The Liberation of Knowledge- A modern View of ancient Wisdom
Mythology is a potent mixture of legend and lore that is evocative, and redolent of a past that is shrouded in the mists of time. Whether or not it is a glorious past, is a conclusion that is often left to be decided by the prevailing mood of the social milieu, the prevalent “Yuga”, and the readers themselves. Therefore analyzing the past in the current context, and with hindsight, is a very interesting and thought provoking pursuit. Such an exercise may help us to understand where we began evolving from, and how we can derive lessons for the future, with an intention to avoid the tiresome recurrence of past errors.
Over the ages, legends grow to epic proportions and acquire a sanctity that is often derived from the sheer passage of time, which is interspersed with long periods of unquestioning acceptance due to negligible research done in that area. However, this sheen of acceptance is eroded when changing contexts force us into reassessment of age-old ideas in the light of new developments.
The timeless epic ‘Mahabharata’ has fascinated mankind over the ages due to its undying appeal, which is in the contemporary wisdom it passes on to every generation of readers. This many faceted epic has forever been analyzed, and many seers and sages have recorded their own interpretations of it. While I claim no pedigree of that order, I do claim the right to analyze some of the happenings in that legend and present my perspective of them. Let posterity decide which it wants to retain for itself!
Upon connecting the dots in the epic, it becomes clear that while attitude and wisdom are shaped and defined by the prevalent times, they are qualities that can be self-acquired and self-developed. They are not the private preserves of the great institutes of learning, which sometimes deny admission to the best amongst us. While success remains a relative parameter, it is not necessary to be a part of an exclusive school or club to be successful. Take for instance, the whole Ekalavya-Dronacharya-Arjuna context of the Mahabharata. Let us first define the protagonists of this interesting theme from the larger narrative of the epic which was essentially about the victory of dharma, or righteousness.
Arjuna is to the manor born and despite his own initial challenges in life, attends the best of schools. He belongs to an illustrious family and his ancestors shape the history of their times. This greatest of warriors, is destined, by birth, to be a hero and we are greatly pleased that he lives up to his finest potential. He is helped along in this achievement by a combination of events that always eliminate competition from his path at different points of time. Both Ekalavya and Karna are in fact eliminated from the paths of Arjuna, by a combination of guile and artifice. Although Arjuna’s attitude is fine and wisdom is lacking initially, he possesses great skill and knowledge. When he is faced with the unpleasant task of fighting his own kith and kin, he is forced onto his journey of self-actualization. He seeks wisdom and he gets it from his mentor, Lord Krishna.
Ekalavya is the son of a tribal chief and he lives all his formative years in a jungle. His people are primitive and have no access to anything beyond the bare necessities. Forever on the peripheries of life, they subsist on the produce of the jungle, and contemporary society does not plan or allow for their assimilation into the mainstream. In the epic, his role is presented only as a means to establish the high degree of dedication of Dronacharya to his favorite pupil Arjuna. Otherwise he is merely a footnote in the great epic, and that is all that Veda Vyasa conceived about his character in the story. Based on what little is mentioned about him, it is quite evident that Ekalavya’s is a personality made up of the finest attitude, the greatest skill, in fact more skill than Arjuna, and wisdom beyond his years. However, he has no means to pursue higher studies and gain knowledge of advanced technologies on his own. This knowledge is ever denied to him and he is never accepted into the fold. He remains an outsider all his life, and despite his childhood disfigurement by Dronacharya, he is still considered a potential threat to Arjuna, and is eventually killed well before the start of the Mahabharata war, in an unequal battle with the all powerful Lord Krishna.
Dronacharya- is a teacher par excellence. He had spent his life in research & development, and he is an acknowledged expert in the art of warfare, with a deep knowledge of advanced technologies and state-of-the-art weapons systems. His expertise in warfare, his teaching skills and his knowledge are his power. However, his attitude leaves something to be desired, and if he had possessed any wisdom he would have passed it on to his royal students, which might have prevented them from annihilating each other, along with everyone else including their own Guru.
