What the Ancient Sanskrit Story of Ekalavya Can Teach Us about the Enterprise of Higher Education Today

Sometimes old texts gain new relevance. Take the classical Sanskrit story of Ekalavya, which goes back a couple of millennia (give or take a few centuries). I doubt many readers of this blog will be aware of this short evocative story embedded within the great epic narrative of the Mahabharata, though the story is widely known among the approximately one fifth of humanity that lives in India. Increasingly, it seems to me this irresistible story from my childhood has vital insights to offer about the experiences of students who find themselves at odds with the powerful institutions into which they have entered. These students are the so-called “snowflakes” in the news, who when they voice their opinions regarding curricula, campus culture or guest speakers are finding themselves in the midst of “the new culture wars.” I find myself turning to Ekalavya while thinking about these students.

I first heard the story of Ekalavya as a child from my mother, then read about it in a comic book. My first published poem was about Ekalavya. I was a college student in India then. Later, I wrote about Ekalavya as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in what became my first published scholarly essay. So Ekalavya has been with me every step of the way in my career as a student, a writer, and an academic.

This should not be surprising. Ekalavya is the Caliban of Sanskrit literature (or rather, less anachronistically, Caliban is the Ekalavya of Western literature). Like Caliban, Ekalavya is at the center of a devastating allegory regarding the uses and abuses of pedagogy. Remember that Prospero presents himself as a teacher to Caliban early in the Tempest, only to have Calban agree and then declare “my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.” Much has been made in recent Shakespeare scholarship of this colonial scene of instruction involving the white settler Prospero and the enslaved native Caliban. The Ekalavya story is similarly rich.

Ekalavya is a Nishada or a “tribal” from outside the pale of so-called civilization. A precocious young man living on the far margins of society, Ekalavya determines to get an education that will advance him and his people—which in his world means instruction in the art of warfare. He goes to Dronacharya, regarded as the premier teacher of martial skills in the world, and asks to be taken as a student. Drona, however, is from the other end of the social spectrum, a Brahmin and a teacher to royalty. He rejects Ekalavya as unworthy by birth. Undaunted, Ekalavaya watches from hiding as Drona conducts his lessons for his elite pupils. And then, finding refuge in the jungle, he fashions a clay statue of Drona, his guru in absentia, and practices archery on his own in front of it.

One day, Drona comes to hear of Ekalavya through news of a great archer deep in the jungle. When he arrives to see for himself, he is shocked by Ekalavya’s matchless prowess. Indeed, he is deeply disturbed—he cannot permit this young man of low status to outdo Arjun, his favorite highborn student, whom he has promised to make the greatest archer in the world. He confronts Ekalavya, who confesses that he regards himself as Drona’s student even though the teacher has previously rejected him.

Now, Drona schemes. Does Ekalavya truly regard himself as the teacher’s disciple? Well, then, he owes the teacher gurudakshina, which may be translated as a fee. What will the fee be? It will be anything that Drona the guru wishes it to be. Cunningly Drona demands of the peerless young man the thumb of the hand that releases the arrow from the bow. The stratagem is clear—without the crucial digit Ekalavya will lose all his skill as an archer. Ekalavya does not hesitate for he truly regards Drona as his guru and so is obliged by the ethical code at the heart of pedagogy to give him the gurudakshina—in a moment, he slices off his thumb with a knife.

So goes this powerful twisted allegory of the (mis)education of the marginalized, this allegory of the tenacity with which power protects its own pedagogically. On the one hand, Ekalavya benefits from knowledge that only the elite teacher Drona can impart to him (albeit his acquisition of this knowledge is a bold theft). On the other, Ekalavya is duped into cutting off his thumb, an act in which there is a perverse kind of heroism. It is a deed through which Ekalavya simultaneously undoes everything he has achieved and proves himself the moral superior to the scheming Drona.

This story, rich in psychological complexities and insights into the contradictions of educational systems, speaks to me both as a novelist and a scholar. Initially, Ekalavya comes innocently—shall we say naïvely?—to where knowledge is stored and disseminated (a gurukulam in ancient India, now a school or a university). When he is refused admittance, he steals his way in. He then proceeds essentially to teach himself. This is to me one of the most moving parts of the story. In a society that parcels out knowledge according to birth, the story of Ekalavya shows that birth does not matter—Ekalavya the lowborn can become a great warrior though he is not born into the warrior caste. But then Ekalavya makes a vital mistake—he misreads himself and his achievement. Rather than giving himself and his hard work the credit that is due, he consents to the ideology of Drona, to the moral pedagogical code that Drona advances out of self-interest.

Like all great stories, the Ekalavya episode from the Mahabharata has a universal power, which is why I feel it resonates in the present context. It is not difficult to read into it a commentary on the cleavages on contemporary college campuses across the world. The Ekalavyas of the present are making their way onto college campuses, albeit not without resistance. Whether it is because of fortunes made from slavery or lands forcibly taken from indigenous peoples, many institutions of higher learning carry within them written and unwritten codes of privilege. Can students from marginalized communities enter this circle of privilege without chopping off their thumbs? The Ekalavya story shows that education has always been a crossroads enterprise—take one fork in the road and you arrive at social control; take the other and you find the promise of liberation.

Ultimately, the lesson of Ekalavya is two-fold—to students historically shut out of educational institutions (whether because of gender, caste, sexuality, race, or class), it suggests that they should emulate Ekalavya in his self-confidence and belief in himself, but not in his naïve faith in educational institutions. To the guardians of these institutions—the faculty and university administrators—it acts as a reminder of the true moral code of pedagogy. To us, it poses a vital question—what use is an education if it results in the loss of the metaphorical thumb of the very student who is to be educated?

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