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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?



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