Skip to main content

Mahabharata, Leadership and the Language of Power

Power has its own language. It speaks that language all the time, and it understands only that language.
There is a beautiful African folktale I love, about a lion and nine wild dogs.  The lion was old, his limbs weak, his muscles loose and he couldn’t hunt anymore. One day he was sitting just outside his cave when he saw a pack of nine dogs passing by. The lion raised his voiced and asked them, “Come, join me. I’ll let you hunt with me today.” The dogs knew the lion was too weak to hunt and was actually ordering them to do the hunting for him. They looked at each other. True the lion was old, but he was still a lion and they were afraid to say no.
The lion and the dogs hunted the whole morning. By noon they had killed ten deer. The dead deer was piled up in a heap and they sat around it. The lion paused dramatically and then raising his voice said, “Now there is a big problem before us. How do we divide the kill?”
The youngest of the dogs responded instantly, laughing, “What is the problem? There are ten of us and there are ten deer? We will each take one.”
Before the young dog could complete his sentence, the lion leapt up and gave him a resounding slap. ‘You idiot! Don’t talk nonsense! If you don’t know anything, just keep your mouth shut.”
The lion looked at the dogs one by one. None more dared to respond. When he found they were all silent, he said, “I get it now. It is quite easy really.  We You are nine dogs. You take one deer – then you become ten. I am a single lion – I will take the remaining nine deer. Then we too will become ten. That way we end up equal.”
This is how power sees things. This is how power speaks. Chit bhee meri, pat bhee meri, as we say in Hindi - heads I win, tails you lose.
I remember another story I had in my primary school text book, a story that exists in slightly varying forms all over the world, including the Jataka Tales and Aesop’s Fables.
Once a bone got struck in the throat of a wolf. Try all he could, he couldn’t get it out. Screaming in pain, his eyes wide with the fear of death, he ran all over the forest. A stork saw him and taking pity on him, asked him to open his mouth. The stork gently put his head inside the mouth of the wolf and with his long beak pulled out the bone. The wolf gave a grunt of relief and walked off, without even a word of thanks to the stork. “Shouldn’t you at least thank me once?” asked the stork. “Who should thank whom?” howled the wolf. “You put your head inside my mouth and you are still alive. Shouldn’t you thank me for not biting your head off?”
Once again, the language of power. Arrogant power.  
These stories came to my mind when I read a small speech by Duryodhana in the Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata.  A speech in the language of arrogant power.
The occasion is Krishna’s peace mission to the Kuru assembly in Hastinapura. Krishna has tried to make Dhritarashtra understand how he can rule as the unchallenged emperor of the whole earth united with the Pandavas and how disastrous a war between his sons and the Pandavas would be. He spoke to the old emperor of the need for restraining his wicked sons and their friends. The Mahabharata tells us that goosebumps appeared all over the assembled kings as they listened to Krishna’s wonderful speech but no one had the courage to utter a single word in response because Duryodhana was present and so great was the fear he inspired in them.
When no one else spoke for quite some time, first Sage Parashurama and then Rishi Kanva who were present in the assembly spoke addressing Duryodhana, encouraging him to opt for peace. Duryodhana’s response to the words of these wise men was to look at Karna and burst out in loud laughter at their words. He then slapped his thighs and told them their senseless speech was of no use, he was going to remain what God had made him.
Following Parashurama and Kanva, Bhishma and Narada spoke to Duryodhana advising him not to be obstinate and to agree for peace, but their words too had no effect on him. Dhritarashtra then confessed his helplessness to Krishna and asked him to directly speak to Duryodhana in the assembly, which Krishna did, asking Duryodhana to obey his father for the good of the whole world. He reminded Duryodhana how he had tormented the Pandavas “from their very birth” and in spite of that how they have always acted generously towards him. “Look at your sons, brothers, kinsmen and other relatives,” Krishna told him, “and let not the race of the Bharatas perish.” Krishna assured him that the Pandavas would make him the crown prince, Dhritarashtra the sovereign of the empire and asked him to give back to the Pandavas the half of the kingdom that belonged to them.
Following Krishna, Bhishma spoke to him again at some length, advising peace, and then Drona did the same. After that Vidura spoke and once again Dhritarashtra. Following Dhritarashtra, Bhishma and Drona spoke once again, all speaking of the need to avoid war and the advisability of peace, asking Duryodhana to give back to the Pandava’s their share of the kingdom taken away from them through the dice game.
It is then that Duryodhana gave the small speech we are going to take a look at. The speech is addressed to Krishna.
“Indeed, uttering such harsh words, you, without any reason, find fault with me alone,” said Duryodhana “But do you censure me, having surveyed the strength and weakness (of both sides)?  Indeed, yourself and Vidura, the king, Guru Drona, and the Grandsire, all reproach me alone and not any other monarch. I, however, do not find the least fault in myself. Yet all of you, including the (old) king himself, hate me. O repressor of foes, I do not, even after reflection, see any grave fault in me, or even any minute fault.” [KMG translation. English modernised for ease of reading.]
Duryodhana is deaf to all that so many have said in the assembly because he does not understand their language – the language of love, of kindness, of consideration for others, of generosity, of empathy, the language that all leaders of men should know. He understands only one language – the language of power. For him love is a weakness, kindness is a weakness, thinking of the good of others is a weakness.
