Ekalavya was a little boy, born in a poor family, many many years ago. His people lived a little away from Hastinapura, the capital of the Kuru kings. They used to clean other people’s dirt for a profession.
And for this reason they were shunned by society. Ekalavya and other kids of his group knew they too had to follow their parents’ professions.
Their parents often told them, “You are not meant to go to school. What use is school for carrying garbage which is your only job?”
“Don’t go near those people; they are high born, we are low born.”
Ekalavya didn’t understand.
“Why, but why?” he asked his mother. She replied “God set these limits.”
“God! Why would God want nice things for them and dirty things for us? Hasn’t God made all of us?” Ekalavya asked.
She sighed, “Darling I don’t know, but there are bounds we cannot cross, this is God’s rule.”
Ekalavya became quiet. From that day the only important thing for him was to understand the meaning of “limit”.
You know, kids (and grown ups) are sometimes cruel. One day Ekalavya and his friends trapped a little ant and were watching it try to escape. The ant tried and tried till it found a little opening at the edge of the trap and escaped.
Other children moved to trap it again but Ekalavya stopped them shouting, “The brave ant has broken the bounds. Limits are meant to be broken. I am free, free”.
One day, Ekalavya saw beautiful chariots come into the forest near his village. He saw boys of his age get out of the chariot one by one. What lovely clothes they wore!
Last, an old man with snowy white hair and spotless white clothes came out looking stern and calm. The boys seemed a little scared of the old man but with one dusky handsome boy, the old man’s behaviour was different, he smiled and patted this boy on the head.
Ekalavya heard his father’s voice, “Come away boy, there is work to do. Those are the Kuru princes, with their teacher Drona. The boy he just patted is his favourite, Arjuna. They have come to practice ‘archery’. Don’t go near them.”
“Father, all I want is a pat from the grand old man.” so saying, Eklavya ran towards the old man Drona.
By then the boys had started shooting with bows and arrows. What amazing things Arjuna did! He could shoot at a target with his eyes shut. He could shoot with his left hand as well as the right. And the teacher Drona? His arrows made fire, chased things in circles, brought rain and lightning. It was magical.
Arjuna’s eyes never left his teacher. It was like he wanted to absorb every bit of Drona. And you could see that Drona too was very proud of Arjuna.
The practice ended. Ekalavya went up to Drona and with folded hands said, “Great sir, please teach me”.
“I don’t teach the low-born,” was the cold reply as Drona turned away.
“Master, your arrows don’t seem to mind any limits, they bring rain and fire, they bring night and day. How then can you be bound by stupid thoughts of high and low birth?” With this Ekalavya walked away from the glaring Drona.
The next day, Ekalavya carved a statue of Drona on a tree trunk with a knife. He made himself a bow and arrows. Each day he would bow before the statue, practise shooting and imagine a pat on his back from Drona.
Some months passed. The grand princes and their master came to the forest again. As Arjuna reached to take aim of a particularly difficult target, an arrow reached Arjuna’s target before he could even aim. Shocked the boys and their teacher looked around. They saw Ekalavya, who went up to touch Drona’s feet.
“Who is your teacher?” Drona asked. Ekalavya quietly led him to the statue.
Drona looked at it for some time and said, “If I am your Guru, give me my fee, my guru dakshina“.
“Ask, sir”, bowed Ekalavya. “I want your right thumb,” replied the stone hearted Drona. Without the right thumb to support it, how can any archer ever hold a bow?
As Arjuna and the other princes watched in shock, Ekalavya wordlessly cut off his right thumb and laid it at Drona’s feet.
Many years passed. A great war was on in Kurukshetra between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, cousins who were related. Arjuna was on the side of the Pandavas. His teacher Drona, and many of his cousins, who had been Drona’s students with him, were on the other side.
After the day’s battle, a sad Drona was sitting in his camp. Suddenly, like a respectful prayer, arrows fell near his feet one after another. He looked up and who do you think he saw?
Why, Ekalavya !
The young Ekalavya said, “Master I have learned to shoot without my right thumb. I have learned to shoot with my left hand, and with my feet. I have taught others and raised an army. Today I’m known as a great archer.”
Drona was speechless.
“Master, I set your greatness free from the limits of your own mind. I made it my teacher in the form of your statue.
Your great love for Arjuna crossed the bounds of fairness when you asked for my thumb. You thought that it would finish me as an archer. But great masters always end up teaching something. By asking for my thumb, you made me learn to shoot with both hands and feet. And for this lesson, I offer my services to you in this war.”
Drona’s eyes filled with tears. He answered, “Yes, it is true, bounds and limits are in the mind. Real courage is fighting against wrong limits and respecting the correct ones. Ekalavya, you have taught me this.”