Thursday, February 26, 2009

Leadership and Krishna: Leader Instils Confidence

Scene 1: Kamyaka Forest

The hair-raising scenes of the Dice Hall of Hastinapura are past now. Yudhishthira has for a second time lost his kingdom and all that was his. As per the conditions agreed to before the game started, the losers hadve to live twelve years in jungle and one year in hiding, during which year if they are discovered, they have to repeat the cycle of thirteen years again. Accordingly the Pandavas have surrendered their kingdom to Duryodhana and are now living in the Kamyaka forest.

While all this was happening, Krishna was away from Dwaraka, fighting a war with Salva at Saubha and had no knowledge of the dice game or of the subsequent events. When Krishna reaches back Dwaraka after the war, Satyaki informs him of the sad, terrible events at Hastinapura and Krishna leaves everything and rushes to Kamyaka to meet the Pandavas and share their sorrow. He knows they need him with them at this moment of loss and only his presence can give them the strength they need now more than ever before. Many Bhoja, Andhaka and Vrishni chiefs join him. Draupadi’s brother Dhrishtadyumna, Chedi King Dhrishtaketu, the prince of Kekaya and many others too reach Kamyaka to be with the Pandavas in their hour of need.

Draupadi breaks down in front of Krishna and speaks of how she was dragged into the assembly and humiliated there during the dice game. How could anyone drag a woman like her into a royal assembly, she asks Krishna. A woman who is the wife of the sons of Kunti, Dhrishtadyumna’s sister and his, Krishna’s, friend? And that too when she was in her monthly period and dressed in a single piece of cloth stained by her menstrual blood? She tells Krishna of how the sons of Dhritarashtra wanted to ‘enjoy’ her like a common slave woman. And that while the Panchalas were alive, while the sons of Pandu were alive and while the Vrishnis were alive? Shame upon the strength of Bheema, she tells Krishna, shame upon Arjuna’s Gandiva, that the two of them stood watching their wife being thus humiliated before their very eyes.

Tears fall ceaselessly from the wailing woman’s eyes, drenching her breasts. She wipes her eyes, sighs deeply again and again and, her voice choked with grief and unspeakable anger, declares: “I have no husbands, Krishna. I have no sons. I have no brothers, no relatives. I have not even you, Krishna.”

Recalling Karna’s exultant laughter at her humiliation still resounding in her ears, Draupadi reminds Krishna that there are four reasons why he deserves to protect her: he is related to her, she is a noble woman who deserves to be protected, they are friends, and he has the power to protect her.

Krishna does what any man of honour should do under the circumstances. If Draupadi’s words are powerful in their appeal, Krishna’s words are power itself. His words terrify us and at the same time, send a thrill through us. “Lofty woman, grieve not,” he tells her. The women of the men who have enraged you too would wail as you wail now. They too would lament seeing their men lying dead, their chopped limbs lying scattered on the battlefield, their body bathed in blood, pierced by the mighty Arjuna’s arrows.”

Krishna speaks with the voice of destiny itself. And those words instill strength and confidence in Draupadi’s [as well as in the Pandavas’] mind. And in doing so he gives us a lesson in true leadership: a leader instills confidence. Later Krishna would risk his own life to avoid the war by going to Hastinapura on a peace mission. But at the moment he knows it is not talk of peace that would help a shattered Draupadi gather herself together but of vengeance and that is precisely what Krishna does.

Krishna shows this uncanny ability to restore confidence in people through his words and actions again and again throughout the Mahabharata.


Scene 2: Thirteen Years Later
The Pandavas live twelve years in the jungle and one year in hiding in Virata to fulfill the terms of the dice game they had lost. When they claim their kingdom back at the end of it, Duryodhana refuses to give it back to them and instead asks them to go on another round of twelve years of life in the jungle and one year in hiding, as the conditions of the dice stipulated, saying that they had been discovered just before they completed their year of life in hiding. War becomes inevitable but Krishna decides to make yet another attempt at establishing peace. He gets ready to go to Hastinapura with a message from Yudhishthira. The message is: peace at any cost. The Pandavas would settle for as little as five villages. Give these to them, and there would be no war.

Draupadi hears of Krishna’s peace mission and comes before her sakha – her friend, Krishna. Her dark, curly hair is loose, as it has remained for thirteen years now. She had been dragged by her hair to the assembly by Dusshasana and she would tie it up only when it has been besmeared with the dying blood of Dusshasana.

She tells Krishna of what wise men say: that not to kill someone who deserves death is as much a sin as killing someone who does not. And she does not want Krishna to be tainted by that sin.

The fire-born Draupadi’s words are always fire. She tells him she is speaking words she has spoken earlier, asking questions she has asked him earlier. Is there another woman on earth as unfortunate as she is? Daughter of a king like Drupada; born from the heart of a burning sacrificial pit; Dhrishtadyumna’s sister; and his, Krishna’s, friend. She became the daughter-in-law of the illustrious Pandu and thus a part of the celebrated royal family of Ajameedha. She married the five Indra-like sons of Pandu and became the mother of their five sons. And yet she was caught by her hair and dragged into the royal assembly. While the sons of Pandu watched. And while he, Krishna, was alive. While the Panchalas and Vrishnis were still living. Finding no help coming from her husbands, she had called out to him, to her Govinda, begging for protection again and again.

Draupadi then takes her thick, curly, long, dark, snakelike hair in her hands and holding it up before Krishna, tells him: “Remember this hair of mine, Krishna, every time you speak of peace with the sons of Duryodhana. Keep this in mind, and also remember that if Bheema and Arjuna will not fight for my honour, then my old father will do it for me, along with his sons and my own sons, lead by Abhimanyu. My heart shall know no peace Krishna, until I see the wicked Dusshasana’s dark hand that touched my hair severed from his body and lying in the battlefield covered with dust. I have been tending a fire in my heart, Krishna, for thirteen years.” With this the beautiful Draupadi breaks down in inconsolable tears before her only friend in the world.

Krishna assures her once again. “Just as you do now, the wives of the men you hate too shall wail soon, unless the sons of Dhritarashtra would listen to me. Those men too shall be food to dogs and jackals, slain in the battle.”

“Hold your tears back, Krishnaa,” Krishna tells Draupadi, “the Himalayas might move from their place, the earth might shatter into a hundred pieces, the skies might come down along with the stars, but my words shall never go wrong. I promise.”

Once again Krishna shows how well he knows how to give strength to and restore the confidence of those who have neither.

Scene 3: Kurukshetra

Eighteen akshauhinis is a huge army: 393,660 elephants, 393,660 chariots, 1,109,700 cavalry and 1,968,300 foot soldiers. And this army is standing face to face in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The greatest battle ever fought on the soil of India. Every king, small and big, from all across the land is present there, each with his army. Conches have already been blown, announcing the beginning of the battle. The armies would clash any moment now. Arjuna asks Krishna, his driver, to take his chariot right to the centre of the battlefield. “Take my chariot to the middle of the two armies, Krishna, for I want to have a good look at the warriors hungry for battle assembled here to please the evil Duryodhana.” Krishna does what he is asked to do by the one man whom he loves more than anyone else in the world – his friend, his cousin, his brother-in-law and the greatest warrior on earth.

Arjuna takes a look around and what he sees is not two armies of fierce warriors but his dear revered grandsire Bheeshma, his guru Drona, guru’s son Ashwatthama and countless others near and dear to him. There are fathers and sons standing there, uncles and nephews, brothers and cousins all ready to maim and slay each other in a brutal war. His eyes cloud, head reels, perspiration covers his body, legs give way under him, arms lose their strength, the mighty Gandiva falls from his hands and he collapses on the chariot floor, telling Krishna “I shall not fight” and giving a hundred reasons why he will not. It is better to live begging for alms than enjoying pleasures stained by the blood of such near and dear ones, he tells Krishna.

Krishna gives him the teachings that the world today knows as the Bhagavad Gita, the immortal spiritual classic generally acknowledged as the most beautiful spiritual gem in the world. Arjuna wanted to desert his horrid duty and escape into a life of renunciation and Krishna teaches him what true renunciation means and how it is not running away from the battlefield of life but standing there facing it. When Krishna finishes, Arjuna picks up the Gandiva from the chariot floor, straight, energy and power coursing through his veins, confidence resonating in his voice. He is now ready to wage the war for which he has been preparing all his life.

Scene 4: Indraprastha, before the Rajasooya

The Bharata kingdom has been divided and Pandavas have been given Khandavaprastha, the wilderness around modern day Delhi. They clear the land and establish Indraprastha there, a splendid capital city by any standards. Yudhishthira turns out to be a just, loving and competent ruler and the glory of the Pandavas spread wide. For the glory of his dead father, Yudhishthira now wants to conduct a rajasooya sacrifice which will declare him as the most powerful ruler on the earth. He consults sages and brahmanas, his ministers and his brothers, all of whom advise him to go ahead and do that, but he is still not sure. How does he know that everyone is advising him to go ahead just to please him and not because they feel he should do it, he asks himself. Or maybe they all have something to gain from it and it is for their selfish reasons that are asking him to do the sacrifice. But there is one person who would give him advice he can trust totally – Krishna. Yudhishthira sends word to Krishna telling him he wishes to consult him and Krishna comes to Indraprastha. Yudhishthira places his concerns before him. He certainly wants to do the rajasooya, but he is not sure he should do it, nor even that he can do it.

