Sunday, July 26, 2009

Leadership and the Gita: Leader Has the Beginner’s Mind

The opening scene of the Bhagavad Gita is immensely beautiful. Arjuna is in the battlefield and the armies are standing ready for battle. And as it frequently happens in the battlefield of life, he does not know what his best course of action is. And the more he thinks over it, the more he gets confused. Eventually he surrenders to Krishna and seeks his wisdom. He tells him: “My mind is confused about the right course of action. Please tell me what is better for me. I am your disciple, and I take refuge in you.” It is then that Krishna begins his teaching.

True learning begins only when we accept our ignorance.

We, particularly the leaders among us, often assume we have all the answers. We do not. Particularly in today’s fluid world of fast changing situations. In a world that was more or less stationary, it was possible that a leader had all the answers, or at least most of the answers. But certainly not in our world where the pace of change itself has become dizzyingly fast and situations rarely repeat themselves. Every situation is new and unique and readymade solutions do not work.

Speaking particularly of leadership in business and industry, this is the age of knowledge explosion and information overload, and a large section of the workforce that a leader leads consists of knowledge workers. To assume here that a leader has all the answers is not just stupid but suicidal.

A leader should not become like a pot kept upside down, which is what many leaders become. When that happens, the leader ceases to learn new things, and when he ceases to learn new things, he becomes redundant. This is how many leaders cease to be leaders. The leader needs to be like an open pot – kept open so that it can catch every drop of rain that comes in its direction.

The Japanese speak of the mind of such leaders as the beginner’s mind. The beginner’s mind is the complete contrast to the scholar’s mind. The beginner’s mind has a lot of empty space in it so that new knowledge can be received. It is a highly receptive mind. Whereas the scholar’s mind is full and overflowing. Nothing new can enter it.

One of the most beautiful stories illustrating the contrast between the beginner’s mind and the scholar’s mind is about a Zen master and a university professor. It is said that the professor wanted to learn the wisdom of Zen from Nanin, a Japanese Zen master during the Meiji Era [1868-1912] and came to meet him in his monastery. The professor was famous for his scholarship and well known to Nanin by reputation. The master received the professor and offered him a seat. The professor took the seat and then started explaining to the master of the different subjects he has studied, the researches he has done, the papers he has presented in international conferences, what he is doing now, what his plans are for the future and so on. As the professor went on and on, talking about his pet subject – himself and his intellectual attainments – the master listened silently. Fifteen minutes passed, half an hour passed, and yet the professor kept talking.

Nanin now ordered one of his disciples to bring tea. When the tea was brought, the master started pouring the tea into a cup. The professor was still speaking. The cup was soon full. The professor continued talking and the master kept pouring the tea into the full cup which began to overflow. It was then the professor’s eye fell on what was happening. “Master,” he pointed out politely, “the cup is full and no more will go in.”

And Nanin said, “And so is your mind. If you want to learn Zen, you need emptiness inside. First empty yourself and then come to me.”

When a leader becomes full of himself, full of his knowledge and opinions, full of his own ego, then he ceases to learn and becomes redundant.

The beginner’s mind is the mind that sees wonder everywhere, beauty everywhere, and precious lessons everywhere.

With receptivity, a leader can learn from anyone, including his own subordinates and workers. In their brilliant book A Passion for Excellence, Tom Peters and Nancy Austin say: “Bosses don’t have all the answers. The worker who does the job always knows more about it than his boss. But all that he knows can’t be used unless he is free to talk about it. Especially to you, his boss.” Unless the leader is open to learn and shows that he is open to learning, the worker does not reveal his thoughts, ideas and experiences to him and the leader loses the opportunity to learn from him.

Speaking of willingness to learn from anyone reminds me stories told about the great sage Dattatreya. Dattatreya is a master who was willing to learn from anyone and anything and all life became his teacher for him.

It is said that one day Avadhuta Dattatreya was crossing a large field when he saw a wedding procession moving across the field. As wedding processions in India go, there was much noise as it moved on – drummers played on their drums, pipers played their pipes, the sound of symbols filled the air. Many people were singing and dancing – the singers raised their voices loud enough to be heard above the drums, pipes and symbols. There was much celebration as the party moved on and Dattatreya watched it with interest. All on a sudden his eyes fell on a hunter on the other side of the field. The man’s attention was fully on his prey. Neither the singing and dancing, nor the drums, pipes or symbols had distracted him from his prey.

Dattatreya, says the beautiful story, went to the hunter and bowed in reverence before him. The Avadhuta told him in a voice full of emotion, “Oh master, you are my guru. I have learnt a great lesson from you today. When I meditate in future, I shall strive to have the same focus on my goal that you have just taught me.”

In the Bhagavata, answering a question from King Yadu, Dattatreya tells him: "I am a student of Mother Earth; I am a student of the waters of the ocean; I am a student of the air that blows; I am a student of the sun that shines; I am a student of the moon that is luminous in the sky; I am a student of the honey-bees that collect the pollen-nectar from various flowers; I am a student of the fish; I am a student of the vulture." He then explains that he learnt patience and steadiness from the earth; equanimity from the ocean which neither swells up as rivers empty themselves into it nor dries up because the sun evaporates its water; freedom from the air that is on the move constantly; non-attachment from the space; and so on.

There is no place where there are no lessons for us to learn. I was giving a training programme to a group of Tata Steel officers when I came across this poster in the training hall. It was titled Seven Secrets of Success in My Room and it said:

The roof taught me: Aim high.
The fan taught me: Be cool.
The clock taught me: Every minute counts.
The Mirror taught me: Reflect before you act.
The window taught me: Be open to the world.
The calendar taught me: Be up-to-date.
The door taught me: Push hard to achieve your goals.

In the Mahabharata, we see that the great hero Arjuna is a constant learner and so is Yudhishthira, whereas Duryodhana exhibits a closed mind on numerous occasions in his life, which leads to his failure as a leader. His own mother Gandhari, his father Dhritarashtra, his uncle Vidura, Sage Vyasa, Sage Maitreya, Krishna himself and numerous others try to show him the light, but he closes his eyes tightly against it. Apart from his learning in the early years, through out his life Yudhishthira never misses an opportunity to learn – whether it is from the sages who visit him in the jungle, Bhishma in the bed of arrows, or whoever else. He had an insatiable hunger for knowledge. Realizing that the reason why he lost everything in the dice game is his own ignorance of the game rather than cheating by Shakuni, he learns to play dice from Rajarshi Brihadashwa. [It is not well known that the Mahabharata describes the dice not as a game of mere chance, but as one involving quick, advanced arithmetical calculations.]

As for Arjuna, in his early days he is taught by Ashwatthama and Drona. During the twelve-year stay of the Pandavas in the forest, Arjuna starts out on a journey of learning that takes many years. He learns Brahmastra from Shiva, and is educated by Chitrasena in the abode of Indra. The epic also tells us that he was a student of his friend and cousin Krishna. Of course, the Bhagavad Gita is lessons in living and fighting given to Arjuna by Krishna.


Indian culture talks of three kinds of learners. Those who are like the lotus leaf, those who are like the hot plate and those who are like the mother-of-pearl.

A drop of water falls on the lotus leaf but the lotus leaf remains untouched by the drop. It never becomes part of the leaf, the leaf never digests it, it does not make it part of itself.

Some learners are like this. What they learn they retain, but it is never digested, never made their own. They can repeat it, they can reproduce it, but it does not really benefit them in any way. It is as though they had never learnt at all.

A drop of water falls on the hot plate and the hot plate absorbs it in an instant. The drop disappears, but again the hot plate is not able to make use of it.

Some learners are like the hot plate. They absorb everything, the things they learn are digested, but nothing great happens out of it. In their case too, learning has not really been useful.

A grain of sand enters the mother-of-pearl. And what comes out, is a precious pearl. The mother-of-pearl covers the grain of sand with its own secretions and transforms the simple grain into the sparkling pearl.

The highest kind of learner is like the mother-of-pearl, says Indian culture. Whatever he learns, he transforms it into far more precious things.

This is how all of us should be. This is how great leaders are.

Robert Bruce has lost seven battles and is hiding in a cave when he sees a spider taking a jump to reach a projecting rock so that he can build his nest up to it. He jumps and fails once, he takes a second jump and fails, he takes a third jump and fails again. By now Bruce is all attention. The spider makes seven attempts and fails in all them – exactly as Bruce had done. He too had failed seven battled. Bruce now holds his breath and watches. And as he expected, he spider takes an eighth jump and this time he succeeds. It is said that an inspired Bruce came out of the cave, challenged his enemies an eighth time and this time he won. This is a leader learning a simple lesson from an insect and transforming it into a precious victory.

Here is Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s computer in their early days: “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So we then went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.’”

That’s what happens when you do not have the beginner’s mind. You miss golden opportunities.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Leadership and Krishna: A Leader Rejects the Crown

In Mathura Kamsa has just been slain. And with that an age of evil and corruption has come to an end.

Krishna has killed his wicked uncle.

There is festivity in the air. The hearts of everyone in Mathura is dancing, barring a few loyal followers of Kamsa and guests whom he had invited to Mathura. And Jarasandha’s Magadhan soldiers, who were engaged in guarding Mathura and its ruler. Jarasandha was the mightiest emperor of the day and Kamsa’s father-in-law. Two of his daughters, Asti and Prapti, were wedded to Kamsa. If Kamsa’s loyalists intended to protest Krishna’s killing of Kamsa, if they wanted revenge, the desire was suppressed deep into in their hearts – for their stood Balarama, a giant of unbelievable strength, with his mace in his hand warning sternly that the first one who tries to lift a weapon will be dead before he does so. Balarama has just killed Kamsa’s powerful wrestler Mushtika before their eyes and they understand he means what he says.

Happy cries of “victory to Krishna” rise up everywhere. People hail him as the saviour – the prophesied saviour come to save them from the evils of Kamsa. People fall at his feet in reverence. Others bend down and touch his feet. There is inexpressible joy in their eyes. A dark age has come to an end. They want to celebrate it.

