Drona and the Kuru Princes

Vaisampayana said, “Desirous of giving his grandsons a superior education, Bhishma was on the look-out for a teacher endued with energy and well-skilled in the science of arms. Deciding that none who was not possessed of great intelligence, none who was not illustrious or a perfect master of the science of arms, none who was not of godlike might, should be the instructor of the Kuru (princes), the son of Ganga placed the Pandavas and the Kauravas under the tuition of Bharadwaja’s son, the intelligent Drona skilled in all the Vedas. Pleased with the reception given him by the great Bhishma, that foremost of all men skilled in arms, viz., illustrious Drona of world-wide fame, accepted the princes as his pupils. And Drona taught them the science of arms in all its branches. And, O monarch, both the Kauravas and the Pandavas endued with immeasurable strength, in a short time became proficient in the use of all kinds of arms.”

“There dwelt at the source of the Ganga, a great sage named Bharadwaja, ceaselessly observing the most rigid vows. One day, of old, intending to celebrate the Agnihotra sacrifice he went along with many great Rishis to the Ganga to perform his ablutions. At the bank of the stream, he saw Ghritachi herself, that Apsara endued with youth and beauty, who had gone there a little before. With an expression of pride in her countenance, mixed with a voluptuous languor of attitude, the damsel rose from the water after her ablutions were over. And as she was gently treading on the bank, her attire which was loose became disordered. Seeing her attire disordered, the sage was smitten with burning desire. The next moment his vital fluid came out, in consequence of the violence of his emotion. The Rishi immediately held it in a vessel called a drona. Then Drona sprang from the fluid thus preserved in that vessel by the wise Bharadwaja. And the child thus born studied all the Vedas and their branches. Before now Bharadwaja of great prowess and the foremost of those possessing a knowledge of arms, had communicated to the illustrious Agnivesa, a knowledge of the weapon called Agneya. O foremost one of Bharata’s race, the Rishi (Agnivesa) sprung from fire now communicated the knowledge of that great weapon to Drona.”

“There was a king named Prishata who was a great friend of Bharadwaja. About this time Prishata had a son born unto him, named Drupada. And that bull among Kshatriyas, viz., Drupada, the son of Prishata, used every day to come to the hermitage of Bharadwaja to play with Drona and study in his company. O monarch, when Prishata was dead, this Drupada of mighty arms became the king of the northern Panchalas. About this time the illustrious Bharadwaja also ascended to heaven. Drona continuing to reside in his father’s hermitage devoted himself to ascetic austerities. Having become well-versed in the Vedas and their branches and having burnt also all his sins by asceticism, the celebrated Drona, obedient to the injunctions of his father and moved by the desire of offspring married Kripi, the daughter of Saradwat. And this woman, ever engaged in virtuous acts and the Agnihotra, and the austerest of penances, obtained a son named Aswatthaman. And as soon as Aswatthaman was born, he neighed like the (celestial) steed Ucchaihsravas. Hearing that cry, an invisible being in the skies said, ‘The voice of this child hath, like the neighing of a horse, been audible all around. The child shall, therefore, be known by the name of Aswatthaman, (the horse-voiced). The son of Bharadwaja (Drona) was exceedingly glad at having obtained that child. Continuing to reside in that hermitage he devoted himself to the study of the science of arms.”

“It was about this time that Drona heard that the illustrious Brahmana Jamadagnya, that slayer of foes, that foremost one among all wielders of weapons, versed in all kinds of knowledge, had expressed a desire of giving away all his wealth to Brahmanas. Having heard of Rama’s knowledge of arms and of his celestial weapons also, Drona set his heart upon them as also upon the knowledge of morality that Rama possessed. Then Drona of mighty arms, endued with high ascetic virtues, accompanied by disciples who were all devoted to vows ascetic austerities, set out for the Mahendra mountains. Arrived at Mahendra, the son of Bharadwaja possessed of high ascetic merit, beheld the son of Bhrigu, the exterminator of all foes, endued with great patience and with mind under complete control. Then, approaching with his disciples that scion of the Bhrigu race Drona, giving him his name, told him of his birth in the line of Angiras. And touching the ground with his head, he worshipped Rama’s feet. And beholding the illustrious son of Jamadagni intent upon retiring into the woods after having given away all his wealth, Drona said, ‘Know me to have sprung from Bharadwaja, but not in any woman’s womb! I am a Brahmana of high birth, Drona by name, come to thee with the desire of obtaining thy wealth.”