I remember one of the top industrial houses of the country asking me to give a speech in an open auditorium. My speech was about the need to keep the good of others too in mind while taking decisions, the need for flexibility in decision making and so on. I was later told that the previous speaker had spoken of selfishness as the ultimate virtue. Krishna wouldn’t have agreed, but Duryodhana would have agreed completely.
After complaining that everyone is criticising him alone, the first thing he does is to ask if Krishna is speaking after assessing the strengths and weaknesses of both sides! For Duryodhana to be strong is to be right, to be weak is to be wrong. Might is right – that is the language of power. If the combined power of Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Ashwatthama, Dusshasana, Jayadratha, himself and their armies can defeat the Pandavas and their army, then there is no need for him to show any generosity to the Pandavas. Then there is no need to give them back their kingdom which he has snatched away from them through treachery. But, if on the other hand, the Pandavas are stronger than him, then he would perhaps be willing to think of it.
Indian leadership philosophy says that kingship is a social contract – the same thing that Rousseau said after several millennia. The Mahabharata says that at one time the world was ruled by matsya nyaya – fish eat fish philosophy, the larger and the stronger eating the smaller and the weaker. And because of this there was complete anarchy and chaos all over the world. No one knew peace – the only way to survive was to be stronger than everyone else. The whole earth became filled with strife, life became a constant battle with rivals. And then some wise people joined together and decided that they would appoint one of them capable of protecting all the others as their leader, the king, and in turn for his protection, give him a share of all they owned. This is how kingship came into being. And now Duryodhana is asking Krishna if he had assessed the strengths and weaknesses of both sides before he suggested peace with the Pandavas.
Krishna’s entire life was a battle – a long battle against the philosophy that might is right, that whatever the might ones did was right, that they had the right to exploit all who were weaker than them.  Krishna wanted to establish a world where dharma – the common good, lokasangraha – would be supreme, where might will not necessarily be right.  Yes, even Krishna agreed with the Mahabharata statement balam dharmo’nuvartate – dharma follows strength, dharma walks in the footsteps of strength. But to Krishna it meant that to practice dharma you had to be strong, and not that whatever the strong did was dharma. Duryodhana right from his birth believed that whatever the strong did was right, if you are strong you can do whatever you want. Krishna’s life mission was to destroy all men in positions of power who practised this philosophy – Shishupala, Raja Saubha, Kashi Raja, Kala Yavana, Paundraka Vasudeva, Naraka Asura were all killed by Krishna because they believed in matsya nyaya. He had Jarasandha killed by Bhima because he too stood for arrogant power that considered might is right – the emperor had already defeated eighty-seven kings and thrown them into dungeons and was waiting for the number to be full one hundred so that he can kill them en masse in a ritual human sacrifice in a show of his imperial power.  Krishna was sure that matya nyaya would lead humanity to its end and the only way humanity can survive was through yajna – actions performed for the common good, for the good of others, leaders living their lives in the service of others, by treating leadership as a kind of spirituality as ancient India envisioned, speaking of which India repeatedly said that if a king served his people well he need not do any yajna, yaga, homa, medha or other sacrifices because by serving his subjects he has achieved the results of all these.  
Duryodhana now tells Krishna that he does not find any fault with himself – he does not find any major fault with himself, he does not find any minor fault with himself, however much he reflects on himself. Let me quote here his exact words once again: “I, however, do not find the least fault in myself. Yet all of you, including the (old) king himself, hate me. O repressor of foes, I do not, even after reflection, see any grave fault in me, or even any minute fault.”  
Power makes you blind to the truth. Particularly to the truth of yourself.
Duryodhana does not find any fault in himself, neither grave nor minute, even after thorough reflection.
This is said by the man who as a child [according to Krishna in his shaishava period, which would mean early childhood] poisoned Bhima and then tied his hands and legs with forest vines and threw him into the Ganga in Pramanakoti. This is said by the man who had tried numerous other times to kill all the Pandavas through poisoning and through all other means available to him speaking. This is said by the man who had tricked the Pandavas and their mother to go to Varanavata and stay in a house he had had specially built for them mixing hemp, resin, lac, clarified butter and other inflammable substances with wood and other the construction material with the intention of burning them all to their death there. This is said by the man who had bribed his citizens and their elders so that they would keep quiet about his wicked actions. This is said by the man who so terrified even his vassal kings that even though they had goosebumbs listening to the words of Krishna in the assembly they were not able to utter a word in response to it because of the fear of Duryodhana – despite there being present in the assembly such men as Duryodhana’s father Dhritarashtra himself and Sage Parashurama, Sage Kanva, Narada, Bhishma, Drona and so on, all of whom approved of what Krishna said,. This is said by the man who later, just because he was jealous of Yudhishthira’s success and wealth, invited him for a deceitful dice game and through it snatched away his kingdom and all his wealth. This is said by the man who presided over what is perhaps the most humiliating thing done to a woman in all of Indian lore – the magnificent Draupadi, the queen of Indraprastha, brought to the assembly dragged by her hair from where she was resting in the inner apartments wearing a single piece of cloth as custom demanded of women in those days during their monthly period. This is said by the man who slapped his left thigh and asked that Draupadi to come and sit on it like you would ask a common whore; by the man who presided over the attempt to publicly disrobe that Draupadi in the assembly in the presence of their husbands, brothers-in-law, father-in-law, other Kuru elders and numerous invited kings from all over the land.
