… continued from The Broken Promise
“What do you expect from me, o teacher?”, asked the 9 year old prince with exceptional archery skills.
He was the teacher’s favorite. The preceptor, a man who traveled weeks by foot, feeding his family alms given by benefactors all through the arduous westbound route, had a resolve like no other. Within days of meeting Bhishma, he set up a tiny camp to train the Hastinapura princes. As Bhishma watched in amazement, in a matter of two months a state-of-the-art military training facility went up south of the capital. Bhishma had one condition for providing everything the man needed: until they graduated, only the Kuru and Pandava princes would be trained here. Nobody else. There were a hundred and seven of them anyways – the one hundred Kauravas, their sister Dushala, the Pandavas and Yuyutsu, the Kauravas’ half-brother. The man agreed but convinced Bhishma to add one other name to the roster: his own son Ashwatthama.
Drona, now known as Dronacharya, looked at the young prince and said, “The next seven years of your life. I will make you an archer of world renown. You will be a warrior like no other. You will be able to conquer the world. Enemies will fear and flee without a fight, when they hear your name. You will not just learn weaponry. You will be the embodiment of astras. I will even teach you the astras you shouldn’t be using, ever. All I need is seven years”
The young Arjuna’s eyes lit up at the mention of weapons and archery. But the kshatriya in him rose to the fore and he asked, “What is it that you seek from me in return?”.
“A king’s head”, said the middle aged teacher, testing Arjuna for mental strength.
“I am a kshatriya. I cannot kill someone as a guru dakshina. It is against my code. I can disarm and produce him in front of a court, if he so deserves. If he poses a threat to my kingdom I could defeat and make him a prisoner. But kill, I cannot”
Dronacharya knew at that moment that this child would make a great warrior, intrepid but righteous. He saw in him the weapon he needed to extract his revenge.
“I am proud you answered like a Kshatriya, young Arjuna. I would not want you to kill someone as a guru dakshina. However, I will ask you at the time to defeat someone. And you shall not say no”
Arjuna was clearly his favorite student. His concentration, application and skill were unmatched. He strung the bow with different tensions, varying them based on the arrows he used. He invented his own mechanism to tighten or loosen the string so he can use the right weapons on the right enemy. For targets such as fowl and birds he would use minimum force. For large animals he tightened the string. His bowstring techniques were stuff of legend. His arrows could pierce through the toughest shield and the softest fabric with equal panache. Stringing the bow made his right thumb sore. So he decided to turn to his left hand. Soon he became ambidextrous with the bow and sword. During regular student displays, he would alternate between his arms with such silky fluidity that the audience were left awestruck.
One night, he saw a shadowy figure head towards the pantry. Picking up his bow and a few arrows he tiptoed down and followed the figure. The gait looked familiar but he couldn’t make out who it was in the darkness. The figure entered the pantry looking for food. Once found, it sat down and gorged on the leftover meat and rice. After a few moments it was clear to Arjuna that the figure was none other than his own brother Bhima. But the thought of not being able to recognize him in the dark bothered him, as much as his amazement at the fact that his brother followed the smell of food and didn’t need a light to empty up the vessels. The next day he disclosed this to his acharya, who smiled at Bhima. He took a blindfold, tied it to Arjuna and asked him to shoot his arrows based on sounds. Arjuna then practiced and mastered nocturnal archery, in pitch black conditions, relying only on sounds and intuition.
Seven years later, Dronacharya had successfully tutored his pupils to varying degrees of expertise in weaponry, martial arts, commanding armies, discharging various missiles and chemical warfare. His ace students were the usual suspects. Arjuna was the all round champion with extraordinary skill with the bow. Bhima and Suyodhana wielded the mace like no other. It was hard to choose between them. Dronacharya often wondered who would win in a duel. Sahadeva brandished the sword like a magician’s wand.
On the day of graduation, each disciple lined up and asked the master his guru dakshina. Dronacharya pardoned everyone, except Arjuna. Of Arjuna he said, “Do you remember what I asked of you on the first day?”
“Yes acharya, whom shall I apprehend?”
Before the teacher could answer, Suyodhana intervened, “Acharya, why would you waste Arjuna’s prodigious talents on a small mission like detaining someone? I and a couple of my brothers can easily capture the offender. Be it a petty thief or a rogue king”
Dronacharya, having seen the sibling rivalry that existed between the cousins, decided he would humor the Kaurava prince.
He turned towards him and said, “As you wish, young Suyodhana. I want you to take with you as many of your brothers as you want. Go to the Panchala kingdom, defeat its king Drupada and bring him as a prisoner to me”
Although some of his brothers expressed doubts, Suyodhana expressed confidence and set out in the southeast direction to capture the mighty Drupada.
To be continued…