Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s recent taunt at the BJP invoking the myth of Ekalavya’s left thumb left me searching for its relevance. I am, honestly, left in the dark; it is probably because the Mahabharata has remained one of my favourites. And having lived in the South of the Vindhyas for many years, I have also been exposed to the tradition of sub-tracts while reading myths.
Well, it is indeed worthwhile to take off, from where Rahul Gandhi said and from all that the media made of it, to delve into the myth about Ekalavya and the sub-tract.
Let us recap Ekalavya’s story as handed over to us. Ekalavya, born to hunter-gatherer parents was keen on learning archery from the legendary Drona. The story goes like this, he was denied the opportunity by Drona on grounds that the Nishads were not entitled to learn archery and it was the sole preserve of the Kshatriyas.
Ekalavya, we are told, built an imagery of Drona and even excelled with his hold over the bow and arrow and proved himself better than Drona’s all-time favourite, Arjuna.
Drona, we are told, saw fear in Arjuna’s eyes (after it was found that Ekalavya’s arrow, shot into the nostrils of a hound that kept howling, had killed it) and was determined eliminating Ekalavya from any further contest.
The guru, then, insisted on his fee and got Ekalavya’s left thumb and thus ensured that the Nishada warrior was disabled from using the bow.
The story, as handed over, paints Drona in bad light. In the times we live in, Drona was wrong when he denied Ekalavya a chance to be his disciple; this was a case of discrimination based on caste and hence inimical to justice. And even after having denied him an active fellowship in the school, Drona’s demand for the professional fee was absolutely without valid grounds.
And if Ekalavya obliged to part with his thumb, it was his fault. Ignorance is no justification.
This, indeed, is where the tradition of sub-tract attracts me. The sub-tract here raises such questions as to whether the hunter-gatherers, a community that Ekalavya belonged to, were at all in need of going to a trainer to learn the use of the bow and the arrow.
It sounds absurd in the same way as a fisherman having to learn swimming in a pool coughing up the fee. We may, with some common sense, then see the story of Ekalvya, as handed over to us, one that is concocted; let me stress, the concoction here is only in part.
It is possible to see in the story the deprivation of skills on lines of caste and privatisation of knowledge and its access at a certain stage in society; and it was important, while doing so, to paint Ekalavya as having sought Drona’s tutelage; and despite the denial, Ekalavya insisting that he imagined Drona his teacher and willingly complying with the demand for This, indeed, is what the myths are about. Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, tells us the importance of myths and why it is necessary to comprehend them even while attempting to perceive society from a scientific point of view.
gurudakshina and ending up losing the skill he had acquired with days and nights of practice. Myths, Nehru holds, in his Discovery of India, "make us understand somewhat the secret of the old Indians in holding together a variegated society divided up in many ways and graded in castes, in harmonising their discords, and giving them a common background of heroic tradition and ethical living. Deliberately, they tried to build up a unity of outlook among the people, which was to survive and overshadow all diversity."
The myth of Ekalavya and his thumb, indeed, can be seen as one such attempt; the tradition of sub-tracts, indeed, lets us interrogate the myth and even appropriate the narrative to tell another story of injustice committed upon Ekalavya.
This, indeed, is what makes a myth. The Ramayana, for instance, can be narrated another way if seen from Angada’s point, and Sarah Joseph tells us this story in
Oorkaval (translated into English as Vigil), one of her Malayalam novels.
The legendary Malayalam author, MT Vasudevan Nair narrates the Mahabaratha as seen from Bhima’s eyes and his angst when Draupadi holds him only second to Arjuna, or Kavita Kane’s Marathi novel, narrating the Mahabharat from Karna’s wife, Uruvi’s experience.
It is then possible to attempt a Mahabharata from Karna’s perspective and such an attempt would probably take us into a discourse on caste – as to whether one’s birth or vocation determines one’s caste – and nevertheless seek to celebrate a dream of a society where caste is a thing of the past and so is discrimination.
It is possible, in the same breadth, to narrate Mahabharata from Ekalavya’s point of view and even hold Drona guilty. Well, they are called epics because they have remained in the peoples’ minds over generations, episodes got added, mutated and transformed.
Although I remain in the dark as to what Rahul Gandhi meant when he invoked Ekalavya to taunt the BJP and its leaders, it will be a great idea if he picks up a copy of The Discovery of India, if he has not done so until now.
The text is lucid, easy to read and educative. Nehru talks about the epics, history, tradition and myth and many such wonderful aspects of our life. And he wrote all these in the five months between April and September, 1944, from inside the Ahmednagar Fort, where he was held as prisoner along with many others, including Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Govind Ballabh Pant, Acharya Narendra Deva and M Asaf Ali for their crimes of having demanded that the British quit India.
V Krishna Ananth is professor, Department of History, SLABS, SRM University AP, Amaravati