Saturday, May 2, 2009

Krishna: A Study in Transformational Leadership

[Developed from a lecture given by the author to senior MBA students at XLRI, Jamshedpur. The article analyses the saying “Don’t let your sense of morals get in the way of your doing what’s right” in the light of Krishna’s leadership ethos in the Mahabharata, and also Krishna as a transformational leader in the light of this statement. It does this by comparing and contrasting Krishna and Bheeshma as leaders. All translations from the Sanskrit are by the author and are based on the popular version of the Mahabharata published by Gita Press, Gorakhpur.]


There is an old story about a sage who was sitting serenely under a tree in the jungle, lost in the immense beauty of the world around him. The trees around him, the vines climbing on them, the birds perched on the trees and vines, the animals grazing gently among them all, the placid lake some distance away, the remote mountains, all seemed to be bathed in a stillness that took the breath away. The soft wind that blew did not in any way destroy the serenity of the jungle; on the contrary, it added another dimension to it.

And then suddenly, in a moment of explosive violence, the divine tranquillity was shattered into a million shards by the terrified, shrill cries of animals that began fleeing in all directions and the cacophony of birds that left their perches and took off into the skies shrieking. A thousand monkeys seemed to be screeching all at once, filling the jungle with their panic.

The sage opened his eyes wide in alarm. What he saw before anything else was a beautiful stag, a magnificent creature that seemed to embody all the beauty of the jungle, all the bounty and opulence of nature, running towards him like a bolt of lightning and then disappearing in the other direction the next instant, raising a cloud of dust in its wake. In that one split second, the sage saw in the terrified eyes of the animal the pure dread of death that was chasing him. The muscles of the splendid creature of the wild rippled and quivered – as much from exertion as from terror.

Then came the hunter, in a royal chariot resplendent in gold – the king, with his bow stretched to the full, an arrow ready to leave it and pierce the target with savage power. At a sharp instruction from him, the driver pulled the reins and brought the chariot to a screeching halt before the sage. The king looked around and not seeing the stag anywhere, jumped down from his vehicle and approached the sage. He saluted the sage hurriedly and enquired of him, his voice still aquiver from the excitement of the hunt, “Master, did you see a deer fleeing by?”

The sage had two alternatives before him now. He could tell the truth, which he was bound to say by his oaths, and save his integrity. That would mean death to the deer and a moment of exhilaration from the kill to the king. Or he could tell a lie, and save the life of the deer. Which could mean failing his vows, compromising, committing a sin. Satyena vitata sukrtasya pantha – say the Upanishads. The path of spirituality is paved with truth – take one step away from truth, and you will be erring from your path, remembered the sage.

However, says the ancient wisdom tale, the sage did not take much time to decide his course. Without blinking his eyes, he looked at the king – and lied. No, he hadn’t seen any deer, he said.

No doubt the sage in this story did commit the sin of lying, but no one would say that the sage’s action was immoral. What he had done when he lied was to choose a higher value, rise to a level of higher morality. In a situation where he had to make a choice between two values, rather than following the path of conventional morality, he chose higher morality.

The famous story about Jesus and the adulteress presents to us a similar situation of value conflict, in which a man decides to choose the path of higher morality. When the adulteress was brought before him and Jesus was asked to judge her and pronounce her punishment, he had the choice of taking the easy course and pronouncing her guilty, which she was according to the law of the day in her society, a law Jesus was thoroughly familiar with, and which would allow the men who had brought her to him to stone her to death. In all likelihood Jesus knew that this was a trap set for him – if he forgave her, he would be breaking the law of the Pharisees, and if he condemned her, he would be practicing against his own teaching of forgiveness and love. Yet he decided to take the risk and chose the path of higher morality when he said, “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”[1] It is said that Jesus sealed his own death warrant by this statement – for what he had done was expose the hypocrisy of the men who was trying to trap him to the glare of the day.

Here again, like the sage in the earlier story, what Jesus had done was to forsake conventional morality and rise to the level of higher morality.

Great leaders are transformational in nature. Forsaking conventional morality in order to rise up to the level of higher morality is one of the qualities of a transformational leader.

