Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mahabharata: Leadership, Integrity and Courage

There is no integrity without courage. And there is no leadership without integrity.

Hearing that the Pandavas have lost their kingdom and everything else they possessed and are now living in the forest, Krishna rushes to the jungle to meet them there,along with several other Vrishnis. Apart from Krishna and the Vrishnis, several Bhoja, Andhaka, Chedi and Panchala leaders, including Draupadi’s brother Dhrishtadyumna also reach there. Addressing the Pandavas in that anger and sorrow filled atmosphere, Krishna speaks these fiery words: “The earth shall drink the blood of Duryodhana, Karna, Dusshasana and the wicked Shakuni! Slaying them and their followers and royal allies in battle, we shall install Yudhishthira the just on the throne! The wicked deserve to be slain! Verily, this is eternal dharma.”

As at all other times in his life, Krishna has no confusion about what his dharma is and what he should do. And he has no fear in speaking out his mind. He is a man who has never known fear – certainly not the kind of fear that numbs a man into inactivity, silences his words and forces him into meek submission.

The Mahabharata tells us that as he spoke these words, Krishna got into such a rage that it looked like he would consume the whole earth in the fire of his anger and Arjuna had to pacify him. But it was not to pacify Krishna that the fire-born Draupadi wanted. Shivering in humiliation and anger, she spoke to the only man she called her friend. “O Krishna,” she said,“ how could one like me, the wife of Kunti’s sons, the sister of Dhrishtadyumna, and your friend, be dragged to the assembly! Alas, during my monthly period, stained with blood, with but a single cloth on, trembling all over, and weeping, I was dragged to the court of the Kurus! Beholding me, stained with blood in the presence of those kings in the assembly, the wicked sons of Dhritarashtra laughed at me! O slayer of Madhu, while the sons of Pandu and the Panchalas and the Vrishnis lived, they dared express the desire of using me as their slave! Oh, fie on the might of Bhimasena! Fie on the Gandiva of Arjuna! For, O Janardana, they both suffered me to be thus disgraced by small men!”

Draupadi then in a long speech recounts one by one all the dark deeds of Duryodhana and his men against the Pandavas, beginning with the attempt to poison Bhima while they were still children. As she wailed aloud recalling her grief before Krishna, the epic tells us, Panchali’s “tears washed her large, graceful breasts crowned with auspicious marks.” Wiping her eyes and sighing frequently she concludes angrily in a choked voice, 'Husbands, or sons, or friends, or brothers, or father, have I none! Nor have I thee, O thou slayer of Madhu, [na eva me patayah santi na putraa madhusuudana; na bhraataro na ca pitaa na eva tvam na ca baandhavaah] for ye all, beholding me treated so cruelly by inferior foes, sit still unmoved! My grief at Karna's ridicule is incapable of being assuaged! I deserve to be protected by you, Krishna, for four reasons: we are related, you respect me, we are friends and you have the power to.”

When she stops, Krishna speaks, promising vengeance and justice to her. “Fair Draupadi,” he says, “the wives of those with whom you are angry shall weep even as you do, beholding their husbands dead on the ground, weltering in blood and their bodies covered with the arrows of Arjuna! Weep not, Draupadi! I promise you: you shall be a queen once again! The heavens might fall, the Himalayas might split, the earth might be rent, the waters of the ocean might dry up, but my words shall never be futile!”

Having spoken these words and pacified his friend Draupadi, Krishna explains to the Pandavas and their friends and relatives assembled there why he failed to save Draupadi and them in their moment of humiliation.

Addressing Yudhishthira, he says: “O lord of earth, if I had been present at Dwaraka, then, this evil would not have befallen thee! And coming to the gambling-match, even if uninvited by Dhritarashtra or Duryodhana, or by the other Kauravas, I would have prevented the game from taking place. I would have done this by showing its many evils, summoning to my aid Bhishma and Drona and Kripa and Bahlika! And, O foremost of kings, if he had rejected my gentle counsels offered as medicine, then I would have compelled him by force! And, if those who wait at his court, professing to be his friends but are in reality his foes, had supported him, then I would have slain them all, along with those gamblers, there present! It is owing to my absence from the Anartta country at that time, O Yudhishthira, that you fell into such distress begotten by dice! O you best of Kurus, O son of Pandu, on arriving at Dwaraka I learnt from Yuyudhana all about your calamity! And, O foremost of kings, directly on hearing it, I came here with a heart sorely agitated by grief to see you and your brothers!”

