Full dedication to his guru makes Arjuna the best of Drona's students.
The sage Vaisampayana, speaking to King Janamejaya, tells the history of the brahmana Drona, who will become the teacher of the Pandavas. As the Mahabharata continues, Drona visits his former friend and classmate Drupada, who has now become a king.
Sri Vaisampayana continued:
My dear king, the mighty Drona, son of Bharadvaja, approached Drupada, son of Prsata, and said, "O king, know me to be your friend Drona."
[Drupada was embarrassed by the raggedy brahmana who had addressed him in such an intimate way. Not realizing that his old friend had acquired extraordinary weapons from Lord Parasurama, the king replied to Drona unkindly.]
King Drupada said:
Brahmana, your understanding of things is not very mature, nor is it at all sound, for you come in such a forward manner and tell me that I am your intimate friend. Nowhere at all, O simple one, do we find such friendship between exalted monarchs and persons bereft of opulence and wealth. Close friendships fade away in time, for men themselves are worn out by time. Your intimate friendship with me was justified and proper in the past because we were both students in a similar situation. But nowhere in this world do we ever see friendship that does not suffer the effects of aging. Selfish desires pull friendship apart, and anger cuts it to pieces. You should not depend so much on aging friendships, but rather find new ones for yourself.
O best of the twice-born, you and I once enjoyed a friendship because it was practical at that time. A poor man cannot be the friend of an affluent man, nor a weak man a friend to a hero. What is the value of a friend of the past? When two people have similar wealth and are born in families of similar nobility, there can be friendship and marital ties between them, but not between the rich and the poor.
An unschooled man cannot be a friend to a scholar, nor can a man with no chariot be a friend to a chariot warrior. Kings do not fraternize with nonroyalty. What need is there for a friend of the past?
The Pandavas Accept Drona As Their Teacher
Sri Vaisampayana said:
When the mighty Drona was thus addressed by King Drupada, fury filled his heart, and he pondered for a moment. Setting his mind against the king of Pancala, the clever sage then journeyed to Hastinapura, the capital of the Kuru leaders.
As he was arriving, the young Pandava princes, coming out of the city together, ran happily about, playing and batting a ball with a stick. As they sported, the ball fell into a well, and they could find no means to get the ball back. Seeing the boys trying to get their ball, powerful Drona chuckled at the scene and rebuked them in a friendly way.
"Look at that!" Drona said. "Shame on your warrior strength! Shame on your skill with weapons! You who are born in the line of King Bharata cannot even get back your ball. Here is a handful of arrows made of reeds; I have empowered them by chanting military mantras. Now watch and see the strength of these arrows, which no other arrows possess. I shall pierce your ball with a reed-arrow, and I shall pierce that arrow with another, and that with another, till I form a chain connecting your ball to my hand."
Eyes wide open with wonder, the boys looked on as Drona proceeded to pull up the ball.
Having seen this, the boys said to the man who had rescued their ball with such skill, "O brahmana, we salute you; no one else can do that. Who are you? How shall we address you, and what can we do to serve you?"
Sri Drona said:
Tell your grandfather Bhisma about me, what I look like, and what I have done. He is most intelligent and will correctly ascertain my identity.
Sri Vaisampayana continued:
"So be it," they said, and they all went and told grandfather Bhisma exactly what the brahmana had said, and especially what he had done. Hearing from the boys, Bhisma knew that the brahmana was Drona, and he thought, "Such a qualified person is the right man to teach these boys."
Grandfather Bhisma, the greatest of swordsmen, then personally fetched Drona with much honor and questioned him in a delicate manner. Drona submitted all the reasons for his coming to Hastinapura.
"O unfailing Bhisma," Drona began, "in the past I went to the great saint Agni-vesya to get skill in weapons, for I wanted to master the military science. Anxious to acquire skill in the Dhanur Veda, I lived with him for a long time, many years in fact, as a humble and celibate student with matted locks of hair.
"The son of the Pancala king, a powerful boy then named Yajna-sena, was also there, and we studied together under our guru with great endeavor and concentration. That boy became my dear friend, and he would always help me in any way he could. I was also attached to his friendship, and we kept company together for a long time, from our childhood up through our student years.
"O Kauravya, he used to approach me to do kind things and speak kind words. He would say things, Bhisma, that made my affection for him grow. He would say, 'Drona, I am the most dear son of my father, and when he installs me on the royal throne of Pancala, then, I swear to you, my friend, the kingdom will be yours to enjoy. My property and wealth will be at your disposal, and my royal pleasures will also be yours.'
