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Leadership Excellence and the Dancing God

Earlier this week when I introduced my course in Indian Philosophy for Leadership Excellence to a new batch of students at XLRI School of Business, I used a picture of the dancing Shiva in my Power Point presentation. One of the students asked me why I had used that picture in the presentation. I appreciated her question and told her that I had asked myself that question before deciding on the picture. I really had. It was after asking that question and some debating within my mind that I had chosen that picture.

Why did I choose that particular picture?

To me, as I explained to my student, the dancing Shiva symbolises the very essence of Indian culture and Indian thought. That image symbolises Indian philosophy, both of life and work, with amazing beauty and perfection. Few other symbols represent the core of Indian philosophy with the clarity with which this symbol represents it.

Everything in the dancing Shiva figure is symbolic, as in all other traditional representations of Shiva: his four hands, the objects he holds in each of them, his hair, his ornaments, the cloth he wears, the crescent moon, Ganga visible in the middle of his matted hair, the snakes, the third eye, the figure on which he dances, the frame of flames that surround him, the pedestal on which the idol is placed, the dance itself, all. And everything is profoundly meaningful. It has been said that the iconographic symbol of the dancing Shiva, called Nataraja, was developed in the 8th or 9th century in the Chola country in southern India. In all likelihood it was. But what I want to say is this: the dancing Shiva is a work of pure brilliance and the person who developed the icon, a creative genius of the highest calibre inspired by the deepest spiritual wisdom.

While, as I said, every aspect of the icon is symbolic, in this article I would like to talk about just one aspect of the image, or rather two: the prostrate figure on which Shiva dances and the dance itself.

The dwarfish figure on whom Shiva dances is known as the apasmara purusha. Purusha means man. Apasmara is usually understood as epilepsy, but the word also means absentmindedness or forgetfulness, which would be the meaning more appropriate here. He is the symbol of the primal self-forgetfulness which gives rise to the notion of a limited ego in the boundless self. He is also explained as illusion – the primal illusion that causes the limitless immortal self to appear as a limited one subject to births and deaths and all that happen in between.

If we do not want to go into all that complex philosophy, the apasmara purusha is the symbol of the ego that rises from self-forgetfulness and illusion. When Shiva dances on the ego, it is his dance as a master of the ego, the dance of ego-transcended. It is the dance of self-transcendence. And that is the traditional name for the dance: ananda tandava – the dance of ecstasy, which is the dance of self-transcendence.

When the ego is mastered, when it is transcended, life becomes a dance of ecstasy.

And we are born for this dance, says Indian philosophy.

There is a story I have told several times in different contexts, and I am going to tell that story again here. The story is taken from Richard Bach’s Illusions. For those who are not familiar with Bach, he is the celebrated author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, once a cult book for young people all over the world.

“Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river.
The current of the river swept silently over them all – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”

The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom.”

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!”

And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

But they cried the more, “Saviour!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.”

The ego makes us cling to the twigs and rocks at the river bottom. It is the ego that makes us cling to the small things of life. It is the ego that causes all the misery in our life. It is the ego that stands between our true nature and ourselves. Our true nature is ecstasy, ananda, and our life should be an ananda tandava, dance of ecstasy but the ego disconnects us from ananda and makes life a mixture of small joys and sorrows. Instead of experiencing ananda, we experience samsara, the constantly changing world of little pleasures and pains.

Shiva is the symbol of man who has conquered his ego and reclaimed his original nature – seen his original face, as the Zen masters would say; reclaimed the kingdom of heaven within ourselves, as Jesus would say. To conquer one’s ego is to see one’s original face, reclaim the kingdom of heaven within ourselves.

Then you float in the river of life, as the ‘messiah’ in the story floats.

When you conquer your ego, you dance. Life becomes a dance for you. And you sing. You sing as Vak Ambhrini, the ancient woman seer of the Rig Veda, perhaps the world’s oldest woman poet, sang, because you are one with the power that runs the universe:

aham rudrebhir vasubhiś carāmyaham ādityair uta viśvadevaih
aham mitrā varunobhā bibharmyaham indrāgnee aham aśvinobhā

I move the cosmic forces of vitality and wealth
The luminaries and all celestial powers
I sustain the cosmic sources of water and light
I am the centre of energy, light and life
Given by the sun, air, fire…

I am the mother, the restorer of wealth;
I know all that is worth knowing and expressing;
The divine powers function with my instructions;
I possess all domains;
My hymns are chanted in all places…

I breathe like the wind pervading all the regions;
I go beyond the heavens, beyond the limits of this vast earth.
I am invincible; none can defy me.

