In ancient India, nearly 5000 years ago, there lived a young Nishada (a tribe of hunters) prince by the name of Eklavya. Even though he was a hunter by birth, being the son of the chief of hunters in the forests of Hastinapur, he aspired to become a great archer and a brave warrior.
He expressed this desire to his father, “Father, I want to be an archer and become a disciple of the great Guru Dronacharya – the greatest teacher of the art of archery and the science of warfare in the kingdom. Please give me your blessings before I set out for his Gurukul*.”
His father remained silent. Eklavya knew what was bothering his father. He said, “Father, I know we are Shudras, belonging to the hunting tribe. But the Guru is a wise and learned man. Please allow me to become his disciple.”
Eklavya’s father was a kind man and did not wish to refuse his son. So he gave his blessings and sent his son on his way.
Eklavya reached the Gurukul of Guru Dronacharya – who was also the royal teacher of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Thrilled at the prospect of finally meeting the Guru he had idolized, his eyes eagerly sought out the teacher. He soon spotted him instructing a boy – none other than the Pandava Arjun.
Eklavya went to Drona and folded his hands in greeting, bowing down low to touch the sage’s feet. Drona was surprised to see the stranger and asked him, “Who are you?”
“Oh Guru, I am Eklavya, the son of the Chief of the Nishada tribe of hunters in the forests of Hastinapur. Please accept me as your humble shishya and teach me the art of archery and the science of warfare”, replied Eklavya.
Dronacharya reflected for a minute, then said, “Eklavya, if you are a Nishada hunter, then you are a Shudra, the lowest caste in the kingdom. I am a Brahmin, the highest of castes. All my students are Kshatriyas, the warrior caste. I cannot teach a Shudra boy.”
The Pandavas stood watching the exchange. Encouraged by the Guru’s words, Arjuna spoke up, “Guru Dronacharya is a royal teacher, appointed by the King to train us – the princes of the kingdom. How dare you expect to be taught by him! Leave the gurukul now.”
Eklavya was surprised and hurt at the Guru’s words, and stunned by Arjuna’s insult. He was a chief’s son, yet he had never insulted anyone. He quietly left the gurukul. Resolute in his determination to learn archery, he went back to the forest. There he built an idol of Guru Dronacharya with mud and placed it in a secluded clearing. Eklavya believed that if he practiced faithfully in front of his Guru, he would be able to master the art of archery. So every morning he would pray to the idol and practice throughout the day. After years of practicing, he became a skilled archer, even surpassing the best archer in the kingdom – Arjuna.
One day, while practicing, a dog started barking some distance away. Its constant barking irritated Eklavya, who fired seven arrows in quick succession, filling the dog’s mouth without injuring it. The dog was no longer able to bark and roamed around the forest.
Thus roaming, the dog reached the Pandavas, who were practicing in the forest along with Guru Dronacharya. Drona was amazed to see such a feat of archery. He realized that only an extremely skilled archer could have done this. He, along with the Pandavas, set out to look for the archer.
Soon they came across a young man, dressed in a hunter’s clothes practicing archery. It was Eklavya.
Dronacharya went up to him and asked, “You aim is remarkable! Who is your teacher?”
“You, Sir,” replied Eklavya.
Dronacharya was stunned. “How can I be your Guru when I have never met you before?”
“I am Eklavya, the boy who came to learn archery from you at your gurukul. After you refused, I came back to the forest and made a mud idol of you. I prayed to it everyday, and with its blessing I was able to master the skills of archery”, replied Eklavya.
Arjuna was angry, as he was sure of his place as the best archer in the world. Dronacharya also realized that Eklavya had the skills to surpass even Arjuna. However, as the royal teacher, Eklavya’s excellence would put him in a difficult situation, as a mere Shudra hunter would surpass a Kshatriya prince under his tutelage.
He devised a way out. To Eklavya he said, “Seeing that you have learnt from me, you will now have to pay guru dakshina – my gift for training you.”
Eklavya was overjoyed at this. A guru dakshina was the offering made to a teacher when the teacher considered the shishya to have completed his learning. He replied, “I am blessed that you have asked me for guru dakshina. I would never refuse anything that you ask.”
Dronacharya seized his chance, “Eklavya, as guru dakshina, you have to give me your right thumb.”
Everyone was shocked, even Arjuna. Everyone knew that an archer could never shoot an arrow without his right thumb.
Eklavya looked steadily at Dronacharya. He realized the reason behind this demand. Nevertheless he replied, “I will never disobey your wish, Sir. I am grateful that you recognized me your disciple even though I am a Shudra.”
Saying this, he took a knife and cut off his right thumb and placed it at his Guru’s feet.
Everyone, including Dronacharya marveled at the boy’s courage. Dronacharya was humbled and blessed Eklavya, “You will be known far and wide as a great archer, even without your thumb. Moreover, you will always be remembered as the greatest student ever for your loyalty towards your guru.” So saying, Dronacharya and the Pandavas left the forest.
Eklavya learnt to shoot with forefinger and middle finger and remains an example of the ideal student till today.
* Gurukul – A residential school in Hinduism where children were sent for learning, where the guru (teacher) and the shishya (student(s)) would reside together at the place for many years till learning was complete.