But is not triumph that Krishna’s eyes show. There is no joy there, no festivity. Instead, there is deep sorrow, intense grief. And with those eyes filled with grief, he looks at the celebrating people. He lifts his blood-stained hands in the air – it is Kamsa’s blood. People fall quiet. “This is no time for celebration,” he tells them in his voice that is amazingly powerful for a sixteen year old boy. “This is no time for happiness. This is the moment of sorrow. We have lost our king. I request all of you to go home quietly.” People silently turn around and start walking in the direction of their homes. The huge mass of population that had assembled to watch the festivities that Kamsa had arranged, to which he had invited Krishna and Balarama with the secret intention of killing them, disperse quietly.

What we see here is a great leader in action. He knows there is a time to celebrate and there is a time to mourn. True, the man that has been killed was wicked, but he was also their king. And the loss of a king is a matter for mourning.

A lesser leader would have allowed them to dance and celebrate. Perhaps he would have allowed them to carry him on their shoulders and take him in a procession through the city streets. But Krishna knows what has happened was something that should not have happened. There shouldn’t have been any need for this killing. It was not a happy deed for him. And Krishna wants people to realize it. Krishna wants people to feel pity for the dead king – it’s sad that things had to end this way.

What Krishna the leader is doing here is raising the consciousness of the people to a higher level. Death of evil is not an occasion to celebrate. Never having evil among them – that is the thing to celebrate. The heart of a man like Krishna weeps even for the wicked. And he wants his people to rise to that height.


A little while later. The Yadavas are in counsel among themselves. They need to select a leader from among themselves immediately. If they do not, there will be trouble in the streets. The slain Kamsa’s supporters would sense their opportunity and try to take advantage of it. Jarasandha’s Magadhan soldiers loyal to Kamsa might create trouble. There may be slaughter everywhere. A leader is the urgent need of the moment. A competent leader who will stand as a tower of strength telling the world that the Yadavas are not leaderless.

But there is a problem.

The mighty Yadavas are not exactly one group, not really one clan, nor of one mind. There are among them the Kukkuras, Andhakas, Vrishnis, Satvatas, Bhojas, Madhus, Shuras and many other clans. And the Yadava clans have never been united – they were constantly hostile with each other. They formed different groups among themselves, the combinations changing constantly, with very little friendliness among the groups.

The problem was the leader chosen should be acceptable to all. He should be able to hold all the mutually hostile groups together. Already there is suspicion in the minds of the clan elders that some smart guy from a rival group might cease power sensing his opportunity. They start eyeing one another with distrust in their hearts.

And then someone offers the position to Krishna’s father Vasudeva.

Wise and saintly Vasudeva is acceptable to practically all. Besides, he is Krishna’s father. Krishna has just slain the erstwhile ruler.

Vasudeva rejects the offer politely, telling them he has spent all his life in prison and has not been in touch with the world. He considers the offer an honour, but he does not consider himself fit for the position.

In the meantime, Krishna reaches there. He had been busy, making arrangements for the royal cremation of Kamsa’s body. The cremation should befit the ruler of Mathura.

We get another beautiful glimpse of Krishna’s great leadership qualities here. After sending the people to their homes to mourn the death of their ruler, Krishna meets his father, his foster father and his mother in scenes that are highly charged with emotions.

Having done that, we see the sixteen-year-old Krishna taking charge of the most important thing to be done at the moment. The hated ruler’s cremation could turn into an ugly affair and Krishna wants to avoid that. And there should be no clashes between rival groups.

Kamsa’s queens had been devastated. Their cries had been heart-rending. From queens one moment ago, they have been reduced to widows. And perhaps Kamsa was a good husband and they had loved him deeply. Krishna goes to them and meets them. He is Kamsa’s slayer – the man who ended their life of glory and turned them into widows.

Besides, the widowed queens are his aunts. In their moment of pain and loss his place is with them.

Throughout Krishna’s life, Krishna shows boundless capacity for empathy, one of the greatest qualities of a great leader. Indian culture calls Krishna the Poorna Purushottamma – all noble qualities are perfect in him. And yet looking at Krishna as a leader at times I feel if more than anything else it wasn’t his capacity to empathise that made him the greatest leader India has ever seen.

Having made arrangements for the cremation and spending time with his aunts, he reaches where decision about the future leader of Mathura is being taken. He comes and sits next to his father. Soon Balarama too comes, bringing along old Ugrasena, Kamsa’s father, whom Kamsa had deposed, and Andhaka, another leader of importance. Though this is not specifically stated, we suspect Krishna is behind this too – it is most probably on his instructions that the two leaders have been brought from their prisons into which Kamsa had thrown them. Or else, for one thing, it would not be Balarama who brings them to the meeting.

Vasudeva has just rejected the position. Old Ugrasena has just come. The clan elders now offer the position to Ugrasena. He too rejects it, saying that he has sent the last several decades of his life in his own son’s prison, he is too old, and now he is a bereaving father.

Ugrasena tells the meeting that he now considers Krishna his son, now that Kamsa is dead. And he tells the assembly he considers Krishna the fittest person to be king and accordingly, wants him to be the heir to the throne.

Krishna has been sitting silently all this while, listening to the discussions. When his name is suggested, there is loud approval from every corner. It is as though this is what they really wanted all along, though they were suggesting other names.

Krishna stands up quietly, his palms joined in reverence. And he tells them he has grown up as a cowherd boy and all he knows are the ways of cowherds. No, he cannot be the king. That position should go to the man most fit to occupy it. As for him, it is time for him to study the ways of the kshatriyas, to learn to be a good warrior, to study the Vedas, and to get himself the education that he has missed as a cowherd boy.

He then recommends Ugrasena’s own name. And he tells the protesting Ugrasena that only he can keep the Yadavas united. He assures him on behalf of his father and Akrura and others: they would all always be with him, to assist him in everything. And he adds, he himself would be there at his service.

Eventually Ugrasena is selected as the king unanimously.

What we see here is the wonderful insight of Krishna into the human heart. He knows that in spite of their momentary enthusiasm, once the moment is passed he will not be acceptable to many of them as their leader. And he knows the only person who can keep the Yadavas together is Ugrasena. He was king before Kamsa deposed him and threw him into the dungeons. He is the eldest among them all and respected by all.

We also see here a sixteen-year-old boy rejecting a crown offered to him. A crown that is his for the taking. A crown that almost naturally comes to him since he is the slayer of the erstwhile king.

Throughout his life, Krishna will show that he does not care for position. He will slay evil king after evil king, but he will never take the kingdom for himself, would never become king himself. It was always the deposed king’s son that he appointed as the next heir, provided he was qualified.

In this sense, Krishna is the least ambitious of all leaders.

He did have ambitions, though, but they were not ambitions for power. His ambition was what he declares as his mission of life in the Gita and what he states innumerable times throughout the Mahabharata: to establish dharma as a way of life, to create a world where life could be lived following dharma. For he believed, with Vyasa, that all happiness and prosperity come from dharma: dharmād arthaś ca kāmaś ca.

Without holding any position of authority, Krishna becomes the most influential leader of the day, the most effective one.

It’s not position that makes a leader.


What is most amazing is that this adolescent was a cowherd boy until a couple of days ago. All the sixteen years of his life he has spent among the most ordinary people, and when he reaches Mathura and finds himself among the mighty and powerful there, he is completely at ease among them. It is as though he has been living among royalty all along. And each word he speaks and each step he takes, speaks of authority. Everything he does has an authenticity of its own. His decisions emerge from his deep intuitive insights.

He is in touch with his being and his serenity is the source of his wisdom.

From the day he steps into Mathura, he proves himself to be a winner. He is always calm and composed, in full self-possession, and totally imperturbable. And he is always himself – he does not put on performances. His leadership arises from the stillness of his being and his love and concern for others. From his empathy. He does not believe in pretensions, does not believe in the mechanics of leadership or in power games, he does not believe in manipulating others. He knows the difference between being loving and acting to be loving. He is always fully in possession of himself, is always self-directed and autonomous.

That night Krishna, Balarama and Uddhava are together in the same room, waiting for sleep to come. And Balarama hugs Krishna, saying what a wonderful brother he is lucky to have. “You are great, Krishna,” he tells his younger brother. “Unsurpassed!”

And Krishna tells him, “Because I have a brother like you!”

That’s Krishna.


Note: Krishna’s story has been told in thousands of ways by thousands of story tellers and will be told again by thousands more, each in his and her own way. The narration here is based on KM Munshi’s Krishnavatara, one of the most brilliant retellings of Krishna’s story ever.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Leadership, Ethics and Krishna

I happened to see the last few minutes of the Hindi movie Khosla ka Ghosla on TV again yesterday. The movie brought to my mind a question one of my students had asked me last week in the course in Leadership Excellence that I teach at XLRI School of Business and Human Resources, Jamshedpur. She had asked if it was all right to take recourse to devious means for achieving dharmic – righteous – goals. Can we use adharma for achieving dharma? Shouldn’t the means used be as right as the end itself? Or does the end justify the means?

These questions are very significant. They are of extreme relevance to us both in our personal and our professional lives. Choice is part of every decision making act and these are questions that influence most of our choices.

The questions were raised in the course of our discussion of Krishna’s leadership in the Mahabharata, more specifically in the Mahabharata war. What the student who asked the questions had in mind was Krishna’s role in incidents like Drona’s and Karna’s death in the war, his role in getting Duryodhana and Jarasandha killed, and so on. The Pandavas obviously use on many occasions during the war what could only be called adharma and adharma is evil. In the battle against adharma, can we use evil?

I had answered the question in the class, but watching the movie brought the question back to my mind.

There are a lot of similarities between the Mahabharata and the story of Khosla ka Ghosla. The Mahabharata war at one level is about ownership of land – that of a kingdom, or at least half a kingdom, and in Khosla ka Ghosla, the central issue is ownership of a plot of land. If the man in the Mahabharata to whom the kingdom belongs is an adharmabhiru – committed to dharma and afraid of committing adharma – so is the man who is the real owner of the piece of land in the movie. If Yudhishthira has lived by dharma all his life, so has Khosla. If it was through adharma that the kingdom was snatched away from Yudhishthira, that’s exactly how it was grabbed from Khosla. If the man who snatched it away from Yudhishthira and now owns it believes in adharmic ways and has believed in them all his life, so is the case with Khurana in Khosla ka Ghosla. The Mahabharata shows Duryodhana as unscrupulous when it comes to keeping the kingdom, that is how the movie shows Khurana too. Duryodhana is powerful, through wealth and power attained through adharma; Khurana is powerful exactly through the same means.