Speaking of transformational leadership, leadership that transforms the leader and his followers from the inside out and raises them into higher moral planes, develops a sense of collective identity in them, produces superior motivation and commitment to goals, and creates greater levels of performance and yields more intense performance satisfaction, an expert says: “Transformational leaders deal with issues from a higher moral plane”.


The Mahabharata, that majestic epic of India that supplies us with an endless amount of material for leadership study, provides us with a complete contrast in leadership ethos through two of its greatest men – Bheeshma and Krishna.

Young Devavrata Bheeshma in Vyasa’s immortal epic comes across to us as a youth with immense leadership potentials. Taken away by his mother in his infancy and presented back to his father Emperor Shantanu in his early youth,[2] it is as a brilliant young man that we see this scion of the Bharatas first. He impresses us as someone who has the personality, the competencies and the values needed to become one of the greatest emperors this land has seen, someone no less than his legendary ancestors like Nahusha, Yayati and Bharata.

His first encounter with his father after all that time is fascinating. Years have passed since Ganga disappeared taking the infant Devavrata with her. Chasing a wild animal that he had wounded, one day Shantanu reaches the banks of the Ganga. He sees that there is very little water in the river on that day, which surprises him because the Ganga there was always a mighty torrent. Puzzled, he walks upstream seeking the reason for this and comes across an adolescent boy practicing archery with his arrows endowed with magical powers, who had stopped the current of the river with them. Shantanu, surprised by the superhuman feat, looks in wonder at the youth who is lustrous like the lord of the gods. However, before he has a chance to speak to him, the boy vanishes from his sight. Soon however, he reappears with his mother and Ganga introduces their son to Shantanu.

Devavrata has by now mastered all weapons of the day, ordinary as well as those endowed with magical powers. He is mighty in strength, of tireless energy and determination, fearless, and a superb master of the chariot. He has learnt all the Vedas from Vasishtha himself, and such is his valour that even the powerful gods and the formidable Asuras respect him. He has studied thoroughly, along with all its branches and sub-branches, the laws of Brihaspati as well as the science of niti as taught by Acharya Shukra. His master in archery was none other than the redoubtable Parashurama himself. Besides, he is a great scholar of political science, administrative science and the science of economics.

Shantanu anoints Devavrata as the crown prince and his people are delighted with their future ruler. They know they have a great emperor waiting to take over at the death of Shantanu whom they loved and revered dearly.

Four years pass and then tragedy strikes Devavrata, metamorphosing this wonderful youth into Bheeshma the terrible.

Shantanu was in a jungle on the banks of the Yamuna when it all began. After Ganga left him, he had lived for years without a woman in his bed. As he was roaming beside the river, he was suddenly inebriated by a heavenly fragrance. Searching for the source of the fragrance, he comes across a very young, dark girl, a maid of the fisher-folk, intoxicatingly beautiful, and is bewildered by the fact that the heady scent that had ensorcelled him had come from her. Enticed by her beauty and scent, charmed by her youth, his sexuality that he had suppressed all those years suddenly awakened, desperate with an uncontainable need for her, he approaches her and asks her who she is. Learning from her she is Kali Satyavati, daughter of the chief of the Dashas, fishermen who lived on the banks of the Yamuna, and is engaged in ferrying people across the Yamuna, Shantanu approaches her father and asks him to give her to him. The man tells the emperor that it has been his desire to give his beautiful daughter in marriage to someone who deserves her. It would be a pleasure to give his daughter to the emperor, of course, but he requires an oath from the emperor. Asked what the oath is, the Dasha chief tells Shantanu that he should vow that the son born to her should be installed as the crown prince in Hastinapura and only if the emperor vowed to do so would he give his daughter to him in marriage.

Shantanu, of course, could make no such vow. In spite of all his temptations, the idea of disinheriting his highly competent son who had been installed as crown prince four years ago and who is the heartthrob of the entire populace, and giving that position to a son who would be born to this fishergirl was unthinkable to him. However, the old emperor is disappointed greatly at not getting the girl and the loss breaks his heart. He loses all interest in life and withdraws from his royal duties from that day and spends his time in his apartments, his fiery need for the girl sending him into deliriums. The young Devavrata discovers the truth, goes to the chief of the Dashas along with several ministers and nobles and gives him the promise he wanted: he solemnly gives up all claims on the throne of the Bharatas through an oath.