[Selected verses from the Vak Sukta of the Rig Veda, 10th Mandala. English rendering by Pt Satyakam Vidyalankar.]

One evening I was with my teacher on the lawns of a bungalow in a posh area in Chennai. There was our hostess and a few others with us. The master on a leisurely evening with a few devotees and disciples. The atmosphere was light. Then someone asked my teacher, “Swamiji, don’t you ever sing? Don’t you dance?” And Swamiji looked up into the star-filled sky and said, “Look! See the stars twinkling and the clouds floating gently by? That’s my dance.” He then asked us to be silent and when we did, we heard the wind moving among the trees. Swamiji said, “And that’s my song.”


To me, the use of Shiva’s image in my first presentation was also an act of prayer. In the Indian tradition, we begin everything with a prayer.

Or rather prayerfulness.

For prayer in the true sense of the term is not asking for things. It is an act of surrender. It is an act of invoking the High into our hearts and our lives, into our actions. It is an act of eliminating me from my actions and bringing Him into it.

It is an act of transforming the accidental man into the essential man.

The accidental man is the one filled with uncertainty, with stress, with fears, with anguishes. He cringes, he clings. And fights to achieve goals he has set for himself. Fights against the whole world, fights against life, fights against existence itself. Fights against the river. Refuses to let go of himself, refuses to allow the current to carry him with it.

The essential man is the one who has let go of himself. Who has surrendered to life, to the river.

He becomes an instrument in the hands of Life. Or if you prefer that word, in the hands of God.

He becomes a mere nimitta – an instrument, in the hands of existence. As Krishna asked Arjuna to be when he said in the Gita: nimittamātram bhava savyasācin.

The wonderful example from Indian culture for a man who has become a mere instrument is Krishna himself. He is a man who has become totally empty – like his flute. Krishna’s flute is a symbol for Krishna himself. Like his flute, he is empty, a hollow reed. There is nothing of him in him. And since there is nothing of him in him, the bhooma, the Boundless, which we call God, flows through him, producing the intoxicating music that is Krishna’s life.

That is why we call Krishna an avatara – God incarnated.

Since there is nothing of him in him, he is all God.

The Buddha’s shunya, void. When you achieve that void within you, you become full. You are filled with the Boundless, the bhooma.

Kahlil Gibran says in his Jesus, Son of Man:

“Jesus the Nazarene was born and reared like ourselves; his mother and father were like our parents, and he was a man.

But the Christ, the Word, who was in the beginning, the Spirit who would have us live our fuller life, came unto Jesus and was with him.

And the Spirit was the versed hand of the Lord, and Jesus was the harp.

The Spirit was the psalm, and Jesus was the turn thereof.

And Jesus, the Man of Nazareth, was the host and the mouthpiece of the Christ, who walked with us in the sun and who called us his friends.”

Prayerfulness helps you empty you from yourself and achieve emptiness into which Christ can flow.

Into which Krishna can flow.


None of us is capable of becoming empty altogether. Our limited self remains with us. And that self is our curse, as Mark R. Leary says in his book The Curse of the Self.

As Leary points out, in western culture and pop psychology there is much glorification of egotism. The west believes that assertion of the ego is the solution to most of our problems. “People are often urged to solve their problems and improve their lives by focusing on themselves, setting more egoistic goals, enhancing their self-esteem, and otherwise strengthening their sense of self. Although these strategies are sometimes useful, those who promote an egoistic approach to solving life’s problems fail to recognize that an excessive emphasis on self and ego is often part of the problem.”

The solution does not come through the assertion of the ego. It comes when we silence the ego, quieten it, lose it, transcend it.

When we transcend the ego, the higher flows through us.

What Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi speaks of as the flow state is the state in which the ego is temporarily silenced and transcended.

