Sunday, November 7, 2010

Need: Where Do We Draw the Lakshman Rekha

Following a class presentation by students in a course in Leadership Excellence that I teach at XLRI School of Business and Human Resources, we were discussing some aspects of the presentation in my previous class when a student raised a very significant question: When do we say enough when it comes to needs? Where do we draw the line? In other words, when does need become greed? Is there a Lakshman Rekha to needs within which we are safe and happy, crossing which we suffer?

There is a story by Leo Tolstoy that comes to mind when I think of this question. It is a beautiful story – one which James Joyce described in a letter to his daughter as the most beautiful story ever written by man. Joyce must have been in a particularly impressionable mood when he read the story and wrote that line, but the story is without a doubt powerful.

The story is about a farmer called Pahom. He was a small farmer in a Russian village, unhappy about his lot. When he heard that a lady who lived close to his village was selling her estate, Pahom becomes interested. At the news that one of his neighbours, another poor farmer like himself, was buying some of it, Pahom becomes restless. "Other people are buying," he tells his wife, "and we must also buy some of it. Life is becoming impossible without our own land." So they put their heads together and consider how they could buy part of land. Eventually they sell a colt they had, half of their honey bees, and hires out one of their sons as a labourer, taking his wages in advance and borrow some. He is thus able to manage half the purchase money and bought forty acres of land, on condition that the remainder would be paid in two years.

Pahom had his own land now and everything is fine. With borrowed seeds he sows the land. The harvest is good. Rather than paying back the remaining money in two years, he is able to do it in one year.

Pahom is well contented and everything works beautifully until one day he hears that many people are moving away from the village to other places. His initial reaction is to realize what a good opportunity that would be for him: he could buy their land at cheap prices and make his land bigger.

Before this could be done, however, one day a stranger comes to his home as a guest – a peasant who was passing through his village. Over dinner they sit and talk and from him Pahom learns that he is from beyond the Volga and many people from Pahom’s village have settled there. “The land is so good,” the peasant tells Pahom, “the rye sown on it grows as high as a horse, and so thick that five cuts of a sickle made a sheaf.” One peasant, he says, “had brought nothing with him but his bare hands, and now he has six horses and two cows of his own.”

Pahom’s heart leaps in delight at what he had hears. This is where he would go. He does not want to rot the rest of his life in his small village.

He goes to the place beyond the Volga to find out. The news turns out to be true. They have formed a farmer’s commune there and each farmer who joins the commune is given twenty-five acres of fertile communal land for his use. Besides, anyone who had money could buy as much freehold land as he wanted dirt cheap.

Pahom sells everything he had and reaches the commune across the Volga. He is given five shares of communal land, against his own name and that of his sons – one hundred and twenty-five acres in all

However, he soon gets used to his one hundred and twenty-five acres and begins to think that he does not have enough. The land he is farming was communal land and he wants to own land – his own freehold land. His mind constantly dwells on that thought now. And then he hears of an opportunity to buy a huge piece of land – thirteen hundred acres – being sold cheap. He begins negotiations to buy it and almost finalizes the deal for fifteen hundred roubles when a passing dealer happens to stop at Pahom’s. From his conversations with the dealer, Pahom learns of the far away land of the Bashkirs where recently the dealer has bought thirteen thousand acres for a mere one thousand roubles.

In fact, the land is free, he learns. All one has to do is to make friends with the chief of the Bashkirs by giving him some gifts – like a dressing gown, a packet of tea, some wine, maybe a few carpets and so on. The land is near a river and the soil, virgin.

Pahom forgets all about the deal he had almost made and reaches the land of the Bashkirs taking the gifts with him.

The Bashkirs are very simple people who live a life of ease and comfort without possessions in their vast land which gives them all they need without any toil. The chief is pleased with the gifts and offers him all the land he needed. “Choose whatever piece of land you like and it will be yours,” he tells him.