Krishna, as always, looks at things from the higher standpoint. For him it is not a matter of Yudhishthira’s or the dead Pandu’s glory, nor even the glory of the Bharatas as a whole, but a matter of the welfare of the world, the one goal for which he has lived every day of his life – lokasangraha.

Krishna paints a very detailed picture of the dark political situation of the land at that time. One by one he takes the names of the kings of the land and tells how Jarasandha has conquered or subjugated each. The list includes many who are very close to Yudhishthira and who cherish love for him in their hearts, but such is the evil might of Jarasandha not one of them is able to take an independent stand against him, barring a rare king here and there. The dungeons of Jarasandha at Girivraja contains eighty-six kings he intends to sacrifice in a final ritual – he is waiting the number to grow to one hundred. The day the number is completed, a hundred crowned heads will be ritually sacrificed by him. No rajasooya will be possible unless Jarasandha is eliminated. Eliminating him is not only a political necessity for Yudhishthira if he wanted to perform rajasooya, but is the need of the hour. Dharma calls for it.

Krishna also tells him it is impossible to eliminate Jarasandha through a war. He is too powerful for it. But he has to be eliminated, there is no alternative to it. And Krishna tells Yudhishthira the time is right to do so.

Krishna himself has fought seventeen battles with Jarasandha, all forced upon him by the evil emperor, but eventually had decided to move away from Mathura to Dwaraka for the safety of his people. Jarasandha has a personal grudge against Krishna. The wicked Kamsa, Krishna’s uncle whom he killed, was Jarasandha’s son-in-law and Jarasandha wanted vengeance for the killing. However, in the seventeenth and final battle they fought, a happy thing happened. Kansa had two ministers, Hamsa and Dimbaka, brothers who were totally devoted to each other. In the battle some other king by the name Hamsa was killed and when Dimbaka heard of this, the jumped into the Yamuna and committed suicide, thinking it was his brother who had been killed. He did not want to live without his brother. And when Hamsa heard this, he too jumped into the Yamuna and killed himself. This has weakened Jarasandha to some extent, as has the death of Kamsa. It is the right time to strike him.

Both Bheema and Arjuna too are of the opinion that this is the right thing to do and that it can be done through the combined power of Bheema, Arjuna and Krishna. Yudhishthira, however, does not have the self-confidence that these three have. As he very frequently does, he begins wavering, unable to make up his mind. He is also worried for the life of his brothers and Krishna. He begins praising the virtues of contentment rather than valour. Considering everything, in spite of his great desire to do the sacrifice and become an emperor, he says it is better to forget all about it. Rajasooya appears indeed to be difficult and the best thing is to drop the whole idea, he tells Krishna.

Arjuna interferes and speaks of the need to act with valour. When he finishes, Krishna speaks, telling Arjuna he has spoken like a true Bharata and like a son of Kunti. The implication is clear: Yudhishthira has not spoken like a son of the Bharatas or of a brave mother like Kunti. Who knows about death, asks Krishna. Who knows about what will happen tomorrow? A life lived in the fear of death and defeat is not worth living. He speaks of the duty of killing Jarasandha – they owe it to the kings imprisoned by Jarasandha. And Krishna does not care if they are killed by Jarasandha’s people after they kill him. [He is saying this because the plan to kill Jarasandha is fully formed in his mind. It is going to be through neeti, indirect means, avoiding a direct war with him. It is possible that after Jarasandha’s death, his army would kill them. But Krishna is ready for it. Such is his commitment to dharma and lokasangraha.]

Krishna finds that Yudhishthira is still does not have the confidence required. Krishna explains his plan. Arjuna, Bheema and he would go to Jarasandha and challenge him for a one-to-one dual. And Jarasandha would choose Bheema – for he is a great warrior and for fear of ill-fame, he would want to fight only the greatest among them. And Bheema would kill him.

Perhaps Krishna still does not see the light of confidence in Yudhishthira’s eyes. But slaying Jarasandha is the need of Dharma and lokasangraha. And nothing would stop him from achieving that goal. He knows there is only thing that would make Yudhishthira relent. And Krishna does exactly that. He guarantees Yudhishthira the lives of both Arjuna and Bheema [and by implication, his own too] – for Yudhishthira is not confident of ruling his own kingdom without them, forget about performing the rajasooya, which requests the conquest of all other kings. As he says repeatedly, Bheema and Arjuna are his right and left hands.

Krishna’s words here are moving and powerful. He says:

Yadi me hrdayam vetsi, yadi te pratyayo mayi
Bhīmasenārjunau śīghram nyasabhūtau prayaccha me.

“If you know my heart, if you have faith in me, then make over Bheema and Arjuna to me, as a pledge, without loss of time!"

Finally Krishna has succeeded in instilling confidence in Yudhishthira. The Kuru prince protests desperately. “Achyuta, Achyuta, don’t say that, don’t speak so. You are our lord and master, and we are your dependents.” He then agrees to Krishna’s plan and declares he regards Jarasandha already dead, the kings imprisoned by him already released and his own rajasooya, already performed.


Instilling confidence in his people is one of the basic functions of any leader, whether in ancient days or in modern days, whether in a war or in a business organization. A leader who fails to instill confidence in his people fails to qualify as a leader, so fundamental is the leadership function of instilling confidence.

The ability to build confidence is part of the referent power of the leader, his most important power base as far as his dealings and relationships with his follower are concerned. And this ability depends on the leader’s integrity, commitment, courage and consistency. As a leader, Krishna shows the highest level of integrity, total consistency of purpose, absolute commitment to his goals and unsurpassed courage in facing the challenges these offer. Any leader if he wants to deserve the name of leader will have to show integrity, consistency, courage and commitment so that he can instill confidence in his followers. It is confidence thus instilled that gives wings to the followers and makes the impossible possible.

Incidentally, J. Collins in the January 2001 issue of Harvard Business Review defines Level 5 leadership as “the highest level in a hierarchy of executive capabilities, who blend extreme personal humility with intense professional will.” What Krishna shows is Level 5 leadership at its best.


Leadership, Ramayana and the Russian Revolution

The days immediately before the Russian Revolution. Tsar Nicholas II was ruling the vast Russian empire. The Russian people were in a terrible mood. Their country was at war and they were starving. The army was so ill looked after and abused that many soldiers were fighting barefoot, going hungry much of the time, a fate they shared with the vast majority of their countrymen. People were crying for a change in a world that was changing fast. They knew Russia needed a change and deserved it.

But the man ruling Russia never heard their cries. He had grown up believing monarchy was divinely ordained and it was the duty of the people to submit to it. His family had been ruling the empire for three hundred years and there was no reason to believe they will not continue to do so for generations to come.

One of the essential requirements for a leader is to be in touch with his people. This is true whether the ruler is an autocratic monarch, as in old days, or a contemporary leader today, in politics, industry, business or any other area. It is as essential for a leader to know the needs of his people and their moods as it is for a mother to know why her baby is crying. Sensitive mothers know this instinctively but a leader is not always sensitive, especially when leadership is inherited rather than achieved, as it was in the case of Nicholas II.

The Tsar was totally out of touch with his people. Whenever he saw them, it was from a distance. He never met them and talked to them on the streets. He never visited their impoverished homes or their shops or bazaars. He had no idea of the terrible working conditions in the factories. Royalty and common people had no contact points. Tsar Nicholas II was not an evil man and if he had been in touch with the needs of his people and their moods, possibilities are his family would not have been exterminated and much of the bloodshed and tragedy caused by the Russian Revolution could have been avoided. But because of the total lack of contact between him and the Russian people, because of the great distance between them, when they eventually collided, the impact was so explosive that it took the entire royal family with it.

Just as the Tsar did not understand his people, his people did not understand him, which again required their mutual contact. Nicholas II had reluctantly assumed power – he had no desire to be Tsar, instead what he wanted was to be an adventurer sailing round the world. He did not exult in the exercise of power, as people misunderstood. He was a suffering man, and much of his indifference to the needs of the people was because of his suffering. His son Alexei suffered from a bleeding disorder, haemophilia, and no medicine, no doctor, could stop the blood flow. This made the Tsar a prisoner to his own unhappiness. Had the people known this was the reason for his isolation and the amount of time he spent in imperial church, they would have had a different attitude towards him.

And then Rasputin entered the picture. The monk with a powerful mystic aura succeeded in what no doctor or medicine that the Russian emperor could command could do. He was successful in stopping Prince Alexei’s bleeding. At one stage, when the bleeding was so bad and the royal family feared Alexei would die, Rasputin saved the child’s life. Alexei’s mother, Tsarina Alexandra, became devoted to the man who had saved her son’s life.

