Leadership and Integrity: A Lesson from Kathasaritsagar

Developed from the author’s class lectures in Indian Philosophy for Leadership Excellence to senior Management students at XLRI School of Business and Human Resources, Jamshedpur.)

Ancient Indian literature abounds in invaluable lessons in leadership, though the concept of leadership was usually that of the king as the leader. Since for our ancestors dharma was one of the most important preoccupations, especially in relation to leadership, our literature has numerous stories that talk of the importance of dharma for a king, which included the need for him to be virtuous as well as have and display character and integrity. Our ancients believed, as modern management experts do, that integrity or character is the very foundation of a leader’s effectiveness.

Sheelam pradhanam purushe, the Mahabharata tells us: character is the most important thing in a man. Without character a leader, our ancients had no doubts, would not be able to command loyalty and commitment. It is a leader’s integrity that generates trust in him and without integrity, no follower, be he a minister of the king, a counsellor, an army commander, or a common citizen, will trust him. True, the king does have power that originates from his position as the supreme head of the state and the lord and master of all his men, but that is not true power, the old masters knew. While position power is important, no doubt, they said, true power is what we refer to today as referent power, power that is born of the qualities of the king and the nature of his relationships with his people.

Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara, that ocean of immortal stories, tells us the fascinating story of King Yashodhana, whose life illustrates the kind of commitment and loyalty a leader of men commands by virtue of his integrity.

Yashodhana [the name means one whose wealth was his renown] was the ruler of the kingdom of Kanakapura [City of Gold] on the banks of the Ganga and he was renowned all over the world for his virtues. There was a rich merchant in his city, who had an indescribably beautiful daughter. By the time she reached the nubile age, she had grown into such a rare beauty as could not be found in all the three worlds. Such was Unmadini’s beauty that one look at her and a man lost his head – and that is what her name meant: the one who turned men mad.

The merchant now felt it was his duty as a citizen to offer her to his king before he offered her to anyone else in marriage since by tradition every rare jewel found in the kingdom belonged to the king. And of course, his daughter was an unsurpassed jewel. So the merchant went to the court and requested the king to accept his daughter as his wife, describing her as a precious beauty.

The king certainly was not averse to the idea. However, he had to make sure that the girl possessed the lakshanas – auspicious signs and marks – required in a royal bride and did not have any defects in her, which would automatically disqualify her. So he sent a few brahmanas to the merchant’s house as was the custom of the day. The brahmanas took one look at the girl and instantly lost their head – so maddeningly beautiful indeed was she. Recovering, they consulted among themselves. There was not a doubt the girl was fit for the king in every way. But her beauty! If the king wedded her, he would lose his head over her in no time and then he would lose all interest in ruling the kingdom, spending all his days and nights instead in the rapture of worshipping her beauty. No, they couldn’t afford that. They needed a king who would rule, not one lost in mad love to the beauty of a woman.

The brahmanas went back and told the king that she was unfit for his antahpura – her lakshanas were inauspicious. The king rejected her and the merchant, with the king’s consent, gave her in marriage to the king’s commander-in-chief Shaktidhara.

Shaktidhara loved her and they had a happy married life. Unmadini never forgot her humiliation, though. She had been rejected by the king on the grounds that her lakshanas were inauspicious – and she knew she had no inauspicious lakshanas in her and she was, beyond a doubt, a woman of unsurpassed beauty.

Soon the spring came and the kingdom was filled with the sounds and scents of the season of love. Vasantotsava, the spring festival, was the most important festival of the year and the whole kingdom forgot itself in celebrating the arrival of Kama, the God of Love. One day the king was out watching the festivities along the street on which Unmadini now lived with Shaktidhara. Drummers heralded the royal visit through the street and Unmadini heard it.

Like many other women, Unmadini too went to the terrace of her palatial house. And there she stood watching the royal procession, making sure that the king had no chance of missing her. In any case, such was her beauty, she lighted up any place where she stood like the moon fills the night sky with its splendor.

And then it happened. Seated on his royal elephant, the king saw the woman standing on the terrace. Time suddenly stood still. The king no more heard the drummers or the bugles, it was as though the whole world had suddenly become silent, come to a standstill, ceased to exist. Only she existed in the entire universe, the woman on the terrace who glowed like a flame, the woman like whom he had never laid eyes on, with beauty which he had never imagined was possible even in an Apasara, a celestial nymph. The king was unable to pull his eyes away from her. He also saw her own eyes challenged his, boldly, fearlessly, with an unspoken question in them, which he did not understand. Unable to stand the radiant beauty of the woman, the searing power of her gaze, the king swooned in his howdah on the elephant.