[Later answering the question why he was away from Dwaraka, Krishna explains he was busy fighting a battle with the king of Saubha and that is what prevented him from helping them in time.]

So this is what Krishna says: The dice game was evil. Had he known about the dice game, he would have come to Hastinapura – uninvited, if necessary. And he would have pleaded with Dhritarashtra, the king, to stop it. He would have taken the help of Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and Bahlika to plead to Dhritarashtra. And if Dhritarashtra hadn’t listened to him, he would have used force. If it came to that, he would have killed everyone who stood in his way.

Krishna’s words are bold and fearless. There is no equivocation here, no hesitation, no ambiguity. Evil has to be stopped and if force, if violence, has to be used for stopping evil, he would do that.

The ancient Indian ideal, represented by the Vedic Indra [not the Pauranic Indra] is active resistance to evil. Krishna is a reincarnation of that ideal. Try peaceful means, risk your very life for achieving justice through peaceful means, and nothing else works, take up weapons to destroy evil.

Krishna shows here the highest ideals in integrity and courage as a leader of men. And it is this courage and integrity that makes him a true leader. And I have not the least doubt: Krishna would have acted exactly as he spoke. He would have gone there and negotiated with Dhritarashtra and his sons. And if they hadn’t listened to them, he would have taken up weapons and finished them all off. We are talking not only of the greatest leader of the time, but also of the greatest warrior of the age: None, not Bhishma, not Drona, not Arjuna, not Karna was an equal to Krishna in battle – a fact that we often overlook.

Speaking of leadership, contemporary author DM Wolfe says in his Six Dimensions of Leadership that one of the hallmarks of great leadership is great courage and integrity, a statement that all modern leadership studies agree with. Without courage and integrity, no leadership is possible.


Now let’s take a look at what actually happened in the royal hall of Hastinapura where the dice game took place and where Draupadi was humiliated as no women in Indian culture has been before or since.

The dice hall of the Mahabharata. The dice game between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is about to begin. While on the Pandava side Yudhishthira himself is playing, on the other side it is Duryodhana’s uncle Shakuni that plays for him. The Mahabharata tells us repeatedly that it is a deceitful game that is being played – it is not however clear whether the game of dice itself is deceitful or the way this game is being played is deceitful. There is also the possibility that what is wrong is an expert like Shakuni playing against a novice like Yudhishthira – as in battles, in dice too the times expected you to play with your equals. The Mahabharata suggests all three possibilities. Besides, the epic gives no details of how exactly the game was played – all we know is that Yudhishthira stakes his possessions one after the other and every time Shakuni takes up the dices in hand and then cries out, “Jitam.” Just that one word jitam, meaning ‘Won!’

tato jagraaha zakunis taan akSaan akSatattvavit
jitam ity eva zakuni yudhiSThiram abhaaSata

Then [after Yudhishthira had made the stakes] Shakuni, skilled in dice, picked up the dices [and then] told Yudhishthira, “Won!”

The first stake of Yudhishthira is an excellent wealth of pearls of great value, procured from the ocean by churning it (of old), so beautiful and decked with pure gold. He loses it. Then he stakes several jars each full of a thousand Nishkas, inexhaustible gold, and much silver and other minerals and loses them. The next stake is his chariot, which he says is equal to a thousand chariots. He loses that too. After that he stakes and loses one after the other a hundred thousand serving-girls; thousands of serving men; one thousand musty elephants with golden girdles, decked with ornaments; one thousand chariots, along with their drivers and warriors attached to each, a large number of chosen horses, ten thousand chariots and carts drawn by draught animals; sixty-thousand chosen warriors; then four hundred jewels of great value.

Yudhishthira is now like one possessed – and such indeed is the dice game. He is wagering one by one everything he has like a mad man. A great disaster is unfolding in the hall. Dhritarashtra of course approves of what is going on. He is in fact delighted at it. Since he cannot see by himself, he keeps asking, “Have I won it? Have I won it?” But Bhishma is watching it. So are Drona and Kripa, Ashwatthama and Bahlika and the large number of assembled kings and princes. All of them disapprove of it, but no one shows the courage to speak out against it.