Duryodhana does not see any fault in himself, grave or small, even after reflection.
The Ishavasya Upanishad rishi in a thrilling voice cries out: hiranmayena patrena satyasya apihitam mukham; tatvam pooshan apavrinu, satyadharmaya drishtaye – the face of Truth is hidden by a golden disk of light; oh Lord of the Sun, remove it so that I may see with my inner eyes truth and dharma. In Duryodhana’s case too both truth and dharma are hidden – not by a disk of light, but by the pitch darkness of power.
Duryodhana does not see anything wrong with the dice game. Duryodhana ignores completely what was done to Draupadi in the dice hall – as though it is not even worthy of being mentioned, it is such an insignificant thing done to a woman who had been won in the dice game and had become his slave. As for the rest of the game, he asks Krishna: “In the game at dice, O slayer of Madhu, that was joyfully accepted by them, the Pandavas were vanquished and their kingdom was won by Sakuni. What blame can be mine as regards that? On the other hand, O slayer of Madhu, the wealth that was won from the Pandavas then, was ordered by me, to be returned unto them. It cannot, again, O foremost of victors, be any fault of ours that the invincible Pandavas, were defeated once again at dice and had to go to the woods. Imputing what fault to us, do they regard us as their enemies?” [KMG trans.]
It was Dhritarashtra, shaken thoroughly and trembling like a leaf in a storm by the inauspicious omens that were seen and heard towards the end of the attempt to disrobe Draupadi as she prayed to Krishna and was saved by him, who had ordered the return of the Pandava kingdom and wealth to them. The blind old king cowered before Draupadi’s spiritual might and terrified that she can wipe out the Kurus, ordered everything to be returned to the Pandavas. That is how the epic describes it, but Duryodhana sees it all very differently. For him it was he who had returned it to them and he implies by his tone though he does not expressly say it, that it was an act of generosity on his part. “On the other hand, O slayer of Madhu,” he asks as though he does not comprehend it at all, “the wealth that was won from the Pandavas then, was ordered by me, to be returned unto them.”
There is an expression in Hindi – doodh ka dhula, meaning totally pure and innocent, without a touch of stain. That is what Duryodhana claims himself to be.
Duryodhana continues: “And, O Krishna, though (really) weak, why do the Pandavas yet so cheerfully seek a quarrel with us, as if they were strong? What have we done to them? For what injury (done to them) do the sons of Pandu, along with the Srinjayas, seek to slaughter the sons of Dhritarashtra? We shall not in consequence of any fierce deed, or (alarming) word (of theirs), bow down to them in fear, deprived of our senses. We cannot bow down to Indra himself, let alone the sons of Pandu.” [KMG trans.]
Duryodhana’s power speaks again, in the language that power speaks in: Though really weak, why are the Pandavas quarrelling with them, as if they were strong, he asks. No, he and his brothers are not going to bow down to them in fear. Why speak of bowing down to the sons of Pandu, they cannot bow down to the lord of the Gods himself.”
Duryodhana sees giving back to the Pandavas what is rightfully theirs only in one light: as an act of cowardice. Giving them back what is theirs will be an act of fear. And he and his brothers are not afraid of any earthly power. Why, they are not afraid of any divine power either. If Indra himself comes before them, they will not bow down to him.
It is not wonder that he speaks thus. Power has made him totally blind. In the royal assembly he constantly ridicules and humiliates Grandfather Bhishma, Guru Drona, and sages like Parashurama, Kanva, Narada and so on. As for Vidura, his uncle, he treats him as though he were his servant. The only person whom he does not generally humiliate in public is his father. He does that in private, when he is with his friend Karna, brother Dusshasana and uncle Shakuni. He does not humiliate him publicly because he occupies the throne, wields power – the only thing Duryodhana respects.
What he has learned from his education is that a kshatriya should not bow down before anyone, except before a brahmana, that too for the sake of piety. A kshatriya can break but not bend, says he.
 He forgets there are innumerable other things before which we should all bow down, whoever we are – truth, goodness, kindness, compassion, love...
Finally, he concludes his response to all who had spoken to him of conciliation, peace. “That share in the kingdom which was formerly given them by my father shall never again, O Kesava, be obtainable by them as long as I live... as long as I live, even that much of our land which may be covered by the point of a sharp needle shall not, O Madhava, be given by us unto the Pandavas.’”
That is how power sees things. That is how power speaks. Arrogant power. Brute power. Power devoid of wisdom.
 A bird flies on two wings, not on one. Even so a king needs both power and wisdom. But all Duryodhana has is power.
The only language arrogant power understands is the language of power. Krishna concludes his failed peace mission to Hastinapura by speaking to Duryodhana in the language of power and showing him what real power is. “You wish for the bed of heroes? Indeed, you shall have it, along with your counsellors. Wait for a short while, and the great slaughter will start,” Krishna assures him.  One by one Krishna lists in the assembly Duryodhana’s evil deeds beginning with the Pramanakoti incident. And subsequently, before leaving, Krishna shows him and the assembly his cosmic form, his vishwaroopa, with a thousand arms and a thousand legs, with a million faces, each more terrifying than the other, the same vishwaroopa he later shows Arjuna in Kurukshetra before the war begins, on his request, seeing which the great warrior trembles in dread again and again, and falls at his feet repeatedly and requests him to come back to his original gentle form.
I wish Duryodhana had understood at least that. But he fails to understand even that language and India plunges into aeons of darkness.



