Thursday, February 26, 2009

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.

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