“On hearing him, that illustrious grinder of the Kshatriya race replied, Thou art welcome, O best of regenerate ones! Tell me what thou desirest. Thus addressed by Rama, the son of Bharadwaja replied unto that foremost of all smiters, desirous of giving away the whole of his wealth, ‘O thou of multifarious vows, I am a candidate for thy eternal wealth,’ ‘O thou of ascetic wealth, returned Rama, ‘My gold and whatever other wealth I had, have all been given away unto Brahmanas! This earth also, to the verge of the sea, decked with towns and cities, as with a garland of flowers, I have given unto Kasyapa. I have now my body only and my various valuable weapons left. I am prepared to give either my body or my weapons. Say, which thou wouldst have! I would give it thee! Say quickly!’ Drona answered, O son of Bhrigu, it behoveth thee to give me all thy weapons together with the mysteries of hurling and recalling them.’ Saying, ‘So be it,’ the son of Bhrigu gave all his weapons unto Drona,–indeed, the whole science of arms with its rules and mysteries. Accepting them all, and thinking himself amply rewarded that best of Brahmanas then, glad at heart, set out, for (the city of) his friend Drupada.”

Vaisampayana said, “Then, the mighty son of Bharadyaja presented himself before Drupada, and addressing that monarch, said, ‘Know me for thy friend.’ Thus addressed by his friend, the son of Bharadwaja, with a joyous heart, the lord of the Panchalas was ill-able to bear that speech. The king, intoxicated with the pride of wealth, contracted his brows in wrath, and with reddened eyes spake these words unto Drona, ‘O Brahmana, thy intelligence is scarcely of a high order, inasmuch as thou sayest unto me, all on a sudden, that thou art my friend! O thou of dull apprehension, great kings can never be friends with such luckless and indigent wights as thou! It is true there had been friendship between thee and me before, for we were then both equally circumstanced. But Time that impaireth everything in its course, impaireth friendship also. In this world, friendship never endureth for ever in any heart. Time weareth it off and anger destroyeth it too. Do not stick, therefore, to that worn-off friendship. Think not of it any longer. The friendship I had with thee, O first of Brahmanas, was for a particular purpose. Friendship can never subsist between a poor man and a rich man, between a man of letters and an unlettered mind, between a hero and a coward. Why dost thou desire the continuance of our former friendship? There may be friendship or hostility between persons equally situated as to wealth or might. The indigent and the affluent can neither be friends nor quarrel with each other. One of impure birth can never be a friend to one of pure birth; one who is not a car-warrior can never be a friend to one who is so; and one who is not a king never have a king for his friend. Therefore, why dost thou desire the continuance of our former friendship?’

“Thus addressed by Drupada, the mighty son of Bharadwaja became filled with wrath, and reflecting for a moment, made up his mind as to his course of action. Seeing the insolence of the Panchala king, he wished to check it effectually. Hastily leaving the Panchala capital Drona bent his steps towards the capital of the Kurus, named after the elephant. Arrived at Hastinapura, that best of Brahmanas, the son of Bharadwaja, continued to live privately in the house of Gautama (Kripa). His mighty son (Aswatthaman) at intervals of Kripa’s teaching, used to give the sons of Kunti lessons in the use of arms. But as yet none knew of Aswatthaman’s prowess. Drona had thus lived privately for some time in the house of Kripa when one day the heroic princes, all in a company, came out of Hastinapura. And coming out of the city, they began to play with a ball and roam about in gladness of heart. And it so happened that the ball with which they had been playing fell into a well. And thereupon the princes strove their best to recover it from the well. But all the efforts the princes made to recover it proved futile. They then began to eye one another bashfully, and not knowing how to recover it, their anxiety became great.”  Just at this time they beheld a Brahmana near enough unto them, of darkish hue, decrepit and lean, sanctified by the performance of the Agnihotra and who had finished his daily rites of worship. And beholding that illustrious Brahmana, the princes who had despaired of success surrounded him immediately. Drona (for that Brahmana was no other), seeing the princes unsuccessful, and conscious of his own skill, smiled a little, and addressing them said, ‘Shame on your Kshatriya might, and shame also on your skill in arms! You have been born in the race of Bharata! How is it that ye cannot recover the ball (from the bottom of this well)? If ye promise me a dinner today, I will, with these blades of grass, bring up not only the ball ye have lost but this ring also that I now throw down!’ Thus saying, Drona that oppressor of foes, taking off his ring, threw it down into the dry well. Then Yudhishthira, the son of Kunti, addressing Drona, said, ‘O Brahmana (thou askest for a trifle)! Do thou, with Kripa’s permission, obtain of us that which would last thee for life!’ Thus addressed, Drona with smiles replied unto the Bharata princes, saying, ‘This handful of long grass I would invest, by my mantras, with the virtue of weapons. Behold these blades possess virtues that other weapons, have not! I will, with one of these blades, pierce the ball, and then pierce that blade with another, and that another with a third, and thus shall I, by a chain, bring up the ball.’ Then Drona did exactly what he had said. And the princes were all amazed and their eyes expanded with delight. And regarding what they had witnessed to be very extraordinary, they said, O learned Brahmana, do thou bring up the ring also without loss of time.'”

