Arjuna’s success over Jayadratha was short-lived because the following day, the Pandavas suffered disaster.

Drona killed two of the foremost Pandava maharathis. Drupada, King of Panchala and father of Panchali, was the first to fall. His death shook the Pandavas and more bad news reached them: Dhrishtadyumna and Sikhandi and the many sons of Drupada. The Great Preceptor had confronted and killed King Virata of the Matsyas; the monarch who had harboured the Pandavas during their thirteenth year in exile. It was a terrible tragedy for Virata’s daughter, Arjuna’s daughter-in-law, who had lost her husband, Abhimanyu, only a day earlier.

Many maharishis and admirers referred to Drona as Rajguru Devadrona; believed he was the third incarnation of the Creator, Lord Brahma of the Holy Trinity. The Rajguru was an acknowledged master of military sciences and skilled in deploying astral weapons. But he suffered from one mortal weakness.

Unlike Bhishma, who adhered to a strict code of conduct on the battlefield, Drona’s focus was on saving his soldiers and winning the war. Under his command, the battle did not always cease with sunset. Armies on both sides raided one another at night. He was also prone to use celestial weapons on ordinary soldiers; and allowed warriors of higher standing and skills to fight those lesser endowed. Maharathis fought rathis; and rathis fought ordinary soldiers. And the earth slipped more and more into anarchy and debauchery.

Drupada’s son, Dhrishtadyumna, who had dedicated his entire life to preparing to fight and kill Drona, had shown a keen interest in the brahmin-warrior’s life. He knew everything there was to know about the preceptor. And where possible, he had talked with people who had personal knowledge and insights on his sworn enemy.

Dhrishtadyumna knew Drona’s earthly father was the ascetic Bharadwaj, a Sapta-Rishi, one of the seven acknowledged Maharishis. The Sapta-Rishi had momentarily lost control of his bodily functions when he spotted an apsara queen, Ghritachi, bathing in the Ganga. His semen had fallen on a leaf and Drona was born. Hence his name, Drona—he of the leaf vessel.

Drona had spent his early years in poverty. After marrying Kripi, Kripacharya’s twin sister, he wanted to provide for her and their son, Ashwatthama. Such mortal inclinations led him to take a dangerous route not treaded by a brahmin.

“Beware, my friend, for the first step is always the most difficult one. But each step quickens the next and the next. And before you know it, you are lost in the woods,” said Kripa. He said this years ago, when Drona revealed he will send his students, the Kauravas and Pandavas, to secure his guru-dakshina—half the Panchala kingdom from Drupada. The Panchala king, having promised the gift, had refused to fulfil his vow and even humiliated Drona in open court. The brahmin warrior never forgot the broken promise nor the insult.

“I do no wrong, but claim what is mine. And all this is not for my enjoyment but for your sister and nephew,” said Drona. But Kripa was right; his friend went deeper into the enveloping woods.

As preceptor, he trained the Pandavas and Kauravas and many princes who became kings and were now arrayed for and against the two sides. After the Feat of Arms, where the Kuru clans showcased their mastery with weapons, the kings of Bharata sent their sons to Drona; to learn at the feet of the greatest preceptor of the time—a position he achieved after the foremost brahmin warrior and slayer of kshatriyans, Parasurama, became a recluse.

One such aspirant, who wanted to learn from Drona, was Ekalavya of the Nishadha clan.

“O Rajguru Devadrona, my father Hiranya-Dhanush, chieftain of the Nishadha, has taught me everything he knows, but my begging bowl remains half full. He has sent me to you and prays you grant me a benediction; that you will accept me as your student,” said Ekalavya.

The Nishadha were a clan of jungle dwelling tribes. Though of the kshatriyan caste, the established aristocrats viewed them as unworthy to gain any rank of distinction in the military. But over the years, a handful of determined and gifted warriors had secured the patronage of benevolent kings and rose to high rank in the military.

“Your father, Hiranya-Dhanush, is a great general, and he serves Jarasandha of Magadha,” said Drona. A dog was barking in the vicinity, and it irritated the preceptor. He raised his voice to be heard.

“Jarasandha has refused to pay allegiance to Hastinapura. Why then does your father send his son to me? How can he expect me to impart knowledge and skills that his son might use against my sovereign?”

“My father believes, O Rajguru Devadrona, you are beyond such transient considerations,” said Ekalavya. “He believes even if I one day gain victory over the Kurus, it will be your name and renown that will be the emblem on my flag.”

The dog continued to bark. Now and then it howled; a long, drawn-out call that jarred the ears and drowned the words of teacher and seeker.

“Your father is naïve, or he takes me for a fool.”

Drona studied the dog, a mongrel that had strayed into the training compound. He viewed the Nishadha princeling as no better than the animal. The boy too was a mongrel, a human mongrel, who did not know his place.

“I’ve meditated under the waterfall for three days and nights without respite,” said Ekalavya. He gestured to the waterfall in the garden. Another young man was sitting under the water and several youths waited their turn to enter the pool and endure the entry test.

“The boy had displayed unremitting resolve and concentration,” said Kripa, who leaned close and whispered.

“Yes, but do we want to nurture a baby cobra?” replied Drona, without moving his lips.

“O Rajguru Devadrona, you may see me as a cobra, but see also I will never strike the hand that feeds me,” said Ekalavya, who was an adept in lip-reading.

“I can’t hear your words, for the mongrel howls,” said Drona. Ekalavya annoyed him more than the animal. “Display your archery skills on that dog. Stop its barking, but do so without hurting or chasing it away.”

“You give him an impossible task,” said Kripa. This was not the first time Drona had tilted the odds against a warrior he did not approve. Many years ago, he had done the same thing to Karna at the Feat of Arms.

But Drona smirked and folded his arms. With a thrust of his chin, he ordered the Nishadha princeling to proceed.

*** Copyright @ 2022, Eric Alagan ***

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