Speaking of Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi and the flow state, Leary says: “People often describe the flow experience by saying that they “lose themselves” in the activity. This characterization seems apt because they did indeed lose their self. Whether we say that shutting down the self helps to create flow or that flow quiets the self, people in a state of flow are not self-aware. Instead, they are focused singularly on the experience at hand, lost in concentration, and responding largely automatically.”

But through prayerfulness, and through surrender which is a basic requirement for prayerfulness, we quieten the ego, silence it, lose it, temporarily transcend it.

And when we do that, we open our doors to the higher so that the higher can flow through us.

The flow state is when the higher flows through us.

When we let the rigpa, the higher mind, flow through us, as the Tibetans would put it.

Shiva is the symbol of this self transcendence. Shiva is the symbol of flow at its highest possible level.

That’s why Shiva dances. Dances in ecstasy – the ananda tandava. When you transcend the ego, all work becomes an ananda tandava, dance of ecstasy. It does not matter what you do, your work can become an ananda tandava when you are able to let go of your smaller self – the apasmara purusha, our basic disease, what separates us from our essential wholeness, what makes us unwholesome.

The Mahabharata tells us of this beautifully. The Mahabharata war is raging like a roaring fire. Bhishma is at his terrifying best. Hundreds are falling dead every minute, cut down by the grandsire’s arrows. The bravest of soldiers are not able to stand his fury and are fleeing in every direction, their armours removed from their chests, their hair lose and flying in the wind. And describing the way

Bhishma is battling in those moments when his is at his very best, the epic tells us: nrtyanniva, as though dancing. It is as though Bhishma is dancing in the battle field.

That is flow. When you are in it, any work can become a dance, including battling and slaughtering enemies.

And flow happens when you suspend your ego, quieten it, transcend it.

Here is Daniel Goleman of Emotional Intelligence fame describing the flow state quoting a composer:

“You yourself are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I’ve experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching in a state of awe and wonderment. And it just flows out by itself.”

George Leonard, one of my favourite authors, speaks of moments of flow in the context of sports:

“Pressing up against the limits of physical exertion and mental acuity, leading us up to the edge of the precipice separating life from death, sports may open the door to infinite realms of perceptions and being. Having no tradition of mystical experience, no adequate mode of discourse on the subject, no preparatory rites, the athlete might refuse to enter. But the athletic experience is a powerful one, and it may thrust the athlete, in spite of fear and resistance, past the point of no return, into a place of awe and terror.

Michael Spino, a ranking long-distance runner, was training one rainy day along dirt and asphalt roads, and was being paced by a friend in a car. He planned to run six miles at top speed. After the first mile, he realized something extraordinary was happening; he had run the mile in four and a half minutes with no sense of pain or exertion whatever. He ran on, carried by a huge momentum. It was as if the wet roads, the oncoming cars, the honking horns did not exist. Gradually, his body lost all weight and resistance. He began to feel like a skeleton. He became the wind itself. Daydreams and fantasies disappeared. All that remained to remind him of his own existence was “a feeling of guilt for being able to do this.”

When the run ended, Spino was unable to talk, for he had lost a clear sense of who he was. It was impossible for him to decide if he were Mike Spino or “the one who had been running.” He sat down at the side of the road and wept. He had run the entire six miles on wet and muddy roads at a four-and-a-half-minute pace, close to the national record, and now he could not decide who he was.”

What Michael Spino experienced during the run is self-transcendence.

Moments of self-transcendence are moments of bliss.

According to Indian philosophy and spirituality, the purpose of everything we do is this self-transcendence. That is our ultimate motivation, our basic motivation. Ananda, happiness, is possible only when the self is transcended. All our actions are motivated by the desire for happiness. And Happiness is the experience of transcending the self, however transitory it is. And the intensity of happiness is proportionate to the extent to which we are able to silence the self, transcend it.

Truly speaking, all our joys are glimpses of self-transcendence. As the Upanishads say, etasyaiva anandasya mātrām upajīvanti sarve jantavah: whatever joy beings experience, it is all but a tiny part of this joy alone. When you transcend the self, you get in touch with the source of all happiness – our boundless self, which the Upanishads describe as sat-chit-ananda, existence-consciousness-bliss.