But Pahom is cautious. "How can I take as much as I like?" he thinks. "I must get a deed to make it secure, or else they may say, 'It is yours,' and afterwards may take it away again."

The chief agrees to make over to him the land he chooses through legal documents. The price would be one thousand roubles for all the land he can measure out in a single day.

Pahom is surprised. "But in a day you can get round a large tract of land," he says. The chief laughs. "It will all be yours!" he says. "But there is one condition: If you don't return on the same day to the spot whence you started, your money is lost."

That night Pahom does not sleep, except for managing to doze off for a few minutes before dawn. He is up before the sun rises and goes and calls the Bashkirs. He does not want to lose any time. A minute lost is a piece of land lost.

They all ascend a hillock and the chief points out the land all around and tells Pahom. "See," he says, "all this, as far as your eye can reach, is ours. You may have any part of it you like."

What Pahom sees all around him is virgin soil, flat as the palm of a man’s hand, black and fertile, lush green with breast high grass. His eyes glisten.

Placing his cap on the ground, the chief says: "This will be the mark. Start from here, and return here again. All the land you go round shall be yours."

Pahom tekes out his money and puts it in the cap. He turns to the east, stretches himself, and waits impatiently. He would start the moment he sees the first ray of the rising sun.

Pahom digs a hole and places pieces of turf one on another to make it more visible after the first thousand yards. After another thousand yards, he digs another hole and piles up some surf there too. He has covered a large distance before he sits down for breakfast. He however decides to go another three miles more in the same direction before he changes the direction.

He can hardly see the hillock he had started from when he feels he should change direction again. But there is a beautiful damp hollow of land which he does not want to leave out. He proceeds in the same direction to cover that.

When he finishes that he finds that the sun has started going down a long time ago. In fact it was approaching the western horizon when Pahom realizes there is no time to measure out a rectangular piece of land. He will have to be contented with a triangle. He will walk back straight to the hillock now. He hurriedly digs a hole and turns straight towards the hillock.

He is now walking with difficulty. Walking the whole day in the heat, digging holes and piling turf has drained every ounce of energy in him.

The sun was now fast sinking lower and lower. Pahom is possessed by feverish anxiety, making even breathing hard.

The lower side of the sun has now touched the horizon. Pahom looks at the hillock. He is still far from his goal. He begins running, removing his clothes, flinging away his cap, to become lighter. He runs like a possessed man.

A terrible fear suddenly overpowers him. Perhaps he will not be able to reach back the chief’s cap that marks the spot from where he had begun!

The sun has almost disappeared from the sky when he is close to the cap. The last ray of the sun fades away as Pahom tales a final exhausted leap and collapses on the ground, reaching out for the cap with his hands.

That is the last movement he will ever make.

It takes all of six feet of land to bury him in.


‘Alam’ in Sanskrit means enough. ‘An-alam’ is not-enough. A person for whom things are never enough is called ‘Anala’. Conventionally this is one of the names for fire because fire never feels it is enough. The more you feed it, the more hungry it grows.

But the word anala could be used for many other things. Including our needs, including our desires.

Indian wisdom says:

na jaatu kaamah kaamaanaam upabhogena shaamyati.
havishaa krishnavartmeva bhooya eva abhivardhate.

“Never indeed is desire quenched by the enjoyment of desired objects. It grows more and more, as fire does the more you make offerings into it.”

Endless need, boundless desire, is called greed. Desire that knows no bounds.

Wisdom is recognizing where to draw the line between need and greed. And in the story of Pahom, what we find is genuine need gradually metamorphosing into greed. And once his need becomes greed, it preys upon Pahom himself.


I found the story of Julian Mantle, the lawyer in Robin Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari fascinating.

Julian was the very image of a successful man by today’s standards. Tough and hard-driving, he was “willing to work eighteen-hour days for the success he believed was his destiny.”

