Dec 09, 2023
Dec 09, 2023
A look at India’s own leadership philosophy
at a time
when our political leadership
has failed us completely.
Greek mythology tells us the story of Odysseus, also known as Ulysses, and the sirens. According to the legend, in order to find his way back to Ithaca, his home, Odysseus had to consult the dead prophet Teiresias, for which he had to go to the Underworld, which could only be done by sailing past the Island of the Sirens. The Island was dangerous, for the Sirens sang so beautifully that any man who heard them went mad with desire for them and leapt into the sea, to perish on the rocky beaches. The beaches of the Island of the Sirens were heaped high with the bones of sailors who had destroyed themselves hearing the sweetness of their voice.
As instructed by the sorceress Circe, mother of his three sons, Odysseus gets ready to sail past the Island of the Sirens. He fills the ears of his men with bee wax so that they will not be able to hear their singing. He himself, however, does not close his ears with wax. Instead, he asks his men to tie him to the mast of his ship. He instructs his men, following the advice of Circe, that however much he shouted and pleaded, however much he fought and threatened, he should not be freed from the mast. Thus readying themselves, Odysseus and his sailors sail past the Sirens.
As was expected, the Sirens sing in their hauntingly enchanting voice as the ship approaches. While the sailors do not hear the singing of the Sirens, Odysseus hears it and becomes wild with desire for them. He begs and pleads to be released, shouts and threatens, fights desperately to free himself, so that he can leap into the sea and swim to their island, but all go in vain. It was not until they were far away from the island and safe from the power of their singing, that the sailors release him. Odysseus, the hero of Odyssey, thus becomes the only mortal who heard the maddeningly seductive song of the Sirens and still lived.
Indian leadership philosophy expects our leaders to be still more heroic than Odysseus. It asks our leaders to expose themselves to all the seductions of power and yet not be tempted by them. And it asks them to do this without the aids Odysseus had – they would be free men and women, and yet they should not lose their balance in the presence of the greatest of temptations.
The philosophy that asks our leaders to be such heroes is called Anasakti Yoga by the Bhagavad Gita, one of the central Yogas of the Gita. The Gita lays great stress on this philosophy that Krishna lived by and worked by.
While the Gita uses the term Anasakti Yoga for this philosophy of life and work, the earlier texts preferred another term: nyasa. The Mahanarayana Upanishad, also known as the Yajniki Upanishad, for instance, calls this philosophy nyasa and says that through nyasa the highest could be achieved.
Nyasa is the word from which we get the word sannyasa. Sannyasa is commonly translated and understood as renunciation. A sannyasi, for instance, renounces the world. He renounces his wife and children, he renounces his whole family, he renounces the community and society, he renounces the whole world. In fact, traditionally he renounces life in the world itself through a ritual known as viraja homa that makes him a sannyasi. He is now dead to the world – as far as he is concerned, the world does not exist for him and he does not exist for the world. He performs his own after-death ceremonies, thus conforming to his own mind and to the world that he no more lives. He no more has any claims over the world, has no more any responsibilities to it; and the world has no claims over him, nor any responsibilities towards him. He has no legal rights – a dead man has no legal rights. Thus freed from the world, he devotes his whole energy and time for his spiritual attainment.
However, Krishna rejects this sannyasa calling it mere karma sannyasa – ritual sannyasa, the word karma standing for the ritual, the vedic karma, through which he formally becomes a sannyasi. Emphatically rejecting this kind of sannyasa, he brings back the arsha way of life – the rishi way of life – and calls it jnana sannysa – sannyasa through knowledge, through a change of attitude towards life, through a change of approach to life. This sannyasa is empowered not by a ritual, but by a vision. Hence this is the sannyasa of vision. And this is the only sannyasa Krishna would approve of.
Rejecting the old model of sannyasa, Krishna says:
anaritah karmaphalam kaaryam karma karoti yah |
sa sannyasa cha yogee cha na niragnir na chaakriyah ||Gita 6.1||
Here is how I would loosely translate the verse: “The man who does what he needs to do without being dependent on the results of his actions – he is both a sannyasai and a yogi; but neither the one who has given up obligatory duties through a ritual nor the one who remains inactive.”