In the entire Kaurava assembly, there is only one person who shows integrity and the courage to speak against it. No, it is not grandsire Bhishma, it is not guru Drona or Kripa, it is not Aswatthama, it is not Bahlika, it is certainly not Dhritarashtra who is supposed to have the interests of his younger brother’s children in his heart. It is none of the assembled kings. It is Vidura. But no one supports him and Duryodhana shouts at him and silences him.

The game continues. Shakuni asks Yudhishthira if there is anything else left with him. This is what Yudhishthira says, “O Shakuni, I know that I have untold wealth. But why is it that you ask me of my wealth? Let tens of thousands and millions and millions and tens of millions and hundreds of millions and tens of billions and hundreds of billions and trillions and tens of trillions and hundreds of trillions and tens of quadrillions and hundreds of quadrillions and even more wealth be staked by thee. I have as much. With that wealth, O king, I will play with thee."

This is not a sane man speaking. He has obviously lost all self-mastery over himself. He has lost touch with reality.

The next moment we hear Shakuni announcing, “Won!”

Yudhishthira then stakes “immeasurable kine and horses and milch cows with calves and goats and sheep” and loses them. Then he wagers his city, his country, the land and the wealth of all dwelling therein except of the Brahmanas. Next comes the turn of the ornaments his brothers are wearing. And then it is his brothers themselves. First Nakula, then Sahadeva, then Arjuna, and then Bhima. And finally, he stakes himself.

Then the unbelievable happens. Yudhishthira does what not even a common street gambler does. He wagers his wife, his queen, the proud Draupadi, whose praises he sings in ecstatic words before he stakes her.

Of course she too is lost. For the first time the assembly speaks. “Shame, shame!” they cry out in horror.

Duryodhana commands Vidura to go to the women’s apartments whether Draupadi is and bring her to the assembly – she is now his slave, he announces. Vidura does not move from his place. He shows the courage to openly defy Duryodhana’s power. Not only does he defy Duryodhana’s order, he shouts at Duryodhana, calling him a wretch who is behaving like a dog. This at a moment that Duryodhana considers the moment of his greatest victory. And publicly in Duryodhana’s own assembly, amidst his friends who are intoxicated with their evil victory.

But he is the only one who shows the courage to do so. Bhishma sits perspiring but silent, Drona sits perspiring but silent, and so do all the other elders. Not one of them shows the courage to speak up in the presence of the power-intoxicated Duryodhana.

There is nothing that Duryodhana can do against the fearless Vidura. He turns to an attendant, the pratikamin, to go and fetch Draupadi. Draupadi refuses to come and instead, asks Yudhishthira a question through the pratikamin: “Did he stake her after he lost himself or before that? Implying, if it was after he had lost himself, then he had no right to do so and she was not a slave.

The pratikamin comes back and asks the question. Duryodhana commands him to go back and tell her to come to the assembly and ask her question herself. Again Draupadi refuses to come. Instead, she asks the pratikamin to go back to the assembly and put the question to the elders in the assembly.

Not one of the elders in the assembly has one word to say in response to Draupadi’s question. Duryodhana commands the pratikamin to go back a third time and bring Draupadi to assembly. Instead of obeying him, the pratikamin turns to the assembly and asks Draupadi’s question again.

Such is the horror unfolding in the assembly that even an ordinary officer of the court gathers the courage to defy Duryodhana. True, it is partly also because he does not have the courage to face Draupadi a third time. But he does defy Duryodhana before whom he has no power.

But none of the powerful kshatriyas present in the assembly has the courage to speak up for Draupadi! Not even Bhishma and Drona!

Now Duryodhana sends his brother Dusshasana to bring Draupadi by force to the assembly. She begs Dusshasana to let her go, she is having her monthly period and according to custom wearing a single piece of cloth, she is not in a position to come before into the assembly. Dusshasana does not relent. Seeing that Draupadi turns around and runs towards where the Kuru women are. Dusshasana now catches hold of her by her hair and drags her into the assembly. Part of the cloth she is wearing slips away from her in their struggle and in that condition she is dragged all the way from her apartment to the dice hall.

