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Are we breeding new-age Ekalavyas?

What is the worth of merit in a democracy? Renuka Narayanan links it to Ekalavya and the Pandavas.

india Updated: Aug 20, 2008 15:32 IST

The reservation quota issue asks if 'meritocracy' and democracy are mutually exclusive in India. An ancient scriptural incident gives startling in sights on both rights and (usually overlooked) duties: the story of Ekalavya in the Mahabharata.

We take for granted now that Ekalavya was a poor victim cruelly punished by vested elitist interests for presuming to want knowledge. The story is always presented in tiresomely reductivist b&w terms which shortchange its complexity.

Let’s refresh memory first. Ekalavya was a tribal prince who wanted to be the best bowman in the world. The best teacher of the time was Dronacharya, tutor to royal princes, the Kauravas and Pandavas. Arjuna was established as his best student.

Ekalavya took to observing Drona’s lessons by stealth. He saluted him as his manasik guru, made a statue of him to which he prayed daily and applied the lessons he had observed in hiding. One day he was found out. Drona asked him for his archer’s thumb as gurudakshina, disabling him for good from bettering Arjuna, whose aim he had outscored.

But all is not as simple as it seems. Consider where Drona was coming from. As a poor student at gurukul, his best friend was Drupada, prince of the Panchalas (who was to become Draupadi’s father). Drupada made a boyhood promise to his best friend to share his realm with him when he became the king. They went their ways but Drona, though awesomely talented, remained dirt poor. He decided to visit Drupada, who however drove him away with insults.

Revenging himself on Drupada became Drona’s burning mission. He deliberately set himself up in the way of the Kuru princes, showed off his skill and was appointed by Bhishma as their tutor. All is going well, soon the time will come to get gurudakshina from the princes and Drona already knows what he wants, that’s why he became their tutor.

He wants them to invade Panchala and bring Drupada captive to him - and indeed, that’s what he gets. But before this can happen, Ekalavya outscores Arjuna! Drona’s pet pupil pouts in displeasure. At that moment, Drona’s whole purpose is about to be derailed: what if Bhishma dismisses him for apparently having taught Ekalavya on the sly? Ekalavya has to be demoted.

The scriptural point overlooked perhaps is that teachers had rights too, to select pupils (no Sufi master allowed just anybody in, either). Several gurus accepted non-elite pupils, the most famous being Satyakama Jabali, the illegitimate son of a maid. He showed up at an ashram and was gladly taught:
"And nothing was omitted, yea, nothing was omitted" (Chandogya Upanishad).

Today, can we just walk into Harvard, Yale or Oxbridge without the marks, just because we’re from “poor” India? We need to apply properly. And we need to qualify, don’t we?

First Published: Jun 03, 2006 12:24 IST