Speaking of this kind of sannyasa, which he also calls by different other names such as yoga, karma yoga, buddhi yoga, anasakti yoga and so on, Krishna speaks of its timeless origin. He says:
imam vivasvate yogam proktavaan aham avyayam |
vivasvaan manave praaha manur ikshvaakave’braveet ||Gita 4.1||
evam paramparapraptam imam rajarshayo viduh |
sa kaaleneha mahata yogo nasthah parantapa ||Gita 4.2||
sa evaayam maya te’dya yogah proktah puraatanah … ||Gita 4.3||
“I taught this imperishable yoga to Vivaswan; Vivaswan taught it to Manu; and Manu taught it to Ikshwaku [the founder of the Ikshwaku dynasty, to which Rama belonged]. This yoga thus handed down from father to son was known to the rajarshis. Over time, this great yoga was lost, Oh Scorcher of Enemies, and it is that ancient yoga that I taught you today.”
Rajarshi means a seer-king. The leader of men as a man of power and wisdom. Traditionally, for a few thousand years in continuation, India considered rajarshi leadership as the highest model of leadership. Indian tradition holds many ancient kings as examples for living this kind of yoga. Bharata of the Ramayana is a brilliant example for this, as is Rama himself and the Bharata of the Mahabharata who gives India its Sanskrit name. In the ancient texts, the most often quoted example for a Rajarshi, though, is King Janaka.
A beautiful Sanskrit verse with boundless significance spoken by Janaka speaks eloquently of the twin aspects that form this yoga:
mithilaayaam pradeeptaayaam na me kinchana nashyati.
“If Mithila burns down, nothing of mine is lost.”
This is King Janaka, who is considered the highest ideal for the highest kind of leadership according to Indian tradition speaking. What he says is that if the entire city of Mithila burns down to ashes, nothing of his is lost.
From the outside, what he says sounds shocking. How can a king say that if his whole city and his whole kingdom burn down to ashes nothing of his is lost?!
His statement reminds of what western history tells us of Nero – that he played the fiddle while Rome burnt. Are we talking of a ruler like Nero here? Or of someone like Tsar Nicholas II, the last Russian emperor? It has been said that the monarch, though not an evil man, did not concern himself with his people and was completely out of touch with them. Whenever he saw them, it was from a distance. He never visited their ramshackle homes or markets. History tells us that as required by custom, he offered a feast to his subjects on his wedding. Masses of hungry humanity turned up at the feast, rushing about in hunger to grab food and causing a stampede in the process. Several people were crushed under the feet of hungry men and women running for food – many died on the spot and hundreds were injured. But the royal banquet continued without interruption. The Tsar did not express one word of sorrow for the incident. Instead, he moved on to the ball thrown in his honour.
No. We are talking neither of someone like Nero, nor of someone like Nicholas II. We are talking of Janaka whom ancient India repeatedly cited as an illustration for the highest kind of leadership.
There is a big difference between Janaka on the one side and Nero and Nicholas II on the other. The difference is that while Nero and Nicholas did not show any concern for their subjects, Janaka was totally dedicated to them, totally committed to them. Janaka’s statement is made by a man who lived every moment of his life for his subjects, treated them as his children, as his flesh and blood. It is made by a man who breathed for them, whose every thought was for them, who did only what was good for them, even if he did not like it himself, and did not do those things that were not good for them, even if he was fond them.
Speaking of leadership, Chanakya says in the Arthashastra:
prajaasukhe sukham raajnah, prajaanaam cha hite hitam
naatmapriyam hitam raajnah, prajaanaam tu priyam hitam // Artha 01.19.34//
“In the happiness of his subjects lies his happiness; in their welfare his welfare; whatever pleases himself he shall not consider as good, but whatever pleases his subjects he shall consider as good.”
King Janaka is a ruler who lived by this leadership vision.
Speaking of leadership, the Mahabharata says:
kim tasya tapasaa rajnah kim cha satyaadhvarairapi
supaalitaprajo yah syaat sarvadharmavideva say. [MB Shanti 69.73]
“What use are austerities to a king, and what use Vedic sacrifices? If he has looked after his subjects well, he has already attained all that these can achieve for him.”
This was the leadership ideal for Janaka. He is a man of total commitment and dedication to his people and yet he is able to say that if the entire Mithila burns down to ashes, nothing of his is lost. He is able to say this because India believed and taught that along with total commitment and dedication, a leader of men should also have another quality in him: total detachment.
India expected from every one of its leaders not just total commitment and dedication to their people, but also total detachment.
Something very different from the indifference we have talking about in the case of Nero and Nicholas II.
This detachment in the middle of total dedication and absolute commitment is true anasakti – non-attachment. And it is what ancient India taught all its leaders to cultivate. Practicing this is called anasakti yoga – the yoga of non-attachment.