"After I graduated from my study of weapons and left school to seek an income for my family, I heard that he had been installed as king. I thought, 'Now my purpose is fulfilled.' In a loving mood, I set out to see once more my dear friend. On the way I constantly remembered how we had lived together and all that he had promised me.
"Approaching my old friend Drupada, as he was now called, I said, 'My lord, O tiger of men, it is I, your friend!'
"As I stood there humbly, having come to him in a spirit of loving friendship, he laughed at me as if I were most insignificant and said, 'Brahmana, your understanding of things is not very mature, nor is at all sound, for you to come in such a forward manner and tell me that I am your intimate friend. Nowhere at all, O simple one, do we find such friendship between exalted monarchs and persons bereft of opulence and wealth. An unschooled man cannot be a friend to a scholar, nor a man with no chariot a friend to a chariot warrior. Kings do not fraternize with nonroyalty. What need is there for a friend of the past?'
"When I was thus addressed by King Drupada, fury filled my heart, and I came straight here to the Kuru capital, Bhisma, anxious to find qualified royal students."
Bhisma and the sons of Pandu accepted Drona as guru.
The Story Of Ekalavya
Gathering together all his grandsons, with varieties of riches, Bhisma said, "Here are your disciples." He turned everything over to Drona with proper protocol, and the great archer Drona accepted the Kaurava princes as his disciples.
When they were alone together in a secluded place and the disciples sat at his feet, Drona said to them with great determination, "There is a task that needs to be done, and it ever turns in my heart. Once you have learned weapons, you must execute that task for me. O innocent ones, tell me in truth that you will."
O ruler of the earth, hearing these words the Kaurava princes remained silent. But then Arjuna, the great fighter, promised to give to his guru all that the guru desired. Drona then kissed Arjuna's head again and again, and embracing him with affection wept tears of joy. The powerful Drona then taught the sons of Pandu to use all kinds of divine and human weapons.
Joining the sons of Pandu, kings and princes from the Vrsni and Andhaka dynasties and from many other countries came to Drona, the best of brahmanas, for they were eager to learn the use of weapons. Radheya, an alleged son of a chariot driver, also came to Drona to accept him as guru. Angry by nature, Radheya wanted to defeat Arjuna. With the support of Duryodhana, he insulted the sons of Pandu.
Sri Vaisampayana continued:
Arjuna consistently endeavored to honor his guru and strived to master the weapons with absolute dedication. He thus became especially dear to Drona.
Once Drona called the cook to a private spot and told him, "Never give Arjuna food in the dark." Thereafter, when Arjuna was once eating by lamp-light the wind blew and extinguished the lamp's flame, but Arjuna continued to eat. He noticed that his hand was not baffled in finding his mouth, because his hand was so accustomed to eating.
So, despite Drona's warning to the cook, Arjuna discovered the effect of constant practice and began to practice shooting at night. O Bharata, Drona heard the reverberating twang of the bow, and rising from bed he approached Arjuna. Embracing him he said, "I shall now teach you in such a way that no bowman in the world will be your equal. I declare this to you in truth!" (1)
Drona then taught Arjuna the art of fighting on foot, on chariots, and on the backs of elephants and horses. He carefully instructed the son of Pandu in the battle of clubs, swords, darts, lances, and javelins, and in the art of combat that mixed weapons.
Witnessing Drona's skill, kings and princes assembled by the thousands, Maharaja, eager to learn the military Veda. Hiranya-dhanu, the Nisadha king, had a son named Ekalavya, who also approached Drona, but the master would not accept him as a student, out of consideration for the others. (2)
[Yet even though Drona had turned him down, Ekalavya did not accept the decision of the master.] The fierce warrior Ekalavya grabbed Drona's feet and placed his own head upon them. He then went to the forest and without the teacher's knowledge or consent crafted out of earthen clay a mystical form of Drona. By unflinching endeavor for power and with a strange faith in this illicit deity, Ekalavya then began to acquire unholy speed in the art of firing arrows.