Julian had everything one needs to succeed in today’s world. Apart from toughness, hard drive and the willingness to work endless hours, he had brilliance, fearlessness, tact, aggression, dreams of greatness, theatrics . . . everything. As years passed, his cases kept getting bigger and bigger, he pushed himself harder and harder, his prestige grew to greater and greater heights, and money poured in. Such was his obsession with work that he now slept even less – for he felt guilty whenever he was not working on a file.

“As expected, Julian became enormously successful. He achieved everything most people could ever want: a stellar professional reputation with an income in seven figures, a spectacular mansion in a neighborhood favored by celebrities, a private jet, a summer home on a tropical island and his prized possession – a shiny red Ferrari parked in the center of his driveway.

Things never seemed to slow down. There was always another blockbuster case on the horizon that was bigger than the last. No amount of preparation was ever enough for Julian. What would happen if the judge brought up this question or that question, God forbid? What would happen if our research was less than perfect?”

Eventually, Julian’s marriage failed and he stopped speaking to his father. He had begun paying the price of his success

“It showed, emotionally, physically – and spiritually. At fifty-three years of age, Julian looked as if he was in his late seventies. His face was a mass of wrinkles, a less than glorious tribute to his “take no prisoners” approach to life in general and the tremendous stress of his out-of-balance lifestyle in particular. He had lost his sense of humor and never seemed to laugh anymore. Julian’s once enthusiastic nature had been replaced by a deathly somberness. Personally, I think that his life had lost all sense of purpose.

Perhaps the saddest thing was that he had also lost his focus in the courtroom. Where he would once dazzle all those present with an eloquent and airtight closing argument, he now droned on for hours. Where once he would react gracefully to the objections of opposing counsel, he now displayed a biting sarcasm that severely tested the patience of judges.

And then it happened. This massive heart attack that brought the brilliant Julian Mantle back down to earth and reconnected him to his mortality. Right in the middle of courtroom number seven on a Monday morning, the same courtroom where we had won the Mother of All Murder Trials.”

What Robin Sharma tells us is the story of a man taken over greed. In Julian Mantle’s case, it is no more a need to succeed, but greed for success. He has crossed the Lakshman Rekha like Pahom, and now his greed preys upon himself.


How do we recognize this Lakshman Rekha between need and greed? I think every one of us knows the answer in his heart, though many of us are not alert to that knowledge. In Pahom’s case, to begin with owning a piece of land is an absolutely genuine need for him. It has got a purpose – he is a farmer and as a farmer he needs land. But over time, his need for land becomes an end in itself. It is no more land for the sake of farming, but land for the sake of land. Now it is greed. The same is true in the case of Julian Mantle too. The need to excel, to succeed in one’s chosen profession is an absolutely genuine need. But over time this need takes over the man – when that happens it is no more a need, but greed that preys upon the heart that is its home.

The way to recognize this Lakshman Rekha is through self-awareness. And the danger lies in our self-forgetfulness.

Western culture puts it beautifully when it speaks of man selling his soul to the devil in exchange for one thing or the other. In the story of Dr Faustus, we have this concept immortalized by Ben Johnson. It is again the same story we come across in the recent movie Shortcut to Success.

Selling his soul to the devil is becoming a slave to the mind, for the devil is the human mind itself.

As the Upanishads say, the mind is beautiful so long as we are its master. And when we become its slave, it becomes an ugly monster.

Humanity today has sold its soul to the devil. We have become slaves to our mind. And what we see around us is the consequences of it: ecological imbalances, unsustainable models of consumption, our mineral resources running out, oil resources running out, the greenhouse effect that has started sinking our islands . . . And great dissatisfaction in the middle of affluence. Interestingly, in the movie Shortcut to Success, the lead character suffers precisely from this tragedy: in the middle of success beyond his wildest imagination, all joy disappears from his life.

Feverish greed is found more than anywhere else in our corporate world today. This world thrives on greed. And to question that greed is to commit a sacrilege. For, ‘Greed Is Good.” Maybe, Greed is God.



  1. Waiting for your next post.As usual I am speechless.