Alexandra’s devotion to Rasputin was seen in a completely different light by the Russian people, again because they were totally out of touch with the royal family and the family too kept Alexei’s disease a secret. What could have been a reason for sympathetic understanding became the cause for the vilest of rumours. The common people were convinced that the Tsarina was having a sexual affair with the monk.

The common men and women were not alone in this misunderstanding. The nobility too shared this belie of theirs. For, the royal family had kept them too in the dark about the family problem and the role of Rasputin in solving it.

As Rasputin’s influence over the royal family soared, their lack of contact with people and alienation from them became complete. They had now lost contact not only with the common man, but with the aristocracy too.

The Russian people now openly demanded change.

Nicholas II was willing to abdicate – he, in the first place, had never wanted to be Tsar. And he announced to the Russian people and their provisional government that he was abdicating in favour of his younger brother Grand Duke Michael.

But that is not what the people wanted. Again, the Tsar had misjudged because of his isolation from his people. The provincial government announced Michael was unacceptable. Michael remained Tsar only for one day – the next day the provincial government declared the monarchy dead. The Russian Revolution had begun. Soon not only Grand Duke Michael and Tsar Nicholas II, but also the entire royal family including Empress Alexandra and Prince Alexei, would be killed. [According to one popular tradition, Princess Anastasia and a couple of others would escape the carnage.]


Among the invaluable leadership lessons that Valmiki Ramayana gives us is about the need for a ruler/leader to be in touch with his people. When Dasharatha asks the citizens of Ayodhya why they wanted his son Rama to be crowned crown prince, among the numerous reasons he gives is the fact that he was constantly in touch with the common man. The only time he was not in touch with people on the streets on an everyday basis was when he was away at a war. But as soon as he was back, he again began meeting every day the people whose prince he was and enquiring about their welfare.

Samgramāt punarāgamya kunjarena rathena vā
Paurān svajanavat nityam kuśalam pariprchhati;
Putreshu agnishu dāreshu preshyaśishyaganeshu ca
Nikhilena anupurvyācca pitā putrān iva aurasān.

“After coming back from the war, he used to move among the people on an elephant or by chariot every day. He would then ask of their welfare as though they were members of his own family. He would enquire about their children, about the sacrificial fires they kept, about their wives, about their servants and disciples. He would enquire about them in detail, as a father enquires of his sons.”

The Ramayana also speaks of Rama’s constant touch with people whose ruler he was in many other places and ways. It says he used ask the brahmanas about how well their disciples served them and the kshatriyas about how fit and ready their soldiers were. And every time there was a festivity in a common man’s home, he used to feel the man’s joy as a father would his son’s and when a misfortune befell any man, such was his empathy that he felt it as though it was his own sorrow.

It is interesting to compare an incident from the life of Tsar Nicholas II with this. The Tsar’s wife was Alexandra, granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England. To celebrate a royal wedding, it was customary to give a banquet to the subjects. Nicholas II too followed the custom and gave a banquet to his subjects. Such was the state of poverty among his people at that time that a huge mass of humanity turned up for the feast. In their hunger and impatience, they all rushed to grab food and this led to a stampede that killed several people. Nicholas failed to express any sorrow at this and continued the festivities, including a ball in his honour that he attended.

Rama was a deenanukampi, says the Ramayana: He felt deep compassion for people who were poor or suffered in any way. Such was his love for his subjects that every woman in Ayodhya, young and old, every day, when she prayed to the Gods in the mornings and evenings invariably addressed a prayer to them, begging them to make him their crown prince.

We see this care of Rama for ordinary people, whether they are his subject or employees, repeatedly in the Ramayana. When Bharata meets Rama at Chitrakuta and Rama advices him on the duties of a ruler, one of the things he reminds Bharata of is about the need to pay soldiers on time – remember the Tsar’s soldiers were fighting his battle for him going hungry and barefoot in the Russian climate.


If the Russian people executed the Tsar and his family, in contrast, while Rama was leaving for the jungle a huge section of the population left everything and followed him, insisting that for them Ayodhya was wherever Rama was and if he lived in the jungle, they would live there too. Such was the tenacity of these people that Rama had eventually to escape unnoticed while the people slept in the night, exhausted by following him the whole day.

The whole Ayodhya goes berserk when they hear of their beloved prince leaving for the jungle on an exile. Speaking of this the Ramayana tells us how the entire city fell into a swoon, all their strength deserting them. As he boards his chariot, along with his wife and brother, the whole populace run towards him in despair, forgetting themselves. People wail aloud in the throes of uncontrollable agony. Even animals go crazy with grief, says the poet of Ramayana. Women cry openly, filling the earth with sounds of their sorrow. The dust raised by the chariot immediately settles down, drenched by the tears of the wailing populace. That evening, no prayers are offered to any God by anyone in Ayodhya, no food is cooked in any home, cows refuse to suckle their calves, and even mothers who give birth for the first time feel no joy at the birth of their child. The entire earth, says the Ramayana, goes into mourning, and even the sun and the moon lose their lustre.


It is not fair to compare a reluctant Russian ruler like Nicholas II with a legend like Rama who made it his life’s mission to establish standards in leadership and values for all times to come, and no comparisons are meant. At the same time contrasting them gives us an invaluable lesson in leadership: a leader should constantly be in touch with his people. The closer to them he comes, the more effective he becomes as a leader, and the more he distances himself from them, the more ineffective he becomes.

It is for this reasons that kings in the past often travelled among their people disguised as ordinary men. The recent Hindi movie Akbar shows the young emperor moving among his people in disguise. Some of his important decisions, which contributed immensely to his popularity among the people, like the abolition of jizia, the religious tax imposed on Hindus, were taken based on his observations during these travels. The Kathasaritsagara, the huge collection of stories numerous of which are about kings, talks repeatedly about rulers, like Vikramaditya, moving among people incognito. The Arabian Nights has several stories in which sultans like Harun al-Rashid are shown moving among their people in disguise to gather intelligence about their feelings and needs. The modern management concept of MBWA [management by walking around] comes very close to this idea.

Greek versions of Alexander’s conquest of Persia speak repeatedly of how the Persians were surprised at the way Alexander mingled with his soldiers. He joked with them, drank and danced with them, and was one of them, in spite of being their leader, commander-in-chief and inspiration. This was in complete contrast to Persian practices, where the ruler remained on a pedestal and expected his people to pay him Godlike reverence, never ever climbed down to their level.

Plutarch mentions a touching incident in his Life of Alexander. Alexander’s army was in hot pursuit of Darius during his Persian campaign. The pursuit was long and painful. The army had marched thirty-three hundred furlongs in eleven days – that is roughly a total of four hundred and twelve miles, with an average of a little less than forty miles a day. The soldiers were harassed beyond words. Here is what happened then in Plutarch’s own words:

“...most of them were ready to give it up, chiefly for want of water. While they were in this distress, it happened that some Macedonians who had fetched water in skins upon their mules from a river they had found out, came about noon to the place where Alexander was, and seeing him almost choked with thirst, presently filled a helmet and offered it to him. …He took the helmet into his hands, and looking round about, when he saw all those who were near him stretching their heads out and looking earnestly after the drink, he returned it again with thanks without tasting a drop of it. "For," said he, "if I alone should drink, the rest will be out of heart." The soldiers no sooner took notice of his temperance and magnanimity upon this occasion, but they one and all cried out to him to lead them forward boldly, and began whipping on their horses. For whilst they had such a king, they said they defied both weariness and thirst, and looked upon themselves to be little less than immortal.”

While modern leadership thinkers insist that a leader should be in touch with his people and ‘should carry water for them’, ancient Indian leadership philosophers felt even that was not enough. “A king,” says the Mahabharata, “should always bear himself towards his subjects as a mother towards the child in her womb. As the mother, disregarding those objects that are most cherished by her, seeks the good of her child alone, even so, without doubt, should kings conduct themselves towards their subjects.”

Bhavitavyam sadā rājñā garbhinīsahadharminā
Kāranam ca mahārāja śrnu yenedam ishyate.
Yathā hi garbhinī hitvā svam priyam manaso’nugam
Garbhasya hitam ādhatte tathā rājñāpy asamśayam.

Chanakya, the greatest leadership thinker from ancient India, expresses the same idea in unmistakable words when he says:

Prajāsukhe sukham rājñah prajānām ca hite hitam
Nātmapriyam hitam rājñah prajānām tu priyam hitam.

“In the happiness of his subjects lies his happiness; in their welfare his welfare; whatever pleases himself he shall not consider as good, but whatever pleases his subjects he shall consider as good.”

In the past, enlightened leadership philosophy all over the world spoke of the need for leaders/rulers to be one with the people they led/ruled. In India, raja and praja, the ruler and the ruled, were not considered separate, but one. Praja was an inseparable part of the raja, just as the kingdom was. When they climbed the heights of prosperity, they climbed it together; when they fell, they fell together. When the praja committed sin, part of their sins went to the king, just as he got a share of their merits. And when the raja committed sins, the entire praja suffered.

