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Devapi: Leadership, Power, Responsibility

The Brihad Devata tells us the story of Devapi. According to the story, Devapi was the elder son of emperor Rishishena. Shantanu, the Kuru-Bharata emperor of the Mahabharata fame and the father of Bhishma, was his younger brother. Devapi was brave, skilled, competent, learned, generous and filled with every imaginable quality desirable in a great leader of men. When Rishishena died, people wanted Devapi to become king. They loved him dearly and were sure he would make a great king. In fact, it appears that the people made him king – for the Brihad Devata tells us: rajyena chhandayamasuh prajaah svargam gate gurau , meaning, they crowned him king at the death of his father. The statement could, though, mean that they chose him for their king.

In ancient India, the traditional relation between even a hereditary king and his subjects was not that of an autocrat and his helpless victims. The people had a lot of say in the choice of the king. In the Ramayana we see Dasharatha calling for a meeting of all important citizens and seeking their approval for the appointment of Rama as the crown prince. The Mahabharata says: “The PEOPLE MAKE such a person their king who is liberal, who shares all objects of enjoyment with others, who is possessed of a mild disposition, who is of pure behaviour, and who will never abandon his subjects,” which suggests that the decision, at least in part, depended on the people. The Mahabharata also says that “That king who acts according to the counsels of a vicious and sinful minister becomes a destroyer of righteousness and deserves TO BE SLAIN BY HIS SUBJECTS WITH ALL HIS FAMILY.”

There is a possibility that later when Krishna was battling to establish dharma among the kings of India, he was trying the root out the autocratic tendencies that were spreading among the rulers like Kamsa, Jarasandha, Kalayavana and so on.

Though people chose him for their king, Devapi refused the position. He pointed out to them that he had a serious skin disease and for that reason he would not be able to show total commitment to his duties. He felt the kingdom should go to his younger brother Shantanu. He told his subjects: na rajyam aham arhami, nripatir vo’stu shantanuh – “I do not deserve the kingdom; let Shantanu be your king.”

When Devapi thus refused kingship and stuck to his refusal, the people made Shantanu their king.

Was Devapi unfit to be king according to the ancient Indian tradition? Is that the reason why he refused the crown? It appears no. His refusal to accept the position was really on ethical grounds and not because the tradition said so. It was a voluntary decision on his part to step down – perhaps he felt that because of his severe skin condition, he may not be able to devote as much time and energy to his job as it deserves. He saw kingship as a responsibility and not as a source of power or privilege. And, besides, Shantanu had every quality that would make for a great king.

The Brihad Devata story itself tells that he was not disqualified by the tradition. In fact, the story tells us that after Shantanu became king, for several years no rains came to the kingdom, though Shantanu was a virtuous ruler and ruled competently, spending all his energy for the good of his people. Kings and people alike in those days believed that if something wrong happened in a kingdom, it was the king who was responsible. If the king was virtuous, nothing could wrong – there would be no deceases in the kingdom, no untimely deaths, the harvests shall not fail, seasons would not err, there would be no crime and so on. Shantanu was sure he must have done something wrong, though he had no idea what it could be, in spite of all his reflection on the matter. He could not recall a single occasion when he had taken a wrong step, not even in words or thoughts. How could the rains have failed then? He consulted the wise men of the kingdom and they told him he had indeed committed a grave sin: he had sat on the throne while his elder brother was alive and in every way qualified.

Shantanu asked the wise man what he could do now to rectify things. And they told him he should give the kingdom back to his elder brother.

Shantanu had no problem with this. He was not greedy for power or position. The years he had ruled hadn’t gone to his head. Power hadn’t corrupted him. And to him too, as the noble kshatriya code he lived by taught him, leadership was not a privilege, leadership was not a power game, but a responsibility. A leader lived not for himself, but for his people.

Shantanu happily agreed to step down if that would be good for the kingdom and people. His only interest was the good of the people.

The Indian tradition considers that a man has five mothers: svamata, patnimata, bhratripatni, gurupatni, rajapatni – one’s own mother, one’s wife’s mother, one’s [elder] brother’s wife, one’s guru’s wife and the king’s wife. The king’s wife was considered a mother because the king was considered one’s father. And that precisely was the attitude of the king to his people – that of a father to his children. It is said about Rama, who in many ways set the highest standards for public leadership in India, that he invariably enquired “about the well-being of the citizens, as well as their children, wives, sacrifices, servants and students, as if they were his own relatives, as a father would about his own sons” every time he came back to Ayodhya after being away from there. “When people are in difficulty he becomes sorely distressed and he delights in all their celebrations as if he were their father,” says the Ramayana about him.

To Shantanu, his people were his children and their interest was his greatest interest.

Devapi had been living in the jungles near Hastinapura ever since he left the crown. He had been devoting all his time to meditation and other religious practices. Shantanu went to his elder brother, accompanied by his ministers and men of learning and wisdom who served the kingdom. The king placed his crown at the feet of his elder brother and begged him to take over.

Devapi’s decision to abandon the crown was not a rash decision, taken in a moment of sentimentality. He truly believed that because of his disease he will not be able to do full justice to the job and the kingdom and the people deserved a king who will devote all his time and energy to their welfare. And that is what Devapi told Shantanu, the ministers and the brahmanas. He told them: na rajyam arhami, tvagroga-upahatah - “I am not fit to sit on the throne, because of this terrible skin disease that is killing me.”

Shantanu could not agree with his elder brother. “The very elements want you to be king,” he told Devapi. “They cry out for you. The earth and the skies cry out for you. That is why the rains do not come. All your subjects cry out to you too. You have no choice but to listen to them.”

