Learning from the Statues of Learning while Keeping your Thumbs Intact

by Tanuj Kalia 

An ancient tale 

In Mahabharata, the ancient Hindu epic, there is a character called Eklavya who wanted to learn archery from the famed guru Dronacharya. Eklavya, however, was from a lower caste and Dronacharya didn’t accept Eklavya as his student. 

Depressed, yet determined, Eklavya made a mud statue of Dronacharya and practised in front of it, day in and day out, meditating on his craft, taking inspiration from his guru, and eventually becoming a mighty archer.

Guru Dronacharya’s best pupil was ‘Arjuna’. Once, in a moonless night, Dronacharya and his students were hunting in the jungle when they saw a dog whose mouth was stitched together by seven arrows. Surprisingly, the dog was only muzzled, not hurt.

Arjuna was surprised and asked Dronacharya how this feat could be possible in a pitch dark environment. Dronacharya replied that this was achieved courtesy of a skill called shabd bhedi (shabd means word or sound; bhedi means a piercing) where the archer aims by listening to the sound and not by seeing the target. It was an advanced skill which Arjuna had not yet learnt. Dronacharya followed the source of the arrows and came to the place where Eklavya was practicing his craft.

A visibly impressed Dronacharya asked Eklavya, “Who’s your teacher?”. “You, Sir”, Eklavya replied, showed Dronacharya the statue and told him how he was ‘inspired’ and ‘taught’ by him. Dronacharya was impressed, confused and angered. In a match Arjuna vs. Eklavya, Eklavya was a superior archer. In a maneuver to retain Arjuna’s position as the best archer in the Kingdom, Dronacharya said:

“Where’s my teacher’s fee?”

“I’ll give my guru whatever he desires”, Eklavya replied.

“I want your right thumb”.

Eklavaya cut off his right thumb with a knife and presented it as the teaching fee (dakshina). Eklavya was crippled but even with this handicap he was still was considered one of the best archers of his time.

A modern experiment

In 1999, Professor Mitra, installed a ‘hole in the wall fitted with a computer’ in a slum in Kalkaji, New Delhi. The children of the slum, without any prior knowledge, without experience and without a teacher, learnt to use the computer in very little time. The project has been emulated in other parts of India as well with astonishing results in improving literacy and learning.

For the children, Professor Mitra actually carved a ‘statue of learning’ in the form on the hole in the wall. And they didn’t even have to sacrifice a thumb of theirs!

The Hole in the Wall Education Limited (HiWEL) has benefitted over 300,000 students. It has now an intelligent name for itself: minimally invasive education. It even has 3 TED videos: here, here and here.

Lessons learned

There are three things we can learn from these two stories:

  • The best learning doesn’t need a room.
  • The best learning doesn’t need an authority figure.
  • The best learning usually comes from within.

While Dronacharya discriminated on the basis of caste of Eklavya, the Hole in the Wall is limited by space. The internet is non-discriminatory in both respects. What MOOCs (massive open online courses) can do is to provide the learners with the right content and the right gurus in a minimally invasive manner.

Eklavyas will practice and practice hard. And with their thumbs intact they’ll emerge as the best archers – or students – of their times!