Khosla’s battle is with a far more powerful enemy than himself, just as Yudhishthira’s was. Yudhishthira agrees to the battle only when all other means fail. He goes to the extent of agreeing to be contented with five villages, though he knows the whole kingdom is his. He sends Krishna as an emissary of peace to Hastinapura. Khosla too tries several means of claiming his plot of land back, including politicians, the police, and even a bunch of pahalvans.

When everything else fails, the battle becomes a necessity.

Confronted with an enemy far more powerful than himself, Khosla has no chance of winning back what belongs to him in a fair battle. But then his son and his friends come up with a way out: Give Khurana a taste of his own medicine. The son and his friends have to go about it initially without Khosla’s approval of their plan. He may lose the plot of land purchased at his retirement through his entire life’s savings, but he will not commit a single act of adharma – that’s Khosla’s stand.

The plan is to sell to Khurana a large plot of land that does not belong to them, but to the Fisheries Department of the Government. Khosla’s son’s friends belong to a theatre group, and one of them acts as a rich man from the Gulf to whom the land belongs. They fake ownership papers of the land in his name, papers which appear to be perfect, just as Khurana had got fake ownership papers made for Khosla’s plot of land. When the wily Khurana insists that he wants to see the plot before buying it, that he is not happy with just seeing the papers though everything is perfect on paper, the drama company takes over the vacant piece of land – someone becomes the old caretaker, another his wife, others workers on the plot and so on. Khurana is duped and hands over a huge sum of money as advance against the purchase – far more than the price of the land he had taken from Khosla by cheating.

Now the questions my student had asked in the class: Is it all right to take recourse to devious means for achieving righteous goals? Can we use adharma for achieving dharma? Shouldn’t the means used be as right as the end itself? Or does the end justify the means?

Khosla ka Ghosla, in which our sympathies are entirely with Khosla and his people, tells us that sometimes there are no ways other than adharmic to achieve dharmic ends. Does the end then justify the means? It does not, but there are rare occasions when you have no other choice.

And that is exactly what happens in the Mahabharata too.

Krishna has the highest ethical principles in the Mahabharata, but he is not an idealist, but very practical. Nor is the Mahabharata a work of idealism – it is a book as realistic as can be. What it deals with is not an imaginary situation, but a real life situation, with all the complexities of real life situations. And the truth of the matter is that to beat adharma you sometimes have to use adharma. As they say, to remove a thorn, you have to use another thorn.

What the Mahabharata teaches us is life based on dharma, leadership based on dharma. At the end of the book, Vyasa, the sage author, declares: “I lift up my arms and cry out: from dharma come prosperity and happiness.” And yet the epic also teaches us practical wisdom and says: śaThe śāThyam samācharet – Practice treachery with the treacherous. What it means is that sometimes only treachery works with the wicked. And in such cases, that treachery, if your heart is pure and if your goals are dharmic, is acceptable. Not as the first course, but as the last course. And even then, with great reluctance.

[Incidentally, the word śaTha has many other meanings, like obstinacy, for instance. The instruction śaThe śāThyam samācharet would then mean “Be obstinate with the obstinate.”]

The Mahabharata does not give a clean chit to treachery. It does not say it becomes dharma when practiced on the wicked. It still is adharma. But it admits that sometimes there is no other way.

And that exactly is the stand Krishna takes in the Mahabharata war.

Each time he uses devious means in the Mahabharata war, it is either with someone who practices adharma or with someone who stands with adharma. And even then he uses them only when all other means are closed. As the very last alternative.

This is true about the way he persuades Yudhishthira to tell Drona that Ashwatthama has been killed so that when Drona lays down his weapons Shikhandi can kill him. This is true about his role in the slaying of Karna and Duryodhana. And it is true about all other incidents in the war, too.

Contrary to popular perception, Krishna plays no devious role in the killing of Bhishma. [I have analysed this elsewhere.]


Here is a beautiful story from the Panchatantra.

Two crows, a husband and wife, live on a tree. A too cobra live in a hollow on the trunk of the tree. Every time the female crow lays eggs, the cobra comes and gobble them up. If somehow she manages to guard an egg until it hatches, the snake comes and feast on the chick. Many seasons pass, many years pass, and yet the crow couple have no children. They become desperate and do not know what to do. Such is the despair of the mother crow that she often thinks of ending her life – she is without children and every one of her eggs and children is being eaten up by the cobra before her eyes.

Finally she tells their friend the jackal of their misery. As advised by the jackal, the mother crow flies to the nearby tank where the queens of the local king were taking bath. Before entering the water, the women had removed their ornaments and kept them on the bank. The mother crow succeeds in snatching away the costliest of the ornaments – the priceless necklace of the chief queen – and flies back with it. She makes sure her snatching the ornament is seen by the women. The women make a big hue and cry and guards come running. They begin chasing the crow and the crow flies just out of their reach, making sure the chase continues.

When she reaches the tree on which she lives, she drops the necklace into the hollow in the tree in which the cobra lives.

The king’s guards find the snake in the hollow and kills it.

Is the mother crow’s action dharma or adharma? You be the judge.


A powerful industrial corporation plays hell with the lives of thousands of people and becomes a health hazard for the entire environment. They knowingly dump huge amounts of a deadly form of chromium into the town’s water which causes horrific diseases and affect large sections of the population. They care nothing for the suffering of the people; their only concern is their profit. They have bought the local government, they have bought the local police, the media dances to their tunes. There is no way they will allow any outsider to find out the truth of what exactly is happening. And a woman risks her life to find out the truth because she is deeply concerned for the innocent people. In her search for the dark truth if she breaks a few minor rules, is her act then dharma or adharma? Is she ethical or unethical? Does what she does say that the end justifies the means?

How do you define Erin Brockovich’s ethical standards?


If you trick the jinn back into the bottle because he is about to swallow you up for your crime of saving him, are you being unethical?

If you are a young woman and you cheat on the monster who abducts you on your wedding night and holds you prisoner for satisfying his lust, are you being unethical?

Jake was dying. His wife, Becky, was maintaining a candlelight vigil by his side.
She held his fragile hand, tears running down her face. Her praying roused him from his slumber. He looked up and his pale lips began to move slightly, "My darling Becky," he whispered.

"Hush, my love," she said. "Rest. Shhh, don't talk."

He was insistent. "Becky," he said in his tired voice, "I have something to tell you. I must confess to you."

"There's nothing to confess," replied the weeping Becky."Everything's all right. Go to sleep."

"No, no, I must die in peace, Becky. I slept with your sister. I slept with her best friend. I slept with your best friend, your best friend’s best friend and your…"

"I know," Becky interrupted and whispered softly, "That's why I poisoned you."

How do we judge Becky? Ethical? Unethical?


Friday, July 10, 2009

Reimagining Indian Womanhood: Sita as a Woman of Substance

[Paper presented by the author at the 2nd International Conference on Religions and Cultures in the Indic Civilization organised by The Indic Studies Network, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Manushi, and supported by Infinity Foundation, Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India. 17-20 December 2005, Indian Habitat Centre, New Delhi.]

Sita has been the symbol of the ideal Indian womanhood ever since the Ramayana. Even today the Indian woman readily identifies with her. Treating her as the role model engenders a certain self-image and a set of values, attitudes and characteristics in her, deeply colouring her self-perceptions and life expectations.

The popular image of Sita that so powerfully shapes the Indian womanhood is essentially that of a very docile person, someone who gives unbounded love but accepts injustice, cruelty, neglect, humiliation and banishment quietly, uncomplainingly. This ideal wife archetype is perceived as a martyr, willingly sacrificing herself for the purposes of her man, with no purposes of her own. Her decisions are taken for her by the men in her life – her father, husband, others. Her man is God himself to her, and her salvation is through service to him. She is his to command – in this world, in the worlds to come.

However, a careful look at the Ramayana, by which I mean the Valmiki Ramayana, shows us this popular image that has done such immense harm to the Indian womanhood by taking away her freedoms and her initiative, her independence and individuality, her right to be fully human, is completely wrong. Ramayana’s Sita is a woman with a mind of her own – a fiercely independent one. Despite being under immense pressure to conform to standards set by her deeply patriarchal society, she refuses to be humiliated for being a woman and rejects every attempt made to destroy her dignity and force her into servile subjection. Because of her boundless love she does not strike back; otherwise, in her independence, she becomes almost subversive.

At all crucial junctures of her life, it is she who takes her decisions. As Rama announces his decision to go to the jungle on his fourteen year exile and asks her to stay back and serve his parents, she tells him she knows her place is with him and she is going with him – nothing can stop her. Rejecting her after the war in Lanka, Rama asks her to go and live with whomever she likes – and she asks Lakshmana to prepare a chita, a funeral pyre and jumps into that. Banished by Rama in the ripeness of her pregnancy, she refuses to beg for pity and decides to live for the sake of her children and brings them up as a single mother. Called back by Rama after sixteen years, she does not look at him once, or speak to him. When he asks for proof of her chastity, she gives it – by refusing to breathe the air he breathes, by asking mother earth to receive her if her mind has not once swerved from him.

There are great lessons for the Indian woman to learn from this epic woman of substance – but they are of independence, assertiveness and the refusal to accept injustice and humiliation, as much as of love, commitment and devotion.


Sita comes to Ayodhya as a child bride. Unlike in the popular imagination, in which she is a fully grown woman when she weds Rama, she is very young when the wedding takes place. As she tells Ravana who comes to her in the guise of a monk in Panchavati, when they leave for the jungle she is eighteen and Rama, twenty-five and before that she has lived with Rama in Ayodhya for twelve years – the foiled consecration attempt is in the thirteenth year of their marriage .

We don’t really see Sita in the Ramayana during her wedding – we are only told of her. We first see her on that fateful day of Rama’s frustrated coronation as crown prince. And when we first meet her she proves beyond any doubt that she is a woman of substance and not the doormat that the Ramakatha tradition often paints her as.

On that Pushya day in the month of Chaitra when Rama is summoned early in the morning to Kaikeyi’s palace and told that Bharata would now be anointed in his place as the crown prince and Rama himself would have to go to the jungle for fourteen years, Rama is completely broken down. Though he puts on a mask of indifference, his reactions show that he is completely shattered by what he was told. He is able to show a strong face in front of Kaikeyi and Dasharatha and the others possibly present around, continues to show it in the presence of his mother to whom he goes from Kaikeyi’s palace, but is unable to control his sorrow anymore and breaks down completely when he reaches Sita. The Rama whom Sita sees is a frightening sight. He has lost control over his limbs, his face has lost all colour, he is covered in perspiration and he is in a vengeful fury.

