27.) Ekalavya or Droṇa?

Much has been written in recent times regarding the encounter of Droṇa and Ekalavya in the Mahābhārata. The story, too well-known to be retold, is regularly cited as an expression of caste oppression within Hinduism. From a sociological and specially Marxist perspective, it has been presented as a case of the exploitation of the tribals by the higher castes – specially by the Brāhmaṇas and the Kṣatriyas in the form of Droṇa and Arjuna. This is a useful perspective. Not everything in a tradition may serve, or may even have been intended to serve, as an example. Parts of it could also have been meant to serve, or at least can also serve, as a warning of how things might go wrong. After all Jesus too suffers.

However, the question arises: what has been the tradition’s own take on this incident in the past? It seems to me that in this context a key and clarifying question has gone unasked. It is this: who is the tradition’s hero – Droṇa or Ekalavya?

Allow me to share with you one deployment of this episode within the tradition, which may help us answer the question. It has to with an incident in the life of Rāmānuja. It is mentioned in the popular thirteenth century hagiographical work of the Śrīvaiṣṇava tradition – the Guruparamparāprabhāvam or the Splendour of the Succession of Teachers. This passage has been cited in these ruminations earlier as well.

Apparently, while learning the meaning of the Tiruvāymoli from Tirumālai Āntān, Rāmānuja differed from his teacher’s interpretation of the verses several times, offering alternate explanations. After Rāmānuja offered a different interpretation for 2.3.4, his teacher ceased his instruction, saying that these were mischievous explanations, which he had not heard from Yāmuna. The stalemate was resolved by another disciple of Yāmuna, Tirukōttiyūr Nampi, who reconciled the teacher and disciple of Yāmuna. What is interesting to note is that Rāmānuja’a position had to be vindicated by another teacher’s recollection of the Yāmuna’s commentary, and there was no text against which to check it. The Splendor goes on to say that at a later time, Tirumālai Āntān again hesitated to accept a certain interpretation , but Rāmānuja said that he was a disciple of Yāmuna as the legendary Ekalavya was a disciple of Droṇa: a student who learnt from a master in spirit, without actually every being in his presence. So, even when there was no witness to attest that Rāmānuja’s opinion had been stated earlier by Yāmuna, the community assumed that whatever Rāmānuja stated would have been said by or at least permitted by Yāmuna.[1]

I think the answer is clear who the hero is. It is Ekalavya.

The point has to do with the dynamics of master-disciple relationship. The following parable of Rāmakrsna is instructive here:

A disciple who had a firm faith in the infinite power of his Guru walked over a river by simply uttering his name. Seeing this, the Guru thought, ‘Well, is there such a power in my mere name? Then how very great and powerful I must be!’ The next day, the Guru also tried to walk over the river uttering ‘I’, ‘I’, ‘I’, but no sooner did he step on the water than he sank and was soon drowned; for the poor man did not know how to swim even. Faith can achieve miracles while vanity or egotism brings about the destruction of a man.[2]

[1] John Carman and Vasudha Narayanan, The Tamil Veda: Pillān’s Interpretation of the Tiruvāyamoli (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989) p. 9.

[2] Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna (Mylapore: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1987) p. 140-141


One Response to “27.) Ekalavya or Droṇa?”

  1. Pankaj Jain Says:

    Professor Sharma,

    Great to discover your blog from your signature in one of your posts to RISA-L.

    Just to add to your thought-provoking points, Drona is also criticized for his role at various places in MBh, e.g., his angry reaction against Dhrishtadyumna for denying the kingdom and also Drona’s role in witnessing the plight of Draupadi…

    Again, thanks for letting the Ganga of your research flow on the internet, we always needed it…


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