Why did Ekalavya cut his thumb?

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: Why did Ekalavya cut his thumb?

(For a comprehensive resource on Ekalavya, see Drona and Ekalavya: A Story of Ambition, Envy and Sabotage.)

Drona asks for Dakshina

Ekalavya cuts off his thumb when Drona, the preceptor of the Kuru princes, asks him to give him his right thumb as ‘guru dakshina’.

Drona does not actually teach Ekalavya anything. Ekalavya learns the art of archery by practicing by himself. But he builds a mud statue of Drona and pretends that the acharya is watching over him.

Drona asks for dakshina only to sabotage Ekalavya’s promising archery career. Both Drona and Arjuna think that Ekalavya could potentially surpass Arjuna at archery if he is not curtailed in some way.

Ekalavya does not hesitate when Drona asks for his thumb. With a smile on his face, he lops it off and presents it to his teacher.

Did Ekalavya have a choice?

One must wonder if Ekalavya indeed had a choice with this act. If he had said no, what would Drona have done?

Practically speaking, with the power differential between the Kuru dynasty and the Nishada race, Drona would have found several ways in the hypothetical future with which Ekalavya’s archery skills are subdued.

He might have found a way to injure Ekalavya. If he believes the need is deep enough, he may even have had him killed.

(If you think this is an unreasonable suggestion, remember that in the Mahabharata universe, Nishadas are considered expendable. Garuda eats up a whole island of Nishadas just to satiate his hunger. And Kunti does not think twice about sacrificing a Nishada woman and five of her sons in the fire that lights up the house of wax.)

If Ekalavya had had some time to think about Drona’s demand, he might have reasoned that he actually does not have a choice.

His path of least resistance is to give up his thumb and live now. If he refuses – no matter what reason he cites – he will be hunted down by the Kuru establishment.

Ekalavya’s Innocence

If we look at the incident from another angle, we will recall that Ekalavya is a mere boy at this point in the story. He is no older than perhaps thirteen or fourteen.

And the facts we know about him are: (1) He is interested in learning the science of archery, (2) he wants be taught by Drona, and (3) when he is snubbed by Drona, he builds a mud idol of the teacher and learns his craft on his own.

These are all traits of an idealistic boy who is perhaps yet a stranger to the vile ways of the world.

A more cynical young man would have reacted to Drona’s snub with anger. He may have still taught himself to become a great archer, but he would have carried a grudge against Drona. He would have been driven by the need to prove the old man wrong.

But Ekalavya takes the opposite approach. He continues to respect Drona. When the Kuru princes ask him who he is, he proudly says that he is Drona’s disciple.

All of this means that when Drona asks for Ekalavya’s thumb, the latter is in no frame of mind to think ill of the preceptor. He is so consumed by devotion that he gladly gives Drona what he asks.

Is Drona’s demand legal?

One wonders at this point just how legal it is for Drona to demand dakshina from a person he has not taught.

For a guru-shishya relationship to take place, one assumes there has to be consent from both parties. Can a student ‘employ’ a teacher without the teacher’s knowledge? Can a teacher do the same to a student?

In Ekalavya’s mind, Drona is his teacher. There is no argument about that.

But in Drona’s mind, he must know that he is not Ekalavya’s teacher. And his demand for dakshina, therefore, cannot be legal. Any king or judge – if this matter reaches them – should deem Drona’s request as illegal.

In short, from a purely legal point of view, Ekalavya would have been well within his rights to say no to Drona’s demand.

That is, of course, assuming that equal justice was available for Nishadas against higher order counterparties like Brahmins and Kshatriyas.

Did Ekalavya Regret this?

While no one can be absolutely certain about another person’s emotions, we can assert reasonably that the adult Ekalavya probably regretted the decision taken by his younger self to give up his right thumb.

The older Ekalavya would have understood more about what had happened – he would have seen Drona’s act for what it was: a bid to sabotage him and protect Arjuna’s feelings.

While the boy Ekalavya was blinded by devotion (and a sense of duty) toward Drona, the older version would have been wise enough to see that he had not been taught anything by Drona. He did not owe him any dakshina.

In fact, it is likely that this incident turns Ekalavya from an idealistic, naive young man to someone more attuned to the harsh realities of life, in which people lie, deceive and oppress to protect their own interests.

Ekalavya’s Future

We are told that Ekalavya later joins hands with Jarasandha when the king of Magadha attacks Mathura. This means two things:

First, Ekalavya has turned his back on the Kuru dynasty, and has given support to Jarasandha, which is considered a competitor to Kuru. We do not know the inside story of this alliance, but it is not inconceivable that Ekalavya’s bitterness made him side with Magadha.

Second, it appears as though Ekalavya has taught himself to shoot arrows without using his right thumb. Maybe he learnt to draw arrows from his quiver, place them on the bow, and shoot them – all without using his thumb.

Or maybe he learnt to hold the bow without needing the thumb so that he can draw and shoot with his left hand. We do not know the details, but Ekalavya seems to have moved on from the Drona incident – but with bitterness and anger.

The fact that Krishna kills Ekalavya – and later declares that this was necessary to uphold Dharma – suggests also that Ekalavya has turned to the ‘dark’ side.

And Drona, ultimately, has to take the lion’s share of the blame for this switch.

Further Reading

If you liked this post, you will probably also enjoy: Arjuna: 50+ Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.