What breaks Rama down completely, though, does not affect Sita at all. The news of the loss of the kingdom has no effect on her, nor the order that Rama has to go to the jungle. What affects her is what Rama has just told her – that she should stay back in Ayodhya and look after her parents-in-law. When these words are told, Sita tells Rama in unequivocal terms – she knows where her place is, when he goes to the jungle, it is with him. If Rama goes to the jungle, she goes with him and nothing in the world can stop her.

I would like to quote from the original Sanskrit here to show the power in Sita’s words and the firmness of her determination: “sāham tvayā gamishyāmi vanam adya na samśayah; nāham śakyā mahābhaga nivartayitum udyatā” – “Therefore I am coming with you to the jungle today – let there be no doubt about this. Noble Lord, once I have made up my mind, nothing can turn me back.” [Ayo 27.15]

Sita is not requesting Rama to take her with him to the jungle – she is informing him she is going with him. The decision is hers – not his. And then she adds – once she has made up her mind, nothing can change it.”

Nothing in the world can stop her – those are not the words of a docile woman. And she does not just say that but forces Rama to take her with him against his wishes.

Incidentally, when Sita says once she has made up her mind nothing can stop her, she is not speaking only of this occasion – she is making a general statement about her nature. Such is her will that once she makes up her mind, nothing can stop her. And we see this throughout the Ramayana – Sita takes decisions calmly and once she has taken a decision, nothing changes her.

Fortunately for her, her decisions are almost always exactly what a proud, self-respecting, independent, assertive woman should take. Only once was she wrong in her decision and for that she paid with one year’s captivity in Lanka.

I have at times wondered why exactly Sita chose to go with Rama and not stay back in Ayodhya as her patriarchal society expected her to. Definitely she wanted to be with Rama – with him, she says, even the fiercest jungle is more pleasing for her than a palace and without him heaven is no heaven. But there is also another possibility. Sita knew her Rama. In the Ramayana, Rama often appears as a strong-willed person, but this is only an appearance. Valmiki’s Rama easily breaks down under pressure and at least once speaks of suicide. And Sita has just seen how shattered he was by Kaikeyi’s decision. It is possible it is more for his sake that Sita insists on going with him to the jungle than for her own sake. Sita does not want to leave Rama to himself – particularly right then.

That Sita cared for Rama deeply, with almost a motherly concern, ignoring her personal comforts and even putting herself in great danger, is shown by other examples in the Ramayana.

Hanuman, who meets her in Lanka where she was Ravana’s captive, suggests at the end of his visit there that he shall take Sita back to Rama. Sita has been living a life of abject misery in Lanka for ten months by then, surrounded by Ravana’s monstrous Rakshasa guards and facing the constant threat of Ravana himself. A minute away from Rama is like an age to her and she has been away from him all these tem months. She does not know how long more Rama will take before he was able to rescue her from Lanka. But in spite of all this, Sita refuses to go with Hanuman. There are many reasons for this, as she herself tells Hanuman, reasons like her vow not to have physical contact with any man other than Rama willingly. But one of the reasons which she gives, which perhaps persuades Hanuman more than any other, is that if he, Hanuman, saved her from Lanka, that would affect Rama’s glory – “I know that you are enough to kill all the Rakshasas – but if you kill the Rakshasas, Rama’s glory will wane.”

Let her sufferings and loneliness continue for as long for so long as it takes for Rama to come and kill Ravana and save her by himself, let her misery and privations, her distress and dread, her woe and wretchedness continue – but Rama’s glory should not be affected in any way.

It is again this care for Rama we see in the Jayanta episode that Sita narrates to Hanuman in Lanka – a very personal and private incident, known only to Rama and to herself, that she tells him so that Hanuman can narrate it to Rama as a sign that he had really met her. We have one of the most beautiful scenes of love in the epic, a scene of deep intimacy between Sita and Rama, and a highly erotic scene at that. Rama and Sita are at Chitrakoota and we see alternately Rama relaxing in Sita’s lap and Sita relaxing in Rama’s lap. Perhaps meat is being dried nearby and Sita is keeping an eye on it too. It is then that a crow appears on the scene – and Sita wants to drive it away. She picks up stones and throws it at the crow – but it does not go away. An angry Sita gets up intending to throw more stones at the crow, tries to tighten the waist string of her dress and in the process the cloth slips down. Rama seeing her in this condition spontaneously laughs out. Sita is initially furious, and then blushes in embarrassment. It is perhaps a little while after this when Rama is asleep in Sita’s lap that the crow reappears and begins attacking Sita herself repeatedly, wounding her between her breasts. Blood starts flowing from the wounds and when a few drops fall on Rama, he wakes up and, now furious, attacks the crow.

Part of this scene reminds us of the episode when Parashurama is sleeping with his head on his disciple Karna’s lap and Karna is attacked by a small insect. It pierces the skin of his thigh, causing severe pain. Blood starts flowing from the wound. Karna endures the attack, so that he will not disturb his guru’s sleep. Eventually the guru wakes up when he feels the blood on his skin.

Exactly as Karna does out of reverence for his guru, out of love for Rama Sita endures the severe pain sitting motionless so that Rama is not disturbed. Once again we see here Sita suffering pain for Rama’s sake.

Sita would do that again and again for Rama’s sake, as, for instance, when Rama abandons her in the jungle. Sita’s words to Lakshmana as he takes leave of her after executing Rama’s orders are very significant. She tells him that he should not worry about her, but should focus on fulfilling his duties towards his subjects – that is his dharma and the way to attain glory – the one thing that Rama sought more than anything else in his life. She feels since she is responsible for the bad name that is spreading, it is her duty to help in any way possible to remove it. This time too, as when Rama renounced her in Lanka, she would have preferred death – she tells Lakshmana that she would have given up her life in the Ganga but for the fact that her death would have made Rama heirless. She would live the life of loneliness and rejection– for his sake.

The assertive, independent woman in Sita, though, does not allow her to accept her unjustified abandonment silently. Her last words to Lakshmana are to have a good look at her – she tells him she is pregnant. Her pregnancy is five months old – and is perhaps not known to the public. She wants Lakshmana as a witness to the fact that she is pregnant when Rama abandoned her – lest somebody accuses her again of being unfaithful to Rama and Rama has to abandon her a third time.

Coming back to her decision to go with Rama to the jungle, the first time when we see her in the Ramayana, Sita is the decision-maker in a crisis. She is strong as a rock and is unshaken by the calamity that has destroyed Rama’s strength. She takes over and takes the right decision – for herself and for him.

Incidentally, Sita who can deny herself the pleasures of a royal palace for Rama’s sake and go to the jungle with him, would refuse to look at him, refuse to utter a single word to him, when she meets him after sixteen years of separation. This woman had a need to be proud of her man and she would reject him when he ceased to be worthy of her. She had the inner strength to do so.

Folk traditions frequently see Sita not as an abala, the weak one, but as shakti, the embodiment of power. We see this in one of the folk variations of the Ramayana in which we see Sita effortlessly lifting with her left hand the bow of Shiva which even mighty kings fail to lift, while she cleans the ground underneath with her right hand. Janaka sees this and it prompts him to decide that only a man who can lift that bow and tie its string would be a fit husband for his daughter. There are variations of the Ramayana where Sita assumes awesome power – she is the mother of the universe and whatever strength Rama has, comes from her.


Leaving Ayodhya and Kosala behind, as Sita crosses the Ganga on her way to the jungle, she prays to the river goddess – for Rama’s safe return after fourteen years. There are no fears in her heart about her own safety – it is Rama’s safety she is worried about.

It is this focus on the man she loves that gives Sita the strength to point out a moral contradiction in Rama and advice him to give up arms since he has taken the vow to live like an ascetic in the jungle. The courage she shows in daring to teach Rama what he should do is admirable. A woman in a deeply patriarchal society does not assume the role of a mentor to her husband – but Sita does that.

Throughout the Ramayana we find Sita has a very healthy self-image. “There are no blemishes in me,” she tells him when she informs him he cannot keep her back in Ayodhya. It is this positive self image, this image of inner strength, that makes her tell Rama that she shall walk in front of him in the jungle, crushing the sharp grass and thorns on his path with her feet.

In the Ramayana there are many occasions when we see Sita helpless – as when Ravana carries her away by force, as when he keeps her a prisoner in Lanka, as when Rama abandons her in the jungle. But in spite of this helplessness, Sita’s self-image is still positive under all these circumstances. In fact, in the entire Ramayana there is only one occasion when we find her unsure of herself – that is immediately following Rama’s rejection of her at the end of the war with Ravana and her entering the funeral pyre.

Back in Ayodhya, Rama’s is crowned king. One of the most pathetic scenes in the Ramayana takes place at this time – though this is normally missed by most readers of the Ramayana because the Adikavi speaks about it in such quiet tones, in such unobtrusive, innocuous words.

Rama’s coronation has just taken place. Prompted by Indra, Vayu gives Rama a precious pearl necklace of great beauty and Rama, after giving gifts to Brahmins and to Sugreeva and Angada, gives that necklace to Sita. Sita, in her turn, wants to give that necklace to Hanuman – but she is not sure whether she should do it or not, or maybe, whether she could do it or not. She removes the necklace from her neck and, holding it in her hand, looks towards the Vanaras with whom Hanuman is standing, then looks at Rama and then looks at the Vanaras, and then again at Rama, silently seeking his permission. This goes on repeatedly and then Rama observes it and graciously gives his permission to gift it to anyone she wishes. Sita immediately gifts it to Hanuman.

This is the just crowned queen of Ayodhya – the wedded wife of Rama for more than twenty-six years. And it is to Hanuman that she wants to give that necklace – Hanuman who has been so close to Rama. But she needs his permission – and she does not even have the courage to ask for it openly.

