Demystifying Leadership: Unveiling the Mahabharata Code by Asha Kaul and Vishal Gupta, Bloomsbury Publishing
The Mahabharata often opens up new vistas for a treasure hunt in the field of leadership and management. The epic has timeless relevance for those who are not looking for easy answers to some of the most perplexing riddles of personal and professional life. This book turns out to be a medley of narratives from ancient epic to modern icons, from Ashvatthama to Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Through a compendium of insights and ideas the authors attempt to help leaders come to grips with their shadow sides and unexplored potential. These insights, threading through a cast of characters from the sly Shakuni to superhuman Krishna, are likely to sharpen your reflective capacity while making decisions.
The six characters of Mahabharata decoded in some detail for this book include:
Bhishma: his failure to resolve paradoxes, and misaligned goals. Bhishma’s decisions of relinquishing the throne, taking a vow of celibacy, his judicious power display at abducting the princesses of Kashi, his non-response to the disrobing of Draupadi and his internal conflict between the love for Pandavas and allegiance to the throne cast him as multidimensional. Bhishma is one of the most intriguing characters whose actions and decisions were questionable even by the mores of the age in which he lived.
Karna is seen as the embodiment of the human quest for identity. The life of Karna was enigmatic yet sad owing to the conflict between his role and identity. The social identity that he acquired from serving the Kauravas made him commit to actions that had tragic consequences leading to his death. Karna’s story highlights the importance of being at peace with who we are.
Ashvatthama, the son of Drona, is an emblem of unlived life and unfulfilled ambitions. His is a life of envy, anger and revenge. Confusion over what he wanted in the future, and attachment to something he was not, led to the loss of his consciousness of good and evil. How did his anger and envy shape his journey of retribution? The authors present him as a victim of his own moral ambiguity that prevents him from taking the right decisions.
Kunti life throws a perspective on purpose, vision and values in leadership. Her character is generally projected as that of a suffering mother and widow. Operating through this camouflage, she achieves her lofty vision for her sons. Kunti represents a contrarian point of view. Her decision to retire to the forest with Dhritrashtra and Gandhari, to refrain from claiming Karna as her son, are shown as examples of Kunti’s strategic vision as a leader.
Shakuni demonstrates the negative impact of power, politics and stratagem in organisations. He was an integral cause of the war of the Mahabharata. Shakuni’s head ruled, not his heart. The author’s showcase how Shakuni used political action to get relational power and then used relational power to influence positional power. His ultimate downfall came because of his use of power and politics through unethical means.
Finally, Krishna is seen as a traveller of the pragmatic Middle Path. A few examples used to emphasise this point are Krishna’s conversation with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, directing Shikhandi towards Bhishma, killing of Drona and advising Bhima to strike Duryodhana’s thigh. The actions of Krishna give us some insights into leading a life of what authors describe as principled pragmatism. Krishna’s actions in the Mahabharata demonstrates that morality is not binary; it comes in many shades of grey, as the authors would have us believe.
Notion of dharma
The Mahabharata has survived the test of time as it raises more questions than it answers. The authors, both accomplished academics, try to glean leadership lessons through the story of six epic characters. In doing so they often oversimplify or ignore the subtler nuances of ‘dharma’ that is the cornerstone of the epic. It does not help to interpret dharma as morals, ethics or values with the grammar of Western theories on ethics or organisation behaviour as this book laboriously attempts to do. The notion of dharma goes well beyond what the British and the Europeans describe as ‘principles’ or ‘rule of law’. Rule of law is based on authority and influence of law in society that imposes constraints on individual and institutional behaviour. Rule of law is about publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.
Dharma, on the other hand encompasses the whole of Nature, including human nature. Dharma is much more nuanced and yet paradoxically, much more unambiguous than rule of law. For leaders it is easy to subvert legal codes and processes, but it is difficult to subvert dharma, which has all-encompassing existential, behavioural and moral connotations. Dharma is that timeless pursuit that embraces and explains the contextual ( vishisthadharma) and universal ( sanatanadharma) seamlessly.Leaders need to navigate moral codes that are as complex, varied, and subtle as the situations in which they find themselves.
Dharma dwells on the precarious trade-off between principles and pragmatism that is one of the hardest tests of a leader’s character.The Mahabharata can be a rich and inspiring case study in leadership because its questions and lessons are hard won and real. Yaksha questions Yudhisthir: “What is the strangest thing about human nature? Yudhisthir answers, “We all know that we will die one day, yet no one seems to believe that. That indeed is the strangest thing!”
The Mahabharata rises above the definition of history or mythology as an epic exploration of human nature itself from the standpoint of the ultimate dharma. The authors could consider a sequel to this book that holds up the uncompromising realism of dharmic leadership that the Mahabharata is all about.
(Prof Debashis Chatterjee is the Director of IIM Kozhikode and the author of Timeless Leadership: 18 Sutras from the Bhagavad Gita)