“Sheelam pradhanam purushe,” says the Mahabharata, meaning character, or integrity, is the most important thing in man. Vyasa’s Mahabharata, that amazing book that is five thousand years old in its original version, never ceases to astound us with its insights into life and into human nature. After an exposure to contemporary western ideas of management, where leadership per se forms the largest area of study, when one turns to this timeless Indian epic, we suddenly realize that what the book says about itself is as true about management wisdom as about everything else: yad ihasti tad anyatra, yannehasti na kutrachit – what is here could be found elsewhere, but what isn’t here will be found nowhere else.
After the Mahabharata war is over, while Bheeshma is lying on the bed of arrows waiting for an appropriate time to die, Krishna sends the victorious Yudhishthira to his grandsire to learn about life, about human nature and about leadership from the dying man who was a master of every major branch of knowledge known to man then. One of the questions that Yudhishthira asks Bheeshma is about the importance of sheela to a leader. Though sheela is commonly translated as character, integrity is a better translation. In any case, character at its heart means integrity.
In response to Yudhishthira’s answer, Bheeshma refers to a discussion between his cousin and rival Duryodhana, now dead, and his father Dhritarashtra that took place soon after Yudhishthira’s rajasuya.
Such was the glory of Yudhishthira when he performed the rajasuya sacrifice that it would have incited envy in anyone. During the sacrifice, eighty thousand Brahmin scholars were his guests throughout the sacrifice and arrangements had been made for the stay of each of these scholars in a lavish house, each of them provided with thirty beautiful slave girls. Ten thousand other Brahmins were royally fed every day in the palace, the food served in dishes of pure gold. Precious gifts had come from every corner of the known world, kings lining up before Yudhishthira’s palace in miles-long queues day after day with gifts in the form of jewels, diamonds and other precious stones, priceless clothes and furs, weapons and vehicles, and heaps and heaps of gold. One king had come with a gift of a thousand slender-waisted, beautiful young girls, of exquisite complexion, their skins without a blemish and shining, all highly talented in the arts of serving men, all decked in gold and jewels! It was acknowledged openly: no ruler on earth possessed wealth comparable to Yudhishthira’s. His wealth then exceeded the wealth of the Himalayas, of the oceans and of all the mines of gold and jewels in the world together, says the Mahabharata. And the person whom Yudhishthira had made in charge of receiving the gifts was none other than Duryodhana himself – Duryodhana who hated Yudhishthira’s very existence! Duryodhana’s jealousy knew no bounds and he confesses it openly to his father.
Dhritarashtra tells his intemperate son that if he wanted to attain wealth similar to Yudhishthira’s, he should first cultivate character, integrity. Shree, the goddess of wealth, stays only with men who have integrity. To illustrate his point, Dhritarashtra tells Duryodhana an ancient story about Narada and Prahlada.
Prahlada the Asura was then emperor of all the three worlds, conquered by the power of his integrity. As it always happens, Indra becomes jealous of Prahlada’s power and feels shaky – there is the threat of losing his throne to someone like the mighty Asura. For the throne of Indra belonged to the man who had the highest character, who performed the most difficult austerities. Indra assumes the form of a Brahmin and goes to Prahlada and serves him as a disciple, with the desire to learn from him the secret of his success. Prahlada tells him his success comes from his following the noble teachings of wise men. However, Indra still continues to serve Prahlada and eventually the Asura emperor, pleased with the devotion shown and the service rendered, asks his disciple to ask for a boon, not knowing he is Indra.
Initially Indra refuses politely, saying that all his desires have been fulfilled. But when Prahlada insists, he asks: “If you are pleased with me, Emperor, please give me your character, your integrity.”
Prahlada is shaken by the request, but he grants the boon since he had offered it: after all, that is what a man of integrity does. Indra accepts the boon and goes away.
Soon Prahlada sees a dazzlingly lustrous being emerging from his body and leaving him. When Prahlada asks him who he is, the being tells him that he is Sheela [Hindi: Sheel. Integrity], and he is leaving him because Prahlada has given him away. “I shall now happily live,” Sheela adds, “in the Brahmin to whom you have given me away.”
Soon Prahlada sees another radiant being emerging from his body. Asked who he is, the being introduces himself as Dharma: virtue and righteousness. After Dharma too leaves him, telling him he is going to join Integrity to live in the body of the Brahmin since he, Dharma, lives only where Integrity is. Soon Prahlada finds another effulgent being emerging from him, this time Satya, Truth, and then another, Vritta, Uprightness, and then yet another Bala, Strength, all leaving him one by one to live in the Brahmin, following Integrity.
