Mahabharata : Arjuna, the Greatest Archer and Disciple

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by Smt Smrithi Adinarayanan

Whenever we think of an ideal student, Arjuna’s name comes to our mind. He was considered to be the most sincere and capable student not without a reason. Today researchers are keenly studying the cognitive processes and how they contribute to success. The Mahabharata has numerous references to the cognitive capabilities of Arjuna.

Cognition is the process of assimilating and processing of knowledge that we receive through the various senses. Cognitive executive functions, which help us to achieve something through cognition, include attentional control, cognitive inhibition, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.

Attention Control
Dronacharya, the Guru of the Pandavas and Kauravas, summoned his disciples to test them. He placed a wooden bird on top of the tree and asked them to cut off the bird’s head. He first invited Yudhisthira and asked him what he could see. Yudhisthira replied “I see the tree, myself, my brothers and the bird” Drona asked him to step aside. The other Pandava Kaurava brothers replied in a similar manner. When Arjuna was invited, he said “I neither see you nor the tree, I see only the bird”. Dronacharya further asked “If you see the bird, describe it to me”. Arjuna replied that “I see only the bird’s head, not the bird”. Dronacharya commanded “Shoot!”. Arjuna’s attentional control, an executive function that helps him choose what he pays attention to and what he ignores made him the greatest archer of the Mahabharata times.

Single Point Focus on the Guru
One day Dronacharya had gone to bathe in Ganga along with his disciples. When Drona entered the stream, an alligator caught hold of him. Though he was capable of rescuing himself, he called out to his disciples to save him. The moment he cried out, Arjuna swiftly showered sharp arrows within the water and killed the monster. While the other disciples where either confused or still engaged in bathing, Arjuna acted almost instantaneously. His constant focus on his Guru and eliminating all other distractions made him the greatest shishya.

Cognitive Flexibility
Arjuna’s devotion to the service of his preceptor as also to arms was very great and he soon became the favourite of his preceptor. Looking at Arjuna’s devotion, Drona once told his cook, ‘Never give Arjuna his food in the dark, nor tell him that I have told you this.’ There was a strong wind once and the lamp went off. Arjuna continued eating in the dark as his hand automatically went to his mouth. He understood that because of practice he did not need light for his hand to go his mouth. When the lights came back, Arjuna was out practicing. Drona, hearing the twang of his bowstring in the night, came to him, and clasping him, said, ‘I will make you the greatest archer in the world”.

Today cognitive science talks of dual channels and how the auditory sense can be used with the visual senses to enhance perception and how visually challenged people form new learning pathways in their brain through the auditory senses.

These episodes illustrate how Arjuna came to be known as the greatest disciple and excelled in the archery. Consistent efforts can make anything happen. More on Arjuna in future editions of Parnika.