“Then the illustrious Drona, taking a bow with an arrow, pierced the ring with that arrow and brought it up at once. And taking the ring thus brought up from the well still pierced with his arrow, he coolly gave it to the astonished princes. Then the latter, seeing the ring thus recovered, said, ‘We bow to thee, O Brahmana! None else owneth such skill. We long to know who thou art and whose son. What also can we do for thee?’ Thus addressed, Drona replied unto the princes, saying, ‘Do ye repair unto Bhishma and describe to him my likeness and skill. The mighty one will recognize me.’ The princes then saying, ‘So be it,’ repaired unto Bhishma and telling him of the purport of that Brahmana’s speech, related everything about his (extraordinary) feat. Hearing everything from the princes, Bhishma at once understood that the Brahmana was none else than Drona, and thinking that he would make the best preceptor for the princes, went in person unto him and welcoming him respectfully, brought him over to the place. Then Bhishma, that foremost of all wielders of arms, adroitly asked him the cause of his arrival at Hastinapura. Asked by him, Drona represented everything as it had happened, saying, ‘O sir, in times past I went to the great Rishi Agnivesa for obtaining from him his weapons, desirous also of learning the science of arms. Devoted to the service of my preceptor, I lived with him for many years in the humble guise of a Brahmacharin, with matted locks on my head. At that time, actuated by the same motives, the prince of Panchala, the mighty Yajnasena, also lived in the same asylum. He became my friend, always seeking my welfare. I liked him much. Indeed, we lived together for many, many years. O thou of Kuru’s race, from our earliest years we had studied together and, indeed, he was my friend from boyhood, always speaking and doing what was agreeable to me. For gratifying me, O Bhishma, he used to tell me, ‘O Drona, I am the favourite child of my illustrious father. When the king installeth me as monarch of the Panchalas, the kingdom shall be thine. O friend, this, indeed, is my solemn promise. My dominion, wealth and happiness, shall all be dependent on thee.’ At last the time came for his departure. Having finished his studies, he bent his steps towards his country. I offered him my regards at the time, and, indeed, I remembered his words ever afterwards. Some time after, in obedience to the injunctions of my father and tempted also by the desire of offspring, I married Kripi of short hair, who gifted with great intelligence, had observed many rigid vows, and was ever engaged in the Agnihotra and other sacrifices and rigid austerities. Gautami, in time, gave birth to a son named Aswatthaman of great prowess and equal in splendour unto the Sun himself. Indeed, I was pleased on having obtained Aswatthaman as much as my father had been on obtaining me.”