Such non-attachment is something only a great hero can practice. Something that is almost impossible for ordinary people. But India expected of its leaders nothing less.
Odysseus had to have himself bound to the mast of his ship to resist the temptation of the Sirens’ song. India did not give even that privilege to its leaders. India wanted its leaders to remain free – with their eyes and ears fully open, so that they miss nothing is what is going on and yet have the courage and determination to resist all temptations through the practice of non-attachment.
In ancient India, men and women practiced a spiritual exercise called asidhara vrata. Literally, asidhara vrata means ‘the vow of the edge of the sword’. It is what is sometimes called walking on the edge of the sword. The vow was practiced by householders to enhance their self-mastery, their control over themselves. A man practicing it would, for instance, sleep with his young and desirable wife on their bed with a sharp, unsheathed sword kept between them.
Ancient India wanted its leaders to practice asidhara vrata.
One question that naturally arises is why did India lay so much stress on nyasa/anasakti for the leader?
Let us take a look at a scene from the blockbuster Hindi movie Munnabhai MBBS. In one of the early scenes of the movie, we see Dr Asthana asking in his inaugural class to new students in the medical college, of which he is the Dean, what the greatest quality needed in a doctor is. A young girl student volunteers an answer: it is love for the patients, she says. Dr Asthana’s face changes instantly; he grows dark, and, raising his voice, he almost shouts at the class that the answer is wrong. And he gives his own example to illustrate what he is saying. He has been performing surgery for decades. And when he performs surgery on a patient, his hand is rock steady – he holds out his hand and demonstrates how rock steady it is. But, he continues, supposing he is operating on his own daughter whom he loves very much, then? Then his hand would shake – because of his love for her. So love for the patient is a weakness in a doctor, and not his or her strength at all.
I strongly disagree with Dr Asthana. I agree with the young girl student in the movie and hold that love for the patient is one of a doctor’s greatest strengths. And in fact the movie Munnabhai MBBS itself is a lesson in the miracles love can cause. Love makes the impossible possible, the incurable curable.
But that is not to say Dr Asthana is completely wrong – only he is confusing to very different but related things – love and attachment. Love is your greatest strength – as a doctor, as a teacher, as a parent, as a leader. But attachment could be your greatest weakness. Love empowers you, whereas attachment can weaken you.
The whole Bhagavad Gita is a message against attachment in a man in a leadership position – against mamata, against the feeling of my-ness, attachment, that Arjuna feels in the battle field. The reason why Arjuna wanted to abandon the war was not because he hated killing – he has done it thousands of times in numerous wars. Arjuna is trained from birth to be a killer – that is what being a kshatriya means, as the Mahabharata itself bemoans. His problem was that he had to kill his own people and he found this impossible to do even when they were on the side of adharma, battling for adharma and in fact, one of them, commanding the armies that were fighting for adharma. What we see when we look at the birth scene of the Gita is that Arjuna felt it was all right to kill people so long as they were not his own people, but if they were his people, his near and dear ones, the one’s he loved and revered, then it was not all right. And it is precisely against this that Krishna teaches – whoever it is that does adharma or supports adharma, he has to be eliminated. Without attachment. With detachment.
Attachment makes impartiality impossible.
And that is one of the reasons why India wanted its leaders to cultivate non-attachment.
A second reason why non-attachment was perceived by ancient India as central to leadership is because of the tendency of power to corrupt. India in its great wisdom insisted that power should be seen as a responsibility and not as a privilege so that the tendency for corruption is reduced. India repeatedly said that what a leader does is to carry a huge weight on his shoulders – the weight of the welfare of all his people. The Mahabharata, for instance, says, speaking of the leader and his responsibility: Vahate bhaaram sarvalokabhayaavaham – [the leader] carries on his shoulders a responsibility that the whole world dreads.
Leadership is a dreadful responsibility if you are totally sincere, dedicated and committed to it – a dreadful responsibility that is also the most exhilarating challenge.
Detachment also makes a balanced view possible. Our attachments colour all our perceptions. The pain of someone belonging to us is not the same as the pain of an outsider – nor is the outsider’s suffering the same as the suffering of our near and dear ones. For this reason too ancient India wanted its leaders to cultivate detachment while practicing leadership – so that they see things as they are and not through the eyes coloured by mamata – ‘mine-ness’ as India called it. Love, India said, but without attachment, reminding us of what Kahlil Gibran said about our attitude toward our children in his celebrated bestseller The Prophet.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
This attitude is precisely what India wanted its leaders to cultivate. Love, care, commitment – but all with detachment. Also, detachment coupled with commitment makes journey into the state of performance excellence easier and smoother – into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others call the flow state. Attachment creates stress and stress closes the doors into the portals of the flow state. It is total and passionate commitment with non-attachment that makes the flow state possible.