One day, with Drona's permission, all the Kuru and Pandava princes, who were fierce warriors, set out on their chariots to hunt in the forest. One man carried the paraphernalia of the Pandavas and followed behind them, taking along a dog. As all the princes wandered about, each engaged in his own quest, the foolish dog lost its direction, and while roaming about in the forest the dog approached Ekalavya, the son of the Nisadha king. Staring at the dark Nisadha man, who was covered with dirt and dressed in a black deerskin, the dog kept barking. As the dog barked at him, Ekalavya shot seven arrows into its mouth, so quickly that they seemed to fly all at once.
Its mouth full of shafts, the dog ran back to the Pandavas. When the heroic sons of Pandu saw the hound, they were utterly astonished [for all seven arrows had entered the dog's mouth before the dog could close it]. Realizing the extraordinary quickness required for such a feat, and verifying also by certain symptoms that the bowman had aimed the arrows at the sound of the target, without looking, the princes were humbled, and they praised the feat.
The Pandavas searched the forest for the forest-dweller who had shot the arrows, and they found Ekalavya incessantly hurling his arrows. O king, not recognizing him because of his strange appearance, they inquired, "Who are you, sir, and whom do you serve?"
Please know, my dear warriors, that I am the son of Hiranya-dhanu, the Nisadha king, and that I am a disciple of Drona striving hard to master the Dhanur Veda.
Sri Vaisampayana continued:
Realizing Ekalavya's identity, the Pandavas returned home and told Drona the entire amazing story. Arjuna in particular kept thinking of Ekalavya. Motivated by love for his teacher, he met Drona in a secluded place and said, "Did you not embrace me once with affection and tell me in private these very words: 'No student of mine shall be better than you?' Why then is there now another student of yours, the son of the Nisadha king, who is a better warrior than I, better indeed than anyone in the world?" (3)
Drona thought for a moment and made his decision. Taking ambidextrous Arjuna with him, he went to see the Nisadha prince. Drona beheld Ekalavya smeared all over with dirt and filth, his hair in matted locks, his garments ragged, and with bow in hand, incessantly firing arrows.
Seeing Drona approaching, Ekalavya came forward, touched his head to the ground, and embraced his master's feet. [Ekalavya had not actually obeyed Drona's order that he couldn't become Drona's disciple, but] now Ekalavya worshiped Drona according to standard procedure. Presenting himself as Drona's disciple, he stood before the great master with hands folded in reverence.
Then, O king, Drona said to Ekalavya, "If indeed you are my disciple, then you must at once give me my fee."
Hearing this, Ekalavya was pleased and said, "What may I offer you, my lord? May my guru command me! O best of Vedic scholars, there is nothing I would not give my guru."
Drona replied, "Give me your right thumb."
Hearing Drona's frightful words, Ekalavya kept his word, for he always made true his vow. His face jubilant and his mind free of remorse, he sliced off his right thumb without hesitation and offered it to Drona. He then continued shooting arrows with his remaining fingers, O king, but not as quickly as before. Arjuna was then free of his intense anxiety, and he was also satisfied, for Drona was now true to his word; (4) now none could defeat Arjuna. (5)
Do You See The Bird?
[Sri Vaisampayana continued:]
Among the Kuru princes, Drona had two disciples especially skillful in club-fighting Duryodhana and Bhima. Asvatthama was best in mystic arts, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva surpassed all others in sword fighting. Yudhisthira was the best charioteer. But in overall skill, Dhananjaya, Arjuna, was the finest. To the limits of the seas, Arjuna was celebrated as the natural chief of all other military leaders, for in the use of weapons he had strength, daring, and consummate knowledge. Because of his strong devotional link to the Lord, he performed his duty with courage and in full knowledge of the Supreme. (6)
In weaponry as in affection for his teacher, Arjuna towered above all others. Although the same instructions in the use of weaponry were given to all the students, Arjuna alone, by his skill and dedication, received the title Atiratha, "an outstanding chariot fighter." But, O ruler of men, the wicked sons of Dhrtarastra could not stand to see the superior strength displayed by Bhimasena or the perfect knowledge achieved by Arjuna.
When the students of Drona, leader of men, had at last completed their studies, Drona gathered them all together, eager to test their knowledge. He placed atop a tree, where the students could hardly see it, an artificial bird fashioned by craftsmen and pointed it out as the target.
Sri Drona said:
Quickly, all of you take up your bows! Hurry now, fasten your arrows to the bows and take up your positions, aiming at this bird. The instant I give the word, you must cut off its head. Dear sons, as I command each of you, one by one, do just as I say.