In the powerful Tamil story of Kannaki, we have an unforgettable illustration of this truth. Kannaki’s husband Kovalan goes to the markets of Madurai to sell one of his wife’s priceless anklets so that he can start a business. The goldsmith whom he approaches for this is a thief – he has just stolen one of a pair of the queen’s anklets. The anklet Kovalan has brought is identical with the one he has stolen. The goldsmith senses the golden opportunity: he could blame the theft on Kovalan and get away with his crime. And that is exactly what the man does.

Kovalan is sentenced to death by Nedunchezhian, the Pandya king of Madurai. The sentence is carried out immediately. Both Kovalan and Kannaki have just come to Madurai and have been staying in a hut. In her hut Kannaki hears of Kovalan’s execution. Carrying her other anklet in her hand, she walks like an avenging goddess through the streets of Madurai. A tumultuous crowd walk with her, drawn to her by her power and moved by her sorrow. They show her where Kovalan’s body lay. She falls on her beloved husband’s body and vows vengeance – she would join her husband in the world to which he has gone, but after she has achieved her vengeance.

With her anklet still in her hand, Kannaki walks towards the palace like a storm that will uproot the entire kingdom. She is brought before Nedunchezhian, famed for his scrupulous, unerring justice. Questioned by Kannaki, he says it is his duty as king to punish thieves. Kannaki asks the king to bring the queen’s anklet that was not stolen. She flings it on the ground before the king, and out bounces precious pearls. Then she throws her own anklet on the ground – and out bursts priceless emeralds.

Such is the remorse of the king for the first sin he has committed, he dies on the spot. Soon the queen too follows him. But that does not appease Kannaki. Her vengeance demands that Nedunchezhian’s city too should be destroyed. She comes out of the palace and walks through Madurai, the city of temples that rose to the skies, announcing to the holy men on earth and gods in heaven her curse on the capital of the king and warning the common people of it. And then, before the terrified people, she tears her left breast off. Thrice she surveys the city of Madurai, with that torn breast in her hand, repeating her curse: the entire city shall burn down, with the exception of brahmanas, ascetics, cows, chaste women, old people and children. Then she flings her breast on the ground at her feet. Roaring fires rise up instantly everywhere and the entire city of Madurai is reduced to ashes as punishment for the king’s failure.


The story of Kannaki also tells us another truth about leadership as perceived by ancient India: the principle of zero error. Maybe it sounds too harsh on rulers, but that was the expectation: the ruler had no right to make a single error. That is total quality at its highest level for the leader.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dara Shikoh and the Upanishads

Dara Shikoh, Emperor Shah Jahan’s son and brother of the much hated Aurangazeb, believed that the mystical traditions of both Hinduism and Islam spoke of the same truth. Unlike Aurangazeb, whose spiritual and religious views were fundamentalist, Dara Shikoh, who was a follower of the Qadiri order of Sufis and a disciple of Miyan Mir, devoted much of his time to the study of ancient Indian spirituality along with Islamic traditions and felt that the search for God was one all over the world and at all times. In his search for truth, Dara Shikoh tried to find the common ground between Upanishadic and Islamic spirituality believing that there was no need for spiritual traditions to live in isolation from each other and their mingling could produce a tradition that is healthier than either.

As the eldest son of Shah Jahan, and as the emperor’s and his wife Mumtaz Mahal’s favourite, the Mugal empire should have gone to him. But that was not to be, mostly due to the ambitions of the younger Aurangazeb. There were continuous power struggles among the royal brothers and much of Dara’s time was spent in these struggles and the battles that they lead to. In the middle of it all, though, he amazingly found time to pursue his quest for the common mystical heritage of Hinduism and Islam, particularly as taught by the Sufis. He believed that what is referred to in the Quran as Kitab al-Maknun [The Hidden Book] is actually the Upanishads. It was inspired by this belief that he spent whatever time he could find in translating the Upanishads into Persian, with the help of several pundits of Banaras. His translation of the Upanishads is appropriately called Sirr-i-Akbar, “The Greatest Secret.’ Before Sirr-i-Akbar he had written several other books, the most famous of which is Majma ul-Bahrain [“The Mingling of Two Oceans”], an independent work devoted to discovering the affinities between Vedantic and Sufi perceptions of the Ultimate Truth.

However, the spiritual stand that Dara who hated the rigidity of religious fundamentalists took did not go well with Aurangazeb who had by then managed to come up in the struggle for the throne and had all the power of the empire firmly in his hands. Partly because of his fundamentalist faith and partly from political compulsions, he called for a council of nobles and clergy to decide the fate of Dara Shikoh – and the council promptly declared Dara Shikoh a threat to public peace and a traitor to Islam, exactly as Aurangazeb had desired. Dara was put to death on the night of August 30, 1659.

While it is certain that Indian history would have taken a different turn had Dara, who was in the middle of all literary, spiritual, and intellectual movements of his time, come into power instead of Aurangazeb, many people of the past shared the belief that the end of the Mugal empire in India came because of the curse of killing Dara Shikoh and the great Sufi sage and Persian poet Sarmad, whose disciple Dara Shikoh had become towards the end of his life.

Dara Shikoh completed his translation of fifty-two Upanishads in 1657, two years before he was executed. Such was his devotion to the goal he had set for himself, discovering the common ground between Hindu and Islamic spiritual traditions, that in order to do the work, he learnt Sanskrit. Apart from the Upanishads, Dara had, with help from Sanskrit scholars, translated into Persian two other classics of Indian spirituality – the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Vasishtha.


The following is from Dara Shikoh’s introduction to his work on the Upanishads, in which he refers to himself in the third person.

“Whereas this unsolicitous fakir Muhammad Dara Shikoh in the year 1050 after Hijra [AD 1640] went to Kashmir… And whereas, he was impressed with a longing to behold the Gnostics of every sect, and to hear the lofty expressions of monotheism, and had cast his eyes upon many books of mysticism and had written a number of treatises thereon, and as the thirst of investigation for unity, which is a boundless ocean, became every moment increased, subtle doubts came into his mind for which he had no possibility of solution, except by the word of the Lord and the direction of the Infinite.

“And whereas the holy Quran is mostly allegorical and at the present day persons thoroughly conversant with the subtleties thereof are very rare, he became desirous of bringing in view all the heavenly books, for the very words of God themselves are their own commentary; and what might be in one book compendious, in another might be found diffusive, and from the detail of one, the conciseness of the other might become comprehensible. He had, therefore, cast his eyes on the Book of Moses, the Gospels, the Psalms, and other scriptures but the explanation of monotheism in them also was compendious and enigmatical, and from the slovenly translations which selfish persons had made, their purport was not intelligible.

“Thereafter he considered, as to why the discussion about monotheism is so conspicuous in India and why the Indian theologians and mystics of the ancient school do not disavow the Unity of God nor do they find any fault with the Unitarians, but their belief is perfect in this respect; on the other hand, the ignoramuses of the present age – the highwaymen in the path of God – who have established themselves for erudites and who, falling into the trances of polemics and molestation, and apostatizing through disavowal of the true proficients in God and monotheism, display resistance against all the words of Unitarianism, which are most evident from the glorious Quran and the authentic traditions of indubitable prophecy.”

Dara Shikoh here mentions the four Vedas by name and states their hoary age. He quotes the Quran to say that prophets could be found in every tradition, and then continues:

“And the summum bonum of these four books, which contain all the secrets of the Path and the contemplative exercises of pure monotheism, are called the Upanekhats [Upanishads], and the people of that time have written commentaries with complete and diffusive interpretations thereon; and being still understood as the best part of their religious worship, they are always studied. And whereas this unsolicitous seeker after the Truth had in view the principle of the fundamental unity of the personality and not Arabic, Syriac, Hebrew, and Sanskrit languages, he wanted to make without any worldly motive, in a clear style, an exact and literal translation of the Upanekhats into Persian. For it is a treasure of monotheism and there are few thoroughly conversant with it even among the Indians. Thereby he also wanted to solve the mystery which underlies their efforts to conceal it from the Muslims.

“And as at this period the city of Banaras, which is the centre of the sciences of this community, was in certain relations with this seeker of the Truth, he assembled together the pundits and the sannyasis, who were the most learned of their time and proficient in the Upanekhats…in the year 1067 after Hijra; and thus every difficulty and every sublime topic which he had desired or thought and had looked for and not found, he obtained from the essences of the most ancient books, and without doubt or suspicion, these books are first of all heavenly books in point of time, and the source and the fountainhead of the ocean of unity, in conformity with the holy Quran.

“Happy is he, who having abandoned the prejudices of vile selfishness, sincerely and with the grace of God, renouncing all partiality, shall study and comprehend this translation entitled The Greatest Secret [Sirr-i-Akbar], knowing it to be a translation of the words of God. He shall become imperishable, fearless, unsolicitous, and eternally liberated.”