Following Bala, it is a splendorous goddess that emerges from Prahlada’s body and when asked she tells him she is Shree, the goddess of wealth, prosperity, good fortune and all else that is auspicious. Shree tells Prahlada that she had on her own come and begun living in his body, but now she had no choice but to leave him, because she always followed Integrity, Virtue, Truth, Uprightness and Strength.
Answering Prahlada’s question, she also tells him the Brahmin was none other than Indra, Indra has robbed him of his Integrity and where Integrity is not, there can be no Dharma, no Truth, no Morality, no Strength and no wealth, prosperity or good fortune.
“dharmah satyam tatha vrttam balam chaiva tathapyaham
sheelabhoota mahaprajna sada nastyatra samshayah.” - Mahabharata 12.124.62
Concluding his story, Dhritarashtra tell his jealous son that even if a man without integrity achieves prosperity, it would soon leave him since Shree cannot stay where there is no Integrity.
“Learns from this story and practice what it says,” Bheeshma tells Yudhishthira concluding the story about the importance of integrity to a leader.
Yudhishthira sums up the lesson he has learnt from his grandsire: Sheelam pradhanam purushe. Integrity is the most important thing in man.
[On a personal note, in the church school in Kerala where I studied, we had quotes from Sanskrit displayed on each classroom door. In class VI, mine said: sheelam pradhanam purushe. Coming across these words for the first time in the Mahabharata was an especially thrilling experience to me because of this childhood association.]
The story of Prahlada and Indra is symbolic. Indra in Indian culture is a common symbol for the mind: by definition, indriyanam raja indrah – Indra is the name for the lord of the senses, that is, the mind. The mind is a tempter and when we are tempted by it, we lose our integrity. When temptation enters our hearts, the mightiest among us get corrupted, unless we are masters of ourselves. That is the reason why the Mahabharata repeatedly reminds us: atma jeyah sada rajna – a king, a leader of men, should always have mastery over himself. Indian culture accepts self-mastery as the first requirement of a leader. Without self-mastery, we become preys to every passing wind of passion, of lust and greed, of jealousy and anger, and a thousand other temptations and when that happens, the first thing that results is the loss of integrity.
In the organizational context, the integrity of the leader is of supreme importance. While a leader definitely has power arising from his position, his true power base is referent power: power that comes from the respect he commands from his followers by virtue of his integrity, from their admiring him, identifying with him and looking up to him, from their trust in him. Where the followers do not see integrity in the leader, no respect is possible for him and consequently he will have no referent power over them. Integrity builds trust, builds reputation and is a powerful influence on all around the leader. Without integrity, the leader loses the power to command.
The greatest power in the world cannot bend a man of integrity. That is why it is said that when the gods want to destroy a man of power, they first destroy his integrity, exactly as Indra did with Prahlada.
In the case of Prahlada, Indra succeeds in destroying the Asura king’s integrity. And that invariably happens when a leader has a weakness [chhidra, in the language of the Mahabharata] in him, when he is not a master of himself, has no self-mastery. We do not know what Prahlada’s weakness was – the Mahabharata does not tell us that. May be it was pride, maybe it was one or more of the many passions that prey upon the mind of the powerful and successful, we do not know. But we would be safe in concluding he had one – or else he wouldn’t have lost his sheela, integrity.
The Mahabharata tells us another story in which Indra tries to destroy the integrity of yet another epic king, and fails: the story of Marutta, a king of incorruptible character, of unshakeable integrity. [For details, please see the author’s Marutta: A Lesson in Character for our Times]. Indra’s failure with Marutta tells us: if you are a master of yourself, no power in the world can corrupt you.
Integrity works and is absolutely essential in a leader in all contexts, including the organizational context. For, integrity builds a solid reputation and high credibility and without these, no leadership is possible. Integrity is a powerful influence all around. And integrity is like milk – a drop of impurity can spoil it all. It is for this reason that a leader should invariably act with integrity.
Fearlessness is an integral part of integrity. Speaking and acting on what you believe speaks of integrity. “Walking the talk,” as we put it these days, is important. So is standing up for what you believe is right, without being swayed by what others would like us to say, and freely admitting mistakes, rather than trying to cover them up. As Brian Davis et al put it, when you make a mistake and admit it, it “will encourage others to do the same, and the problems that stem from attempts to hide mistakes can be circumvented. Admitting your mistakes will also increase your credibility because it lets others know that they will not be severely punished for making mistakes. They will believe that you understand they are human, too.”