But that is not enough for the Dasha chief. Devavrata might give up his right to the throne of the Bharatas – but what would happen when he gets married and has children of his own? Wouldn’t they lay a claim on the throne? Hearing this Devavrata takes the vow that was unthinkable for a warrior prince in his days: he shall never marry, he shall never have sex, he shall remain an oordhvareta all his life – a man whose seeds never left his body, but travelled inward into himself. “Listen, Oh Dasharaja, listen to what I say with these rulers of men as my witnesses. And listen, you kings, too,” he said. “I have already given up my kingdom in your presence. Now listen to my oath about having children, too. I swear to you, Oh Dasha, from today mine shall be a life of brahmacharya. I shall forever remain sonless and yet the immortal worlds attained after death only by those who have sons shall be mine. Never in my life have I spoken a word of untruth and by that truth of mine I swear: I shall not beget a child to the last day of my life. I give up the kingdom forever, and forever I give up sex. I shall live to my last breath a life of the oordhvareta. I swear.[3]

Those vows give Devavrata the name Bheeshma.

However, unknown to Bheeshma, those vows take all desire for life away from him forever. For the Devavrata that we see in the Mahabharata from then on is a very different Devavrata. He is a man imprisoned by his vow, a man in an iron mask that he has put on on his own face, like the mask worn by he prisoner in Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, though this mask is of a different kind.

For his vows would soon become redundant, would take the hoary royal line of the Bharatas to the brink of extinction, the need of the hour would be for him to break his vows and he would be asked to do so by the very woman for whose sake he had taken those vows. And he would refuse – refuse in words that leave nothing uncertain, in words that show with absolute clarity the deep-rooted hatred in his heart, the frustrated fury he had been nourishing in the depths of his being, the pains and agonies he had gone through from the day he took his vows.

Shantanu has two sons by Satyavati. Soon after his death, Chitrangada, the elder of them, dies in a battle at a young age. Bheeshma snatches away from the swayamvara hall, from the ceremony in which a princess chooses her husband on her own free will from among the assembled princes, three princesses of Kashi as brides for the other while he is still too young to marry. One of the princesses, Amba, refuses to marry him; the other two accede to Bheeshma’s demand and marry Prince Vichitraveerya. However, such is the young prince’s passion for his two young, beautiful wives that he spends all his time in their company and soon dies of diseases arising from overindulgence in sex with them.

Though the epic does not tell us anything about this, it is possible that Bheeshma did nothing to stop such overindulgence on the part of the young prince. Did the man who had taken the vow of celibacy and whose throne had been snatched away from him hold deep in his heart a malevolence that he himself did not know existed towards this youth who was now sitting where he should have been sitting? Did he turn a blind eye towards his adolescent half-brother who was overindulging in pleasures that were denied to him by a cruel fate, just as he had done nothing to stop his elder brother from death in battle? While we can never be sure of these, it is possible that he did.

While it is heartless to accuse such a noble prince as Bheeshma of this, common psychology tells us it is possible that he deeply resented this unknown young girl who had walked into his old father’s life from nowhere and shattered his beautiful world. For, it is legitimate that every young prince dreams of greatness and Bheeshma certainly could have had dreams of greatness, which were forever destroyed by her. Did Bheeshma who resented her deep within his heart allow her dreams, or her father’s dreams, of her progeny becoming the rulers of the Bharata empire come to nought through his indifference and inactivity, or even actively encourage it? Subtle are the ways of the human mind and devious the paths it often takes to achieve its goals.

The harshness in Bheeshma’s words as he rejects Satyavati’s requests to him to break his vows and do what the situation demands for her sake, for the sake of her family, and for the sake of his own sake and the sake of the Bharatas speaks volumes about this.