Dara Shikoh’s translation of the Upanishads into Persian was to play a very significant role in awakening the west to the wisdom of the Upanishads. Fourteen years after Dara Shikoh completed the translation, in 1671, Francis Bernier, a French traveler, took the translation to France. Interest in Indian philosophy was awakened in France. Later Victor Cousin, a French Philosopher of high repute, stated in words of high admiration that Vedanta, the philosophy of the Upanishads, is the highest philosophy that mankind has ever produced. The Upanishads and their philosophy soon became very popular in the intellectual circles all over the west.

German scholars like Friedrich Von Schelling (1775-1854), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Paul Deussen (1854-1919) were fascinated by the Upanishads. Schelling’s admiration for the ‘Oupnekhats’ led him to ask Max Mueller to translate them, for he ardently felt that the Upanishads deserved wide circulation in Germany and every member of the German intelligentsia need to know of them.

Schopenhauer was among the greatest admirers of the Upanishads in the west. His magnum opus The World as Will and Idea strongly reflects the power influence of the Upanishads on him. He felt that no other thought of humanity ever came near the Upanishads in the depth of their wisdom and in the service it can provide mankind. Speaking of the wisdom of the ancient sages of India as contained in the Upanishads, the German philosopher said that ‘it has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death.’

Sir William Jones (1746-94), who founded the Asiatic Society in Calcutta in 1784 felt that “one correct version of any celebrated Hindu book would be of greater value than all the dissertations or essays that could be composed on the same subject.’

It is interesting to compare this with what Lord Macaulay had to say about eastern wisdom. The man who is credited with the founding of European education in India had expressed his view that if you put on one side of a balance a single rack of English literature and on the other all the literature of the east, English literature would weigh heavier. But of course, Macaulay’s statement was motivated by his political agenda as is evident from his own statement on February 2, 1835 in the British Parliament, Macaulay had said: “I have traveled the length and breadth of India and I did not meet a single person who was a thief. I have seen such affluence in that country, such competent individuals and such talent that I do not think we will be able to conquer that land so long as we do not break its cultural and ethical backbone. I therefore state that we change the ancient education system and culture of India because if the inhabitants of India begin to think that the ideas and thoughts of foreigners, of Englishmen, are better than and superior to their own, then they will lose their culture and self-respect and they will become a dependent nation, which is what we need.’

Dara Shikoh sought for and found the common ground between Upanishadic and Islamic spirituality. But it was not for himself alone that he sought it, but for all, particularly for all Indians. We today require the truth that Dara Shikoh found as much as his times needed it, perhaps more.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rama: A Study in Self-Mastery

[This study is based exclusively on the Valmiki Ramayana. Other narrations of Rama’s story, which frequently differ from Valmiki’s narration, have not been taken into consideration.]

It was the Greek Historian Xenophon, I believe, who said, “A king should not only prove himself better than those he rules, he should cast a spell on them.” That is, cast a spell on them by the excellence of his thought and action, by the totality of his commitment to his vision and mission, and by the quality of his living and being. A close look at Rama’s life shows us that he, a man from a period much earlier than that of Xenophon, fully believed in this. That is one of the reasons why his life gives us so many invaluable lessons even for our age separated from his from a few millennia.

One of the most important lessons Rama’s life gives us is in self-mastery, at which he frequently falters, as all human beings do, but invariably triumphs. To look at how Rama falters again and again and eventually masters himself every time is as fascinating to do as it is rewarding. Rama’s failures and triumphs are invaluable lessons for all human beings, and particularly so for men and women in leadership positions who are expected to lead by example and set role models for others to follow.

The most beautiful example for this could be found in the Ayodhya Kanda of the Ramayana.

On that fateful Pushya morning when he was supposed to be installed as the crown prince of Ayodhya, the first major crisis of his life takes place. The previous evening he had been called twice to his father, King Dasharatha, the first time to be informed that he would be crowned the next day and the next time, to give advice regarding his role as a crown prince of the Ikshwakus, who have been kings for generations and have produced several legendary kings. The first meeting is very formal and takes place in the assembly. The second one is informal and intimate, and takes place in the antahpura [inner palace apartments].

On the day his coronation was supposed to take place, early in the morning Sumantra, the minister, comes and informs him that he is wanted at Queen Kaikeyi’s palace, where the king is waiting for him along with the queen. Rama believes it is with regard to something in connection with the coronation – perhaps Kaikeyi is not able to contain her joy at the news. He goes there, accompanied by his brother Lakshmana and several friends. He leaves his friends behind as he goes to the queen’s chamber – we are not sure whether he takes Lakshmana with him or not. There is no reason for him to leave Lakshmana outside: the two brothers are inseparable and he is going to meet his father and step-mother, who has all along been as loving and close to him as his own mother. However, the text perhaps implies that he went in alone into Kaikeyi’s chamber.

The sight that meets him there is disturbing. Both the king and the queen are seated together, but Dasharatha’s face is marked by deep sorrow. He utters just one word – Rama, his beloved son’s name – and becomes silent. The king in his grief is terrible to look at. Rama wonders what could be the reason for his father’s misery and we see Rama upset for the first time in the Ramayana. Describing him the Ramayana says he was agitated as an ocean on the full moon night – babhūva samrabdhatarah samudra iva parvani. [2-18-7]

He asks Kaikeyi what has happened – his main suspicion is that he has done something that has made his father unhappy with him. Or maybe, the king is now well. Kaikeyi assures him he has done nothing wrong, nor is the king suffering from any ailment. The king’s problem is, she tells Rama, that he made a promise to her a long time ago and now he does not want to fulfil that promise. She also adds she would tell Rama about it all if he promises to do whatever the king wants, whether it is good or bad.

The very idea that he would not fulfil a wish in Dasharatha’s mind is shocking to Rama and he tells Kaikeyi as much. He tells her he shall jump into fire at one word from Dasharatha; he shall eat deadly poison, if that is what he wanted, or drown in an ocean. He vows that he would do whatever the king wants. He assures her “Rama does not speak two things.” He would stand by whatever he says once.

Kaikeyi now tells Rama that Dasharatha had long ago given her two boons and using them she has demanded that Bharata should be crowned as the crown prince in Rama’s place and Rama should go on an exile to the Dandaka forest for fourteen years. She asks Rama to now fulfil the king’s promise and save Dasharatha’s truth. She wants Rama to leave for the forest that very day.

Hearing those harsh words of Kaikeyi, the Ramayana tells us, Rama did not become unhappy: na caiva ramah praviveśa śokam [2-18-41]. This is in the last verse of chapter 18 of the Ayodhyakanda. Again in the first verse of the next chapter, the epic repeats: hearing those words unpleasant like death, Rama did not become distressed. [Tad apriyam amitraghnah vacanam maranopamam, śrutvā na vivyathe ramah. 2-19-1] Instead, he tells Kaikeyi, “All right, let it be so. Obeying the king’s orders, I shall go from here to live in the forest, clad in a piece of bark and wearing matted hair.” In the next verse, he asks Kaikeyi” “But why doesn’t father talk to me happily as he always does?”

In spite of the Ramayana repeatedly telling us Rama was not upset by what he was told, we see that Rama is deeply distressed. Those are the words of a deeply upset mind, for his father has no reason that morning to talk to him happily as he always does.

However, the epic again assures us Rama did not lose the equanimity of his mind. As he made up his mind to go to the jungle, giving up the earth, according to the Ramayana, there was no disturbance in his mind, as in the mind of a man who has gone beyond all worldly things. [Na vanam gantukāmasya tyajatah ca vasumdharām sarvalokātigasya iva laksyate cittavikriya 2-19-33]

According to Valmiki Ramayana, was Rama then affected by the news or not? Did he lose mastery over himself when he received the news or not?

These two are really two different questions and not one question put in different words.

As to the first question we can categorically say yes, he was. He was definitely affected by what Kaikeyi had told him. He was even a little unsettled, as the question he asks about why Dasharatha was not happily talking to him shows. If that is not enough, here is confirmation from the Sanskrit epic itself. In verse 2.19.33, we saw how the Ramayana tells us there was no disturbance in Rama’s mind. But in verse 2.19.35, the poet-sage clarifies the position when he describes in what mental state Rama entered his mother Kausalya’s palace after leaving Kaikeyi’s palace as he went there to give her the bad news: The Ramayana tells us, “Holding his sorrow in his mind, keeping his senses under control, a master of himself, he entered his mother’s palace, to give her the unpleasant news.“ [Dhārayan manasā duhkham indriyāni nigrhya ca, praviveśa ātmavān veśma māturapriya śamsivān. 2-19-35]

This verse makes the answers to the two questions above very clear. Was he affected by the news or not? The answer is, yes, he was, to the extent that he became sad and there was at least the threat of his losing control over his senses, if he did not actually lose it. [In Sanskrit literature, the senses are usually ten: the five sense organs like the eyes and ears, and the five organs of action, like the hands and legs. Sometimes the mind is counted as an eleventh sense organ]. But did he lose control over himself? Not really, and if he did, it was only very temporarily. For when he enters his mother’s mansion, we find he is able to hold his sorrow in his mind, his senses are in full control and he is a master of himself.