“And it so happened that one day the child Aswatthaman observing some rich men’s sons drink milk, began to cry. At this I was so beside myself that I lost all knowledge of the point of the compass. Instead of asking him who had only a few kine (so that if he gave me one, he would no longer be able to perform his sacrifices and thus sustain a loss of virtue), I was desirous of obtaining a cow from one who had many, and for that I wandered from country to country. But my wanderings proved unsuccessful, for I failed to obtain a milch cow. After I had come back unsuccessful, some of my son’s playmates gave him water mixed with powdered rice. Drinking this, the poor boy, was deceived into the belief that he had taken milk, and began to dance in joy, saying, ‘O, I have taken milk. I have taken milk!’ Beholding him dance with joy amid these playmates smiling at his simplicity, I was exceedingly touched. Hearing also the derisive speeches of busy-bodies who said, ‘Fie upon the indigent Drona, who strives not to earn wealth, whose son drinking water mixed with powdered rice mistaketh it for milk and danceth with joy, saying, ‘I have taken milk,–I have taken milk!’–I was quite beside myself. Reproaching myself much, I at last resolved that even if I should have to live cast off and censured by Brahmanas, I would not yet, from desire of wealth, be anybody’s servant, which is ever hateful. Thus resolved, O Bhishma, I went, for former friendship, unto the king of the Somakas, taking with me my dear child and wife. Hearing that he had been installed in the sovereignty (of the Somakas), I regarded myself as blessed beyond compare. Joyfully I went unto that dear friend of mine seated on the throne, remembering my former friendship with him and also his own words to me. And, O illustrious one, approaching Drupada, I said, ‘O tiger among men, know me for thy friend!’–Saying this, I approached him confidently as a friend should. But Drupada, laughing in derision cast me off as if I were a vulgar fellow. Addressing me he said, ‘Thy intelligence scarcely seemeth to be of a high order inasmuch as approaching me suddenly, thou sayest thou art my friend! Time that impaireth everything, impaireth friendship also. My former friendship with thee was for a particular purpose. One of impure birth can never be a friend of one who is of pure birth. One who is not a car-warrior can never be a friend of one who is such. Friendship can only subsist between persons that are of equal rank, but not between those that are unequally situated. Friendship never subsisteth for ever in my heart. Time impaireth friendships, as also anger destroyeth them. Do thou not stick, therefore, to that worn-off friendship between us. Think not of it any longer. The friendship I had with thee, O best of Brahmanas, was for a special purpose. There cannot be friendship between a poor man and a rich man, between an unlettered hind and a man of letters, between a coward and a hero. Why dost thou, therefore, desire, the revival of our former friendship? O thou of simple understanding, great kings can never have friendship with such indigent and luckless wight as thou? One who is not a king can never have a king for his friend. I do not remember ever having promised thee my kingdom. But, O Brahmana, I can now give thee food and shelter for one night.’–Thus addressed by him, I left his presence quickly with my wife, vowing to do that which I will certainly do soon enough. Thus insulted by Drupada, O Bhishma, I have been filled with wrath, I have come to the Kurus, desirous of obtaining intelligent and docile pupils. I come to Hastinapura to gratify thy wishes. O, tell me what I am to do.”

Vaisampayana continued, “Thus addressed by the son of Bharadwaja, Bhishma said unto him, ‘String thy bow, O Brahmana, and make the Kuru princes accomplished in arms. Worshipped by the Kurus, enjoy with a glad heart to thy fill every comfort in their abode. Thou art the absolute lord, O Brahmana, of what ever wealth the Kurus have and of their sovereignty and kingdom! The Kurus are thine (from this day). Think that as already accomplished which may be in thy heart. Thou art, O Brahmana, obtained by us as the fruit of our great good luck. Indeed, the favour thou hast conferred upon me by thy arrival is great.’ Thus worshipped by Bhishma, Drona, that first of men, endued with great energy, took up his quarters in the abode of the Kurus and continued to live there, receiving their adorations. After he had rested a while, Bhishma, taking with him his grandsons, the Kaurava princes, gave them unto him as pupils, making at the same time many valuable presents. And the mighty one (Bhishma) also joyfully gave unto the son of Bharadwaja a house that was tidy and neat and well-filled with paddy and every kind of wealth. And that first of archers, Drona, thereupon joyfully, accepted the Kauravas, viz., the sons of Pandu and Dhritarashtra, as his pupils. And having accepted them all as his pupils, one day Drona called them apart and making them touch his feet, said to them with a swelling heart, ‘I have in my heart a particular purpose. Promise me truly, ye sinless ones, that when ye have become skilled in arms, ye will accomplish it.’ Hearing these words, the Kuru princes remained silent. But Arjuna, O king, vowed to accomplish it whatever it was. Drona then cheerfully clasped Arjuna to his bosom and took the scent of his head repeatedly, shedding tears of joy all the while. Then Drona endued with great prowess taught the sons of Pandu (the use of) many weapons both celestial and human. And many other princes also flocked to that best of Brahmanas for instruction in arms. The Vrishnis and the Andhakas, and princes from various lands, and the (adopted) son of Radha of the Suta caste, (Karna), all became pupils of Drona. But of them all, the Suta child Karna, from jealousy, frequently defied Arjuna, and supported by Duryodhana, used to disregard the Pandavas. Arjuna, however, from devotion to the science of arms, always stayed by the side of his preceptor, and in skill, strength of arms, and perseverance, excelled all (his class-fellows). Indeed, although the instruction the preceptor gave, was the same in the case of all, yet in lightness and skill Arjuna became the foremost of all his fellow-pupils. And Drona was convinced that none of his pupils would (at any time) be able to be equal to that son of Indra.”

