Ancient Indian leadership ethos say that living for his people is what makes one a great leader. Living for them, and if necessary, being ready to die for them.
Once upon a time there lived a large troop of monkeys in a forest. The leader of the troop was Mahakapi, a large monkey, strong and wise, and under his leadership the monkeys lived in great prosperity and security. The leader was well known for his love for his monkeys and care for them. He constantly thought of their welfare and how to safeguard them from dangers that might be waiting for them unawares.
The troop of monkeys had made a huge tree next to a towering mountain cliff their home. Beneath the tree that looked like another mighty mountain flowed a brook that that sang as it rushed downstream and, beyond the mountain and the forest, became a quiet river of crystal water.
As spring came, blossoms appeared on the mighty tree and soon the blossoms turned into young fruits. The whole forest was filled with the fragrance of the blossoms and as the monkeys breathed in the air scented with the perfume of fresh blossoms, it intoxicated them.
Soon the fruits were edible and the monkeys began to pluck them and eat them with relish. They were delicious even when they were green and how delicious they would be when they turned ripe! “What a wonderful feast this would make to my troop then,” thought Mahakapi, watching the monkeys eating the fruits.
He was sitting quietly and watching the monkeys enjoying themselves on a huge branch of the tree that hung over the river. They were jumping from one small branch to another, swinging from twigs, and doing all kind of things that monkeys loved to do. Some were leaping down into the river, some swimming back to climb back to the tree. Monkeys chased monkeys everywhere, shrieking in wild glee. Life was pleasant. Everything was wonderful.
And then a sudden thought flashed through the mind of the leader monkey. In a flash Mahakapi saw a terrifying picture. In the picture, hundreds of his monkeys were lying dead, bathed in blood. Dead bodies were floating in their dozens down the river. Terrorized monkeys were running everywhere, screaming in agony.
The future! The fruits on the branch overhanging the river were going to be the death of his troop! No, he couldn’t allow that.
There was deep concern in Mahakapi’s mind, but he was not one to show his worries to his followers. He knew any sign of the slightest fear in him would send rings of alarm through the whole troop and they would go crazy with terror. There is nothing that a troop of terror-stricken monkeys wouldn’t do. Monkeys are wild by nature and always it was only a thin line that separated them from insanity. Aggression was in their very nature. And in terror every monkey became concerned with only one thing: self-preservation. And once that urge took over, they could do anything, including tear one another apart.
In any case the danger was not immediate.
The leader asked his monkeys to eat up all the fruits on the overhanging branch. “Eat as many of them as you can. But make sure not one fruit falls into the brook. And destroy every remaining one, taking care again that none falls into the brook. A single fruit left on that branch could be our death. A single fruit falling into the stream could spell our death.”
The monkeys could make no sense of what he was saying. Destroy all these delicious fruits! And what would happen if a fruit fell into the river? How could it be their death?
But they trusted their leader. He had proved himself wiser than all of them put together. They knew he could see into the future, whereas they missed even what was happening before their eyes. And his love for them and commitment to their welfare were beyond questioning.
The monkeys ate from the branch as many of the fruits as they could. The remaining ones were destroyed as ordered by Mahakapi, taking care none fell into the brook.
Unknown to them, though, a single fruit escaped the destruction. It was hidden inside a nest of ants and the monkeys missed it. When it was tiny, ants had made a nest around it and protected by the nest, the fruit had grown inside it.
And then what the leader feared happened. Exactly as he had feared it would happen.
Over time, the fruit ripened and one day when a light wind blew it fell into the river.
Beyond the jungle began the outskirts of a city through the heart of which flowed the river. The little brook under the mighty tree in the jungle had become a river by the time it left the mountains and the jungles and reached the plains that made the city. The city was the capital of the kingdom that included the mountains and the forest and vast areas beyond them. The palace of the king was close to the river.
The king and the queens were bathing and sporting in the river when the fruit came floating down. Such was the fragrance of the fruit that it intoxicated the queens instantly. The queens left their sports and there was a race towards the fruit. One of them caught the fruit. She presented it to the king, who took it to the palace with him when their sports and bath were over and they went back.
