Sometimes in an epic or a novel, an insignificant character denigrates the aura of central characters, by performing a significant action that produces a consequential impact on the future course of events. Eklavya, an example of such a character from the longest recorded epic Mahabharata, disparages the heroic greatness of Arjuna, the gallant conqueror of the great epic and gleams with his chivalry, his sacrifice, and his devotion to the preceptor. Interestingly, the character Eklavya somehow had happened to have a kinship with the ruler of ancient North Bengal, which was famously known as Pundravardhana in the primordial period. However, before proceeding on that subject, we would briefly discuss the series of events that propelled him to come across a kinship with the ancient ruler of North Bengal.

In Mahabharata, Eklavya first appears in Dronacharya’s royal academy of military sciences (gurukul). Dronacharya was selected as the teacher (guru) of Kuru princes and continued teaching the Pandavas and Kauravas, and his reputation became widespread. On witnessing the skills of Kuru princes, gradually thousands of kings and princes from different kingdom assembled to learn the science of military skills; especially the art of archery (Dhanur Veda). Eklavya, the son of Nishada King Hiranyadhanu, flocked to Hastinapur to become his disciple and learn the skills in archery.

But Eklavya belonged to the low caste Nishada, the forest dwellers, non-Aryan tribes of ancient India-described as hunters or fishermen dwelling in the mountains and forests. Bow, the cardinal element of archery, was regarded as the supreme weapon of Vedic culture. It was a symbol of poise and balance; as well as represented desire, aspiration, and ambition. As a part of rituals, a king would have been made to hold a bow, when he was crowned. Winners of archery contests were awarded beautiful women as trophies. Dronacharya, an ardent follower of Vedic dharma (religion or duty), thought about the caste of Eklavya and refused to accept him as a student of archery, out of consideration for the others.

If we explore the societal structure of Mahabharata, we notice it did not strictly follow the four-tiered Vedic society of Brahmanas (Priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (Warriors, Kings or Rulers), Vaishyas (Merchants) and Shudras (Servants); rather, it followed a three-tiered society where Kshatriyas patronized the Brahmanas and ruled over the common folkscowherds, charioteers, farmers, carpenters. However, the Nishadas or forest-dwellers were outside of this society, and they were treated with disdain. It was a definite gesture of Aryan prejudice against the low-born non-Aryan class of society.

Eklavya did not insist again, touched the feet of Drona with his head, and returned to the forest. But the zeal of Nishada prince was not to be deterred. To excel in the field of archery was his passion, was his obsession and moreover, it was the ultimate aim of his life. He made a clay effigy of Drona, and worshiping him as a guru (preceptor), completely devoting his mind to learn the skills of archery following the proper discipline, he started practicing with his bow in front of the deity. Due to his exceptional faith and supreme devotion blended with incessant practice, Eklavya very quickly acquired extreme dexterity in the art of archery.

After a few months later, one day, with Drona’s consent, the Kuru and Pandava princes went out to the forest on their chariots, for a hunt, with a servant for carrying the required objects and a dog, like a hunting hound. The princes wandered around in the forest. The dog was also rambling through the jungle, got lost, and suddenly happened to come upon Eklavya, engaged in his actual practice. When the dog saw dark complexion Eklavya, whose body was covered with dirt and he was clad in unclean outfits, it began to bark as the Nishada’s appearance was indeed fearful. Eklavya was distracted due to the loud barking of the dog. It continued barking, and then the Nishada displayed an amazing art of archery by shooting seven arrows into the mouth of the dog at one instant without harming it anyway, keeping the jaws pried open to thwart the dog bark.

The dog dashed back to the princes with full of arrows in mouth. On witnessing such amazing skills and extraordinary dexterity in archery of an unknown archer, the Kuru and Pandavas were flabbergasted and felt ashamed of their skills.

