After hearing in depth the Eklavya story, nowadays I get pissed off when people bring up the ostensibly honorable Dronacharya-Eklavya teacher-student, guru-shishya relationship. In my view, the story demonstrates the merits of self-designed learning and acts as a stern reminder of the perils of giving too much credence to experts. But whenever it's narrated, I feel like there's this subconscious message being delivered that "caste reigns supreme" or "everyone has their place in society". This story needs a rewriting.
So, ladies and gentlemen, here's
---- Part 1 : Rejection Nation ----Eklavya was a bright and talented little boy who was fascinated by archery and really wanted to master it. He found out that there's an ace archery teacher located quite nearby, went by the name of Dronacharya, was famous for mentoring the Pandavas.
So our Eklavya finally manages to get an appointment after immeasurable waiting and haggling with the hierarchy of clerks at Drona's ashram. When he meets the teacher, he's expecting there will be some qualifying test or something, and has been practicing for days with some makeshift bows and arrows (and gotten quite good too I might add).
But the first thing our great teacher asks him is his family name, then digs up his caste. And throws up his hands in the air, saying, "sorry boss, this is an autonomous institution, and there's another 2000 yrs or so remaining for backward caste quota system to come". Eklavya pleads with the man, implores him, begs him for just one chance to showcase his skills. This is his life's passion after all, how can this guru just say no because of a slight difference in co-ordinates when he arrived in this world? He readies his bow for proving his skills..
The great teacher takes a bow..
No, wait, he actually takes THE bow, more like snatches it, and breaks it in two. You see, rumour had already spread in the village about a young boy practicing in the forest, Drona had snuck there 2 days back and seen Eklavya practicing. This young little boy was already hitting targets that his second-year students couldn't hit. He knew he couldn't afford to let him even demonstrate here at the ashram, or all his underlings will get the drift and start questioning his own abilities as a teacher.
Poor Eklavya is distraught. He quietly picks up the pieces and runs off.
------- Part 2 : After the dark comes the dawn ------Weeks go by. Eklavya is totally down. Buddhe ne toh batti hi bhujadi. One day his best buddy Chintu comes along to play, to find him again chin resting in palms, staring down at his own reflection in the pond. Eklavya turns him away. Chintu has had enough of this moping and says it so.
"Why in Jyotiba Phule's name are you letting that up-nosed, autocratic son of a brahminical pig stop you from becoming the archer you want to be?"
"But no one will teach me, yaar! He's got the whole profession rigged! I can't afford to travel to the far-away ashrams. There's nothing I can do!"
"Then teach yourself, shithead!", and off storms Chintu back home. (Chintu has a slightly shorter temper owing to the fact that while all the other boys in the village were given cool names like 'Eklavya', he was stuck with 'Chintu').
An eagle calls out in the distance. Some butterflies dance among the flowers. A squirrel rolling a nut along a tree branch, loses grip and the nut drops into the pond with a deep "Doop!" Ripples spread out. A gentle breeze comes along and bristles the feathers in of Eklavya's makeshift arrows. He takes another look at his reflection, and this time, as the ripples subside, he sees something different.
"Teach... my... self..."
He looks back at the broken bow he never got around to fixing. He'd spent 6 hours in the forest looking for the perfect branch to get the strength and elasticity just right. He'd fabricated his own makeshift arrows from thrown-away materials. He'd set up his own archery range to practice for the interview. He did all this by himself, without anyone's help. He knew the techniques of pulling the arrows because he'd been keenly observing all the soldiers do it when they were practicing.
He can continue practicing here in the forest, can continue learning. He can teach himself.
And so, folks, Eklavya started his self-designed, self-led learning. The distance of his arrows from the mark became his teacher : never tiring, never wavering in their feedback. Months, years passed. Eklavya became a skilled archer and famous for it in his community. They took him along on every hunting expedition. He could even shoot down birds! The community knew the attitudes of the upper-castes towards them, so never bothered telling them about Eklavya again. "Oh, he's gone to the forest to gather wood or food".