As Robert H. Rosen says in Leading People, people “want to be proud of their leaders. They want to be led by people who maintain the highest ethical standards, not someone who is likely to cheat or deceive them or others.”
Speaking of highly effective leaders, Rosen says such a leader develops “a deep moral and psychological integrity, a kind of wholeness as a person. He balances the traits of his head [problem solving, logic, initiative] with the traits of his heart [courage, generosity, fairness, idealism, compassion]. This wholeness allows him to rely on both parts of himself and confront head on any potential ethical problem by using a wide range of skills.”
Integrity works. But, more importantly, a world in which men are without integrity would not be a place worth living in.
The redoubtable Chanakya Kautilya, the mighty empire builder of ancient India and the world’s first management guru, places such importance on integrity that when he speaks of the qualities of the prime ministers, other ministers and senior officers, he places it among the most basic requirements. Not content with that, Chanakya goes on to prescribe tests for evaluating the integrity of these people. “Assisted by his prime ministers and his high priest, the king shall, by offering temptations, examine the character of ministers,” says Chanakya. He says that “a commander of the army dismissed from service for receiving condemnable things may…incite each minister to murder the king in view of acquiring immense wealth, each minister being asked "this attempt is to the liking of all of us; what dost thou think?"
The prime ministers themselves are not exempted from the integrity test, for so great is the importance of that virtue. “A woman spy under the guise of an ascetic and highly esteemed in the harem of the king” says Chanakya, “may allure the prime ministers one after another, saying "the queen is enamored of thee and has made arrangements for thy entrance into her chamber; besides this, there is also the certainty of large acquisitions of wealth." Of course, if the prime ministers, the ordinary ministers or other officers fall for these tricks, they prove their lack of integrity, and otherwise, their integrity.
Greek mythology tells us that "Prometheus, that potter who gave shape to our new generation, decided one day to sculpt the form of Veritas (Aletheia: Truth, Integrity), using all his skill so that she would be able to regulate people's behavior. As he was working, an unexpected summons from mighty Zeus called him away. Prometheus left cunning Dolus (Trickery) in charge of his workshop, Dolus had recently become one of the god's apprentices. Fired by ambition, Dolus used the time at his disposal to fashion with his sly fingers a figure of the same size and appearance as Veritas with identical features. When he had almost completed the piece, which was truly remarkable, he ran out of clay to use for her feet. The master returned, so Dolus quickly sat down in his seat, quaking with fear. Prometheus was amazed at the similarity of the two statues. Therefore, he put both statues in the kiln and when they had been thoroughly baked, he infused them both with life: sacred Veritas walked with measured steps, while her unfinished twin stood stuck in her tracks. That forgery, that product of subterfuge, thus acquired the name of Mendacium (Pseudologos: Falsehood), and I readily agree with people who say that she has no feet: every once in a while something that is false can start off successfully, but with time Veritas (Truth) is sure to prevail."
This is precisely what happens. Lack of integrity might appear to succeed. But that success is short-lived, especially in a leader. And that is what Dhritarashtra means when he tells Duryodhana at the end of his story about Indra and Prahlada that even if a man without integrity achieves prosperity, it would soon leave him since Shree cannot stay where there is no Integrity.
And that is integrity must be genuine integrity, not a faked one.
There is a beautiful story once told by Abraham Lincoln. A farmer had in his garden a huge tree that looked truly mighty. One day the farmer saw a squirrel running up the tree and disappearing into a hole. Curious, the farmer went near the tree and looked in and what he found sent shock waves through him. The tree that looked so towering and robust was all hollow inside and was on the point of collapsing any day!
Lincoln, one of the greatest leaders ever, used to say: It is not enough for you to look mighty, you should be mighty too. “To be a leader, you must have more than the image of integrity—you must also have substance.”
And what is what the Mahabharata says: Sheelam pradhanam purushe. The most important thing, the worthiest thing, in a man is integrity. With integrity, you have virtue, truth, uprightness, strength, wealth, prosperity and good fortune. And without integrity, you have none of these. To repeat what the Mahabharata says about it:
“dharmah satyam tatha vrttam balam chaiva tathapyaham
sheelabhoota mahaprajna sada nastyatra samshayah.” - Mahabharata 12.124.62
“Virtue, Truth, Ethical Conduct, Strength and the Goddess of wealth, prosperity and good fortune, all for ever cling to Integrity. Have not the least doubt about this.”