The fruit was cut and the whole palace was filled with its mouthwatering scent. The king and the queens enjoyed the fruit and they felt the royal meals they had every day was no match to it. They had eaten nothing that tasted so good, nor smelt anything so wonderful. Where could the fruit have come from?
The king decided to go and find out. He was fond of adventures and this would be a new adventure. Such a divine fruit grew in his kingdom and he had no idea of it! No, that had to be rectified. He would locate the tree and when he found it, he was going to declare this fruit a national treasure. Such a wonderful fruit deserved to be a national treasure.
The king took a team of soldiers with him and began the exploration. Crossing the city bounds he entered the jungle and travelled for many days across the thick jungle inhabited by all kinds of wild animals. As he faced the challenges of the jungle and encountered its threats, the king felt he was growing younger. Perhaps the fruit was an omen – an omen of something wonderful going to happen to him. The king felt charged now. Lions, tigers, bears, wolves, nothing scared him anymore. Nor did the sharp thorns and thick vines of the impenetrable forest trouble him.
The river kept growing smaller and eventually became a brook as they began approaching the mountain.
The king smelt the tree long before he came to it. The whole area for miles was filled with the intoxication that was the fragrance of its fruits.
As the king came near, sounds of wild celebrations filled him and his team of soldiers.
And then they saw the tree. A huge tree, as tall as the mountain, its leaves dark green, dominating everything in the surroundings, excepting the mountain. In size and majesty it seemed to vie with the mountain. And the wonderful fruits hung everywhere on the tree – hundreds and hundreds of delicious fruits.
The noise came from the monkeys! There seemed to be a hundred of them on the tree. Maybe, several hundreds! They were swinging from the branches with their tails, chasing one antoher, shrieking and attacking one another in mock fury, only to retreat at the last moment.
Beneath the tree were fruits fallen from the tree. Ripe, golden fruits. Many of them whole and complete, others half eaten by the monkeys.
All on a sudden, a fury filled the king. Such wonderful fruits and monkeys were eating them. Not only eating them, spoiling them too. A national treasure – that is what the fruits were, and the monkeys seemed to have no regard for them. They were treating them like any other fruit.
“Shoot the monkeys down!” ordered the angry king. “Shoot them all down, every one of them!”
Arrows fled everywhere. The king’s soldiers were good. Their arrows never missed. Monkeys started falling down dead everywhere. Many on land, many in the river.
The vision Mahakapi had seen was unfolding before his eyes with terrifying reality. So suddenly that even he did not get time to save his monkeys.
Mahakapi looked around. Soldiers had surrounded the tree and there was no escape.
He had failed his people!
His entire troop was going to be wiped out!
It took a moment for him to make up his mind. A plan took shape in his mind. Then he leapt from the tall branch on which he was sitting. Leapt as no other monkey could leap.
And landed on a bunch of bamboos far away, beyond the clearing around the mighty tree.
There was no escape for the monkeys through the ground. Soldiers stood everywhere, shooting down every monkey in sight. But if they could reach the bamboo bush there was a chance that they might escape to the mountain beyond. The bamboo bush was beyond their reach, true, none of them could leap as far as that, but . . . if only . . .
With all his might, Mahakapi started swaying the bamboo on which he had landed. It was the tallest bamboo in the bush, taller than all others, and stood closest to the tree.
He wanted to make this bamboo a bridge between the fruit tree and the bamboo bush. But no! It was not long enough to reach the tree!
Mahakapi climbed to the tip of the bamboo, as far as he could climb, and began swaying the bamboo wildly. The soldiers noticed what was happening and puzzled, stopped shooting. The king too stood watching it all.
As the bamboo came near the tree, Mahakapi held on to it with his feet as tightly as he could and stretched out his arms. There! He had caught hold of a small branch of three. He shrieked his instructions to the other monkeys and they understood. The whole horde of them ran in his direction from wherever they were on the tree. A bridge had been formed. Part by the bamboo and part by Mahakapi’s body. Monkeys rushed across his body onto the bamboo and away.
Scores of monkeys! Hundreds of monkeys! All in breathless desperation to escape death.
And the bamboo was pulling him away from the tree as it tried to straighten up again.
