Was Dronacharya justified in Penalizing the Dutiful Student Eklavya?

Eklavya is a highly interesting character in the Mahabharata. He appears during very early stage of the epic when the Pandavas and Kauravas were learning under the tutelage of Dronacharya, the renowned sage in the forest Gurukula. Arjuna, the third of the Pandavas was the most favorite student of Dronacharya due to his diligent involvement in the educational process and an amazing grasping power. Once, Dronacharya had promised Arjuna that he will make him second to no other human in archery. The promise was unfolding in the Gurukulam and Arjuna was wonderfully catching up with the art.

Eklavya was the prince of Nidhisha, a tribal kingdom in the forest. Upon spotting Dronacharya teach his students in the Gurukulam, Eklavya approaches him and asks whether he can also be accepted in the Gurukulam to learn archery under his able guidance. Dronacharya could not accept the request since he was teaching the royal princes and as per rule could not admit anyone below the royal class along with the group. However, Eklavya did not lose heart. He erected an effigy of Dronacharya and took it as his Guru. He stealthily observed the classes conducted by Dronacharya and learnt the art without the knowledge of Dronacharya.

Once when a dog was disturbing his meditation, Eklavya used his intricate archery skill to shoot some arrows at it in a way stopping it from barking. This was a rare art that could not be accomplished by anyone other than the student of Dronacharya. Once the students of Dronacharya and the Guru himself spotted the dog, they wondered who could have done it. Eklavya appeared in front of them and narrated all that happened. Dronacharya was taken to surprise at the diligent involvement of his student. However, he remembered the promise he made to Arjuna and he wanted to stop someone becoming more talented in archery than Arjuna. Therefore, trickily he asked Eklavya what Gurudakshina (fee for the teacher) he would give for learning the art under the guidance of his statue. Eklavya accepted to give anything since he owed the art to Dronacharya. Dronacharya asked him to give his right thumb and Eklavya obliged by slicing it away from his body.

Dronacharya’s act has evoked mixed responses from people. On one hand, none can justify Eklavya learning the art stealthily. Though several interpretations can be given to justify or condemn Dronacharya’s act, the point is that any decision will follow from some specific reasons typical to the situation which only Dronacharya would only know. Standing away from a scene it is not right to pass our judgment towards an act done by a renowned Acharya like Dronacharya. However, the episode throws light on a critical issue like the importance of cultivating the true spirit of learning under the master in perfect obedience and not stealthily grabbing an art without the knowledge of the teacher.

Today in the modern context, we talk of this as intellectual copyright. On the other hand, we are also amazed at the achievement of Eklavya and wonder at what diligent involvement can give an individual. Also, we admire Eklavya when he accepted the fact before the open forum and was prepared to give any fee that the teacher demands though he did not teach him physically. In fact he did this knowing that giving away his thumb will be a death blow on the art of archery itself. There he excels as a true student though the means he adopted can’t be justified. Far from being a critic, we must imbibe these lessons from the episode.

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