Self-mastery is not never losing control over oneself. It is not never being affected by bad news or sad events, or good news, for that matter. True self-mastery is when you are able to hold yourself together in spite of being affected by these. And that is exactly what Rama shows.

Rama is a very deeply emotional individual. I think of all our epic heroes, he is the most emotional. And people with emotional depth are easily affected by the events around them. Rama is repeatedly affected by the events around him, by all major events in his life. But every time he gives in to his emotionality, he controls himself and becomes a self-master again.

That is exactly what he does before his mother Kausalya. Kausalya in Valmiki’s Ramayana is like Dasharatha – extremely sentimental and weak, unable to take stress, and prone to faint under strain. Besides, she has suffered much in life because of the king’s affection for his younger and clearly more talented and attractive wife, Kaikeyi.

When Rama enters his mother’s palace, Valmiki tells us, he is a master of himself, in spite of being deeply distressed. On the way to the inner chambers of Kausalya’s palace, Rama meets in the outer sections of the palace “a very elderly, revered man, seated at the door” [probably the kanchuki, officer in-charge of the women’s quarters], numerous other men around him, groups of honoured Vedic scholars, and several young and old female guards. None of them suspects either from Rama’s face or his manners that anything dreadful has happened.

When Rama sees Kausalya, she is engaged in a ritual worship for his welfare. Such is Rama’s mastery over himself by now that his mother sees nothing amiss in spite of the fact that Rama’s coronation has been cancelled, he has been ordered to go on an exile into the dreadful Dandaka forest for fourteen years, it has been decided the crown of Ayodhya would go to Bharata instead of him and Rama is deeply distressed [bhrśam ayastah] about all this. Rama greets her, she gathers him in her arms and speaks words of blessings. She then invites him to take a seat and offers him food. She still has no clue about Rama’s inner condition because of his supreme control over himself – she gets to know of what has happened only he himself tells her of it.

The news devastates Kausalya when she hears it. She swoons and collapses. Rama gathers her from the floor and raises her up. Kausalya laments that she has never known joy in her life, has never once known the joy an eldest queen should know. She tells him she was living under the hope that once Rama became the ruler, she would be able to know the joys she was denied during the day’s of her husband’s power. She says the other wives of the king have constantly been insulting and humiliating, even when he, Rama, was around, and if he went away she would certainly die. In the palace, she wails, her status has been that of the servants of Kaikeyi, or even worse.

Rama loves his mother deeply. He sees her misery and it powerfully moves his heart. But that does not make him lose his control over himself – he knows it is not weakness that would give his mother the strength she now needs more than at any other time in her life. It is Lakshmana who loses his hold over himself and gets into a violent fury.

In his fury Lakshmana says many unforgivable things. He wants Rama to capture power by force and says if anyone stood in his way, he would make the entire Ayodhya devoid of people [nirmanuṣyām ayodhyām kariṣyāmi. [2.21.20] He says he would slay anyone who took Bharata’s side or desired his welfare. As for his father, Lakshmana says if he turns an enemy goaded by Kaikeyi, then he should be either imprisoned or if necessary, killed. He swears his loyalty to Rama and tells Kausalya that he will kill Dasharatha who has become obsessed with Kaikeyi and has turned stupid in his old age. Kausalya tells Rama he has heard what Lakshmana has said and if it appeals to him, he should act on it.

Rama is now a master of himself, unlike Lakshmana and Kausalya, however devastated he is deep within himself. He tells his mother he would follow the path followed by other great men in the past, who have obeyed their father even when what had to be done was great evil, like Sage Kandu who killed a cow [one of the gravest sins in Rama’s society] in obedience to the wish of his father; even when some of them met with great calamities in obeying their father, as happened to the sons of his ancestor King Sagara. He admonishes Lakshmana and asks him to forget the ideas suggested to him by the evil kshatra greed for power, and follow the path of dharma as he himself was doing. As for himself, he wouldn’t give up dharma for the sake of something as small as a throne. He blames all that has happened on daiva, Divine will. Or else why should Kaikeyi who has never once in the past made any distinction between him and Bharata, now do what she has done, he asks. Eventually, after a lot more arguments among them, Kausalya gives Rama her blessings to go to the forest and agrees to stay back in Ayodhya awaiting his return, giving up her demand that he take her with him.

The strain of keeping himself in control, however, takes its toll on Rama soon. The imperviousness that he maintained before Kausalya deserts him as soon as he leaves her apartment. He would be very different when he enters his wife’s chamber.

Rama is a dreadful sight when Sita first sees him after he had left early that morning. She has no idea of the new turns events have taken. But one look at him, Sita starts shivering. The Ramayana tells us here that at the sight of Sita, Rama could no more retain his control over his sorrow and his grief came out in spite of himself. His face loses all lustre, he is perspiring all over. This is a man who has failed in keeping his sorrow in check, who is no more in control of himself.

We see something of tremendous beauty here. Before his father, who is deeply sentimental and psychologically weak, Rama keeps his mastery in spite of being deeply affected. In front of his friends, who look up to him as their leader, he maintains self-mastery. He maintains self-mastery again in front of his mother, to whom it is his duty to give strength in her moment of crisis – for the crown being withheld from Rama is a greater tragedy to her than to Rama himself; she has been all her later years with the single hope that one day he would become king and she would reclaim the position she had lost when Kaikeyi became the king’s favourite wife. But in the presence of Sita, his wife, who is emotionally as strong as he is, if not more, he allows his emotions to overpower him for the first time.

During this breakdown, he would tell Sita a lot of things that would never occur to him if he were a master of himself. After informing her about what happened in Kaikeyi’s chamber, he tells her he is going on exile and she should stay back at the palace. He then gives Sita instructions about how she should conduct herself from then on. He tells her she should never talk of Rama in Bharata’s presence! Because men in power do not endure other people’s praise, she should never extol Rama’s virtues in Bharata’s presence, particularly so while talking to her [girl] friends! Now that Bharata is in power, Sita should always try to please him!

After this breakdown in Sita’s chamber, he would once again regain command over himself. This time he would maintain his mastery over himself until after he has left Ayodhya, crossed several rivers, and has finally crossed the Ganga and is in the forests beyond it. There, for the first time alone since he received the order of exile from Kaikeyi, with just Sita and Lakshmana with him, in the loneliness of the jungle, with night cutting him off from the rest of the world, he would again let go of himself and breaking down, wail aloud, filling the forest with his grief and sorrow.

But before going to that, let us see how he maintains, with a supreme effort of will, mastery over himself throughout the rest of the agonising day and the following days and nights until he reaches the forest across the Ganga.

In Sita’s chamber, Rama has to give in to Sita’s demand to be taken with him to the jungle. All his arguments against it prove futile. Sita proves here she is a woman of iron will and gets her way. Sita has no grief over the loss of the kingdom, but that she would have to live separated from Rama is intolerable to her. In her agony at the thought of being forced to live in Ayodhya, of being denied Rama’s company and the opportunity to serve him as his wife, she momentarily loses control over herself and insults Rama, questioning his masculinity itself, but Rama himself never loses his hold over himself. Later he agrees to take Lakshmana too with him.

It is as a master of himself that Rama does the many things he has to do before he leaves for the jungle on the same day as desired by Kaikeyi. He distributes wealth among brahmanas; gives diamonds and ornaments to Guru Vasishtha’s son Suyajna and his wife and to lots of brahmacharis, friends and servants. He also distributes his remaining wealth among the poor, the old and children.

And in the middle of sorrow that is engulfing all of Ayodhya, Rama amazingly becomes light-hearted and has some innocent fun at the cost of a brahmana. The brahmana lives in the jungles near Ayodhya. He is old, yet such is his lifestyle that he glows with spiritual power. The man has a young wife and several children and, unable to find food for them and for himself, he used to always roam around jungles with digging tools in his hand searching for roots and gathering fruits from trees and bushes. His wife very reluctantly addresses him asking him to go to Rama seeking some cows. Rama smiles amused at the wiry old man’s sight and shows him a huge herd of several thousand cows. He gives him a staff and asks him to hurl it as far as he can and tells him that all the cows within the fall of staff will be his. The brahmana tightens his dhoti and hurls the staff with all his strength. Such is the brahmana’s strength that the stick falls on the other bank of the Sarayu. Rama happily gives him all the cows that stood within the fall of the staff. Still smiling, he apologises for asking the brahmana to do what he did. He says he did what he did to see how much spiritual energy that wiry body of his contained. He tells him that all his wealth belongs to brahmanas and the needy and asks him to ask for anything else he needed.

This is a young man who has just lost his kingdom, snatched away from him moments before his crowning, and has been given an order of exile for fourteen years.

Rama now goes once again to Dasharatha – to take leave of him. Dasharatha begs him to stay for one more night – but Rama knows that is no solution to his father’s problem. By staying back he would only increase Dasharatha’s agony. He refuses.