“Thus Drona continued giving lessons to the princes in the science of weapons. And while he gave unto every one of his pupils a narrow-mouthed vessel (for fetching water) in order that much time may be spent in filling them, he gave unto his own son Aswatthaman a broad-mouthed vessel, so that, filling it quickly, he might return soon enough. And in the intervals so gained, Drona used to instruct his own son in several superior methods (of using weapons). Jishnu (Arjuna) came to know of this, and thereupon filling his narrow-mouthed vessel with water by means of the Varuna weapon he used to come unto his preceptor at the same time with his preceptor’s son. And accordingly the intelligent son of Pritha, that foremost of all men possessing a knowledge of weapons, had no inferiority to his preceptor’s son in respect of excellence. Arjuna’s devotion to the service of his preceptor as also to arms was very great and he soon became the favourite of his preceptor. And Drona, beholding his pupil’s devotion to arms, summoned the cook, and told him in secret, ‘Never give Arjuna his food in the dark, nor tell him that I have told thee this.’ A few days after, however, when Arjuna was taking his food, a wind arose, and thereupon the lamp that had been burning went out. But Arjuna, endued with energy, continued eating in the dark, his hand, from habit, going to his mouth. His attention being thus called to the force of habit, the strong-armed son of Pandu set his heart upon practising with his bow in the night. And, O Bharata, Drona, hearing the twang of his bowstring in the night, came to him, and clasping him, said, ‘Truly do I tell thee that I shall do that unto thee by which there shall not be an archer equal to thee in this world.'”

Vaisampayana continued, “Thereafter Drona began to teach Arjuna the art of fighting on horse-back, on the back of elephants, on car, and on the ground. And the mighty Drona also instructed Arjuna in fighting with the mace, the sword, the lance, the spear, and the dart. And he also instructed him in using many weapons and fighting with many men at the same time. And hearing reports of his skill, kings and princes, desirous of learning the science of arms, flocked to Drona by thousands. Amongst those that came there was a prince named Ekalavya, who was the son of Hiranyadhanus, king of the Nishadas (the lowest of the mixed orders). Drona, however, cognisant of all rules of morality, accepted not the prince as his pupil in archery, seeing that he was a Nishada who might (in time) excel all his high-born pupils. But the Nishada prince, touching Drona’s feet with bent head, wended his way into the forest, and there he made a clay-image of Drona, and began to worship it respectfully, as if it was his real preceptor, and practised weapons before it with the most rigid regularity. In consequence of his exceptional reverence for his preceptor and his devotion to his purpose, all the three processes of fixing arrows on the bowstring, aiming, and letting off became very easy for him. And one day, the Kuru and the Pandava princes, with Drona’s leave, set out in their cars on a hunting excursion. A servant followed the party at leisure, with the usual implements and a dog. Having come to the woods, they wandered about, intent on the purpose they had in view. Meanwhile, the dog also, in wandering alone in the woods, came upon the Nishada prince (Ekalavya). And beholding the Nishada of dark hue, of body besmeared with filth, dressed in black and bearing matted locks on head, the dog began to bark aloud. Thereupon the Nishada prince, desirous of exhibiting his lightness of hand, sent seven arrows into its mouth (before it could shut it). The dog, thus pierced with seven arrows, came back to the Pandavas. Those heroes, who beheld that sight, were filled with wonder, and, ashamed of their own skill, began to praise the lightness of hand and precision of aim by auricular precision (exhibited by the unknown archer). And they thereupon began to seek in those woods for the unknown dweller therein that had shown such skill. And, O king, the Pandavas soon found out the object of their search ceaselessly discharging arrows from the bow. And beholding that man of grim visage, who was totally a stranger to them, they asked, ‘Who art thou and whose son?’ Thus questioned, the man replied, ‘Ye heroes, I am the son of Hiranyadhanus, king of the Nishadas. Know me also for a pupil of Drona, labouring for the mastery of the art of arms.’ The Pandavas then, having made themselves acquainted with everything connected with him, returned (to the city), and going unto Drona, told him of that wonderful feat of archery which they had witnessed in the woods. Arjuna, in particular, thinking all the while, Ekalavya, saw Drona in private and relying upon his preceptor’s affection for him, said, ‘Thou hadst lovingly told me, clasping me, to thy bosom, that no pupil of thine should be equal to me. Why then is there a pupil of thine, the mighty son of the Nishada king, superior to me?'”