In Mahabharata, it was scripted that Eklavya pierced the dog with shabdabheda, which is the art of shooting with the aid of sound alone, without seeing the object. Arjuna, the favourite disciple of Drona, felt a twinge of envy on experiencing the unprecedented art of archery.

The princes searched throughout the forest to find out the forest-dweller, who had exhibited the miraculous proficiency in archery and finally after a long time they found the Nishada, engaged in tirelessly discharging arrows. They did not recognize him, and his appearance was not handsome at all. The princess asked him to identify himself. Eklavya replied, “Know me to be the son of Nishada King Hiranyadhanu. I am a disciple of Dronacharya and trying to get skills on Dhanurveda (Archery).”

The Pandavas were surprised to know the identity of Eklavya. He is a student of Drona, but they are not even familiar with his name. On return to Hastinapura, they eagerly went to Drona and briefed him the entire incident. When everybody left the place, and Drona was alone, Arjuna approached Dronacharya in private and affectionately said, “My dear preceptor, in your affection, you embraced me, and had assured that no pupil of yours would ever be my equal. Then how is it that you have another chivalrous adherent, the Nishada prince Eklavya, who is superior to anyone else in this land?”

After hearing the anxious words from Arjuna, Dronacharya got befuddled. He couldn’t understand how the Nishada Prince, whom he once refused to teach, has achieved miraculous proficiency in archery.

Dronacharya mulled over the situation for a moment and decided to go to the forest where Eklavya was practicing archery. He took Arjuna with him and went to the Nishada Prince.

When they came to the forest where Eklavya was tirelessly practicing archery, the Nishada Prince immediately stopped his practice seeing his guru (preceptor) and rushed towards him. He was so overjoyed, witnessing the man, who once had refused to accept him as his pupil and today he came to his place. He prostrated himself on the ground to touch the feet of Drona. He bestowed himself to him just like an obedient disciple and stood before him with folded hands. But Drona was predetermined in his mission and said to Eklavya, “If you consider yourself my disciple, give me my fee.” At this juncture, we eventually get astounding as Drona, like a cheeky, selfish bloke asking for a fee from a non-Aryan Nishada prince whom once he had refused to teach the art of archery. On hearing this, Eklavya had thought that Drona finally accepted him as his disciple, and thinking this way he cheerfully replied, “O master, what can I give you? Command me. Whatever you yearn for is yours.” Drona was waiting for this moment. He replied in a crass and cold voice, “If you sincerely wish to give me what I want, give me your right thumb as my fee.”

A question arises in our mind–how could a teacher claim such a thing as a fee from his disciple? He is asking for such a fee which would indubitably extinguish the entire prospect of his student. It is indeed an inhuman, immoral, and atrocious act in every aspect of ethics, morality, and humanity. Eklavya didn’t utter a single word. The Nishada Prince who once was spurned by Drona as his disciple for belonging to a non-Aryan race didn’t recede from his promise, cheerfully cut off his right thumb with a joyous countenance and brave heart exemplifying valour and prowess more than any Aryan indeed. Arjuna felt extremely relieved as the foremost hindrance on his way to becoming the greatest archer was obliterated within a few moments, and none could outdo him.

The right thumb–prime element of the Nishada’s archery skill–was now amputated, and he was now gazing helplessly to his remaining four right-hand fingers. He then tried to pull the bowstring with his remaining fingers, but soon Eklavya found that he was no longer as swift as earlier in discharging arrows. However, still, Eklavya had been beavering away for years with his habitual archery practice without any interstice to achieve his objective. Having been bereft of his right thumb, he had to come across an enormous impediment indeed; but his tenacity, his perseverance, his unflinching travail, and his will-power propelled him to a virtuoso archer who acquired remarkable proficiency in discharging arrows with his vestigial fingers. In this way, although he could not outdo Arjuna’s skills, yet he ensconced himself as an adept archer in the contemporary Indian subcontinent. However, he could not forgive Dronacharya and Pandavas. He fostered animosity with Krishna in his mind too due to his kinship with the Pandavas.