Back in his palace the king learnt the truth. This was Unmadini, the girl he had rejected, now wife of his commander-in-chief.

The king now gave up speaking. He no more took food or drinks. His eyes had a haunted look in them now, a look that never left them. He closed himself inside his royal chamber refusing to meet anyone, never leaving the chamber and no more taking any interest in the affairs of the state. His heart was torn to shreds by conflicting emotions – he desired Unmadini as he had desired nothing else in his life and yet he knew he had no right to desire her, she belonged to another man.

Shaktidhara, the commander-in-chief, learnt of the king’s state and the reason for it. He came running and fell at the feet of his lord. “Whatever belongs to me belongs to you,” he told Yashodhana, “for I am but your slave.”

The king preferred death to giving up virtue. He could not imagine taking another man’s wife for himself, whoever she was. When Yashodhana refused, Shaktidhara offered to give up his wife – he would give up all claims over her, if necessary declare her a courtesan, so that she ceases to be his wife and the king can have her. Yashodhana told him he wouldn’t hear no such thing. What Shaktidhara was saying was adharma – and in his kingdom he was not going to permit adharma, or cruelty to a woman. A man who abandons his wife for no fault of hers deserved punishment, and more so if he was an officer of the king, who should set up examples for all others to follow.

The king’s ministers tried to persuade him to accept Unmadini from Shaktidhara since he longed for her so much. Groups and groups of citizens appealed to the king to have her for himself. Enormous pressure was put on the king. But the king refused to be shaken from his virtue. Nor could he forget Unmadini, or cease to love and long for her in his heart.

Kathasaritsagara tells us that eventually the king met with his death in his chamber, his body emaciated, the eyes sunken, his voice dried up and the battle in his heart between the forces of longing and virtue claiming his life.

And Shaktidhara entered a blazing fire at the death of his virtuous king, killing himself. (As for Unmadini, the story does not tell us anything about her fate.)


Unmadini’s is one of the stories the Vetala tells King Vikramaditya in the famous Vetalapanchavimshati stories, more popularly known as Vikram-Vetal tales, of the Kathasaritsagara.

At the end of the story the Vetala as always asks the king a question. This time it is: Who in this story is superior in virtue: the king or his commander-in-chief? King Vikram answers it is the king. The Vetala questions, “How that can be? Wasn’t the commander-in-chief’s offer to give up his incomparably beautiful wife, whom he loved dearly, for the sake of the king greater than the king’s refusal to accept her? Besides, didn’t he give up his life following the king’s death?” King Vikram disagrees and insists that the King’s virtue was superior, for as far as the commander-in chief was concerned, it was expected of him to serve his master in every way but as far as the king was concerned, he did far more than what kings usually did.

And then King Vikram speaks words that remind us strongly of our own corrupt political leadership of today. Kings, says Vikram, as a rule are shameless pleasure seekers, and do not hesitate to break the chains of virtue that keep them restrained, as elephants in rut break their chains. All their sense of propriety flows away, says Vikram, with the water with which they are anointed as kings. The wisdom learned from the wise and old flies away like mosquitoes as pretty maids start fanning them with chowries after their anointment. Once the white umbrella appears above their head signifying their royalty, truth is blocked from their eyes as the sun is. And as the storm of wealth blows, their paths of virtue are blocked as a whirlwind covers a man’s path with dust. In spite of all these, Yashodhana did not lose his virtue, which speaks of the king’s great integrity and character.

For us, there is yet another lesson in the story. Such is the charismatic power generated by a leader’s integrity, that followers readily lay down their very lives for their sake. Integrity commands the highest level of commitment and loyalty. And without integrity, the leader is reduced to his position power, which is far less than his possible charismatic, or referent, power.


One other story that gives us a lesson in integrity is that of Nahusha and Shachi. Nahusha’s story, far more famous than that of Yoshodhana, appears, in slightly differing versions, all over Indian Pauranic and Epic literature, including the Mahabharata, where it is narrated in great detail. Nahusha, the Lunar emperor was the mightiest ruler on earth.