Clearly, this is not the Sita we had seen earlier telling Rama as he was going to the jungle that she was going with him and nothing in the world could stop her from it. This is the Sita whom Rama had rejected at the end of the war in Lanka, the one whom he had publicly humiliated in the presence of hundreds of thousands of Vanara, Riksha and Rakshasa warriors, and Lakshmana, Sugreeva, Vibheeshana and Hanuman, telling her there are reasons to suspect her chastity and asking her to go and live with whomever she wished, Sugreeva, Vibheeshana, Bharata, Shatrughna or Lakshmana, whoever, he did not care so long as she just disappeared from his presence. This is a broken Sita, completely unsure of herself.

Fortunately, we will not see Sita weak ever again in her life.


Her agnipareeksha, ordeal by fire, is one of the most striking instances quoted for proving Sita’s complete lack of assertiveness and her total submission to the will of Rama – perhaps the most unforgettable image from the Ramayana: a woman entering fire to prove her chastity and single-minded devotion to her husband and coming out unscathed. However, a careful reading of the Ramayana shows that instead of being an example for Sita’s lack of independent will, this is a case of her asserting her independence. Sita’s entering the fire is not an act of surrender of will but is a case of defiance, of revolt, of rejection. To understand this properly, we have to look into the circumstances under which this happens. But before that I would like to clear a common misunderstanding – the agnipareeksha was not a test at all, and Rama did not ask Sita to undergo it.

After making Sita wait endlessly in Lanka even after the death of Ravana and the end of the war, Rama finally asks Vibheeshana to bring Sita to him. Rama himself does not go. And when Vibheeshana brings her in a palanquin, Rama forces her to get down from it and approach him on foot.

And then, shocking the huge audience watching, Rama tells her that he did not fight the war for her sake but for the glory of his family line. It is a matter of shame for an Ikshwaku that his wife is abducted by another man and that shame he has erased by killing the abductor. As for Sita, she is free now, the ten directions are open to her, she can go wherever she wishes, her sight is unpleasant to him as the sight of light is to one who has an eye disease, because there are reasons to suspect her chastity.

And then he suggests: Go and live with anyone she likes – Lakshmana, if she so wishes, or Bharata or Shatrughna, or Sugreeva or Vibheeshana if she so wishes. And Rama means ‘live with’ in its modern sense – the words Rama uses are ‘give your mind to’ whoever you wish.

Sita is totally humiliated, deeply hurt, mortally wounded. Yet it is not a broken Sita that answers Rama but a woman of strength, a woman of substance. She is not helpless here, but angry and defiant. After asserting her purity, she tells him he has spoken like a low, worthless man. And then she announces: “I do not plan to live humiliated by this false accusation. Lakshmana, prepare a chita for me.”

Chita means a funeral pyre - fire for burning a dead body. It is a chita Sita asks Lakshmana to prepare – not just fire. She refuses to live in indignity. She would either live in dignity or not live at all.

That is Valmiki’s Sita – a woman of tremendous inner strength. Her weakness is her total love for her man – there is no other weakness in her. Rejected by Rama, suspected by Rama, she does not want to live. The agnipravesha is an act of fiery protest – of defiance. The act of a woman of dignity refusing to be humiliated and forced to live her life on others’ terms, of a woman who refuses to be shamed for being a woman, a woman who refuses to see herself as just a female body – a female body that could be defiled by the mere touch of a man other than her husband.

It is important to note here that in spite of all her love for him, in spite of all her inability to live without him, Sita does not once beg Rama to take her back. She refuses to be humiliated by such begging – it would be beneath her dignity as a woman.

Also, Rama does not ask her to jump into fire and prove her purity – jumping into fire is a decision she takes for herself. Having decided to do that, she literally jumps into fire, while the warfield is filled with the cries of wailing women and men watching this horrid act.

I should mention here that while jumping into the fire Sita asks the fire to protect her if she has always been true to Rama – her words here are ambivalent.

But there is no such ambivalence in her story told by Narada to Valmiki given in the first chapter of the first bppk [Bala Kanda] of the Ramayana. Narada makes it absolutely clear that she entered fire because she was furious – amrshyamānā. “Tam uvāca tato ramah parusham janasamsadi, amrshyamānā sa sītā viveśa jvalanam satī.” “Rama told such cruel words to Sita in the presence of all those people and she, in fury, entered the burning fire,” Narada tells Valmiki.

I find it interesting that Narada chose to use the word “sati” for Sita here.


One of the most pathetic scenes in this book full of pathos is Rama betraying a pregnant Sita and abandoning her in the jungle.

The Uttara Kanda shows us Rama and Sita back from the exile leading a very contented family life – perhaps Sita’s boundless love has healed the wounds inflicted by the abduction, by her life as a prisoner in Lanka and by the ordeal she had to pass through when Rama rejected her – healed at least for the time being. In one scene they are in the garden attached to the antahpura and there dancers and musicians perform before them and Rama lovingly gives Sita a drink, madhu-maireyaka, holding the cup to her lips with his own hands. Rama asks his pregnant wife if she desires anything – and she says she desires to visit the ashrams of the sages and seek their blessings. Rama promises her desire will be fulfilled the next morning itself.

It is later that night that Rama hears of what people say of Rama taking back a wife who has spent time in another’s house – and Rama immediately decides to abandon her and commands Lakshmana to do so the next morning.

Sita does not realize she is being abandoned until she reaches the jungle. It is only after they cross the Ganga that Lakshmana tells her of Rama’s orders. Sita swoons at the news – but when she comes to, she has no harsh words to tell Rama. In her heart she knows there can be no reconciliation this time – she accepts the inevitable. She knows her Rama well, and he has never made it a secret that she is not the first for him, other things come before her: the glory of the Ikshwaku-Raghus, his duty as a king, his duty as a son, perhaps even Lakshmana. She wishes him well, sends messages to her mothers-in-law, none of them complaining, never requesting any of them to interfere on her behalf, never begging Rama to take her back. And then the woman of iron will watches with firm resolution as a weeping Lakshmana walks away unable to control himself.

She spends sixteen years in the ashram of Valmiki. According to some Ramakatha traditions, not once does she tell her children born to her there who their father is and Lava and Kusha grow up not knowing their father’s name. In Valmiki, though, this part is not clear, one way or the other. The Rama she loves lives in her heart but the Rama who rules in Ayodhya does not exist for her. In some traditions, when she has to refer to him, Sita calls him the king – just that, the king, never Rama, as she lovingly called him in the past. Her Rama has ceased to exist outside her heart.

And then the call comes – brought by Valmiki. Rama has heard the story of Ramayana composed by Valmiki from Lava and Kusha, has realized they are his sons. Now he wants Sita to come to him and take the vow of chastity in his temporary court in Naimisharanya where he has been staying conducting an ashwamedha sacrifice.

Rama has no idea how humiliating such a request could be to a self-respecting woman.

Sita comes, walking quietly behind Valmiki, her head bent. And there, standing in the middle of the crowded court, the sage, on the strength of all his austerities, takes a formal oath vouching for Sita’s purity. But that is not enough for Rama. He says he would take Sita back if she took a vow of chastity in the court.

Sita, realizing this is again a public performance as in Lanka, realizing this is King Rama speaking and not the man she loves, speaks not a word to him, does not look at him once.

The first time he had rejected her, she had argued back with him explaining her position before announcing the decision to end her life. The second time when he abandoned her, she had wished him well. This time she would not acknowledge him by so much as a glance.

In the name of her love for Rama, Sita refuses to breathe the same air that he breathes. In the name of what she holds most sacred in life, in the name of what is dearer to her than her life breath, in the name of her unswerving love for her Rama, she asks Mother Earth to receive her back.

That is the action of an authentic person who hates masks and believes wearing them, being forced to wear them, is a humiliating compromise. A person who believes that her innermost drives, her deepest urges, her innate wisdom, should guide her actions. A woman who happily gives up all the comforts of a rich palace to walk the harsh path of a danger-filled, fierce jungle as an equal to her man, as his companion, even as a slave to his love, but refuses to live as his chattel, as his to be given up and to be taken back as he pleases.

Sita would live in dignity or else she would not live at all.

The earth splits open and receives her.


If Sita appears consistently strong in her dealings with Rama, the man she loved as dearly as her life, she is no less resolute in her confrontations with her enemy, the man who abducted her and kept her captive for a year.

In Lanka, in spite of being a lonely prisoner in an alien land and facing a threat to her life itself, Ravana does not succeed in weakening her resolve. To her there is only one man, she tells him repeatedly, and rather than giving herself to another, she would kill herself. Ravana himself and Ravana’s monstrous female guards constantly put pressure on her to accept him – but she never relents.

Ravana’s constant, unbearable pressure applied on Sita and her lone battle with him, go on for almost a full year – eventually Ravana becomes so frustrated, that he goes running to her with a drawn sword in hand, ignoring his resolve to wait for a year for her to change her mind and his mind made up to put an end to her life. One of his ministers is able to persuade him at the last moment not to kill her, reminding him of his noble birth, his education in the Vedas, his performance of sacrifices and his other virtues.

Rama had Sugreeva and his army, including Hanuman, with him in his battle with Ravana. He had Lakshmana with him. But Sita had only herself – herself and her inner strength, and the hope and faith that Rama would come and save her. With that she fights with Ravana a battle that was no less fierce than the one Rama fought with him – and Sita proves she is no less a warrior than Rama.


Sita’s is the story of a woman of substance. Hers is also the story of a woman of substance in a man’s world.

There are great lessons for the modern Indian woman to learn from this epic woman of great courage – lessons in independence, in assertiveness and in the refusal to accept injustice and humiliation, besides lessons of love, commitment and devotion. Lessons in refusing to live except on one’s own terms, in spite of abandonment and rejection, being an object of lust, and repeated heartlessness.

As a role model for the new Indian woman, Sita comes to us with a warning too: that to live authentically is to live the hard way.

But then, authentic living is never easy living.

In the context of the Valmiki Ramayana, the advice we give our women to be like Sita can mean something entirely different from what we normally mean by it. To live like Sita is to live authentically, to live fearlessly, to live dangerously, to live guided by one’s innate wisdom rather than by society’s diktats, to live as a person in one’s own right and not as another’s shadow, to live as an individual and not as an object.


Note: All translations from the Ramayana are by the author. The verse and chapter numbers are as they appear in the popular Gita Press Sanskrit edition [Shrimad Valmikiya Ramayanam (Moolamatram), 2017 Vikram (1960-61) edition].

