Unalienable: Reflections on Independence and Belonging

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Eklavya, a young tribal, lived deep in the forest, but knew about the kingdom’s eminent personalities and their pursuits. One day, in a forest clearing, he saw Guru Dronacharya instructing the five Pandava princes in archery. Eager to learn the craft, Eklavya asked Dronacharya to be his teacher. Dronacharya refused.

A Mute Instructor

Despite the denial, Ekalavya decided to persevere on his own. He constructed an idol of Dronacharya and used it as silent but encouraging witness. Practicing with dedication and discipline, Ekalavya soon became an expert.

Later, Dronacharya and the Pandava princes were on a hunting expedition in the forest. Their hunting dog ran ahead, barking as it chased their prey. All of a sudden, the barking stopped. The hunting party rushed in the dog’s direction only to find it unhurt, except for a mouth stuffed full of arrows that kept it from barking. 

Princes get surprised at the sight of arrows in the dog’s mouth. (source: Wikipedia -Ramnarayandatt Shastri Pandey – http://openlibrary.org/books/OL23365037M/Mahabharata.)

Accomplished archers themselves, the Pandavas immediately recognized the work of an expert. The archer had perfect aim and rapid-fire precision. The arrows hadn’t pierced the dog’s eyes or neck. The princes conceded—silently—that the unknown archer was better than their brother Arjun, regarded as the most skilled in the kingdom and beyond. 

A Guru’s Cowardice

When Eklavya saw Dronacharya approach, he was overcome with emotion. He acknowledged Dronacharya as his Guru and showed him the idol that had offered instruction, motivation, and inspiration.

Arjun could not bring himself to congratulate Eklavya for his skill. As the Guru’s star student, what Arjun felt was more complicated than jealousy. Dronacharya had always assured Arjun that he would never impart more knowledge and skill to any other student, thus guaranteeing the Pandava prince’s preeminence as an archer. Arjun felt on the brink of losing that identity. Who would he be if no longer the best?

Arjun stepped forward before Dronacharya could bless Eklavya. He reminded his Guru of his promise and even questioned his integrity. Had he tutored Eklavya secretly? Was he no longer committed to Arjun’s pre-eminence? 

Such suspicion was unfair and baseless. Dronacharya was distressed by the mere suggestion that he had reneged on his promise. Moreover, though a revered Guru, he was an employee of the royal family. His primary commitment was to the princes.

The Guru-Dakshina

So, even as he congratulated Eklavya, Dronacharya tried to resolve the situation and assuage Arjun’s wrath. A solution formed as Eklavya bent down, as was the custom, to touch Dronacharya’s feet.

Eklavya’s dakshina of his right hand thumb to his guru (source: Wikipedia – B.K. Mitra – https://archive.org/details/mahabharata01ramauoft/page/n451/mode/1up)

“If I am your guru, you must give me guru-dakshina,” he said to Eklavya. 

Guru-dakshina was more than monetary compensation. It was spiritual compensation and shishyas (students) offered it as a way to acknowledge what the Guru provided—instruction, empowerment and the duty to live a thoughtful and impactful life.

“I am ready to give it!” Eklavya replied.

“I want your thumb—the one you use to aim your arrows so perfectly,” said Dronacharya. Without a moment’s hesitation, Ekalavya cut off his thumb and laid it at his Guru’s feet. He knew he had to abide by the code of honor between a shishya and his Guru.

A Teaching Moment

Eklavya is viewed a role model for his perseverance and achievement. He is admired for his humility and sacrifice in service of his teacher.

But this interpretation ignores the fact that no actual teaching took place. No one pays attention to the pain Eklavya endured in severing his thumb, or to the anguish of losing a skill acquired against the odds. Arjun’s selfishness and Dronacharya’s cruelty escape condemnation.

This interpretation does not hold powerful people accountable for their actions. In fact, it keeps children from grappling with concepts of  courage truth, fairness and justice, especially towards people deemed as “other.”

American Eklavyas

In the present day, the Eklavya syndrome is perfectly illustrated at the conflux of  affirmative action, university admissions and college debt. His story confers new insight into the tug-of-war between meritocracy and affirmative action.

Like modern Dronacharyas, elite US universities preserve the privilege of modern-day Arjuns – legacy admits or children of rich donors. High-achieving students are admitted in lower numbers than their scores merit. They are denied opportunities just like Eklavya was. In fact, Harvard University and the University of North Carolina faced lawsuits over admissions policies that discriminate against high-achieving Asian students.

At the same time, university education has become so expensive that students graduate with crippling debt, that keeps many of  life milestones – like home ownership – out of reach. Student debt, like the severed thumb Eklavya gave Dronacharya, is the “guru-dakshina” that keeps them from fully benefiting from their education.

A True Hero

Classical literature matters because it enhances cultural literacy, while demonstrating virtue and morality. It also allows one to see the interconnectedness of ideas.  While the tale of Eklayva touts the inspiring story of a humble student, I disagree with this interpretation. In my view, Eklavya is the hero of the story. His achievement and his trauma have the power to teach virtue and morality, but it also inspires courage to stand up against greed, injustice and the status quo.

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