Finding the Bharata dynasty of which she is now the queen in deep crisis at the death of both her sons, Satyavati, the woman for whose sake Bheeshma had taken those vows, repeatedly requests him to break his vows and perform niyoga in the wives of his step-brother and to sit on the throne of Hastinapura. She also asks him to marry and beget children. She tells him again and again these are the right things to do under the circumstances, these are the demands of the hour, all his ancestors call for it. She tells him the pinda, the keerti and santana – the welfare of the dead ancestors, the glory of the dynastic line and offspring that will continue the line of the Bharatas, all – depend on him and if he does not marry and beget children, or does not produce offspring in the wives of Vichitraveerya, they will all be destroyed.

“The two queens of your brother, daughters of the king of Kashi, Oh Bharata, are both richly endowed with beauty and youth and they both crave for children. I ask you to follow the ancient custom of niyoga that your forefathers have followed and beget children by them for the sake of producing heirs to our family line. This is your dharma and you must follow it. Install yourself on the throne, rule over the subjects of the Bharatas, get married as dharma enjoins and save your manes from falling into hell.”[4] This is how Satyavati, by now reduced to begging to him, pleads earnestly, though as queen she could have commanded him.

Niyoga is an ancient custom practiced in India, particularly in royal families, whereby either a highly respected individual or a brother of a dead man produced children in his widow. This was not a very respected custom at the time of the Mahabharata, it was criticised, the children born of such union were often subjected to ridicule, and women generally hated being subjected to it; and yet it was a time-honoured custom, the scriptures sanctioned it, and men of great honour and integrity had taken recourse to it in the past when no other option was open to them.

Bheeshma refuses.

The words he chooses to express his feelings in are extremely significant.
“No doubt, Mother,” he says, “what you have spoken of is supreme dharma [paro dharmah]. But I shall not crown myself as king for the sake of the kingdom, nor shall I have sex - you know very well my vow about begetting children. Satyavati, you are aware of the oaths I took in your presence in the form of your bride price – remember them.
“I shall give up the three worlds, I shall give up the empire of the gods, and if there is anything greater than these, I shall give up that too. But never shall I give up my truth. The five elements may give up their nature – earth the fragrance it exudes, water the taste it brings, light the forms it reveals, air the sense of touch and space its capacity for sound. The sun may give up its splendour, the moon its coolness, Indra, slayer of Vritra, his valour and the lord of justice, justice itself, but I shall not give up my truth. Let the world end in dissolution, let everything go up in flames, but I shall not go back on my word. Immortality holds no temptations for me, nor overlordship of the three worlds.”[5]

If Bheeshma proved his character one way earlier when he took the vows, he proves it in another way now when he refuses to break those vows.

What Bheeshma does here is being true to his oath taken years ago. And keeping one’s promises, not breaking one’s vows, to oneself and to others, is a very admirable quality in any one. Societies, nations, organizations and cultures are sustained by such individuals. This is one of the qualities that generate trust in individuals. And leaders of men particularly should be able to command such trust by their integrity. In an organization, in a society, in a culture where people break their word, distrust sets in soon, and distrust makes people weary of each other, there will remain no solid ground on which people can interact with each other, and soon disintegration follows. Fidelity to the spoken word is at the very foundation of all group endeavours of the human being, without which none of the edifices he builds can survive.

And yet there are occasions when this very fidelity to the spoken word threatens the existence of the group, the good of the community and culture at large. A great leader is one who shows on such occasions the courage to take upon himself the ill fame that comes to him from breaking his spoken word in the larger interest of the world and thus rises to a level of higher morality.
It is this challenge to sacrifice one’s ego at the altar of the welfare of the larger community that Bheeshma fails by rejecting all the requests of Satyavati to him. His words define his attitude unambiguously: let the world go to hell, I shall not break my word. Let annihilation overtake the world, I do not care, so long as the world does not accuse me of breaking my word.

To Bheeshma here, he becomes more important than the whole world. He is moral, in the sense that he keeps his vow, but his morality is of the lower kind, the morality of the egotistic, morality of the selfish, ordinary morality, conventional morality.

Bheeshma here is obsessed with his own image – in his mind and in the minds of others. He is obsessed with his remaining Bheeshma the terrible, obsessed with his own greatness. His words speak to us of his megalomania – and a megalomaniac cannot be a great leader, certainly not a positive force.

A great leader, for whom the other is greater than himself, more important than himself, who transforms himself in his encounters with life and its challenges, creates metamorphoses around him, should be able to rise to levels of higher values, deal with issues from a higher moral plane, leaving the stands that conventional morality demands when occasions call for it.