The wisdom of Zen from Japan speaks of the need for a leader to balance between making things happen and letting things happen. One of the best examples given for this insight into life and leading is that of kayaking, or white water rafting. When you are travelling down a torrent, like the Ganga in the lower Himalayas, there are times when you have to take over and there are times when you have to let go. In the rapids, for instance, you have no choice but to let go, and where the water flows through level ground, you take control. This is how, says Japanese wisdom, a leader should lead. Non-attachment, anasakti, makes this possible but without it, the leader tries to control everything and everyone and that spells disasters for himself, his men and women and his organization.
Finally, I would like to speak briefly about one more reason why India always considered anasakti an essential requirement in a leader. For India, leadership was as much an inner journey as an outer journey. It was both a journey into achievements in the outer world and a journey into achievements in the inner world. India considered leadership the dharma of a leader and the leader had to grow as a person through his leadership, through the practice of his dharma. He had to grow spiritually – grow more calm and serene, grow more profound, master his senses and his mind, master the storms of lust and greed, and achieve self-actualization and self-transcendence. And this is not possible without detachment. Detachment makes it possible for you to become the eye of the storm – to remain rooted and serene while the thousand storms of organizational life rages all around you.
Which leads us to the last question I shall discuss here: is such a blending of non-attachment on one side and total commitment, dedication and love on the other side possible?
My answer is: it is possible, but it is not easy. You need a warrior’s fearlessness and steadiness and a hero’s daring and courage to make it possible.
But that is precisely what India expected in its leaders. As India saw it, the leader had to walk on the edge of the sword. He had to face dragons – dragons out there in the world and within himself. He had to do all the labours of Hercules as part of his leadership role: clean the Augean stables, kill the Nemean lion, slay the Lernaean Hydra, capture the Cretan bull, fetch the golden apples, bring the many-headed hound Cerberus up from Hades and the rest of them.
India saw the leader’s role as the most important role of all in society. Everything depended on the leader. To India, the leader made the age. Bhishma in the Mahabharata tells his grandnephew Yudhishthira:
kalo vaa kaaranam rajnah, raaja vaa kaalakaaranam
iti te samshayo ma bhoot, raaja kaalasya kaaranam //
“Whether the leader makes the age or the age makes the leader – let there be no doubt about this in your mind. The leader makes the age.”
India’s magic formula to make the impossible possible for the leader was: passionate commitment and total dedication combined with absolute non-attachment.
This is a uniquely Indian perception. Others cultures might have had inklings of it, but no culture has developed nyasa or anasakti as a central principle of leadership.
Of course, a leader of men can function without any of the heroic aspects discussed here too. But then he will be just that – functional, someone who performs all the functions of a leader – and no more.
It is sad to see that Indian leaders today have taken just the opposite path. The innumerable scams that are surfacing in our country one after the other tell us that our leaders have entirely forgotten nyasa, anasakti. That not only have they forgotten anasakti, but perhaps they see mamata – mine-ness, attachment – as the most important virtue.
Unfortunately that precisely is what made the Mahabharata war that devastated ancient India necessary: Dhritarashtra’s mamata, his clinging to power, and all the benefits that power brings, for himself and for his son. And through him, his future generations.
I hope it does not come to that once again. I hope India realizes the need for anasakti in public and organizational life before we come to another Mahabharata.
More by : Satya Chaitanya
|Very nicely written Satya. what a modern leader requires has been written very nicely and clearly. Thanks and may God bless you.|
|very good .|
|Thank you Satya Chaitanya, leadership by vision toward service in the true spirit Krishna intended. While modern leadership often fails, we can find consolation in leaders gone before us whom we still follow. I am Canadian, but I follow Gandhi. If I follow Gandhi how much more do the people of India. I know Terry Fox is Canadian and ran across Canada for Cancer with one leg. There are people in India who follow him even though he is not in a position of leadership as the world often sees it. Your article brought this all to mind. So thanks. Many blessings. jj|
|Let there be modern day MAHABHARAT|
There shall be dust
And from dust India will rise
As day rises after night
As said satyug comes after kaliyug
India is sure to rise
During MAHABHART WAR
Shri Krishna said, fight against adharam
We all should fight against corruption,scam
We will fight till we win
India will rise again