a glimpse of the first two qualities – i.e.: his speed and his aim.
He shoots seven arrows into the mouth of a hound in the instant that it takes for the animal to bark. The Kuru princes are so astonished at witnessing this that they conclude Ekalavya is better than them all.
There are three main stakeholders in the Ekalavya story:
- Ekalavya himself
We must remember as readers that the time of the Kuru princes encountering Ekalavya, Arjuna is a mere boy, perhaps around eleven or twelve years old. Ekalavya himself would have been no older than fourteen.
Arjuna’s assessment, therefore, about how good Ekalavya is – made on the basis of a single feat – must be seen in its proper context: Arjuna is not old enough to have an informed opinion of the matter.
He is already prone to envy and insecurity around the matter of his status as the world’s best archer – which Drona promised him. Plus he has not seen enough of this Nishada prince to make a considered judgement.
Drona, on the other hand, is the ‘adult in the room’. When he arrives with the Kurus to see Ekalavya, he does not ask Ekalavya to show him any other act the bow and arrow. He simply goes on Arjuna’s word.
This may seem strange: why does Drona not ask Ekalavya to show off his skill, submit to a more elaborate test of archery that would help benchmark him properly against Arjuna?
The answer is that by the time Drona visits the Nishada settlement and sees Ekalavya for the first time, the matter has progressed far beyond the truth of whether Ekalavya was better than Arjuna or not.
The entire incident, by now, has already become about how Arjuna feels about this. And Arjuna, convinced that Ekalavya is better than him, is already fuming at his preceptor for having given him a false promise.
Now, the primary motivation of Drona is not to figure out the truth (i.e.: is this boy actually better than Arjuna?), but to assuage Arjuna’s hurt feelings.
Why? Because Arjuna’s hurt feelings may be communicated in some form or the other to Bhishma, and Bhishma may have a say or two in continuing Drona’s employment as the Kuru preceptor.
So Drona’s job, in other words, hinges on keeping Arjuna happy.
Therefore, Drona does not concern himself with whether Ekalavya is actually better than Arjuna. It is irrelevant. All that matters is Arjuna thinks that he is, and therefore the matter has to be dealt with.
The Truth of Ekalavya
The truth of whether Ekalavya was better than Arjuna, of course, is that we don’t know, and we will never know.
First, even assuming that Ekalavya matched Arjuna in skill at this point in the story, when both boys are under fifteen years of age, it is fully possible for Arjuna to surpass Ekalavya in future years.
After all, skill is not a static quality. It can be nurtured or eroded depending on various factors concerning the practitioner.
In fact, the presence of Ekalavya might have pushed Arjuna to become the best version of himself. In the same way, Ekalavya, had he been taken under Drona’s wing, would have blossomed into a great archer with Arjuna’s companionship.
Second, despite their respective skills (speed and aiming to name a couple), Arjuna would always be the favoured one of the two. He would have been given all the divine weapons. He would have the pick of chariots and charioteers.
In any battle, he would fight from the best positions. He would be surrounded by the best warriors.
There is no conceivable universe in which Ekalavya would have bested Arjuna in a battle-scenario, because as a prince he has access to privilege that Ekalavya does not.
It is difficult therefore, not to conclude that this whole incident is a mirror to how petty Arjuna is.
That is not a criticism; at the age of twelve, all of us are petty. All of us are jealous about people who we think challenge our place in the world. Often the jealousies of a twelve-year-old are unfounded; but in the moment they are forceful and all-consuming.
It is usually the duty of an adult – a teacher, a parent – to correct this behaviour. But in this case, Drona is unable to because (a) it is he who had given the boy a silly promise, and (b) his own future is tied up in Arjuna’s emotional satiety.
So unfortunately for Ekalavya, Drona enables Arjuna’s churlishness, and asks for the Nishada boy’s right thumb as dakshina.
Of course, the same pattern repeats itself when Karna appears on the scene at the Kuru princes’ graduation ceremony. By this time, Arjuna is a bit older, but the Kuru establishment still seeks to oppress Karna by insulting his community.
Here the offender is Kripacharya, but essentially the tactic is the same: protect Arjuna’s self-image at all costs, even if we have to trod on the life of a lower-born, expendable young man.
In Ekalavya’s case, there was no one to stand up for him. But Karna, luckily for him, receives support from Duryodhana – who, perhaps after seeing how Ekalavya had been treated, resolves to nurture an Arjuna-like warrior of his own.
Karna thus becomes the anti-Arjuna, and his presence eggs Arjuna on to stay at the top of his game – like Ekalavya might have had he been allowed.
If you liked this post, you will probably also enjoy: Arjuna: 50+ Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.