The essence of karma yoga is transforming work into a means for self-transcendence. This is the true meaning of spirituality at work. Spirituality at work does not mean love and sharing and understanding and acceptance and so on. Of course it also means those things. But that is not the true meaning of spirituality at work. Spirituality at work at its highest level means self-transcendence.

It is possible to transcend the self through work.

Prof. Charalampos Mainemelis of London Business School in his When the Muse Takes It All: A Model for the Experience of Timelessness [The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 26, Number 4, October 2001] talks at length of how it is possible to experience timelessness through work.

Studies by Csikzentmihalyi and LeFevre have shown that not only can we experience flow through work, but that “flow occurs more than three times as often in work as in leisure.” They found that flow happened in all three kinds of work they studied – managerial, clerical and blue collar. “Further,” says Prof. Mainemelis about their work, “the results show that employees experience flow in a variety of daily activities, such as writing reports, fixing equipment, doing assembly work, talking on the phone, and so forth.”

The experience of flow and timelessness is the experience of self-transcendence.

R. May, in The Courage to Create, writes: “Ex-stasis” – that is, literally to “stand out from,” to be freed from the usual split between subject and object which is a perceptual dichotomy to most human activity. Ecstasy is the accurate term for the intensity of consciousness that occurs in the creative act. But it is not to be thought of as a Bacchic “letting go”; it involves the total person….It is not, thus, irrational; it is, rather, superrational. It brings intellectual, volitional and emotional functions into play all together.”

What we experience when we are able to achieve the suspension of the self is ecstasy – ecstasy that makes us dance. May is right. When that happens, it “brings intellectual, volitional and emotional functions into play all together.”
Whenever the self is suspended, our actions achieve the quality of excellence.

Shiva is the symbol of man [which includes men and women] who has achieved self-transcendence. Then life becomes a dance, a festivity, a celebration, as it is meant to be. Then work becomes a dance, a festivity, a celebration, as it is meant to be.

We can taste infinity through life, through work. The image of Shiva teaches us this.


Incidentally, Shiva is both male and female. He is the Ardhanarishwara – God who is half male and half female. He is the male in us and the female in us merged together. When we try to live our lives exclusively from the male side, our life becomes meaningless. Similarly, when we try to live exclusively from the female side, our life becomes meaningless again. It is only when we live giving full expression to our maleness and our femaleness, that life becomes complete.

Which is as true about leadership, as it is about life. A true leader has to be both masculine and feminine.

The Chinese put it beautifully. They speak of the yin and the yang of leadership. And they say leadership becomes effective when we bring into it both the yin of leadership and the yang of leadership. The yin of leadership consists of the feminine qualities that make us a great leader, frequently referred to as the qualities of the heart, and the yang of leadership consists of the masculine qualities that contribute towards making us a great leader, frequently referred to as the qualities of the head.

The yin of leadership also refers to the inner qualities that make us a good leader and the yang of leadership, the outer qualities that make us a good leader.

The dancing Shiva is also a symbol for the harmony of the feminine and the masculine, the heart and the head, as well as the inner and the outer.

He is in fact a symbol for the union of all ‘opposites.’ He is the erotic ascetic, the angry god who is the gentlest of them all, the destroyer who is also the creator.

To be a complete leader, we have to unite the male and the female in us; our inner and outer, the head and the heart, reason and intuition, toughness and softness and all other opposites.

To me Shiva is not God to be worshipped from afar but a goal for each of us to strive to attain. Shiva is what we should try to become. For Shiva is what we are.

That is Indian philosophy at its highest. We are Shiva. Each one of us is Shiva himself – shivo’ham: I’m Shiva – full and complete. Not parts of him, for he is indivisible and has no parts.

And the only thing that separates us from our true nature as Shiva is our little self, our ego.

Ego is the sickness of the soul. Once you heal that disease, life blooms in all its beautiful rhythm and harmony for each one of us.

Shiva is the symbol of life lived in tune with that rhythm and harmony, of life lived as a dance.



  1. Sir, isnt forgetting ego and VEERA VRATA are two different things ? How Bhishma can fight battle when he has forgotten his ego. I find flow is different than forgetting ego. Flow is important to achieve the great victories. But if we forgot the Ego can we able to do big works needed for society ?


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