Eklavya, one of the tragic heroes of Mahabharata, learned archery on his own and became such a great archer that Dronacharya began to fear that he would far exceed the capabilities of Arjuna, his disciple.

What was it that kept Eklavya’s eyes trained upon his goal?

In Mahabharata, one of the two epics of Hindu Mythology, nestles the story of Eklavya, the tribal boy who wanted to learn archery and for this, he approached Guru Dronacharya who tutored the Kuru Princes including, of course, Arjuna.

Guru Dronacharya told the boy that he taught only the royalty, and sent him home. Eklavya, however, had made up his mind. He went back, cleared a space in the forest to practice. He then fashioned a clay model of Dronacharya and began practicing in front of it. He’d begin his practice by approaching Dronacharya’s clay figure with folded hands to seek his Guru’s blessings and end his day the same way.

His hard work paid off. When Dronacharya realized that Eklavya had already become a better archer than his favorite disciple Arjuna, he asked Eklavya for his right thumb.

I think this story adumbrates three important instructionally relevant points.

  1. Learning on your own can be really effective. If you plan your learning properly and stay focused (and if you cannot find the right Guru.) Eklavya wanted Dronacharya to be his Guru, and his next best option was to learn himself, which he accomplished through focus, dedication, and hardwork.
  2. Symbols are powerful ally of learning. The visual symbol of Dronacharya kept Eklavya focused, it made him feel more confident because he felt that he was indeed a student of Guru Drona.
  3. Self-learning can be perilous. If self-learning cuts you off from the world completely, you also lose out on the opportunity of learning from your peers, which may result in your becoming worldly wise. Home schooling of bright kids comes with its own set of perils. Eklavya would have been a smarter kid had he learned archery with other students at the Ashram, and he probably would have negotiated a better deal for himself than a severed right thumb.

I think of this story often. In the world of learning, things haven’t really changed all that much, have they?