In the meanwhile, Krishna was keen to induce his influence over the vast swathe of Aryabarta (Ancient Northern India). Jarasandha, the King of Magadha and his allies became extremely antagonistic to Krishna after he had killed Kansa, the sonin-law of Jarasandha. Cedi King Sishupala, King Salva of Saubha, King Paundrak Vasudeva of Pundravardhana (i.e. Ancient North Bengal), King Narakasura of Pragjyotisha, and the great archer Nishada King Eklavya were the associates of the ally.

With his inherent prudence, sagacity, and shrewdness, Krishna extirpated Jarasandha by Bhima. Sishupala, the King of Cedi was also slain by Krishna in the royal consecration of Yudhishthira. King Salva of Saubha too was killed by Krishna – which was described in the Sabha Parva of Mahabharata. At this juncture, Paundrak Vasudeva – the king of Pundravardhana (Ancient North Bengal) attacked Dwarka in a gloomy night to wreak revenge on the assassinations of ally associates. And in this revenge saga, he was accompanied by the Nishada King Eklavya.

Eklavya, Mahabharata, Arjuna, North Bengal, Pundravardhana,
Photo: SNS

In the fearful darkness of night, Eklavya demonstrated his unmatched prowess and valour by attacking the Yadavas so savagely that the battlefield resembled the realm of Yama. He indiscriminately disarrayed the army of Krishna by incessantly showering arrows from his gigantic bow. No warrior amongst the Yadavas was able to fend them off from the piercing shower of arrows of Eklavya. Despite not having his right thumb, the Nishada still had become a doughty warrior for his unwavering dedication and obstinacy in practicing archery. He was so swift in discharging arrows that he was shooting 20 to 25 arrows at once. The Yadava forces couldn’t withstand his savage attack with a shower of arrows and were routed.

As the situation was running out of control, the exceptionally expert warrior Balarama, the elder brother of Krishna came in the battlefield to encounter Eklavya. However, Balarama too couldn’t grapple with the shower of arrows of Eklavya. Balarama soon realized that he could not match Eklavya in archery as he was an exceptionally skilled bowman. Hence, eventually getting an opportunity, he ingeniously cut the Eklavya’s bow.

Now Balarama challenged Eklavya to fight with clubs, as he had exceptional dexterity in club manoeuvres. The Nishada King was also skilful in club fights. Both of the mighty warriors struck equally at each other with blows of their clubs engaging in a terrible, unconstrained battle. The fulminations of Eklavya’s vim and vigour startled everyone in the combat zone. In the end, Eklavya couldn’t win a victory over Balarama in club warfare, and meanwhile, Paundraka Vasudeva was also killed by Krishna. Eklavya had no way left out but escapade. And Balaram too ran after him.

Getting out of Balarama’s clutches, Eklavya finally reached the seaside. Balarama was still chasing him. The destitute and helpless Nishada sprang into the sea. Swimming tirelessly into the sea, he crossed five league’s distance and arrived at an island. Eklavya became a recluse and started to live in that island.

In the absence of Eklavya, his elder son had become the King of Nishada. After the great battle of Kurukshetra, when Yudhisthira performed the oblation of royal horse sacrificeknown as Ashvamedha Yajna, Arjuna was the protector of the royal horse. When Arjuna entered the territory of Nishada with the horse, he had to combat a joust with Eklavya’s son; and this time too Arjuna won.

Personalities like Arjuna representing the aristocratic class always win in this manner with their prerogative powers. And many a times, the winning strategy includes collusion to ingeniously hush up a bloke who belongs to an underprivileged class, was honestly trying to reach the highest position of society with his inherent quality and effort. Such brutal repression over the deprived class is an eternal truth of human civilization. It is undeniable irrespective of space-time. They would never be allowed to clinch the winner’s crown – rather the saga of circumvention, repression, and paedophilia would be the incorrigible inscription in their fate.