A Woman from the Arabian Nights

No single work of literature in the world contains more fascinating women than the Arabian Nights. The most amazing thing about the book is that it contains women of every imaginable shade, and each single one of them is unforgettable. There are hundreds of women whose stories are told in the Nights, but no two women are alike, and no two women’s stories are the same. There are women who display the highest love and devotion and there are betrayers and adulteresses by the score; there are women the savagery of whose acts is beyond belief and others whose goodness is equally unbelievable; if there are women whose powers would awe you, there are others whose beauty will caste a spell over you; if women of great chastity abound, there are innumerable sex hungry women whose predatoriness will stop at nothing.

I was looking for scholarly women in literature when I came across this particular woman in the Arabian Nights, one of my all-time favourite books. I wonder if literature has ever portrayed a woman of more amazing learning. Or of wit, for that matter. And she is young and breathtakingly beautiful too. Fearless, daring, assertive, proactive…a woman or substance in every sense of the term. Her name, in Payne’s translation of the Arabian Nights is Taweddud. Burton spells her name Tawaddud. Lane chooses to omit her story.

Abu al-Husn [spelt Aboulhusn in Burton’s translation] is the son of a rich merchant in Baghdad. After his pious father’s death, Abu began living an extravagant life in the company of his friends, spending all his wealth on drinks, food, and women. After a while there is nothing left of his enormous wealth, and all his friends desert him, as frequently happens. Deep in sorrow, he stays in his room without eating or drinking, refusing to leave the room for three days. And then his only possession left, Tawaddud, the slave girl his father had given to him, comes to him.

This is how the story describes Tawaddud’d beauty: “She was noted for her swimming gait, flexile and delicate, albeit she was full five feet in height and by all the boons of fortune deckt and dight, with strait arched brows twain, as they were the crescent moon of Sha'abán, and eyes like gazelles' eyne; and nose like the edge of scymitar fine and cheeks like anemones of blood-red shine; and mouth like Solomon's seal and sign and teeth like necklaces of pearls in line; and navel holding an ounce of oil of benzoin and waist more slender than his [Aboulhusn’s] body whom love hath wasted, and hind parts heavier than two hills of sand.”

Tawaddud asks Abu al-Husn to take her to the sultan, Harun al-Rashid, and sell her to him for ten thousand dinars. She asks her master not to sell her for any less, for she is worth even more, and if the sultan had any doubts about her merits, then he can have her merits tested and she is sure to prove her merits. Abu al-Husn does as she asks him to do.

The sultan asks her what her name is and she says, “"My name is Tawaddud." He then enquires, "O Tawaddud, in what branches of knowledge dost thou excel?" and she replies, "O my lord, I am versed in syntax and poetry and jurisprudence and exegesis and philosophy; and I am skilled in music and the knowledge of the Divine ordinances and in arithmetic and geodesy and geometry and the fables of the ancients. I know the Sublime Koran by heart and have read it according to the seven, the ten and the fourteen modes. I know the number of its chapters and verses and sections and words; and its halves and fourths and eighths and tenths; the number of prostrations which occur in it and the sum total of its letters; and I know what there is in it of abrogating and abrogated; also what parts of it were revealed at Al-Medinah and what at Meccah and the cause of the different revelations. I know the Holy Traditions of the Apostle's sayings, historical and legendary, the established and those whose ascription is doubtful; and I have studied the exact sciences, geometry and philosophy and medicine and logic and rhetoric and composition; and I have learnt many things by rote and am passionately fond of poetry. I can play the lute and know its gamut and notes and notation and the crescendo and diminuendo. If I sing and dance, I seduce, and if I dress and scent myself, I slay. In fine, I have reached a pitch of perfection such as can be estimated only by those of them who are firmly rooted in knowledge."

There are things she knows but she does not mention here: for instance, she is a mistress of the game of chess.


That is amazing indeed! What incredible scholarship! And what intelligence that requires to achieve such mastery over so many subjects – I am sure that’s the list of every known subject of the day – at such a young age – Tawaddud is only in her teens. And I like her eloquence, assertiveness, confidence and resourcefulness as much as I like her intelligence and scholarship. And look at her self-image! “If I sing and dance, I seduce, and if I dress and scent myself, I slay.”

Beauty and the brains, and so many other things besides!

I must interrupt here to add something that Fatema Mernissi says in her book Scheherezade Goes West. Mernissi quotes the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, one of the most important modern German philosophers, who says: "Laborious learning, even if a woman should greatly succeed in it, destroys the merits that are proper to her sex, and because of their rarity they can make of her an object of cold admiration; but at the same time they will weaken the charms with which she exercises her great power over the other sex." And then, after quoting him, she says: “Kant's message is quite basic: Femininity is the beautiful, masculinity is the sublime. The sublime is, of course, the capacity to think, to rise higher than the animal and the physical world. And you'd better keep the distinction straight, because a woman who dares to be intelligent is punished on the spot: She is ugly. The tone in Kant's book is as cutting as that of a Muslim Imam. The only difference between an Imam and Kant, who is considered to be "the chief luminary of the German Enlightenment," is that the philosopher's frontier does not concern the division of space into private (women) and public (men) realms, but into beauty (women) and intelligence (men). Unlike Harun Ar-Rachid, a caliph who equated beauty with erudition, and paid astronomical sums for the witty jarya in his harem, Kant's ideal woman was speechless.”

I must also add here something that I have written about in many of my articles including The Silencing of Draupadi and Re-imagining Indian Womanhood: Sita as a Woman of Substance [both available online]. While in later days Indian culture came to admire the speechless woman, the women who inhabit our epic space are far from speechless – their eloquence is astounding. Even Sita, who is generally perceived as the epitome of submissiveness and obedience, is astonishingly powerful in her speech in the Valmiki Ramayana. Her assertiveness is unbelievable. While asking Rama to take her with him on his fourteen-year exile she tells him: “I am coming with you to the jungle today – let there be no doubt about this. Noble One, once I have made up my mind, nothing can turn me back.”
Barring one single occasion in her life, Sita is eloquent and assertive throughout the Ramayana. And the same assertiveness and eloquence is found in woman after woman in our epic literature – in Kunti, in Satyavati, in Shakuntala, in Tara, in Amba and in numerous others.

In fact, I would say there is hardly a beautiful woman in ancient Indian literature who did not combine intelligence, learning and power of speech. Tara, who becomes the wife of both of Bali and Sugriva, displays astonishing brilliance, eloquence, power, learning and competence. Ravana accuses Sita of speaking as if she were a scholar – in her own way, she was, though her scholarship wasn’t a match to that of Ravana, who was among the greatest scholars of his age. Hanuman too senses Sita’s intelligence with a mere look at her the first time he sees her. Draupadi is famous for her beauty, intelligence, eloquence, power, assertiveness and learning. And all these women were of unsurpassed beauty.


Well, to continue with Tawaddud’s story, the incredible list that she mentions astonishes Harun al-Rashid as much as it astonishes us today. According to the story, Tawaddud is quite young at this time and only in her teens. “When the Khalif heard her words, he wondered at them and at the eloquence of her speech, seeing the tenderness of her age, and turning to Aboulhusn, said to him, 'I will summon those who shall examine her in all she lays claim to; if she answers [correctly,] I will give thee the price thou askest for her and more; and if not, thou art fitter to [possess] her [than I].' 'With all my heart, O Commander of the Faithful,' replied Aboulhusn. So the Khalif wrote to the Viceroy of Bassora, to send him Ibrahim ben Siyyar the poet, who was the first man of his day in argument and eloquence and poetry and logic, and bade him bring with him readers of the Koran and doctors of the law and physicians and astrologers and sages and geometricians and philosophers.”

To be continued….2


Note: I have quoted much from Burton’s as well as Payne’s text directly for the charm of their language and the liveliness of their narration. The spellings are slightly different in the two translations, but that shouldn’t pose any problem for the reader. Incidentally, Payne’s translation is the earlier one. Burton’s translation, which came soon after Payne’s, is almost identical with that of Payne, for which reason Burton has been accused of plagiarising Payne, an accusation that we find is easily justified when we compare their texts.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Eckhart Tolle and A New Earth: Awakening of Life’s Purpose

The book that I picked up at random for reading this morning was Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Life’s Purpose.

I once used Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now as a text in one of the courses I taught [jointly with a friend of mine] at XLRI School of Business, Jamshedpur. It is an impressive book by any standards and one of the clearest to come from the west about spirituality in recent times.

One of my friends has recently published a book that compares the teachings of Tolle and Sri Aurobindo. I am sure that will be an interesting book and plan to read it as soon as I can get a copy. I had a long discussion over the phone with my publisher friend about the book and I wish I had had that discussion after I had read A New Earth: Awakening to Life’s Purpose. The book is about a subject that was very close to Aurobindo’s heart and central to his thought: the evolution of consciousness.

Speaking about the evolution of human consciousness, Tolle in A New Earth compares it to the first flower appearing on the earth, rocks being transformed into crystals, carbon turning into diamonds and reptilians being transformed into birds.

“What could be heavier and more impenetrable than a rock, the densest of all forms?” he asks. “And yet some rocks undergo a change in their molecular structure, turn into crystals, and so become transparent to the light. Some carbons, under inconceivable heat and pressure, turn into diamonds, and some heavy minerals into other precious stones.

Most crawling reptilians, the most earthbound of all creatures, have remained unchanged for millions of years. Some, however, grew feathers and wings and turned into birds, thus defying the force of gravity that had held them for so long. They didn’t become better at crawling or walking, but transcended crawling and walking entirely. Since time immemorial, flowers, crystals, precious stones, and birds have held special significance for the human spirit. Like all lifeforms, they are, of course, temporary manifestations of the underlying one Life, one Consciousness. Their special significance and the reason why humans feel such fascination for and affinity with them can be attributed to their ethereal quality.”

What a beautiful way to put it! “They didn’t become better at crawling or walking, but transcended crawling and walking entirely.” I loved that.

