The story of Arjuna and Ekalavya from the Mahabharata, I feel, is one of the saddest and most beautiful stories ever told. I also think that it makes for a very useful example when it comes to demonstrating the difference between being a professional and being an amateur.
For those of you who don’t know the story, here it is in brief.
Drona was the best master of archery in the world. He taught his favourite student Arjuna everything he knew. In time, Arjuna became the best archer in the world. None could beat him at speed, skill or concentration.
There was another young man by the name of Ekalavya. He had approached Drona once to be his disciple. But Drona had rejected him as he only taught royalty. Saddened but unfazed, Ekalavya had gone back and sculpted an image of Drona. He prayed to that image everyday and practised shooting arrows all by himself. In time, he excelled at the craft he so loved. What’s more? He never stopped considering Drona his master, even though Drona had put him completely out of his mind.
Then one day Arjuna met Ekalavya and was blown away by what the forest dweller could do. Ekalavya was far more skilled and much faster with his arrows than Arjuna — the so-called best archer in the world — had ever been. When Arjuna asked the simple, unassuming youth where he had learned archery, the boy replied with reverence that Drona was his master.
The dejected prince went back to Drona and accused him of deceiving him, of having taught Ekalavya better than him. Besides, how could he, a prince, live with the shame of being inferior to a mere forest dweller? That too, at something he was supposed to be the best at?
Drona, obviously, had no idea what Arjuna was talking about. Perplexed, he went to the forest with him and met Ekalavya. Now he recognised the young man to be the same who had come to him for guidance years ago. Ekalavya, overjoyed by the visit, showed Drona all that he could do. He even showed Drona the image of him he had made, his God, his master, and the source of all his inspiration and power.
Drona was moved by the young man’s devotion. Even he, the so-called best master of archery in the world, could not teach Arjuna anything more. There was no way the prince could ever be better than the simple-minded Ekalavya. Ekalavya had defeated them all, all by himself.
Drona knew Arjuna would never again be the world’s greatest archer. But he could not allow someone as common as Ekalavya to excel prince Arjuna. So, swallowing his pride, he asked Ekalavya for payment — payment for being his master — his guru dakshina. Ekalavya, extremely happy for getting a chance to repay his master, asked Drona what he wanted. Drona asked for Ekalavya’s thumb — the one on his right hand.
Without uttering a single word, Ekalavya pulled out an arrow, cut off his right thumb with the arrowhead, and handed it respectfully to his master.
The point I am making is this. Arjuna was a professional. Ekalavya was an amateur.
Arjuna was a prince. He learnt his craft from a legitimate master. He aimed to be the best. He took his lessons seriously. He became the “best archer in the world” and he treasured that label. But somewhere along the line, Arjuna started considering himself superior to his craft.
Ekalavya, on the other hand, didn’t care about skill or speed or beating anyone. Not having a legitimate teacher didn’t stop him from doing what he wanted to do. Not knowing what he was doing didn’t stop him from doing it either. He did it for the love of it.