A Promise Made Under Duress

At the foothills of the enormous mountain range lies the bucolic hermitage. A hut in the center is surrounded by several small living quarters. A stream flowing south provides the constant clatter of flowing water. Cows, goats and other cattle graze within the compound. A large banyan tree on the western corner provides the perfect platform for daily classes held by the great Sage Bharadwaja.

The current incumbent Bharadwaja deviated from his predecessors in his relationships with royalty. He encouraged involvement and active friendship with the state and its officers, veering away from age old traditions. He added military strategy and weaponry training to his teachings, in addition to statecraft, much to the delight of the Panchala king Prishata.

Bharadwaja’s son Drona had displayed, as a precocious young brahmin, a talent and an appetite for warfare, acquisition of rare weapons, military strategy and munitions. He was more adept at non-civil arts than statecraft. The father saw that Drona could lead the life of luxury and material comforts, instead of the typical humble and austere existence of a brahmin. With that in mind, Bharadwaja instilled in his son dreams of living in a bustling metropolis, in a palace surrounded by servants.

The 10-year old prince wearing a diamond studded coronet disembarked the chariot decked with a gold plated flag staff and a silver seat back. He wore a bejeweled tunic and satin trousers. Drona’s eyes lit up when he saw the young Drupada walk proudly, with a swagger unseen at the gentle educational cottage. The 18-year old immediately liked what he saw in the prince. He wanted to get to know him better.

On learning that Drupada had come to stay with them for a few months as a student, Drona used his considerable influence to ensure the young prince roomed with him, instead of some of the other royals. The tiny quarters encumbered the prince, and he constantly complained about hard beds and harsh living conditions. Drona patiently put up with his remonstrations and tried to make the prince’s life better by sneaking forbidden things, like meat, a luxury bed etc. His intention was clear: get close enough to Drupada in order to secure a plum position in the Panchala court when the prince eventually ascends the throne.

For his part, Drupada found his new companion’s sage-like countenance, his knowledge of weapons and their usage, his clout in the hermitage and his willingness to bend or break rules appealing. His skill with the sword and bow at such a young age complemented Drona’s tutelage. He absorbed as much as his friend was able to coach. They formed a bond unlike any other at the school. They were always seen together, discussing military strategy, learning new ways to wield weapons, going off into the woods and hunting deer and fowl, sneaking out at night to practice nocturnal hunting.

One year after he initially arrived at the ashram, Drupada woke his roommate up in the middle of a rainy night.

“Did you hear that?”

“Did I hear what?”

“Listen carefully! I think it’s wild boar. They’re right outside our cottage. Not very far. What are they doing out in the rain?”

“Are you telling me you hear wild animals amidst the rain and thunder?”

“I am telling you to pick up your bow and arrow and teach me how to hunt in rain”

Drona got up from his bed. This was yet another opportunity to cement his friendship. Hunting, or any kind of weapons discharge in rain was one of the most difficult lessons, to teach and to learn. For starters, such training cannot be scheduled. Moreover, vision and audition are hindered by the downpour. It requires superhuman focus.

Once again, the two friends snuck out under the cover of darkness and rain. They walked along the perimeter of the compound and disappeared into the woods, crouching down low and looking for tracks to hunt the boar.

They reached a few yards when Drona stopped and froze. The rain was now down to a trickle. Their eyes had adjusted to the darkness and their ears accustomed to the sounds of the jungle. Drona slowed down and perked his head up, as if listening for something. Drupada stopped a couple of feet behind him. Drona slowly and deliberately squatted down, beckoning his ward to follow suit. They waddled along the wet ground for a few yards, Drona listening intently and Drupada following him. The young prince’s heart began to beat fast, sensing they were in some imminent danger.

“We are being hunted”, said the older youth in a hushed tone. He gestured towards the low lying branches of the large peepul tree, suggesting they grab hold of them and climb up to safety. Drupada nodded.

Drona quickly latched on to one of the branches and disappeared into the tree. As Drupada leapt, he heard the angry grunt of a boar right behind him. He was in mid-air when its tusk caught his trousers and pulled him down, causing him to fall face first into the mud. The boar took a few steps back, preparing to run into and gore Panchala’s future king.

Drupada rolled aside, causing the boar to overshoot its target. As it turned and prepared for the second assault, he sprung to his feat, while his friend watched helplessly from his perch. With one hand, he caught hold of a branch and swung away from the wild pig’s attack. He then swung back and drilled his dagger into the animal’s throat. The animal squealed and fell in a heap, dead.

But the momentum caused the branch to break off and throw him down to the ground and slide into the rocks lying nearby. Hidden in the rocks was a venomous snake, which reared its head, ready to strike. Paralyzed by the sight of a reptile, Drupada did not move.

“Do not move”, shouted Drona, lowering himself down the branch.

“You can speak, but do not move a muscle. Snakes follow lateral movements. It will strike if you make even the slightest movement”

“I hate these slithery creatures. They give me the creeps”, said Drupada barely taking his eye off the serpent.

“What happened? You decapitated a beastly wild boar but cannot take on a tiny serpent?” mocked Drona

“No time for mockery. Get this out of my face and I’ll reward you with whatever you want; gold, diamonds, precious stones, you name it!”

“Ah! Attempting to bribe a brahmin? What will I do with gold and jewelry? Let’s strike a deal, if I get that little snake out of your face, make me your military commander when you become king”

Drupada was already mighty nervous with a snake staring him down. He needed the snake out of his face instantaneously. He blurted out something he never should have.

“Military commander? You kill this thing and half my kingdom is yours”

With the grace of a dancer, Drona swooped in, hit the snake’s head with a twig in his left hand and sunk his pocket knife into its hood with his right, pinning it down and killing it instantly.

“You can breathe easy now, prince. Although you just lost half of Panchala”

Continued here

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