Living Gita: 08: Duryodhana and Asuri Leadership

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Then, O Lord of the earth, seeing Duryodhana's men in position and the armies about to clash, Arjuna, raising his bow, told Krishna, “O Krishna, take my chariot between the two armies. I want to see the warriors I am about to fight. I want to have a look at those gathered here for battle wishing to please the evil-minded son of Dhritarashtra”. BG 1.20-23


The Mahabharata tells us that a year after the princes completed their studies under Drona and Arjuna gave him the guru dakshina he wanted in the form of Drupada defeated, captured, tied up and brought to him, Yudhishthira was appointed the crown prince of Hastinapura. He was the rightful heir of the throne as the son of the previous king, Pandu, and had impeccable ethical integrity, apart from total commitment to the welfare of his people, great self-mastery, steadfastness, determination, firmness, fortitude, patience, benevolence, and scores of other qualities that were considered essential in a king in those days. The Mahabharata tells us that this was done ‘moved by kindness to the people’, bhrityaanaam anukampaarthe, perhaps a way of saying that this was done in response to the desire of the people. He started ruling the kingdom with the help of his four brothers. His brothers subdued more kings than their father Pandu had done and soon his fame exceeded that of his celebrated father who was adored by the people.

Dhritarashtra is now filled with jealousy towards the Pandavas. Constantly thinking and worrying about them, according to the epic, “he could not sleep in the nights,” – sa chintaaparamo raajan na nidraam alabhan nishi.

One day he calls his minister Kanika and confesses to him of his jealousy. “The Pandavas are growing in fame every day,” he tells him, “and, O Brahmana, I am jealous of them “utsiktaah paandavaa nityam tebhyo’sooye dvijottama. He seeks Kanika’s advice about what to do promising he would do whatever Kanika asks him to. Kanika apologizes to him in advance for the evil nature of what he is going to say, seeks his protection in advance, and then gives him such dark lessons in grabbing power and retaining it that dwarf even Machiavilli in evil.

Kanika tells the blind king to use speech as a tool for deception. “Vaangmaatrena vineetah syaad, hridayena yathaa kshurah,” he tells him: Confine your sweetness to your words. In your heart, be like the dagger. He advices the king to be ruthless. He asks Dhritarashtra to be ruthless. “Putro vaa yadi vaa bhraataa pitaa vaa yadi vaa suhrd, arthasya vighnam kurvaanaa hantavyaa bhootivardhanaih,” Kanika tells him: Kill the person who stands in the  way of your attaining goals even if he is your son, brother, father, or friend. The minister advices him to turn cruelty into an art, as the fisherman does. “Naahatvaa matsyaghaateeva praapnoti paramaam shriyam.”  Without piercing the very vitals of others, without accomplishing many stern deeds, without slaughtering after the manner of the fisherman, one cannot acquire great prosperity. Another advice Kanika gives his king is to follow the ways of the razor. “Kshuro bhootvaa haret praanaan, nishitah kaalasaadhanah; pratichhanno lomahaari, dvishataam parikartanah,” he tells Dhritarashtra. “In the matter of destroying their enemies, kings should forever resemble razors in every particular; pitiless and sharp, hiding their intents as razors hide in leather scabbards, they should strike when the opportunity arises as daggers are used when the occasion demands, sweeping off their foes with all their allies and dependants as daggers shave the head or the chin without leaving a single hair.” 

After he finishes his teachings, Kanika winds up what he had to say by telling a fable.

Once there lived a jackal in the forest with his four friends: a tiger, a mouse, a wolf and a mongoose. There was a large herd of deer in the jungle and their leader was a male deer in the prime of its youth, big as a bull and faster than a tiger. Tempted by the majestic deer the five friends chased him several times but every time the swift deer outran its chasers. Even the tiger, fastest among the friends, failed repeatedly. Eventually, they sat together and devised a plan, elemental in its simplicity: when the deer sleeps, the mouse will crawl up to it and bite its leg. After that the deer will not be able to run at his normal speed. At that time the tiger can chase and kill it.

The brilliant plan was put into practice and the five friends sat around the killed deer to feast upon its delicious meat. The jackal now asked all his friends to go and have a bath and come back for the meal. He would guard it in the meantime, he told them.

The tiger came back first. The jackal incited him saying the mouse was laughing at the tiger’s strength. The tiger left the meal and went away saying he did not want any part of a meal caught with the help of a mouse. The mouse came next and the jackal incited him saying the mongoose has said the meat is poisoned because it has been bitten by the tiger and so he wouldn’t touch it. Instead, he would eat the mouse. The scared mouse retreated to its hole. When the wolf came next, the jackal told him the tiger was furious with him and had gone to fetch his wife and together they had plans upon him, hearing which the scared wolf ran away. The mongoose was the next to come. The jackal told him that he had driven away all the other animals with his strength and if he dared he should fight him, the jackal. A scared mongoose too ran away. And the jackal had the entire deer the size of a bull all for himself.

This is how the minister sums up his teachings to Dhritarashtra, the heart of which is to let no values stand in the way of fulfilling your selfish ambitions and to grab what you want without a thought of others.

And that is exactly how Duryodhana behaves with the Pandavas, showing them no sympathy or pity. He tries to destroy them again and again, refuses to give them even as much land as a needle tip though Yudhishthira was the rightful heir to the Bharata throne. He even goes to the jungle to eliminate the Pandavas while they are living there for twelve years following the foul game of dice he played with Yudhishthira.

We learn what we want to learn, what appeals to our heart. Numerous rishis and wise men try to teach Duryodhana dharma throughout his life, Vyasa himself tries it, his own mother and father try to on so many occasions, Vidura tries repeatedly, but he refuses to learn. What he learns and practices is what Kanika teaches his father, because his teachings appeal to him instantly, just as the ways of Shakuni appeals to him. During his peace negotiations, as requested by Dhritarashtra, Krishna tries to teach him what is right and what is wrong and that too has no effect on him.