Sri Vaisampayana said:
Thereupon Drona, the best in the line of Angira, first commanded Yudhisthira, "Fasten your arrow, O invincible one, and when I give the word, let it fly!"
Yudhisthira was thus the first to be tested, and firmly grasping his loud-sounding bow, he stood aiming at the bird, totally fixed on the word of his guru.
O best of the Bharatas, as Yudhisthira, the beloved Kuru prince, stood with his bowstring stretched, Drona paused for a moment and asked him, "O son of noble men, do you see the bird on top of the tree?"
"I see it," replied Yudhisthira.
A moment later, Drona again asked him, "Is it the tree only that you see, or do you also see me and your brothers?"
The son of Kunti replied, "I see the large tree, and you, sir, and also my brothers as well as the bird."
Drona pressed him on this very point; again and again Yudhisthira gave the same answer. Drona was not pleased, and he said in a scolding voice, "You may leave the shooting ring, for you cannot hit the target!"
The illustrious teacher then tested all the sons of Dhrtarastra, headed by Duryodhana, asking the same questions. Then he tested his other disciples, headed by Bhima, and the kings of various countries, but all replied, "We see everything you have mentioned." And all were similarly rebuked by the master.
Then, smiling, Drona spoke to Dhananjaya, Arjuna: "Listen, you must strike this target, releasing your arrow the very instant you hear my command! Now, bend your bow and wait for that moment."
Thus addressed, the ambidextrous Arjuna bent his bow and stood there aiming at the target, awaiting his guru's command. As before, Drona paused for a moment and then asked, "Do you see the bird on the tree, or do you see me?"
Arjuna replied, "I see the bird. I see neither you nor the tree."
Drona was pleased. A moment later the mighty teacher spoke again to the greatest Pandava warrior, "If you see the bird, then speak more about it."
"I only see the bird's head, not its body."
At this reply by Arjuna, Drona's hair stood on end out of sheer joy, and he ordered Arjuna, "Shoot!" Arjuna shot his shaft without hesitation, and the razor-sharp arrowhead cut off the bird's head and knocked it to the ground. Seeing Arjuna execute the command perfectly, Drona embraced him. Drona considered King Drupada and his associates already defeated in battle.
Drona Awards Arjuna The Brahmastra
O best of the Bharatas, some time later Drona, the leader of the Angira line, accompanied his disciples as they bathed in the Ganges. As Drona bathed, a powerful crocodile living in those waters grabbed him by the shin, prompted by destiny. Although able to free himself, Drona called out to his disciples, "Kill the crocodile and save me! Quickly!"
The very instant his guru spoke, the terrifying warrior Arjuna struck the submerged beast with a rush of five razor-sharp shafts while the other princes were still rushing about in utter confusion. Seeing Arjuna in action, Drona was delighted, and he deemed the son of Pandu the best of his disciples.
Cut into numerous pieces by Arjuna's arrows, the crocodile released Drona's shin and relinquished life.
Drona then said to the great soul and fighter Arjuna, "O mighty-armed one, take from me the best of all weapons, the invincible brahmastra, complete with the means for launching and withdrawing it. Under no circumstances is it to be used against human beings, for if launched against an enemy of little strength the excess fire of this weapon can burn up the cosmos. It is said that there is no equal to this weapon in all the worlds, so guard it carefully. Heed this instruction: If ever any nonhuman enemy should put you into difficulty, O hero, then you are to unleash this weapon and kill him in battle."
"So be it!" said the frightening Arjuna, promising his teacher with folded hands.
When Arjuna accepted the weapon, his guru again declared to him, "There is no man in this world who will equal you in a trial of bows."
1. It is said that Drona originally tried to favor his son and make him the pre-eminent warrior, but then, seeing Arjuna's devotion, the master made this vow to Arjuna.
2. Drona worried about the consequences of his revealing such potent knowledge to the future leader of an uncivilized people like the Nisadhas.
3. It was not from pride that Arjuna desired to be the best, but from love for his teacher; he wanted his master's word to be kept and his prestige as a guru thus sustained. Arjuna was also destined to protect the principles of justice, and if his teacher revealed advanced military secrets to unfit persons, Arjuna and his brothers could not perform their divine mission of removing the wicked and reestablishing virtue on the earth.