--- Part 3 : Did you really think I'd leave out the statue? ---When he came to a point where he needed to acclimatise himself to shooting at other humans, Eklavya got a wide grin on his lips. Only one face came swimming to his head, and he transcribed it onto clay. What better way to motivate him to shoot the target with deadly accuracy, than the mud likeness of the same filthy bastard who'd tried to deny him his destiny!
And so was propped one bust after another of the famed archery teacher Dronacharya. Off chipped the features with every arrow strike. Here Eklavya had a problem. The arrow would demolish its target. He wasn't able to make out accurately where it hit. There were no high-speed video cameras to mount and capture the action, 2000 years before Discovery Channel. So he needed to improvise. A target that can take the hit... a stone statue!! It took him some time but he was finally able to make one. And then his marksmanship only got better.
--- Part 4 : The Jealous Teacher ---Then, alas, old man Dronacharya gets wind of the whole operation. Goes along with a few soldiers. Meets Eklavya sharpening his bow. Spots the statue of his, is amazed by the sculpture. Asks him what is this doing here?
Eklavya looks at the soldiers, thinks for a bit and then comes up with the best excuse he can make in the time: "Oh, dear guru, so what if you couldn't be with me in person? I made a moorti of you and always looked to you for guidance in my learning!" (In a way he wasn't really lying.. the statue had been an excellent motivator) Old man Drona's mighty impressed. Luckily old man Drona's eyesight has been getting worse over the years, so he doesn't notice the etches made my the numberous arrows on his replica's chandrabindu (would you call it the brain-spot in english?).
Oh, well, so he's an archer now. But, wait a minute... you know how greedy these upper-caste people are, right? Particularly the successful and greatly respected ones. "Great. So what about my tuition fees? After all, I taught you all these years and haven't got a dime!"
"Kya item hai, boss. Should've just shot him from a distance when he was coming. Why pretend in front of this loser?", thinks Eklavya. "LOL! You were sitting cozy in your ashram this whole time, old man! You didn't do any work here! Go back whence you came, I ain't taking on any student debt for you! You didn't teach me, I taught myself! As it is, I have nothing that can be of value to you." and saying so, Eklavya wags his thumb to Drona.
Now, history has a way of telling only the more powerful party's version. And so it transpired that fateful day, my friends, that Dronacharya lost it, ordered his soldiers to grab hold of our friend Eklavya, and for his impudence, cut off the wagging thumb. Before he could finish off our friend, they heard Eklavya's friends (including a fiery Chintu) screaming and running towards them : they'd just got news that Dronacharya had gone that way with military company. The aggressors made like the wind and locked themselves back in his ashram, and when he had to explain himself to the fraternity, made up the whole honourable version of the Gurudakshina. Who was there to question him?
--- Part 5 : Epilogue ---What just happened was wrong, it should not have happened and we must accept it for that. Let's not try to justify or glorify mishaps, friends, for doing so we give the criminal the leeway and encourage wrong things to happen again.
Eklavya couldn't do archery anymore. But he was something the regular archers weren't : He was a self-designed learner. And self-designed learners have ways of overcoming their disasters and innovating their way out of their dead-ends without external assistance, thankyou very much. He had enjoyed all these years of archery to the fullest, because he wasn't locked in any exam routine, didn't have to mug up useless piles of books, didn't have to compete with his best buddies for the teacher's blessings.
He didn't have to prove his worth to anybody. He had learned archery by DOING IT and had no regrets, and that was something to be cherished. With no loss in confidence he found something else to do, got along with it and the spotlight of History moved on to another character.
But his spirit and the idea of self-led learning endured and is visible all around us today. The clout of the Dronacharyas is declining more rapidly than ever, and more and more people each day are coming to the same realization that Eklavya did. We can all be our own teachers. (the Chintu's in everyone's lives are playing their roles too.)
So let's celebrate Eklavya for what he did and not what was done to him. Life is not about what is given to you; it's about what you make of it.
--- The End : If you liked it, give me some money, dude! ---
Afternote: In case you got offended by this version's treatment of the revered Dronacharya (who for me represents all the institutions of higher learning today that have screwed up all the professions by monopolizing access and brought the planet to peril in their arrogance and stupidity), kindly send me your photo so I can play darts with it.