In the epic, Ekalavya and Arjuna are never pitted against each other, in fact the very possibility of their confrontation is killed right in the beginning itself. A comparison of their personalities would, however, throw up many interesting perspectives. Ekalavya is a self-taught student whereas Arjuna is groomed in the best school, by the most learned guru of his times. Upon denial of admission into the royal school, Ekalavya goes ahead and continues to observe and learn from a distance, perhaps the only mythological evidence of the first time that a dedicated learner acquires knowledge through a distance learning method, achieves great skill and tirelessly strives to stretch his “arms towards perfection!”
Ekalavya draws inspiration from an Idol of the great teacher and under its silent and lifeless stare he continues to hone his skills. Unlike the other royal princes of the Kuru clan, he is not put through that famously described test of Archery that helps the Kuru princes along the path of self-realization. In order to help his students to discover their own innate and hidden skills, the great teacher conducts a psychometric test, wherein a stuffed bird is placed on a branch at some distance, and each student is asked to state his own observation. As per their observation the great guru guides each of them to the appropriate skill. When Yudhishthira says that he can see the bird, the branch, the tree and its roots together with the lake behind it, his grasp of the macro picture destines him to be a great emperor one day. However, Arjuna sees only the eye of the bird and that defines his superb focus, and right there everyone realizes his potential. The great Dronacharya announces not only to everyone else, but also to Arjuna himself, that this was the right approach to be a great archer, and he promises to make Arjuna the greatest archer the world would ever know.
While it is no mean feat of achievement for Arjuna, self-realization wouldn’t have come to him if not for the psychometric test conducted by the guru. Ekalavya never reaps the benefit of any of these advanced techniques of teaching, and therefore has no means to discover his innate skills and hence cannot hope for true self-realization. His destiny is never to be revealed to him, and it fails to be a driver or motivator for higher achievement or greater learning. He has to dig deep within himself to seek any such exalted aims in life. Perhaps he is driven by the sheer hunger for learning and an unquenchable desire for excellence. These aims are completely self-divined since he has no guidance from an exalted guru, but a rather lifeless replica of the great teacher, an Idol lovingly made out of mud from the forest floor, and worshipped and garlanded everyday with fresh flowers from the forest. And yet his self-acquired skill is of such a high caliber that Arjuna is shocked into acknowledging a superior talent, and into running up to the guru with a complaint. This is one of the several instances where Arjuna and Dronacharya fail to acquit themselves with grace, or wisdom. Maharishi Veda Vyasa, the master storyteller, weaves these shades of grey into the fabric that makes up both Arjuna and Dronacharya, demonstrating that they were human, after all, and not godlike. This theme is pursued throughout the epic by Maharishi Veda Vyasa, as evident from the case of Karna and his challenge of Arjuna in the display of skills of the Royal students.
While Arjuna studies and is groomed under the careful guidance and observation of this greatest of gurus, Ekalavya is completely self-driven, self motivated and self-taught. On the periphery of society, his own family or social milieu couldn’t have provided him with the exalted ideals and aspirations that usually drive a person to greatness. We have often heard that an apple doesn’t fall far from its tree, however in the case of Ekalavya, the apple does manage to rise far above its humble origins, and it could have fulfilled its greatest potential, had it not been for an unreasonable and blatantly biased teacher who interrupted his journey to greatness, by demanding his shooting thumb as payment for services (un)rendered. The world has always failed to grasp the extent of greatness of this humble soul who without a moment’s hesitation, satisfies even this dastardly demand of a forbidding and vindictive guru who is never really there, except to collect his fee, who not only denies any imparting of true knowledge to this deserving learner, but also plots against the remotest of possibilities that anyone other than his favorite pupil Arjuna can ever aspire for perfection.
This is the defining moment of Ekalavya’s spirit. One can only wonder at this finest of attitudes reflected in his actions, wherein he never hesitates to give away his thumb, and thereby any chance of excellence in the field of Archery. It is his sense of duty towards his perceived guru that forces him to commit himself to oblivion. Perhaps his innate wisdom has taught him self-reliance; he is not afraid to face the future alone once again, for he has mastered the art of self-learning and self-development. He is capable of rising from the ashes and acquiring a new skill. So even though he understands the motives behind the demand, he acquiesces willingly. In that moment he is wiser than Dronacharya and all his students put together, Arjuna included.
