Why was Arjuna Drona’s favourite pupil?

Why was Arjuna Drona's favourite pupil - Featured Image - Picture of a vulture head. Representing the target Arjuna shoots at to impress Drona.

Arjuna is the most powerful warrior in the Mahabharata universe. He is the third of the Pandavas in order of seniority, born after Yudhishthir and Bhimasena.

He is the last of Kunti’s children. After his birth, Kunti decides that she will summon no more gods and bear no more sons. Nakula and Sahadeva, the fourth and fifth of the Pandavas respectively, are born to Madri, Pandu’s second wife.

In this post, we will answer the question: Why was Arjuna Drona’s favourite pupil?

Drona’s love for Arjuna can be traced back to two incidents: (1) When asked to shoot at the eye of a bird, Arjuna is the only one to focus upon it single-mindedly, and (2) Drona witnesses Arjuna practicing shooting arrows in the dark with the intention of honing his archer’s instincts. Because of Arjuna’s twin qualities of focus and dedication, he becomes Drona’s favourite.

Read on to discover more about Arjuna and Drona’s relationship in the Mahabharata.

(For answers to all Arjuna-related questions, see Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Partiality toward Ashwatthama

During his initial days as the preceptor of the Kuru princes, Drona displays understandable partiality toward Ashwatthama, his son.

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 ostensibly 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.

Food in the Dark

Seeing Arjuna’s commitment to learning, Drona tells the royal cook once, ‘Do not ever give him his food in the dark. Also do not ever tell him that I have instructed you thus.’

But despite Drona’s effort to curtail the learning curve of the third Pandava, one day, while in the middle of dinner, a gust of wind blows out the candle, and to Arjuna’s surprise, his hand continues to feed his mouth in the dark.

‘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 Incident of the Bird

Toward the end of the princes’ training period, to test their levels of focus, Dronacharya gets an artificial vulture made and mounted on a tree. The task for each prince is to behead the bird with an arrow.

The first opportunity goes, rightly, to Yudhishthir, the eldest of them all. With the prince ready with his aim, Drona stops him and asks, ‘Before you shoot, my child, tell me what you see.’

‘I see the tree, sir,’ replies Yudhishthir truthfully, ‘and I see you, my brothers, the tree and the bird.’

‘I see,’ says Drona. ‘Step aside and allow Duryodhana to try now.’

Duryodhana gives a similar response, and a vexed Drona asks him to lower his bow as well. One after the other, all the princes step up to the mark and draw their arrows, only to be dissuaded by the teacher for some unknown reason.

At the end, Arjuna comes to where his brothers had stood, and pulls at the string of his bow, arrow set in place. Drona asks him the same question he had been asking all morning.

Arjuna replies that he can see nothing and no one except for the throat of the bird that he is meant to shoot.

Pleased with the answer, for it tells him what he already knows (that Arjuna was the best of them all), Drona gives the command to shoot the bird.

The Brahmastra

On another occasion, Drona is attacked by an alligator in the Ganga, and Arjuna saves him from the animal with five well-timed arrows. As reward for this, Drona gives him the Brahmastra, and teaches him the methods of recalling and hurling it.

‘But you must not use it against a human foe,’ warns Drona, ‘for it might cause the destruction of the whole universe. If, in the future, you come across an enemy that is not human, and he is on the brink of taking your life, then and only then must you use this weapon.’

It is interesting to note that both the stories that celebrate Arjuna’s prowess and his position as Drona’s favourite pupil do so by focusing on his mental attributes such as concentration and grit, not his ability and skill.

It is not Arjuna’s talent that endears him to Drona; it is his fortitude.

Ekalavya

Ekalavya is a prince of a settlement of Nishadas. He approaches Drona and ask if he could learn archery under him, but Drona replies: ‘‘I teach the high-born princes of Hastinapur. You will not be allowed into the same compound as them, and I do not have time to teach you privately.’

Undaunted, Ekalavya returns to his settlement and creates for himself a mud statue of the man he wished would be his teacher. And in front of that statue, he practices shooting the bow and arrow. In time, he becomes as skilful 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, ‘prince 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.’

Drona Protects Arjuna

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?’

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.

Drona thus protects the status of his favourite pupil by actively sabotaging the efforts of another young man who shows the same amount of promise.

Arjuna Captures Drupada

After Drona is finished training the Kuru princes, he asks them for his dakshina. ‘Capture Drupada, the king of Panchala, and bring him back to me as a prisoner. I wish to speak with him.’

This is a highly unusual – and dangerous – assignment, one at which Duryodhana and his brothers fail. The Pandavas have their turn next, and Arjuna leads the campaign against Panchala.

He defeats Drupada himself and brings him back to Drona, chained and helpless. He presents Drupada as dakshina to his teacher.

This act of valour and duty endears Drona further to Arjuna.

Conclusion

Arjuna is Drona’s favourite pupil for four different reasons:

  • Arjuna is the most naturally talented of all the Kuru princes at wielding the bow and arrow.
  • He also displays the most amount of commitment to the craft of archery, often practicing at night and with blindfolds on to sharpen his instincts.
  • He saves Drona’s life from crocodiles.
  • He wins the war against Panchala and presents Drupada as dakshina to Drona.

In return, Drona interferes with the journey of Ekalavya to preserve Arjuna’s status as the world’s best archer. The preceptor and pupil, therefore, enjoy a mutually loving and respectful relationship until the Kurukshetra war.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!