There are moments when, during this meeting of the father and son, in spite of his self-mastery Rama’s pain and despair show through his words. For instance, while telling his father that the only desire in his mind is to see that his, Dasharatha’s, words [to Kaikeyi] are not broken, Rama says: “I have no desire for the kingdom, nor for the earth, nor happiness; I do not desire any of these pleasures, or heaven. I do not even want to live.” This is not what he will say two days later, when he is away from Ayodhya and alone with his wife and brother in the jungles beyond the Ganga. Rama’s pain and sense of loss come through in his other words here too – for instance, when he repeatedly says how happy he would be surrounded by quiet animals and listening to the chirping of birds in the jungle; how contented he would be eating the fruits and roots of the jungle and seeing the mountains, lakes and rivers.

Of course, it is possible that Rama is, reversing roles, trying to console his father, rather than Dasharatha doing so to his son. Even in this moment of crisis, he knows fully well his duty as a son: be the old father’s strength in his moment of debilitating weakness. He not only shows strength and courage, thus imparting to Dasharatha these, but also reminds his father it is his duty in this moment of crisis to give strength to those around him.

In spite of Rama’s brave words, the father senses his son’s feelings and faints.

Rama’s self-mastery is clearly visible again during the scene when the princes give up royal clothes and change into ascetic clothes in preparation to going on exile to the Dandaka forest. In a touching scene Sita too tries to wear ascetic clothes following Rama and Lakshmana, fails and stands confused and embarrassed. Rama comes forward and helps Sita wear the clothes. This is a scene that would break anyone’s heart – while Rama has been ordered to live in jungles for fourteen years as an ascetic, there are no such compulsions on Sita. She is doing what she is doing out of her love for Rama. The whole royal family watching it breaks down but there is one man totally unshaken by it: Rama. The women of the antahpura beg Rama not to take Sita with him, but to leave her in the palace, but Rama without paying any heed keeps helping his wife wear her new clothes.

Such is the poignancy of the scene that old Sage Vasishtha, a man of full self mastery, too loses his control over himself and, tears flowing down from his eyes, shouts in rage at Kaikeyi, calling the queen evil and wicked. He tells her they [that is, he and others] would put Sita on the throne, for that is where she belongs as Rama’s ‘half’, since a wife is a husband’s half. He tells Kaikeyi that if Sita goes to the jungle with Rama, then the whole city of Ayodhya too would go with them to the jungle. He warns Kaikeyi that even Bharata and Shatrughna would leave Ayodhya and go and serve Rama in the jungle. It is Sita who now speaks and insists that she too would dress like her husband and continues wearing ascetic clothes. During this poignant scene, Rama never loses his self-mastery once.

Dasharatha now insists that Sita would not wear ascetic clothes and would go in clothes of silk. Kaikeyi does not object.

Eventually the scene of actual leave taking comes. Rama, Lakshmana and Sita board the chariot. As Sumantra, the minister, driving the chariot urges the horses forward, a sense of loss spreads over the populace watching it. The whole city goes into a swoon. When they recover, the entire populace of Ayodhya run after the chariot like people tormented by thirst runs towards water. They beg Sumantra to drive slowly so that they could have another look at Rama’s face. Women wail aloud filling the whole place with their anguish. Tears falling down from the eyes of weeping women so drench the earth that the dust raised by the chariot and thousands of men and women immediately settles down. Dasharatha comes out of the palace gates and seeing the disappearing chariot, falls down on the earth like a felled tree. When he comes to, he and Kausalya both begin running after the chariot. Dasharatha shouts at Sumantra asking him to slow down the chariot, to stop it.

Again the one man still in control of himself is Rama. He turns around and looks back. He sees his mother and father and the masses of people running after him, and he knows the sooner this scene ends, the better it will be for all. While thousands of voices from behind ask Sumantra to slow down the chariot, Rama asks the minister to drive faster and faster. He tells Sumantra moving slow will not only increase everyone’s sorrow, but might even have disastrous consequences.

Amazingly, even in his great sorrow, he thinks about Sumantra! What reason will the minister give the king when he comes back for not obeying his order to slow down, to stop. Rama tells him, “If the king questions you when you come back, tell him you did not hear him.”

That is how Rama leaves Ayodhya. He would maintain tight control over himself for the rest of the day and two more days and nights. And then, when he is for the first time alone after he takes his orders from Kaikeyi, with just Sita and Lakshana with him, he would let himself go.

So devastating is his grief now, held under check for three days and two nights, that when it comes out it is shocking not only in its power, but also in its nature. He now accuses his father of being a slave to Kaikeyi, who would do the meanest thing to please her. He accuses Kaikeyi of being an evil woman who can do anything for power, including poisoning Dasharatha to get rid of him to make her son Bharata’s path easier for him. He speaks of the possibility of Kaikeyi poisoning both Kausalya and Lakshmana’s mother Sumitra. He feels that Bharata would now enjoy all the pleasures all alone. He then wails aloud piteously in the solitude of the jungle, tears streaming down from his eyes. It is only after this that he eventually becomes calm like a fire without flames, like an ocean without waves.

Self-mastery does not mean being untouched by emotions.

A World War II movie shows us a shocking scene. Inside a moving train are several passengers, including an ex-soldier. Next to him is seated a young mother, with her baby in her lap. As the train makes its lonely journey through a dull, monotonous afternoon, the passengers fall asleep, including the mother. The baby slips down from her lap and slowly crawls dangerously towards the open door of the compartment. The ex-soldier, awake, watches it without a muscle on his face moving. Watching the scene on the screen, the entire audience holds its breath. But the soldier feels nothing and he does nothing to stop the baby or wake up the mother.

This is no self-mastery by any standards. This is being dead. The ex-soldier hasn’t risen to any spiritual height. What has happened is that he has become sub-human. What was human in him has died. What Rama shows through those three agonising days is self-mastery of the highest kind. And it does cast a spell – not only on the people of his time, but also over us, across a distance of a few millennia.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When the Wisdom of Youth Speaks

The old man was sitting on a rock on the solitary beach when his eyes fell on the youth in the distance. He seemed to be performing some kind of ritual dance – bending down, straightening up again, his hands making repeated movements towards the sea. The old man watched him for a while, trying to make out what exactly he was doing, but failed. Eventually, his curiosity fully awakened, he got up from the rock and walked towards him. As he came near, he realised what was happening. It was not a ritual dance nor was it some kind of tribute being paid to the sea. On the beach were starfishes that had been stranded there as the tide withdrew. The young man was picking them up and throwing them into the sea.

The old man laughed aloud at the stupidity of the youth. “This happens every day. The tide rises twice a day and ebbs too twice a day. Every time it rises, it would bring starfish to the beach, and every time it ebbs, they would be stranded on the beach. And there are tens of thousands of miles of beach. How many starfish are you going to throw back into the water? What difference will it make?’

The boy stood silent for a moment, considering what the old man had said. Then he bent down and picked up yet another starfish and threw it back into the sea. “It made a difference to that one,” he said.
We can all make a difference to one.

This is the difference between the wisdom of old age and the wisdom of youth.
Old age has its wisdom. But youth has its own wisdom too. And frequently, the wisdom of youth is superior to the wisdom of old age.

The wisdom of age is very valuable. But the wisdom of youth is almost always invaluable. When the wisdom of age says you cannot and you should not, the wisdom of youth says you can and you should.

Most of the progress the world has made comes from the wisdom of the youth that old age frequently calls folly. What old age believes is impossible, youth goes ahead and does. And it makes the impossible possible.

It is not that old age is wrong. It is rather that youth has the power to make the impossible possible. And its wisdom tells youth that the impossible can be made possible.

For ages, old wisdom said that man cannot keep on travelling on the seas; if you do, a stage would come when you would reach the end of the world and then you would fall out of the world. Youth dared in its wisdom to challenge this belief and soon ships were travelling round the world.

Not long ago, the old wisdom of Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, made him say, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” This was in 1943.

“But what…is it good for?” This is by an engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, commenting on the microchip. Old wisdom. The year is 1968.

As recently as 1977, here is the wisdom of age from Ken Olson, President, Chairman and Founder of Digital Equipment Corp: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” This is from H.M. Warner, of Warner Brothers, in 1927, when ‘talking movies” became a technological possibility.

“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” said the old wisdom of Lord Kelvin, President, Royal Society. That was in 1895, just a few years before the Wright brothers flew the first airplane.

Rowland Macy’s first business undertaking, a retail store, was a complete failure and had to be closed down. Then he started a second one, which too failed. Then he started a third, a fourth, a fifth and a sixth, and all of them failed. Old wisdom would say Macy should have given up the idea of running retail stores. But Macy’s was the wisdom of youth and going by it, he started a seventh retail store. Today, more than a hundred and fifty years later, Macy’s is still alive and successful, with 800 branches and 30 billion annual sales.

The wisdom of age would have said Abraham Lincoln would never succeed in anything, for in so many things had he failed. And yet we know him today as one of the greatest triumphs in American public life. This would not have been possible if Lincoln, or the American people, had listened to the wisdom of age.