Popular posts from this blog

Arjuna Becomes a Woman: A Transgender Tale from Padma Purana

The story of Arjuna cursed to spend time as a hermaphrodite is well known. That happens when the apsara Urvashi approaches him desiring sex and Arjuna politely refuses, telling her she is like a mother to him because in one of her lifetimes on earth she was the wife of Pururava, his ancestor. He sticks to his stand even when she tells him those are human rules and they are not applicable to apsaras. A furious Urvashi curses him that he will spend time as a eunuch among women. It is using this curse that Arjuna lives one year in the antahpura of Virata during his life incognito following the dice game.

This story however is different. Here it is not a hermaphoridite that Arjuna becomes, but a beautiful woman called Arjunī and Arjuniyā. The fascinating tale, pregnant with profound mystic teachings, is told by the Padma Purana in its Patala Khanda.

I would like to tell the story with a warning at the beginning: it is a mystic tale told at the mystic level and trying to understand it at t…

Nalayani: the Past Life of Draupadi

[Translated from the original Sanskrit]

[The Kumbhakonam Edition of the Mahabharata gives us several details that are not available in the KM Ganguli translation of the epic or in the Gita Press edition. The following is one such instance. I believe there is no other English translation of this available at the moment. The passage below constitutes Chapter 212 and 213 of the Adi Parva of the epic in the Kumbhakonam Edition, 1906. In the narrative sequence, these chapters come after Arjuna has won Draupadi, and immediately before all the five Pandava brothers wed her.]

Vyasa Said: Oh king, do not grieve over your daughter becoming wife to all five Pandavas. Her mother had earlier prayed that Draupadi should become the wife of five men. Yaja and Upayaja, constantly engaged in dharma, made it possible through their tapas that she should have five husbands and that is how Draupadi was attained by the five Pandavas as their wife.

It is now time for your whole family to celebrate. For in …

The Moth and the Candle: A Sufi Fable

“One night the moths gathered together, tormented by the desire to unite themselves with the candle. All of them said: ‘We must find one who can give us some news of that for which we seek so earnestly.’

“One of the moths went to a candle afar off and saw within the light of a candle. He came back and told the others what he had seen, and began to describe the candle as intelligently as he was able to do. But the wise moth, who was chief of their assembly, observed: ‘He has no real information to give us of the candle.’

“Another moth visited the candle. He passed close to the light and drew near to it. With his wings, he touched the flames of that which he desired; the heat of the candle drove him back and he was vanquished. He also returned, and revealed something of the mystery, in explaining a little of what union with the candle meant, but the wise moth said to him: ‘Thine explanation is of no more real worth than that of thy comrade.’

“A third moth rose up, intoxicated with love, t…