It is this higher moral plane that Bheeshma fails to rise to. Bheeshma lets his sense of conventional morals stand in the way of his doing what is right, in doing what is the larger good. And Bheeshma would do that again and again. Throughout his life, Bheeshma would show that he is unable to rise to the level of higher morality. He would show this to such an extent and so clearly that even people who love him dearly, who respect him greatly for his integrity, would fail to confide in him, entrust him with their knowledge, their feelings, as Vidura does when he holds back from him the fact that he knew the Pandavas were alive when Bheeshma thought they were dead and was sad for their death after Duryodhana had the house of lac built for them set fire to. Vidura suspected, perhaps rightly, that if Bheeshma learnt that the Pandavas were alive, he would, in his integrity, reveal that fact to Dhritarashtra and he to Duryodhana, and the lives of the Pandavas would be in danger again.

Another instance when Bheeshma fails to rise to a higher moral plane is when Draupadi was being disrobed in the dice hall of Hastinapura. Here is this noble princess, a bride of the family, dragged by her hair out of the inner apartments of the house to which she had retired because she was in her monthly periods, and brought into an assembly of kings and princes, including her husbands, their cousins, King Dhritarashtra who is like a father to her and Bheeshma who is like a grandfather. The revered acharyas of the royal family are seated there, there are numerous other guest kings and she is wearing a single piece of cloth as custom required in those for women under her condition, and that piece of cloth is stained with her blood. After being brought there in such a humiliating way, further attempts are made to injure her dignity and self-respect, partly to humiliate her husbands through it and partly to punish her for her dignity and self-respect. Eventually, in the later interpolated brilliant version of the story, on the orders of Karna, Dushshasana in a demonic act tries to pull even that single cloth away from her, thus taking the august Bharata assembly to a nadir to which perhaps no other royal assembly in the history of mankind ever fell. Right before the eyes of the eldest and most respected of the Bharatas, right before the most powerful and skilled warrior of the day, right before this man who was the very embodiment of kshatra dharma, the dharma of the warrior, a woman is being humiliated as no woman in the history of this land has been humiliated and when she appeals to him to intervene, he sits there pondering over whether it is right for him to intervene or not, pondering over whether this woman being thus humiliated has become a slave or not, because her husband had wagered her in the dice game after he had lost himself – as though it made a big difference if she was a slave, as though if what was being done was being done to female slave it is perfectly acceptable to him. Bheeshma’s first duty as a kshatriya here was to save that woman from what was being done to her, to stop the utterly barbarous deeds happening before him. Instead, by sitting there analyzing the question whether the men doing that evil deed had the right of ownership over the woman or not, Bheeshma shows how bound he was by ordinary morality, how, perhaps, below even the level of ordinary morality he was. Bheeshma here fails utterly to rise to the level of higher morality, which Krishna does effortlessly when he comes to Draupadi’s aid by magically sending her an endless supply of clothes, so that the more clothes Dushshasana removes, the more clothes he finds her draped in.

At the end of twelve years of life in jungles and one year of successful life incognito, the Pandavas claim their land back. The Kauravas are bound to give it back to them as per the agreement they had made during the dice game. Duryodhana refuses to do so, telling that they have been discovered before the time ended. Bheeshma, who admits that the Pandavas have not been discovered before their time and therefore Indraprastha should be given back to them and says so before everyone, is not able to stand for what he believes is right and fails to force Duryodhana to give Indraprastha back to the Pandavas. He meekly swallows Duryodhana’s refusal and is forced to support him, following his lifelong policy of supporting whoever is on the throne of Hastinapura. Here again his morality is of the lower, conventional order and whatever leadership he exhibits, if he exhibits any at all, is conventional leadership and not transformational.