A weeping, wailing, shaking Draupadi, with part of her cloth slipped away from her, is brought into the assembly in the dice hall. Dusshasana calls her a slave and Duryodhana, Karna and Shakuni applaud him. But still none present in the assembly has the courage to speak a word against Duryodhana or the evil that is unfolding before their eyes. Not one of them takes a step to put an end to the shameful horror.

Draupadi again asks her question: is she a slave or not? Now Bhishma speaks for the first time. This is what he says: “O blessed one, morality is subtle. I am therefore unable to duly decide this point that thou hast put, beholding that on the one hand one that hath no wealth cannot stake the wealth belonging to others, while on the other hand wives are always under the orders and at the disposal of their lords.”

Bhishma is right. He knows with certainly that Draupadi has now become enslaved to Duryodhana. In fact, Yudhishthira did not even have to wager her. She had become Duryodhana’s slave the moment Yudhishthira became Duryodhana’s slave. By the rules of the day in India, as over practically the entire world, a wife was a husband’s property and when he became a slave, she too became a slave. Besides, a slave had no property rights and whatever was his, belonged to his master, including his wife and children. In not directly saying Draupadi was not a slave, in equivocating, Bhishma was actually being kind to Draupadi.

But that was not the issue. The real issue was not whether Draupadi was technically a slave or not. The issue was what was happening in the Kaurava assembly. The issue was of a woman being publicly humiliated in an assembly as kshatriyas, whoever she was. And the kshatriya code all over the world said a woman begging for protection deserved to be protected even at the risk of one’s own life. It was this basic kshatriya code that everyone in the assembly failed to live up to. And in this case, that woman was the eldest daughter-in-law of the house, a princess by birth, a queen sanctified by the rajasooya sacrifice, a woman who had committed no crime, no sin.

Why did Bhishma fail to see this truth? Why did Drona, Kripa, Ashwtthama, Bahlika and others fail to see the truth?

And why did the Pandava brothers themselves fail to see this truth? True, they had become slaves. But aren’t there things even a slave can, and should, protest against? Couldn’t the slave Arjuna’s Gandiva still have spelled terror for the wicked? Couldn’t the slave Bhima’s muscles still have terrified the wicked?

Becoming a slave is one thing. Accepting slavery is another thing. There are slaves who meekly submit to slavery. And there are slaves who fight for justice even in slavery, who stand with their heads held high even in slavery.

I see this as a sign of the disease that had infected the entire kshatriya class of the day. Rather than standing up for justice, they had learnt to bend their knees before insolent might.

There is a beautiful prayer by Rabindranath Tagore that I love. A line in the prayer says: “Give me the strength never to . . . bend my knees before insolent might.”

What was on display for all to see was insolent might. Pure and shameless insolent might. And the kshatriyas there bent their knees before it.

There is a popular belief that both Krishna and Draupadi were born to destroy the kshatriya race of the day. If it is true, it should be because this is what had become of the kshatriyas of the day. Kshatriyas are meant to be leaders of men and leaders of men require courage and integrity. And the men in that assembly lacked courage and integrity.

Imagine Krishna being present in that assembly. What would he have done? Would he have sat there silently like Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, Bahlika and other elders, perspiring and helpless? Or would he have invoked his Sudarshana?

Krishna himself answers the question in the Vana Parva of the epic when he meets the Pandavas and Draupadi in the jungle. If nothing else worked, he would have turned the assembly into a river of blood. He would have killed off every single person there who stood with evil.

Which is what makes Krishna the supreme leader of the age. He fought against the insolent might of Kamsa while he was still a boy. As an adult he would destroy adharma wherever he found it, be it in the mighty Jarasandha, in the powerful Kalayavana, in the cunning Paundraka Vasudeva, or anywhere else.

Leadership means integrity and courage to act. Without integrity and courage to act there can be no leadership.

The day these leaders of men failed to speak up for justice was one of the most shameful days for Hastinapura. Barring Vidura, and Vikarna who would later speak up, everyone else there proved not to be a leader.

Darker things would happen in the assembly on that day. But no leader would emerge in the dice hall. The men assembled there lacked the courage that a leader requires. And without courage, no other virtue is a virtue.

C.S. Lewis put it beautifully: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”

There was no virtue among the kshatriyas in the dice hall on that day because there was no courage.


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