Mahakapi felt his body being pulled apart. All his ligaments were breaking. And there was blood everywhere, caused by the sharp toenails of the monkeys as they ran across his body frantically.
The soldiers took aim at Mahakapi. Shoot him down and the escape route will be closed. That would be the death of the monkeys.
“Stop!” shouted the king. “Don’t shoot!”
The soldiers lowered their bows and loosened their grip on the bowstrings.
The king stood watching the miracle unfolding before him. He had never seen such a sight. The leader monkey was sacrificing his life to save his people! He held on tightly to the bamboo with his feet and to the fruit tree with his hands, while blood oozed from every part of his body. What a wonderful sight!
Sudden tears welled up in the eyes of the king. He too was a leader of his people. But would he have done what the monkey king was doing?
The king ordered the soldiers to hold a net under the king monkey. Then he ordered his men to cut down with arrows both the branch of the tree which Mahakapi was holding on to and the bamboo. “Cut down both in the same instant,” he ordered.
Mahakapi fell into the net unconscious.
When he came to, he was surrounded by the king and his solders. Other monkeys were watching them from the safety of the bamboos. The solders had applied balms to his broken body and slowly life was returning to him.
When Mahakapi recovered somewhat, the king asked him, “Why did you do it? Why did you risk your own life to save the other monkeys?”
“I am their leader,” answered Mahakapi. “Putreshu iva eteshu avabaddha-haardah.” “I am bound to them in my heart as though they are my own sons.”
“But it is the duty of the ministers and others to serve the king, and not the other way round. He is the master, not they. Isn’t that so?”
Adhipaartham amaatyaadi, na tadartham maheepatih.
Mahakapi’s answer to this is an important lesson to every leader at all times. He said: “That is what the science of politics ordinarily says. But that is not my way. I cannot do that.”
“As for me,” says Mahakapi, “even death in serving my people is a pleasure. They have served me all their life, and now when I serve them, I am doing no more than paying a debt back to them and becoming free of that debt [poorvopakaara-anrnataa].
“Yugyam balam jaanapadaan amaatyaan
Pauraan anaathaan shramanaan dvijaateen
Sarvaan sukhena prayateta yoktum
Hitaanukoolena piteva raajaa.”
“It is the duty of a king to work constantly to make his horses, army, citizens, ministers, common subjects, orphans, bhikshus, brahmanas, and all others happy as a father tries to make his children happy.”
This has been the Indian leadership ideal throughout time. The king looks upon his subjects as a father looks upon his children. The leader looks after his people as a father looks after his children. And does everything he can to protect them, to make their lives meaningful and happy. And, if it calls for that, sacrifices himself in the call of his duty.
Another role model Indian culture sets up before the leader is that of a pregnant woman. Just as she lives day and night for the baby in her womb, forgetting all her self-interests, so should a leader look after the interests of his people forgetting his own self-interests, says the Mahabharata, speaking of the leadership ideal.
Yatha hi garbhinee hitvaa svam priyam manaso’nugam
Garbhasya hitam aadhatte tathaa rajnaapyasamshayam
Vartitavyam kurushreshtha sadaa dharmaanuvartinaa
Svam priyam tu parityajya yat lokahitam bhavet.
It is for this reason that Chanakya says in the Arthashastra: “To a king, the religious vow is his readiness to action; satisfactory discharge of duties is his performance of sacrifice; equal attention to all is the offer of fees. In the happiness of his subjects lies his happiness; in their welfare his welfare; whatever pleases himself he shall not consider as good, but whatever pleases his subjects he shall consider as good.”
Performance of his duty to his people is the highest religion of a leader. He does not need any other religious practice.
The Indian word for duty and religion are one: dharma.
Note: This story is a retelling of the Mahakapi Jataka, one of the hundreds of Jataka tales, all dealing with the previous lifetimes of the Buddha, in each of which he sacrifices himself for others. It is these sacrifices lifetime after lifetime that eventually gives him birth as Gautama Siddhartha who becomes the Buddha. The Sanskrit quotations are from the text of Bodhisattva-Avadhana-Mala of Aryasura. My translations/free renderings into English.