Yet another striking example of Bheeshma failing to rise above conventional morality, failing to rise to higher morality, is when he decides to fight on the side of Duryodhana during the Mahabharata war. Bheeshma knows, and he says so repeatedly, that Duryodhana is wrong, is unrighteous, the battle he is fighting is unrighteous. He also says repeatedly that dharma is on the side of the Pandavas, that their cause is just and in his heart he supports them. And yet, because of his loyalty to the Kuru king on the throne at the moment, because he is bound to Duryodhana by the ‘debt of wealth’ as he puts it, he not only fights the war on the Kaurava side, but also becomes the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army for the first ten days of the war, until his fall. He had the same relation with the Pandavas and the Kauravas, both were his grandnephews, and if he believed that the cause of the Pandavas was right and that of the Kauravas wrong, then he should have fought on the Pandava side.

The whole brutal war in which millions lost their lives would perhaps not have been fought at all, it is possible, if Bheeshma had decided to fight on the side of the Pandavas. Chances are that even Drona and Kripa, those two formidable warriors and pillars of Kaurava strength, would have joined him to be with the Pandavas – for, to them too the just Pandavas were dearer than the unjust Kauravas; and it is possible that following these, a vast section of the kings who joined Duryodhana to form his eleven-akshauhini army too would have joined him and because of these turns the war itself would have aborted. True, it is all hypothetical, but that certainly was a possibility that could not be counted out altogether. Had Bheeshma risen to higher values, had he not allowed his sense of morals to stand in the way of his doing good, it is possible that a great calamity could have been aborted, millions of lives could have been saved, endless sorrow to millions of others could have been avoided, and the tragedy that enveloped India post-Mahabharata war would not have taken place at all.

It is also interesting to speculate if the war situation would have risen at all, had Bheeshma risen to the levels of higher morality on that early occasion when Satyavati asked him to break his vows that had by then become redundant and meaningless and threatened the very continuation of the Bharata line and the survival of the empire – as an outstanding leader should have risen, as all transformational leaders do rise, as the sage sitting in meditation did in our story when the king asked him if he had seen the deer fleeing by, as Jesus did when he said “he among you that is without sin, let him first cast a stone” to the Pharisees who had brought the adulteress to him.

Of course, the following too is merely hypothetical. The empire of the Bharatas, the empire of Shantanu, was in all probability the mightiest empire of the day. If someone like Bheeshma had taken it over, with someone as powerful and as competent as him at the helm of affairs, chances are the evil forces that subsequently rose up in different parts of the country and threatened dharmic ways of living, the evil empire that Jarasandha was building up with Magadha as its capital, with Paundraka Vasudeva from Bengal in the east, Naraka from the extreme northeast, Kalayavana from the northwest, Bheeshmaka in the southwest, Shishupala in central India and Kansa in Mathura as his allies, which Krishna fought much of his life to wipe out, would not have become a possibility at all. By the time Krishna had Jarasandha killed through Bheema, the emperor had already conquered, captured and thrown into goals eighty-six kings from the length and breadth of the country.

Similarly, to continue the speculation, had he taken over as king, had he married and produced children, or alternatively had he performed the niyoga instead of Sage Vyasa, chances are that the eldest child would not have been born blind and the complicated situation of the Mahabharata that eventually leads to the war would not have risen at all. The Mahabharata makes it very clear that Ambika, Dhritarashtra’s mother, expected Bheeshma [or one of the other eligible Bharatas] in her bed that night of niyoga and that it is as much the shock of seeing the sage as the fact that it was not Bheeshma [or one of the other Bharatas] who was to perform that act that scared her and made her future child blind.

Examples could be multiplied but the foregoing makes it clear that Bheeshma repeatedly remains bound by conventional morality, by old world values in a world in which those values were increasing becoming redundant, even ridiculous. Bheeshma reacts to the situation from an idealistic standpoint, and not from an existential standpoint. He looks at the world around him not from the present but from the past. What is, is not as real to him as what should be. The vows he took as an adolescent becomes the be all and end all of his life. That moment becomes the peak of his life and Bheeshma climbs no more. There are plateaus thereafter, and there are valleys and abysses, but no more peaks in his life.

As a transformational leader, Bheeshma fails completely.

[Continued on Part 2]


[1] The origin of this story is debated and the story itself is interpreted in other ways than the one given here.
[2] There is also a version that says Devavrata was much older when he was returned to Shantanu.
[3] Adi 100.14-16
[4] Adi 103.9-11
[5] Adi 104.13-18

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