Why did Drona not teach Ekalavya?

Why did Drona not teach Ekalavya - Featured Image - Picture of a one-eyed owl, representing Ekalavya.

Drona is the preceptor of the Kauravas and Pandavas in the Mahabharata. He is the son of Sage Bharadwaja, famously taking birth in an earthen vessel – a ‘Drona’.

Despite being a Brahmin by birth, Drona becomes tired of living a life of penury with his wife Kripa and son Ashwatthama. He comes to Hastinapur in the hope of making his fortune.

Here he is discovered by Bhishma, and given the role of royal teacher to the Kuru cousins.

In the Kurukshetra war, he fights by Duryodhana’s side and plays an important role – among other things – in the killing of Abhimanyu.

In this post, we will answer the question: Why did Drona not teach 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.

Read on to discover more about why Drona did not teach Ekalavya.

(For answers to all Drona-related questions, see Drona: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Exclusivity with the Kurus

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.

This is not the traditional arrangement that exists between preceptors and students: generally, the student goes to the preceptor’s home, stays with him, and learns all the important lessons through osmosis.

Here, Bhishma gives Drona the position of – essentially – a home tutor, and in return, gives him an enviable station in life. With this arrangement, Bhishma will have expected Drona to be available exclusively to the Kuru princes.

While we do not know if employment contracts existed in those times, an agreement of this sort would have certainly taken place between the Kuru regent and Drona.

This means that when Ekalavya expresses interest at learning the art of archery with Drona, the latter is compelled by his employment terms to refuse.

Promise to Arjuna

Very early on in Drona’s time as preceptor to the Kurus, he discovers Arjuna’s prodigious talent and hunger for archery. He gives the third Pandava a promise. ‘I will make you the best archer in the world,’ declares Drona. ‘No one in the world of men will be able to match you with bow and arrow.’

There is some bravado concealed in these words: after all, how can Drona control the archery skills of young men around the world? At best, he could have promised Arjuna that he will become the best archer among the Kuru princes.

But Drona goes the whole distance with his word – probably in a moment consumed by elation and pride – and Arjuna, of course, takes it literally.

When Ekalavya approaches Drona, the latter would have spotted the raw talent the boy possesses, and he must have immediately seen that he would become a threat to Arjuna in due course.

This is another reason Drona refuses to teach the Nishada prince.

Caste Considerations

The varna system observed by society as described in the Mahabharata considers Brahmins as the ‘highest’ order, and Nishadas among the ‘lowest’ orders.

This means that there is very little interaction or intermixture between the two orders. A Nishada youth is almost ever allowed to learn under a Brahmin sage. Brahmins are co-opted most of the time to service the needs of Kshatriyas, and high-placed Vaishyas.

The above is especially true if the Nishada young man wishes to learn the art and science of weapons – which is the sole preserve of Kshatriyas. A Nishada who wishes to learn the Vedas may find a rare Brahmin willing to teach him, but when it comes to weapons training, a Nishada will be sent back at the front gate.

So even the other factors discussed in the post were not present, Drona would have been extremely reluctant to teach Ekalavya in the art of weapons. In fact, if Drona had not been the Kuru acharya, Ekalavya would not have approached him in the first place.

(All of these challenges are actually faced by Karna as well. He disguises himself as a Brahmin boy and deceives Sage Parashurama into teaching him how to fight.)


Despite the rejection by Drona, Ekalavya displays tremendous grit and commitment toward his chosen craft. He builds a mud idol of Drona and practices archery in front of it for years, slowly teaching himself how to become a bowman.

Such is his progress with learning on his own that he becomes more proficient even than Arjuna. Once, the Kuru princes go into the forest and discover Ekalavya shooting a bunch of arrows into the mouth of a hunting hound when it barks at him.

Arjuna is consumed by envy and admiration at the same time. He returns to the palace and complains childishly to Drona. Drona returns with the princes to witness Ekalavya’s talent first hand.

Ekalavya is also humble enough to name Drona as his teacher. This humility comes back to harm him when Drona takes advantage of the fact that he is the boy’s teacher – and demands dakshina from him.

Ekalavya asks, ‘What shall I give you, Preceptor?’

And Drona replies, ‘Give me the thumb of your right hand.’

Ekalavya does so with a smile on his face, and Drona completes his act of sabotage against the Nishada prince just to soothe the ruffled feelings of his favourite pupil.


All in all, therefore, there are three reasons why Drona refuses to teach Ekalavya:

  • Drona is employed by Bhishma as the exclusive trainer of the Kuru princes. As compensation, he receives wealth and status from the royal treasury. Under this arrangement, he is not allowed to take on students outside of the Kuru family.
  • Drona gives Arjuna an ill-advised promise that he will make the third Pandava the best archer in the world. When Drona sees Ekalavya, he sees that the Nishada prince is very talented, and that training him would likely offend Arjuna.
  • According to the varna system of the Mahabharata, Nishadas are not considered ‘worthy enough’ of learning how to use weapons, and definitely not under a Brahmin.

Because of all the above reasons, Drona does not deem it improper to sabotage Ekalavya’s career as an archer when it comes to light that he has surpassed Arjuna in skill.

He asks for Ekalavya’s right thumb as dakshina for having taught him (despite the fact that he did not teach him), and thus ensures that Arjuna’s status as the world’s best archer remains untarnished.

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