4. An essential trait for a respectable man of the time.
5. See "Ekalavya's Fault," page 33.
6.Thus buddhi-yoga means intelligence that leads to engagement in the service of the Lord. The term buddhi-yoga is elaborately explained in the Bhagavad-gita. See, for example, Bhagavad-gita 10.10.
Hridayananda Dasa Goswami led the team of devotee-scholars who completed the translation and commentary of the Srimad-Bhagavatam begun by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Fluent in several languages, Hridayananda Dasa Goswami has extensively taught Krsna consciousness in India, Europe, the United States, and Latin America. He is a member of the Governing Body Commission, the ultimate managing authority of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. He is now doing graduate work in Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard University.
SRILA BHAKTISIDDHANTA Sarasvati Thakura, in his book of essays entitled Upakhyane Upadesa, "Instructions in Stories" (Gaudiya Mission, 1936), gives the following commentary on the story of Ekalavya*:
[*Translated from Bengali by Bhakti Caru Swami]
To many people, Ekalavya's devotion to his guru is ideal, but there is a special consideration. What was Ekalavya's fault? That should be considered. Wearing the mask of guru-bhakti (devotion to the guru), Ekalavya revolted against his guru. Whether his guru actually considered him disqualified by birth in a low-class family, or was simply testing him for whatever reason when his guru refused to teach him the art ofDhanur Veda, Ekalavya was dutybound to accept the instruction of his spiritual master. But Ekalavya did not like that. He wanted to become great. He needed a guru to be considered bona fide, or perhaps it would not be possible to become great without accepting a guru. With these considerations Ekalavya formed an imaginary or clay material form of the guru.
Ekalavya's main intention was to learn Dhanur Veda and become great. He wanted to satisfy his own senses. He did not want to sacrifice himself to the will of his guru. That was not his honest desire.
Some may say that ultimately Ekalavya accepted the cruel order of his guru without protest. But if we consider this issue more carefully and deeply, we can see that Ekalavya considered mundane morality greater than transcendental devotion. To offer daksina to the guru when he asks for it is a moral code. Ekalavya's sense of morality inspired him to cut off his thumb. He did not offer the daksina with spontaneous devotion. (Otherwise, he would have accepted the guru's first order.)
Real devotion is simple and spontaneous. If Ekalavya had unconditional and natural devotion for Hari (God), guru, and Vaisnava (the devotee of the Lord), then the guru, Dronacarya, and the best of Vaisnavas, Arjuna, and the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna, would not have been dissapointed by Ekalavya's behavior.
Ekalavya's endeavor to learn the Dhanur Veda and his desire to become great were not accepted by his guru. In the core of Ekalavya's heart, he desired to become better than the best of Vaisnavas, Arjuna. The desire to become greater than the Vaisnavas is not devotion.
By mundane consideration the desire to become great is a good desire. But devotion is the effort to remain submissive to the Vaisnavas. Ekalavya wanted his skill to be greater than that acquired by learning the Vedic wisdom directly from a bona fide spiritual master, as Arjuna had done. By asking Dronacarya to do something about Ekalavya, Arjuna showed Ekalavya that Ekalavya's approach to learning the Vedic science was wrong. If Arjuna had not mercifully pointed that out to him, impersonalism would have prevailed. To learn sciences and devotions, people would have created imaginary, mundane, unconscious gurus instead of approaching a bona fide guru.
So Arjuna took care that such an atheistic principle not be established. Arjuna was not envious of Ekalavya. Arjuna's action was a manifestation of his mercy toward Ekalavya and the whole world. If Ekalavya had been an unalloyed devotee of his guru, Krsna would not have destroyed such a guru-bhakta, an earnest disciple of the guru. Krsna always protects His devotees. But Ekalavya was killed by the hand of Krsna. That is what finally happened to Ekalavya. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu said that we cannot judge a devotee just by seeing his external austerities. The demons also perform austerities, even more than the demigods.
Ekalavya wanted to become greater than a Vaisnava, against his guru's desire. That is why he was killed by Krsna and ultimately given impersonal liberation. Only the demons are killed by Krsna, and the devotees always protected. Hiranyakasipu and Prahlada are the proof. Therefore we should never try to become greater than Vaisnavas and, wearing a mask of guru-bhakti, actually become an impersonalist. That is what we should learn from the example of Ekalavya. Proficiency in performing activities is not a symptom of guru-bhakti, devotion to the guru. Bhakti means remaining subordinate and submissive to the Lord's loving servants, the Vaisnavas.