“On hearing these words, Drona reflected for a moment, and resolving upon the course of action he should follow, took Arjuna with him and went unto the Nishada prince. And he beheld Ekalavya with body besmeared with filth, matted locks (on head), clad in rags, bearing a bow in hand and ceaselessly shooting arrows therefrom. And when Ekalavya saw Drona approaching towards him, he went a few steps forward, and touched his feet and prostrated himself on the ground. And the son of the Nishada king worshipping Drona, duly represented himself as his pupil, and clasping his hands in reverence stood before him (awaiting his commands). Then Drona, O king, addressed Ekalavya, saying, ‘If, O hero, thou art really my pupil, give me then my fees.’ On hearing these words, Ekalavya was very much gratified, and said in reply, ‘O illustrious preceptor, what shall I give? Command me; for there is nothing, O foremost of all persons conversant with the Vedas, that I may not give unto my preceptor.’ Drona answered, ‘O Ekalavya, if thou art really intent on making me a gift, I should like then to have the thumb of thy right hand.’ Hearing these cruel words of Drona, who had asked of him his thumb as tuition-fee, Ekalavya, ever devoted to truth and desirous also of keeping his promise, with a cheerful face and an unafflicted heart cut off without ado his thumb, and gave it unto Drona. After this, when the Nishada prince began once more to shoot with the help of his remaining fingers, he found that he had lost his former lightness of hand. And at this Arjuna became happy, the fever (of jealousy) having left him.”

“Two of Drona’s pupils became very much accomplished in the use of mace. These were Druvodhana and Bhima, who were, however, always jealous of each other. Aswatthaman excelled everyone (in the mysteries of the science of arms). The twins (Nakula and Sahadeva) excelled everybody in handling the sword. Yudhishthira surpassed everybody as a car-warrior; but Arjuna, however, outdistanced everyone in every respect–in intelligence, resourcefulness, strength and perseverance. Accomplished in all weapons, Arjuna became the foremost of even the foremost of car-warriors; and his fame spread all over the earth to the verge of the sea. And although the instruction was the same, the mighty Arjuna excelled all (the princes in lightness of hand). Indeed, in weapons as in devotion to his preceptor, he became the foremost of them all. And amongst all the princes, Arjuna alone became an Atiratha (a car-warrior capable of fighting at one time with sixty thousand foes). And the wicked sons of Dhritarashtra, beholding Bhimasena endued with great strength and Arjuna accomplished in all arms, became very jealous of them.”

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows the Nishada prince Ekalavya cutting off his right thumb at Drona’s behest. Ekalavya belonged to a community that was considered low-born and impure. Hence, Drona refused to take him in as a student at his ashram, afraid that he might excel his royal and high-born pupils. When Ekalavya still managed to outdo the Kauravas and Pandavas, Drona, egged on by a jealous Arjuna, asked the Nishada prince to cut off his right thumb and offer it as ‘guru dakshina’ (gift offered to the preceptor after the period of training is over).  The mutilation of Ekalavya is seen as one of the more tragic episodes of the Mahabharata. The illustration was published by Gorakhpur’s Geeta Press.

Reference:

  • The Mahabharata (translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, 1883-1896)