I don’t know about everyone else but we have been totally swept up by Olympic fever. It’s partly that for the first In India we get full coverage on 3 private channels and in HD (not just the crappy state channel DoorDarshan). It’s also the stories of individual athletes. People who have overcome incredible hardships, some even life threatening, to come back from the brink and compete at the highest level of physical and mental agility. These are human beings who test the limits and then break them, who worship at the alter of perfection. In marvelling at these freaks of nature, who exist at the edge of the bell curve while the rest of us nestle safely under the bell curve’s mediocrity, we turn to our ancient Indian tale of life’s learnings.
All through the Olympics this year we see evidence of great personal achievement, honour in competition and one can’t help but see these stories in India’s great story, the Mahabharata.
South Korea’s Im Dong-hyun is partially blind. He has 20/200 in his left eye and 20/100 in his right eye which means that he has to be 10 times closer than someone with perfect vision to see objects. And yet he shoots at the centre of a colourful blur he sees 70meters away. In London he achieved a new world record score of 699.
This reminds me of the story of how the great teacher of warrior arts, Dhronacharya hung a wooden bird from a tree and asked his students (the Pandava brothers) to shoot an arrow in to the eye of the bird. As each approached to take a shot, he asked them what they saw. Each one said, “I see the bird, the tree, the branch, the lake, my brothers and you.” Only Arjuna, his best student said, “I see only the eye of the bird”. Likewise, Dong-hyun only sees what he needs to see, the eye of the bird. The DH who knows a thing or two about marksmanship, says that for the real expert it’s not the eye of the bird that comes in focus but the tip of the arrow or foresight.
Rwandan swimmer Jackson Niyomugabo who competed at the London Olympics in the 50-meter freestyle, used a French book called “The Secrets of Swimming Development” to perfect his strokes. He would watch top swimmers on TV and compare what he saw with the illustrations in his book – because he also can’t read French and then try to transfer that learning in to action. He learned how to swim at age 7 but to become a two time Olympian he had no coaches, just this book. He is a self taught man relying on his natural ability rather than the advantages of teacher, coach, swimming pool. He would swim in the lake between Rwanda and Congo alongside fishing canoes and he didn’t even have someone to time him. So he never knew if he was becoming faster or not.
This is like the student Eklavya who wanted to learn archery from the great teacher Dhronacharya. But Dhrona refused to teach him because Eklavya was born a sudra – a lower caste, who did not have the right to learn the trade of the Kshyatria warrior caste. So Eklavya went in to the forest, built a clay image of the great Dhrona and meditated in front of his guru. In secret, he taught himself the ways of the bow and arrow. One night in the forest Dhrona and his troop of students (the Pandavas) could not sleep because a wild dog was barking. All of a sudden the dog went silent. They asked their teacher who, in the pitch of darkness could accurately shoot a wild dog. Dhrona explains that this was a skill called “shabda medhi” – aiming based on sound that even his best student Arjuna was not ready to perfect. They eventually came upon said dog to find that someone had shot 7 arrows so accurately in to the mouth of the dog so as not to kill it but to just silence it. That archer was Eklavya. Eklavya was a self taught man, learning from a clay image, just like Jackson Niyomugabo who relied mainly on himself, a book and a vision of what he wanted to achieve.
Gagan Ullalmath was the only Indian to swim at the 2012 Olympics. In the 1500 metres freestyle he finished in last place, a whole 1 minute and 52 seconds behind the winner. As the gruelling race ended, a beautiful scene unfolded. All 6 swimmers waited patiently in the pool while their Indian compatriot swam the two remaining lengths of the pool and the crowd cheered him on with great gusto. This type of gentlemanliness in competition is very much unlike some of the stories in the Mahabharata. One is the conflict that Arjuna faced while his rival Karna, the Generalissimo of the Kauravas, asked for him to remember the fairness of war and wait while he fixed the left wheel of his chariot which was stuck in the mud. “Do not take unfair advantage of my misfortune” he said as he appealed to Arjuna’s sense of honour. After much moral torment Arjuna could wait no longer and fired the fated arrow that would kill Karna. But in the swimming pool, the rivals waited while their comrade finished his task with his and their honour intact. Victus Honor – Honour to the Vanquished.
Speaking of honour, 8 badminton players were disqualified for trying to throw matches in an effort to secure a more favourable quarter-final draw. They were charged with breaching two parts of the players’ code: “Not using one’s best efforts to win a match and conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.” The online magazine Badzine published figures in December last year showing that of the 99 all-Chinese matches played in major tournaments in 2011, 20 were walkovers or ended in a retirement.
When it comes to honour. the Mahabharata is replete with examples. This story reminds me again of Dhronacharya and how despite his love for the Pandavas, he led the Kuru army against them because he was forever loyal to the Kingdom of Hastinapur and winning for them at all costs whether the cause was just or not. When winning is more important than how you play the game, then all honour is lost. In order to defeat the great warrior Dhronacharya, Krishna had to resort to trickery, because as long as Dhrona wielded his weapons he was unbeatable. He knew that Dhrona loved his son Ashwathama deeply. So he devised a plan where Yudhistra announced that in battle, Ashwathama had been killed. Dhrona was so devastated by this news that he dropped his weapons in grief and at that moment the enemy took advantage and killed a defenceless man, which is against the rules of war. Incidently, an elephant with the same name of Ashwathama had been killed and Yudhistra had failed to mention that tiny but crucial fact. To these characters and to the 8 badminton players, we say, ” praemia virtutis honores – honour is the reward of virtue.”
If the coaches and badminton players had all colluded so that one Chinese pairing or athlete could advance or medals be shared around in other competitions then it’s not far from Eklavya’s story. Upon realising that Eklavya was such a brilliant archer and could easily defeat his favourite pupil Arjuna, the teacher Dronacharya said that a student has to give something back to his teacher as a show of gratitude for the wisdom bestowed. He asked for Eklavya’s right thumb. Eklavya could never again fire an arrow and would never again be able to challenge Arjuna. This was the ultimate evidence of how Dhrona favoured one pupil and would go to any lengths, even devious ones to allow him to succeed.
India’s highest award for achievement in sport is called the Arjuna award and excellence in coaching is the Dhronacharya award. There’s much to learn from what he did and didn’t do.
So while Olympians strive to be faster, stronger and much less fat than the rest of us, they have high morals to adhere to too – ad honoreum sic itur astra (with honour, thus we reach the stars)