Spirituality is not always about becoming better at what you do. Yes, spirituality can help you become better at what you do. In fact it can make you a better performer in whatever you do, as I say in my recent article The Buddha in the Business World, available elsewhere on this blog. But that is not the purpose of spirituality. Spirituality is at its heart about transcendence. Any spirituality that does not involve transcendence is spirituality only in name. And much of spirituality today is about becoming better at what you do. There is no harm in it, but that is the function of spirituality at its lowest level. It is like practicing yoga for health. Yoga can definitely improve your health. But that is not its purpose. Improvement in health is more like a side effect – a positive one unlike in the case of modern medicine, the side effects of which are frequently deadlier than the original disease itself for which you take the medicine. For every real master of yoga, whether it is the most ancient acharya of it, Patanjali, or subsequent masters like Swatmarama, the purpose of yoga has been much, much higher than improvement in health.

What Krishna talks about throughout the Bhagavad Gita is transcendence.

Achieving transcendence is the essence of spirituality – its heart, its life, its soul. Without that, spirituality becomes lifeless, soulless.

“Can human beings lose the density of their conditioned mind structures and become like crystals or precious stones, so to speak, transparent to the light of consciousness?” asks Tolle. “Can they defy the gravitational pull of materialism and materiality and rise above identification with form that keeps the ego in place and condemns them to imprisonment within their own personality?” Tolle answers his question: “The possibility of such a transformation has been the central message of the great wisdom teachings of humankind.”

A New Earth: Awakening to Life’s Purpose is about achieving this transformation.

I would disagree with Tolle’s use of one key word, though: transformation. At its heart, Indian spiritual traditions do not accept transformation as the goal of spiritual journeys. Transformation means you have to become something other than what you are now. Indian spirituality says what you have to do is to become what you are – what you really are. And this is done through transcendence, and not through transformation. When you transcend the ego, you become what you really are and what you have always been – your true self.

Indian spirituality even rejects the word becoming, because even that word involves transformation. Instead, it prefers the word awakening: awakening into what you are, what you have always been.

Of course, one could say that too is a transformation. Besides, Tolle is speaking of transformation not only at the individual level, but also at the universal level.


I came across another beautiful thing this morning. Speaking about karma yoga, Sri Ravishankar says: Karma yoga is being in touch with your being and working. It is being in touch with the stillness in you and working. It is being centred and working.

I loved it. Karma yoga is one of the most misunderstood aspects of spirituality and I believe at least in part this happened when the politicians hijacked the word. Karma yoga is not social service, though social service could be done as karma yoga. Karma yoga is not helping the poor and helpless, though helping the poor and helpless could be done as karma yoga. In its true sense, karma yoga is an attitudinal and existential change in the way we work. And that work can be anything. It can be social service, it can be helping the poor, it can be caring for the sick. It can also be fighting a battle and killing, as Krishna asks Arjuna to do in the Gita. It can be running an organization. Even a multinational business, for that matter. Or doing the work of a butcher, or a prostitute, as the ancient stories of Dharmavyadha and Bindumati tell us. What you do is not what counts, it is how you do it. That decides whether it is karma yoga or not. Karma yoga calls for us to look at these two dimensions: the dimension of attitude and the dimension of existence, or being as Ravishankar puts it. At the existential level, you should be in touch with your being, with your centre, with the stillness in you. At the attitudinal level, your aim should be, above all else, spiritual growth. You do it with the attitude of surrender to the Divine, with the attitude that your work is an offering to the Divine. With full and total commitment. Than it is karma yoga.

That is how Krishna puts it in the Gita: svakarmanā tam abhyarchya siddhim vindati manavah. By worshipping Him through his actions, man attains the Supreme. Karma yoga is transforming your work itself into an act of worship. Your work becomes worship when you perform it with the attitude of surrender to the Divine, with the attitude that your work is an offering to the Divine, and you do it with inner stillness, inner centeredness, remaining in touch your being.

There is only one way to get in touch with your being: to transcend your ego.

There is a contradiction here. The aim of spirituality is to get in touch with your being and karma yoga is one of the paths leading to that. But to practice karma yoga, you must already be in touch with your being.

Well, the contradiction is only apparent, not real. Every moment you are still, you are in touch your being. Every moment of inner stillness is a moment when you are in touch with your being. Karma yoga is the path through which you can make that touch with your being lasting. Through karma yoga, and through other spiritual paths, you cultivate stillness. Until that stillness becomes constant, perennial. And when that happens, you are in touch with eternity.

Eternity is stillness. And time is movement, action. When you are able to remain in stillness even when you are in movement, in action, then you are a true master. Then there is action in inaction and inaction in action.

Karmani akarma yah paśyet, akarmani ca karma yah, sa buddhimān manushyeshu, sa yogi kritsnakarmakrt.

Says the Gita: The one who sees inaction in action and action in inaction, he is the intelligent one among men, he is the yogi who has done all he has to do [achieved all he has to achieve].

Yoga is transcending action and reaching inaction even while being active. Yoga is transcending the ego and reaching the Being even when functioning as an individual.

The highest level of transcendence is not when you reach transcendence in meditation. It is when you are in transcendence even while you are actively involved in the world.


Friday, July 3, 2009

Buddha in the Business World 2

[Continued from Buddha in the Business World 1]

Siddhartha first says in Kamaswami’s house as his guest and then begins working for him. “Siddhartha learned many new things; he heard a lot and spoke little. And thinking of Kamala’s words, he was never subservient to the merchant, forced him to treat him as an equal, yes even more than an equal. Kamaswami conducted his business with care and often with passion, but Siddhartha looked upon all of this as if it was a game, the rules of which he tried hard to learn precisely, but the contents of which did not touch his heart.”

Simultaneously, young Siddhartha learns other things too – from Kamala. “Much he learned from her red, smart mouth. Much he learned from her tender, supple hand… Wonderful hours he spent with the beautiful and smart artist, became her student, her lover, her friend.”

Kamaswami soon realizes that while Siddhartha has no real interest in business, he has “that mysterious quality of those people to whom success comes all by itself.” Kamaswami is not sure what exactly it is, but he makes a few observations about Siddhartha and his ways. For one thing, Siddhartha “always seems to be merely playing with business-affairs, they never fully become a part of him, they never rule over him, he is never afraid of failure, he is never upset by a loss.” Also, “that Siddhartha surpassed him, the merchant, in calmness and equanimity, and in the art of listening and deeply understanding previously unknown people.”

On the advice of a friend, under the hope that this would perhaps make Siddhartha take more interest in business, Kamaswami makes him a shareholder in his business, with a share both in his profit and in his loss.

But Siddhartha never takes any more interest in business than he did before. “At one time, he traveled to a village to buy a large harvest of rice there. But when he got there, the rice had already been sold to another merchant. Nevertheless, Siddhartha stayed for several days in that village, treated the farmers for a drink, gave copper-coins to their children, joined in the celebration of a wedding, and returned extremely satisfied from his trip.”

True, Siddhartha can see the commercial advantages of this. “If I’ll ever return there again, perhaps to buy an upcoming harvest, or for whatever purpose it might be, friendly people will receive me in a friendly and happy manner, and I will praise myself for not showing any hurry and displeasure at that time.” But that is not the reason why he spends time with the people. It is not future benefits he has in mind. It is not a business strategy for Siddhartha. He truly values their friendship for its own sake. Among his most cherished memories of the time are that he has gotten to know people and places, received kindness and trust, and found friendship; that children have sat on his knees and farmers have shown him their fields.

Siddhartha values people for themselves and not for their commercial worth. He is genuinely interested in them as people, as human beings.

Like Kamala who wanted to take credit for what she had done to him out of love, Kamaswami too wants to take credit for what Siddhartha had learnt from him, and but his need to take credit is not as innocent as that of Kamala. Siddhartha calls this a joke and tells Kamaswami, “What I’ve learned from you is how much a basket of fish costs and how much interests may be charged on loaned money. These are your areas of expertise. I haven’t learned to think from you, my dear Kamaswami, you ought to be the one seeking to learn from me.”

Again, I want to point out here, it is not ungratefulness. He is just speaking the truth.

Siddhartha is a true brahmana, in the original sense of the term, and Kamaswami, a bania, a businessman in the true sense of the term. The brahmana should not learn the ways of the bania, whereas the bania should learn the ways of the brahmana. When the brahmana learns the ways of the bania, he ceases to be a brahmana but when the bania learns from the brahmana, he becomes a better businessman. Many are the things that a businessman can learn from the brahmana – his serenity, his search for understanding himself, his independence, his freedom, his equanimity in gain and loss, his fearlessness, his art of listening, his ability to understand people, and countless other things.

“The merchant’s attempts to convince Siddhartha that he was eating his, Kamaswami’s, bread were also in vain.”

A brahmana is grateful to people for the things he gets from them. But he also knows they are not the real givers – the true giver is existence itself, life itself. They are mere instruments.

There is a beautiful saying in my mother tongue, Malayalam. Throw a piece of bread to a dog, and it will wag its tail before you all its life. Give an elephant something to eat, it will be grateful to you for sure, but it will not wag its tail before you.

The rich and the powerful in India, the wealthy merchant, the moneylender and the zamindar, have always forced the poor and the powerless to kneel before them and call them their mai-baap and God after throwing a morsel of bread before them – a morsel of bread produced by the poor man’s efforts. But Siddhartha is not one to bend his knees either before money or before power.

“Whether there was a business deal going on which was in danger of failing, or whether a shipment of merchandise seemed to have been lost, or a debtor seemed to be unable to pay, Kamaswami could never convince his partner that it would be useful to utter a few words of worry or anger, to have wrinkles on the forehead, to sleep badly.”

Krishna tells Arjuna in the Gita: sukhaduhkhe same krtvā, labhālābhau jayājāyau tato yuddhāya yujjyasva. “Treating happiness and sorrow, gain and loss, and conquest and defeat with equanimity, get ready for battle.”

Words of immeasurable wisdom! Words that form the very core of Indian philosophy of work!

This is how a warrior battles. He puts his life at stake every time he enters the battlefield and yet he keeps his equanimity. He wants victory, no doubt, but he remains equanimous in victory and defeat; he wants happiness and not sorrow, yet he is equanimous in happiness and sorrow; he wants gain, but he is equanimous in gain and loss.

Every businessman knows it is impossible to beat a rival who is not afraid to lose.

The Kamaswamis of the world and the Siddharthas are made of different stuff. Where the Kamaswamis are under constant threat and insecurities, filled with mistrust and suspicion, the Siddharthas live their lives in festivity and celebration, in utsava bhava. Stress is a way of life for the Kamaswamis, but the Siddharthas dance through their life.