According to the Indian tradition, the greatest leader is one whom the very elements cry out for, whom Earth itself seeks as her ruler. The Ramayana tells us that Rama was such a leader. Dasharatha had suggested to his people that they should now have Rama as the crown prince. When the people agreed delightedly, he asked them why they wanted Rama as the crown prince. One of the several reasons given by them was that “the Earth desired him as her Lord.”

Devapi had no doubts he had taken the right decision. And yet the rains had failed. The people for whose sake he had given up the crown was now suffering. He closed his eyes and meditated upon the matter. And then he said, “The solution is that a yajna be performed to please the elements.”

Devapi does the Vedic sacrifice and everything ends wonderfully for all.

Perhaps the gods are appeased by the knowledge that Shantanu has no power hunger and it is not because of hunger for power that he sat on the throne on which his elder brother should sit.


It is a beautiful story that illustrates ancient Indian ethos in leadership. India said repeatedly and categorically: leadership is not a privilege, it is a responsibility. A responsibility that requires total commitment. In much later days, in the fourth century BC, Chanakya would say that the king need not perform any other religious ritual than performing his duty to his people with total commitment. That was his yajna, and that was enough.

Devapi gives up position because he will not be able to perform the duties involved with total commitment. But two generations later, we have Dhritarashtra whose story tells us what happens when leaders take power as a privilege rather than as a responsibility. He too had a disability, but in his case it was not his decision to give up power. Perhaps he did not have the magnanimity to do it. Instead he had to be told by others that he was not fit to sit on the throne, because he was blind and a blind king cannot fulfil his duties to his people effectively. There is no reason to believe that Dhritarashtra was happy about this. And the moment he gets an opportunity later, he takes over power. He not only takes over power, but he wants it to go to his son after him, even though he is not fit to rule on ethical grounds. The whole tragedy of the Mahabharata happens because he refuses to part with power and hand it over to someone who can do full justice to it.

Interestingly, in a too late attempt to persuade his son Duryodhana to part with power evilly acquired, Dhritarashtra himself tells him the story of Devapi. And the story he tells is very different from the story the Brihad Devata tells us. In his version of the story, found in the Mahabharata, what happens to Devapi is what happened to him. Like him, Devapi too was deprived of power by others.

Here is Dhritarashtra’s version of the story, in Ganguli’s translation. In this story, the father of Shantanu and Devapi is Pratipa, which could have been another name for Rishishena.

“Even the eldest son may be passed over and deprived of the kingdom, and younger sons may, in consequence of their respectful behaviour to the aged, obtain the kingdom. So also, conversant with every virtue there was my father’s grandfather, king Pratipa, who was celebrated over the three worlds. Unto him, were born three sons, Of them, Devapi was the eldest, Bahlika the next and Santanu of great intelligence, who was my grandfather, was the youngest. Devapi, endued with great energy, was virtuous, truthful in speech, and ever engaged in waiting upon his father.

“But that best of kings had a skin-disease. Popular with both the citizens and the subjects of the provinces, respected by the good, and dearly loved by the young and the old, Devapi was liberal, firmly adhering to truth, engaged in the good of all creatures, and obedient to the instructions of his father as also of the Brahmanas. He was dearly loved by his brother Bahlika as also the high-souled Shantanu. Great, indeed, was the brotherly love that prevailed between him and his high-souled brothers.

“In course of time, the old and best of kings, Pratipa, caused all preparations to be made according to the scriptures for the installation of Devapi (on the throne). Indeed, the lord Pratipa caused every auspicious preparation. The installation of Devapi, however, was forbidden by the Brahmanas and all aged persons amongst the citizens and the inhabitants of the provinces. Hearing that the installation of his son was forbidden, the voice of the old king became choked with tears and he began to grieve for his son.

“Thus, though Devapi was liberal, virtuous, devoted to truth, and loved by the subjects, yet in consequence of his skin-disease, he was excluded from his inheritance. The gods do not approve of a king that is defective of a limb. Thinking of this, those bulls among Brahmanas forbade king Pratipa to install his eldest son. Devapi then, who was defective of one limb, beholding the king (his father) prevented (from installing him on the throne) and filled with sorrow on his account, retired into the woods. As regards Bahlika, abandoning his (paternal) kingdom he dwelt with his maternal uncle. Abandoning his father and brother, he obtained the highly wealthy kingdom of his maternal grandfather. With Bahlika’s permission, Shantanu of worldwide fame, on the death of his father (Pratipa), became king of Kuru Kingdom.”


One of the highest examples in leadership comes to us from the Ramayana. Bharata, though the kingdom was his according to a promise given by Dasharatha to his maternal grandfather at the time of Dasharatha’s marriage to Bharata’s mother Kaikeyi, refuses to accept it even when it is forced upon him by his mother, considering Rama the rightful and more competent ruler. Eventually he agrees to look after the kingdom on Rama’s behalf until he returns from forest after fourteen years. And Bharata, without enjoying any of the privileges that comes with power, rules the kingdom for fourteen years. It is said that Rama on his return found the kingdom nine times richer than when he had left it. Bharata was not an incompetent ruler by any standards!

The Indian perception of leadership as a responsibility rather than a privilege is an invaluable insight that the world filled with power greed desperately needs today. Corruption begins the moment a leader considers leadership as a privilege, and corruption ends when leaders treat leadership as a sacred responsibility. This lesson has great relevance in today’s political world. It has equal relevance in today’s business and industry too, where greed for power is unfortunately universal, causing great damage to the organizations as well as to the society and the nation at large.


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