It continues to surprise us that Maharishi Veda Vyasa conceived the idea of Ekalavya only to the limited extent of what was dictated by him in the Epic. This noble soul overcame every adversity that was stacked up against him, and would have gone on to achieve greatness and perhaps conquer worlds, despite his dismemberment! Perhaps, with his innate creativity and initiative, he might have discovered and developed alternate means of drawing the bowstring by using it as a crossbow, instead of a longbow! Had his story been developed as a separate theme in the Mahabharata, it would have made for very interesting reading indeed! Perhaps someone will do that yet.
Dronacharya is a man driven by deep passions, and his principle motivation in life is not the pursuit of knowledge or its dissemination to avid learners, but it is to avenge his insult at the hands of his childhood playmate, that vain but powerful king Dhrupada. This factor drives all the wisdom out of him, and he is reduced to a mere manipulator, to the extent that he plots against Ekalavya who idolizes him, and aspires to be his greatest student. Dornacharya’s cold calculations are based on the superior chances of avenging his insult with the help of Arjuna’s own prowess and his royal lineage together with all the kuru means at his disposal, as compared to the chances of a tribal prince howsoever gifted he might be. This fact is well understood by Dronacharya and all his decisions are based on this pragmatic calculation of probabilities.
Dronacharya himself had gained all the knowledge of advanced technologies and weaponries, from the great preceptor Parasurama who gave it all away for free and never expected any gurudakshina, or payment in return. This is a clear instance of the hoarding of knowledge by Dronacharya, for personal gain. His motives are clear as the day, and his actions are not reflective of any wisdom on his part. Somehow all of these sub-plots and themes of the great epic, only serve to make him look more human than godlike, and rather undeserving of the reverence that is associated with his characterization. There are many specious arguments proffered by analysts as excuses for the unsporting and wrongful acts committed over and over again by Dronacharya, such as his questioning the antecedents of Karna when he challenges Arjuna to a fair duel in the Royal Archery contest. It may well be remembered here that the origins of Dronacharya himself were questionable, to say the least.
Moreover even Lord Krishna is critical of the fact that Dronacharya maintains a studied silence during the public disrobing of Draupadi. It seems the world has somehow turned a blind eye to the very human failings of this Guru. His students the Pandava princes gamble and lose their wife- the royal princess Draupadi, to his other set of students the Kaurava princes, who then go on treat her as a mere chattel, and to publicly disrobe her. His tragic silence at this instance of public disgrace of womanhood is explained away as his enduring loyalty and indebtedness to the Kuru throne. It is fair speculation to say that had he made a few timely course corrections in the behavior of both the sets of his own students, the Kauravas, the Pandavas, and eventually even the Yadavas wouldn’t have annihilated themselves. In hindsight, it does seem that his teaching fails to inspire confidence in any one, since almost all of his students go on to commit the greatest errors of judgment, and ultimately end up exterminating each other, their most revered Guru, and everybody else in a great orgy of violence. Perhaps wisdom was never taught inside that premier institution!
In the final analysis, the wisdom that can drawn from the limited scope of this context of the Mahabharata is that while state-of-the-art knowledge and advanced technological skills may be acquired in premier Institutes of learning, the development of a great attitude and the acquiring of true wisdom are certainly not restricted to the confines of such institutions. Moreover, in the modern age and in more equitable and democratic times, with the advent of internet search engines such as Google, the private hoarding of knowledge is further reduced. It is possible for the ‘Ekalavyas’ of the modern world (more power to them!) to pursue advanced knowledge by distance education modes and upgrade their skills. Wisdom is no longer a private preserve of the privileged few! The world has now woken up into an era “where knowledge is free”, to a great extent! One has to only make the effort to plug into the information highway and reap the benefits it has to offer.
In the timeless words of that other immortal teacher and poet laureate Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore,
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high……. where knowledge is free!
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments, by narrow domestic walls,
Where words come out from the depth of truth, where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection!
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way ……… into the dreary desert sands of dead habit!
Where the mind is led forward by thee, into ever-widening thought and action,
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake!
Pic Courtesy: Wiki
Author is “Sentient Poet, amateur writer, perennial student and a persistent analyst, the author is a Senior Management Professional in the Indian Micro finance Sector”