Just as Siddhartha wouldn’t allow Kamaswami to become his master, he wouldn’t allow business affairs to rule over him. Business is not life for him, it is one of the requirements of life, means of earning money.

There is a Sanskrit verse I love – love immensely. Says Janaka, our greatest ancient ideal for the sage king, the rajarshi, in the verse: mithilāyām pradīptāyām na me kinchana naśyati. “If Mithila burns down to ashes, nothing of mine is lost.” No, this is not Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns. Janaka is not a hard-hearted ruler who did not care for his subjects. This is a ruler to whom each of his subjects was like a son. A king with total commitment, total dedication, a paragon of virtues, to whom nothing is more important than the welfare of his people. And yet he could say that, because at one level, he was beyond all these things.

That is exactly what it was all to Siddhartha. To him it was all a game he was playing.

Siddhartha is the sthitaprajna the Gita talks about. Well, almost.

Says the Gita about the sthitaprajna:

yah sarvatrānabhisnehah tattad prāpya shubhāshubham
nābhinandati na dveshti tasya prajnā pratishṭhitā.

A sthitaprajna does not feel the kind of possessive attachment other people feel everywhere. And as good things come to him he does not become overly elated, nor does he grieve it when bad things happen to him.

And that is exactly how we see Siddhartha at this stage in his life. He is muktasangah – free from attachments.

Siddhartha loves. But it is not money Siddhartha loves. It is not things Siddhartha loves. He loves people. “Welcome was the merchant who offered him linen for sale, welcome was the debtor who sought another loan, welcome was the beggar who told him for one hour the story of his poverty and who was not half as poor as any given Samana.” And he treated them all equally. “He did not treat the rich foreign merchant any different than the servant who shaved him and the street-vendor whom he let cheat him out of some small change when buying bananas.”

And Siddhartha loves life. “He visited the beautiful Kamala regularly, learned the art of love in which, more than anything else, giving and taking became one.”

In Siddhartha we find the beautiful ancient ideal of India: balancing dharma, artha and kama. Kama is pleasure; artha is wealth; and dharma is goodness, thought for the other, not exploiting others, giving others at least as much as we take from them.

The lesson Siddhartha learns from Kamala about love is equally applicable to business too. Business is at its best when giving and taking become one. When giving becomes taking and taking becomes giving. So long as the two are different, you are only an inferior businessman.

One day with Kamala, Siddhartha makes an invaluable observation. He tells her, “You are like me; you are different from other people. You are Kamala and no one else, and with you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself, just as I can. Few people have that capacity and yet everyone could have it.’

Siddhartha observes that he, a former samana, and the most famous, the most beautiful, the most talented prostitute of the day are alike.

And he tells her in what way they are both alike. She is Kamala and no one else, just like he is Siddhartha and no one else. Both of them are original people, and not of the faceless masses. Each lives his and her life in his and her own way, and not the way the faceless masses live. They have retained their individuality, their uniqueness.

This is the meaning of the word swadharma at its deepest level. Practicing swadharma means being what you are, living what you are. The dharma of a thing is what makes the thing what it is – dhārayati iti dharmah; dhāranāt dharma ityāhuh; and so on. The dharma of fire is to burn, the dharma of water is to find its level. When fire burns, it is practicing its swadharma; when water seeks its level, it is practicing its swadharma. The swadharma of fire maybe to destroy through burning, and the swadharma of water maybe to nourish through flowing; but when fire destroys through burning, it is practicing its swadharma, just as when water nourishes through flowing, it is practicing its swadharma.

Each one of us is born to practice our dharma, our swadharma. Spiritual growth is possible only when we practice our swadharma. All growth is possible only when we practice swadharma. Practicing swadharma is the highest virtue, says all of Indian culture. The Bhagavad Gita goes to the extent of saying that it is better to die in swadharma than to practice paradharma, what is not one’s dharma; for, terrible is [the practice of] paradharma [in its consequences]: swadharme nidhanam śreyah, paradharmo bhayāvahah.

Swadharma is when you become what you are, when you live what you are. When you become authentically what you are and live an authentic life as what you are.

And such is the stress Indian culture lays on swadharma that it never tires of extolling the virtues of swadharma and telling stories about those who practice their swadharma.

Like the famous story of dharmavyadha, the sagely butcher, that appears in the Mahabharata and is repeated in numerous other places, including the Shukasaptati, where I unexpectedly came across it earlier this morning. He is a butcher by profession, and yet he is a great saint too – saintliness acquired through the practice of swadharma.

One of the most beautiful stories I have come across about swadharma is the lesser known story of Bindumati, a prostitute like Kamala. The story says that one day Emperor Ashoka was taking a walk along the Ganga in Pataliputra. A couple of his ministers were with him, as was Bindumati. As they were walking along, an idle thought occurred to Ashoka and he spoke it out. “I wonder,” he said, “if anyone can turn the current of the mighty Ganga backward.” There was silence for a moment or two and then Bindumati spoke. “If I have your permission, Maharaj,” said the prostitute, “I can turn the Ganga backward.”

Ashoka was stunned. The ministers were stunned. The woman must have gone mad! Who can make the Ganga flow backward!

But Bindumati looked serious. She was waiting for the emperor’s permission.

“Show me,” said Ashoka. “Do it now.”

And, says the story, Bindumati closed her eyes and stood in utter silence for a few moments. The emperor and the ministers watched her and then looked at the Ganga. And they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Mother Ganga was slowing down. The greatest miracle of their life was happening right before their eyes. Soon the Ganga became absolutely still. Like a long, endless lake. There was not a movement in the water.

They all turned back and looked at Bindumati with unbelieving eyes. And when they looked back at the Ganga again, the water had slowly begun flowing backward. And soon the roaring, mighty river was flowing backward with the same power with which it had flowed downward!

“How could you do that?” asked the emperor. It was more a shout than a question.

“Because of the power of my swadharma,” answered Bindumati, in a voice as serene as could be. “I am a prostitute and I practice the dharma of the prostitute with total commitment.”

That is the Indian attitude towards swadharma. About being what you are and living what you are.

And Siddhartha tells Kamala: you are what you are and live what you are, just as I am what I am and live what I am.

That is one thing that makes them unique and separates them from the rest of the people around them.

And, he tells her, another thing: she has within her a stillness, a sanctuary to which she can retreat any time.

An inner sanctuary to which one can retire and cut off the world and be oneself.

I do not think there is anything in life as precious as that.

Every one of us feels the need to have a room of our own, into which we can go and close the doors and be ourselves. Virginia Woolf wrote a book by that name: A Room of One’s Own. I believe it is one of every human being’s basic needs.

I believe the need for solitude is as important a need as the need for self-actualization or self-transcendence or belongingness or the other basic human needs Abraham Maslow speaks about. Personally, it has always been with me. Even as a child, I had this need to spend hours all alone. If I couldn’t do that at home, I walked to solitary places and spent hours there. Like the attic of the gopuram of our village temple – it was a large one with a tall gopuram in south Indian style – where I could spend as many hours as I liked all alone. Or other solitary places in our valley.

And yet I believe the need for an inner sanctuary is perhaps even more important than the need for outer solitude. With that inner sanctuary, you can be in solitude even in the middle of a crowd.

Few people have that. Kamala has that. And so does Siddhartha. Having that most precious of human possessions is another common thing they have between themselves.

Sometimes in my executive training programmes I conduct an exercise in building an inner sanctuary to which a person can retire when he needs it. I think more than anything else, it is this that keeps a man sane. In the absence of that, I believe, there is the chance of our turning insane. We all need occasionally to get Far from the Madding Crowd.

To nourish ourselves. To give time for our souls to catch up with us.

James Truslow Adams writes in Time for the Soul: “A friend of mine, a distinguished explorer who spent a couple of years among the savages of the upper Amazon, once attempted a forced march through the jungle. The party made extraordinary speed for the first two days, but on the third morning, when it was time to start, my friend found all the natives sitting on their haunches, looking very solemn and making no preparation to leave. “They are waiting,” the chief explained to my friend. “They cannot move farther until their souls have caught up with their bodies.””

The modern man has great need to give time for his soul to catch up with him. Particularly men in the business world.

Speaking of sanctuary, Margaret Blair Johnstone says: “It gives more than refuge and release; it gives renewal. Essentially, sanctuary is a means of finding the power to face life on lifted wings. It is this power which enables men to “renew their strength…mount up with wings as eagles…run and not be weary…walk and not faint.”

Sanctuaries are opportunities to get in touch with our inner wisdom, to turn away from the world’s chatter and to listen to our inner silence, the silence of our being, its music. The busier you are, the more you have the need for an inner sanctuary. I do not think anyone has ever needed inner sanctuaries as today’s busy executive does – and the higher his position, the more is his need for a sanctuary.

Having a sanctuary is as important as having a vision and a mission in life, as being motivated and connected with people.


One last thing.

One day Kamala and Siddhartha “played the game of love, one of the thirty or forty different games Kamala knew. Her body was supple like that of a jaguar and a hunter’s bow; whoever learned about love from her, learned many pleasures, many secrets. For a long time, she played with Siddhartha, repulsed him, overwhelmed him, conquered him and rejoiced at her mastery, until he was overcome and lay exhausted by her side.

The courtesan bent over him, took a long look at his face, at his eyes, which had grown tired.

“You are the best lover I have ever had,” she said thoughtfully. “You’re stronger than others, more supple, more willing. You’ve learned my art well, Siddhartha. At some time, when I’ll be older, I’d want to bear your child.””

No one can love as beautifully as a Buddha can love. Or a Buddha-in-the-making can love. Even when it comes to physical love, sexual love.

In business, Siddhartha becomes more effective than Kamaswami, the merchant. In love, Siddhartha becomes the best lover the courtesan Kamala has known.

That is what happens when the Buddha enters the business world. He excels in whatever he does.

To be a Buddha is to excel in everything you do.

Krishna, the Buddha who excelled in everything he did, the great master of yoga, the yogayogeshwara, defines yoga as excellence in action: yogah karmasu kaushalam.

No matter what that action is, you excel in it.


Note: For those who are not familiar with the book, Siddhartha here is not the historical Buddha, though he too is a character in the book, This Siddhartha is a Brahmin youth who leaves home in search of the truth, as the Buddha himself did.