The Gods needed a ruler in place of Indra who had gone into hiding following his Brahminicide of Vritra. So they approach Nahusha and request him to be their ruler since he is the most competent ruler on earth, the most powerful and the most virtuous. Nahusha refuses in honest politeness, feeling that he is not competent enough to be the ruler of the Gods and they should search for someone else. The Gods, and the celestial sages who had come along with them, empower Nahusha – the sages by giving him part of their ascetic power and the Gods by a boon that whenever Nahusha looked at a man, his power would transfer to Nahusha, thus making him powerful to rule over them.

Everything is fine in the heavens under Nahusha’s efficient administration. For a while at least. And then corruption enters Nahusha’s heart – he falls a pray to the pleasures of the world of Gods. The Gandharvas and Kinnaras were such wonderful musicians, the Apsaras such superb dancers. Besides, the Apsaras were great mistresses of the art of pleasuring a man in bed – and there were so many of them, each more beautiful than the others, each vying with all others to pleasure the new lord of the celestials. Perhaps the position that was thrust on Nahusha had also been higher than his ability and that goes to his head too. In any case, the virtuous Nahusha soon turns a sensualist who lives only for pleasures.

And then tragedy strikes. One day while standing in a garden surrounded by his coterie of Gods and Apsaras, Nahusha sees Indrani Shachi, the wife of Indra, passing by. He is taken aback by her splendour and realizes no Apsara comes anywhere near Shachi in the brilliance of her beauty. It also dawns on Nahusha he has never had her in his bed, though he is now Indra and since she is Indra’s wife, he has a claim over her too, as on everything else in the celestial world. He sends a message to her, asking her to await him in her bed.

A terrified Shachi runs to Brihaspati, the guru and priest of the Gods, who promises her his protection. She also consults her husband Indra who is in hiding. Many adventures later, Shachi is asked to pretend to agree to receive Nahusha in her bed, on condition that he came to her in a palanquin carried by the Saptarshis, the seven great celestial sages. On Nahusha’s orders, the Saptarshis carry him to her place. On the way in his impatient lust for her he kicks one of the sages with his foot, asking him to hurry. Nahusha is cursed and turned into a snake.

As we can see, Nahusha’s story is a complete contrast to that of Yashodhana. Where in spite of all his unendurable longing for Unmadini Yashodhana refuses to compromise with his integrity, Nahusha has no such compunctions and falls an easy prey to his lust, thus losing his integrity. Nahusha’s fall follows immediately. Though the very brief version of his story given here does not go into these details, in the original versions of the story the entire celestial world turns against Nahusha when he loses his integrity and conspires against him. And no one weeps for the fallen Indra, not even his coterie of sycophants. Whereas everyone in the kingdom of Yashodhana would have happily laid down his life for their king’s sake, as Shaktidhana, his commander-in-chief indeed does.


That is the kind of feeling that integrity in a leader inspires in his followers. Integrity is an immensely powerful influence on all around a leader. While it gives the leader great inner strength, it inspires his followers to excel themselves in the leader’s cause – and in their inspiration, even the ordinary among them metamorphose into unbelievably powerful individuals. A leader’s integrity works miracles on the followers. Such is the inspirational power of integrity that it creates the willingness to make great sacrifices for the leader and even lay down their lives, if necessary. In India’s freedom struggle, we have seen that this happened tens of thousands of cases under the inspiring leadership of Gandhi, a leader who displayed unshakeable integrity.

In the organizational context, as a human resources expert puts it, “a failure of integrity poisons the outfit, destroys trust between people, and breaks down unit cohesion. While leadership qualities are diverse, integrity is simply a yes-or-no question. You either have it or you don’t. For that reason, leaders must always display the highest standards of integrity.”

In a world filled with morally depraved political leaders and corrupt corporate houses, when even the most powerful place in the world and the most powerful person in the world have becomes synonyms for corruption, stories like that of Yoshodhana help us keep our faith in integrity, that most valuable asset in a leader.

The Kathopanishad tells us:

Shreyas cha preyas cha manushyam etah
Tau sampareetya vivinakti dheerah
Shreyo hi dheero’bhipreyaso vrneete
Preyo mando yogakshemat vrneete
. - Katha 1.2.2

Each one of us has the option of choosing the path of shreyas, lasting good, or preyas, immediate good. The wise among us see the difference between the two and choose shreyas for their eternal good; but fools choose preyas, thinking that it will give them what they have not and protect what they have.

Corruption is the path of preyas; integrity, the path of shreyas


More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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