In 1982, Tylenol was a thirty-year-old over-the-counter drug in the United States and was widely trusted by consumers. And then someone laced the drug with cyanide and panic spread all across the country, hospitals receiving hundreds of queries and thousands getting admitted into hospitals suspecting they have been poisoned by cyanide because they had taken Tylenol. Sales plummeted and the manufacturers, Johnson and Johnson, stopped sales of the drug and recalled whatever stock was in the market. It was widely prophesied that the drug was dead forever, it could never be revived in spite of the excellent past record. Every expert said any money spent on reviving the reputation of Tylenol and promoting its sales would be a total waste. They were speaking on the basis of long years of experience and the wisdom born of it. However, Johnson & Johnson refused to listen to it and instead, launched what is often considered a powerful public relations campaign investing a huge amount of money in it. Sales began making a steady climb soon, and eventually Tylenol fully reclaimed its previous position.

There are times when the wisdom of age and experience could be completely wrong.

When Bucephalas, the future horse of Alexander, was first brought for sale before King Philip, Alexander’s father, he asked experts to test it. None of them could control it and they declared it unfit for royal use. And yet Alexander declared the horse great and declared he could ride it. And that is exactly what he did, when he was finally allowed to do so. With the intuition of the youth, he had sensed the stallion was indeed a superb one and he looked for clues for why no one was able to control it. And he observed what the problem was: the horse was afraid of its own moving shadow. Alexander went near Bucephalas and turned it around. Its fears gone, the stallion was easy to master and Alexander rode it to the applause of his father and a cheering crowd.

As we grow old, our intuitions frequently dry up, for we grow out of touch with life and with the earth. It is this touch that really what makes us wise.

Old wisdom is like old rubber that has lost its elasticity. And young wisdom, like fresh rubber.

In the Mahabharata, we have Bhishma, full of learning and the experience of a century of living. And yet his wisdom is of age, and not of youth. It has lost its elasticity and is not pliant. It is this wisdom of age that has lost its pliancy that makes him incapable of acting decisively when Duryodhana, prompted by greed, jealousy and intolerance, commits atrocity after atrocity against the Pandavas, including what was done to Draupadi after she was won by him in the dice game played he played with Yudhishthira. It is again this wisdom of age that tells him it is his duty to fight for Duryodhana, even though he does not believe in Duryodhana’s cause, because he has been reduced to a slave by Duryodhana’s wealth, as he puts it.

In the Mahabharata, Krishna represents the wisdom of youth, intimately in touch with life, vibrant, dynamic and plastic. It is this wisdom, the wisdom of vibrant life itself, that he reveals through the Gita in which he gives new meanings to practically every term he uses, whether it is yoga, karma or dharma, or tapas, yajna or dana.

The difference between Bheeshma’s wisdom and Krishna’s wisdom, between the wisdom of age and the wisdom of youth, is that between the rock and water.

Rocks have their use, but it’s water that nourishes life.

Youth and age, though, have nothing to do with how old your body is. It is your heart, it is how intimately you are in touch with life that decides how young you are.

Your wisdom is of age when it is based on the past, on memories; it is of youth when it based on the present, on life.

Kahlil Gibran, the Prophet of Lebanon, said:

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

This is as true about the wisdom of youth, as about love.

When the wisdom of youth speaks, listen to it. When it beckons, follow it.

And if you do not know how to recognise the wisdom of age from the wisdom of youth, here is one test: if wisdom suffocates you, makes you weak, it is the wisdom of age, of experience, of memories; if it liberates you, empowers you, gives you wings, if it springs from the living experience of life, it is the wisdom of youth.


The Wisdom of the Heart

The Arabian Nights tells us the story of Emir Khalid of Bassorah, renowned for his wisdom, justice and compassion. One day a group of men brought a young man before him, seeking justice. The men said the youth had been caught red-handed stealing from their house.

Emir Khalid looked at the young man. He was extremely handsome and obviously belonged to a good family. His face and eyes spoke of nobility of heart and the way he stood before him showed not the cringing fear of a thief, but of great dignity born of self-respect and honour. Something told the emir there was some deep mystery behind all this; this youth couldn’t be a common thief breaking into people’s houses to steal.

The emir asked the men to loosen the youth’s fetters. He went close to him and asked him, “Is what these men say true? Did you break into their house to steal?” The youth said what the men said was perfectly true, he did break into their house to steal. When the young man spoke, the emir was impressed by his command over himself and the elegance and culture in his speech. “But you do not look like a thief, nor do you speak like one. What made you do this?”

“Greed,” answered the youth. “I was tempted by the rich goods these men have in their house.”

The emir wouldn’t be convinced by his words. His heart screamed all the proof was wrong. This man was innocent.

But the man insisted that it was God’s will that he be punished – Allah must have his reasons, for the All Knowing One is not cruel. His hands should get what they have earned.

Punishment for stealing was to chop off the thief’s hands.

The emir now had no alternatives left. The men of the house had caught the youth red-handed, he had confessed. He sent the youth to the prison.

Announcements were made all over Bassorah, with the man’s name and his crime. His hands would be chopped off the next morning and all who want to witness the event should be present at the place for execution of punishments.

However, he gave secret instructions to the prison guards to keep their eyes and ears open. There had to be some secret here, the emir could not shake this feeling out of his mind. He had been dealing with criminals all his life and this young man certainly was not one of them.

In the loneliness of the prison, in the darkness of the night, the man’s sorrow came out in words. The guards overheard him and reported it to the emir. Come what may, the man was telling himself, he would not betray his beloved. Her honour was greater to him than the loss of his hands.

If there had been any doubts in the mind of the emir, they too were cleared now. He came to the prison the moment he heard from the guards and tried to talk to the man. The emir offered him a good meal and he sat with him and talked to him for an hour. But the man insisted he was a thief and should be punished.

The emir requested the youth to think it over until the morning. In the morning the emir would question him publicly again and all he had to do was deny the crime. The punishment would not be carried out, for the Prophet has said, “In cases of doubt, eschew punishment.”

In the morning at the place of punishment, questioned publicly, the youth gave the emir no chance to give up or defer punishment. He did not relent from his position and insisted on being punished for his crime.

“Perhaps the value of the things you stole is less than a quarter dinar,” proposed the emir. For if such was the case, the man could be let off. “No, it is more than that,” the man insisted.

“Maybe you had part ownership of the things you stole,” the emir suggested again. “No,” said the man.

In his helpless fury, the emir rose from his seat and smote the youth on his face. The young man was giving him no chance to save him.

The public too sensed something was wrong with the story. They looked at the young man and listened to his words, and they were sure he was no thief. Men stood in silence, their heads bent out of the weight of their grief. Women wailed openly, filling the open square with their loud cries.

The executioner raised his sword to chop off the man’s hands.

At that moment there was heard a tearing wail louder than all the other wails together. A young woman’s wail. A tortured, agonised, death-like wail that stilled everything and everyone in the square. Tearing the crowd apart, a young woman of incredible beauty rushed toward the place of execution. “No, no, no!” Her scream shent shivers through the whole crowd.

The executioner’s hand with the risen sword stopped midair. The woman rushed like a storm to the youth and clung to him as though for her very life.

The emir walked forward and questioned her. Yes, she knew the man. He was her lover. Their love was a secret. The night the young man was caught, he had come to meet her in her chamber as they did every night and when he realized he has been heard, he rushed towards the things in the room and gathered them in his hands. When they caught him, he claimed he was a thief. Such was the man’s love for her, he considered her honour greater than the loss of his hands.

The emir’s joy knew no bounds. He gathered the youth in his arms, tears of joy flowing from his eyes. The crowd danced for joy. The girl’s family had no objection to her marrying him. The emir himself gave the girl away to the youth as his wife, with her father’s permission. He also honoured the youth’s integrity with yet another gift – the huge sum of ten thousand dirhems.

The wise man listens not only with his head, but also with his heart. Sometimes even when the head has every reason to believe one thing, if the heart says no, we must listen to it. Especially when it is the matter of an evil deed or an action prompted by greed, lust, jealousy or anger, or an unpleasant duty.

There is a lesser known version of the story of Ahalya and Gautama in the Mahabharata. In this version, the sage asks their son Chirakari to chop off the head of his mother for her sin of adultery with Indra. Chirakari knows that as a son he must obey the words of his father, however shocking the thing he has been asked to do it is. But his heart does not agree with it. There is a big battle between his head and heart, with the result that he does not carry out his father’s order to kill his mother. By then Gautama, who had gone for his ritual bath after giving his son the order of matricide, has a change of heart. He realizes Ahalya cannot perhaps be blamed entirely for what happened, perhaps he himself is as much responsible for it as she is. He comes back running, his heart ready to jump out in dread of what his son might have done. He discovers his son has not yet carried out his order. In great relief he blesses his son and says:

Rage darpe cha mane cha drohe pape cha karmani
Apriye cha kartavye chirakari prashasyate.

“In matters of passion and haughtiness, in matters of wounded feelings and harming others, in evil deeds as well as in duty that is unpleasant, it is the one who delays that deserves praise.”

The heart is often wiser than our head. Give it a hearing, especially when what the head asks us to do is unpleasant.