Because Duryodhana is asuri, only asuri teachings appeal to him.

Our sanskaras, vasanas and karmas that we bring with us into this life from our former existences decide what we are influenced by and practice in life, just as they decide whether we are born asuri or daivi. Krishna tells Arjuna in the sixteenth chapter of the Gita that he is born daivi: maa shuchah  sampadam daiveem abhijaatosi paandava – Do not grieve Arjuna, you are born with daivi sampada. But Duryodhana’s case is just the opposite.

In the Mahabharata war Yudhishthira is persuaded to do one single wrong – tell a lie about the death of Ashwatthama – and he feels guilty about it all his life. But Duryodhana commits wickedness after wickedness and he feels no guilt about it. Before telling Krishna in the Kuru assembly that he would not give the Pandavas as much land as the size of a needle tip, the speech Duryodhana gives Krishna is highly revealing. He does not see that he has done any wrong against the Pandavas in their entire life! What he has done is no more than practicing the ways of the kshatriyas as taught by the rishis, he believes. His asuri nature makes him blind to his own evil nature and evil deeds. Perhaps this is the reason why Krishna despairs in the Gita later, prakritim yaanti bhootaani nigrahah kim karishyati – all beings follow their own nature, what can suppression do? [BG 3.33]. Being blind to one’s own evil nature and being insensitive to other’s sufferings is part of being asuri in nature.

“You must speak, Krishna, after reflecting on all circumstances,” says Duryodhana in the Kuru Sabha. “You find fault with me alone and address me in harsh words without any reason, just because the Pandavas give you much respect. But before censuring me, have you assessed the strengths and weaknesses of both sides? [Duryodhana here equates strength with being right and weakness with being wrong!] You, Kshatri [Vidura], the king [Dhritarashtra], the acharya, and the grandsire all reproach me alone all the time, never another person. However, I DO NOT FIND THE LEAST FAULT IN MYSELF. And yet all of you hate me – and that includes my own father! I have been reflecting and reflecting on this and yet I DO NOT FIND ANY SERIOUS FAULT IN ME, NOR DO I FIND ANY SMALL FAULT IN ME. Not even the minutest!”

That is Duryodhana, the evil minded son of Dhritarashtra, the durbiddhi, as Arjuna refers to him while asking Krishna to take his chariot between the two armies.      

Duryodhana is proud of everything he has done in his life and believes and asserts proudly he has never erred from kshatra dharma, the way of the kshatriyas. But he forgets that kshatra dharma does not teach cheating, betrayal, treachery, lying, poisoning people, setting fire to their houses, and violating the dignity of women. 

Unfortunately, that he learnt and practiced the ways of Kanika and Shakuni and of no one else was not just his tragedy and the tragedy of the Pandavas, but the tragedy of all the kshatriyas born in India in his age, of this sacred land itself.

No culture gave more importance to leadership than ancient India did. Speaking of leadership India said raja yugam uchyate – the king is called the four ages. The Mahabharata says whether it is Satya Yuga in a country or Treta, Dwapara or Kali, depends on the king. When the king is what he should be, a man of integrity and other virtues, and does what is expected of him, we have Satya Yuga, the age of perfection, in his country. And we have Treta Yuga or Dwapara Yuga or Kali Yuga in the country, depending on to what extent the king comes near the ideals set for him. When the king fails miserably in being what he should be and doing what he should do, we have the Age of Kali.

During a lesson Yudhishthira receives from Bhishma in the Shanti Parva of the epic, the dharma king asks his grandsire whether the leader creates the age or the age creates the leader. And Bhishma says: kalo vaa kaaranam raajnah raajaa vaa kaalakaaranam iti te samshayo maa bhoot, raajaa kaalasya kaaranam. “Let there be no doubt in your mind as to whether the king makes the age or the age makes the king: The king makes the age.”

Whether it was in the past or today, whether it is in a kingdom or a family or an organization, the leader makes the age. Put in today’s terms:  Let there be no doubt in your mind as to whether the leader makes the age or the age makes the leader: The leader makes the age

I once worked for an institution in which the leadership changed and with it, almost overnight, the institutional climate changed too. Under the old leadership, if the institution was in Satya Yuga, under the new leadership it entered the Kali Yuga. The changes were instant and total and the only change that had happened was the change in leadership.

It is not that the asuri leadership principles Kanika taught Dhritarashtra do not work – they work, but only for a short time, and ultimately it destroys. It destroys those who practice it. Their effectiveness is short lived and eventually they backfire, as we see in the Mahabharata itself. That is why the Katha Upanishad speaks of the path of short term good as the path of preyas and the road widely travelled; and the path of long time good as the path of shreyas and the road less travelled. Speaking of these two paths, the Upanishad says:

shreyas cha preyas cha manushyam etas tau sampareetya vivinakti dheerah;
shreyo hi dheero’bhipreyaso vrineete preyo mando yogakshemaad vrineete
// - Katha  Upanishad, 1/2/2

Translated loosely, the mantra means that as man walks on the path of life, both shreyas and preyas appear before him and the intelligent man, differentiating between the two, chooses shreyas for lasting good, whereas the fool chooses preyas for immediate gains.

Much of the tragedy the world is facing today is because we have been ignoring shreyas and choosing preyas at the individual, at the family, at the community and at the national level, leading to dissatisfaction, frustration and unhappiness. Modern industry and business inspired by western models have for a while now been consistently choosing preyas over shreyas, which explains much of the tragedy in our world today, in spite of the great advances in science and technology, and why we our planet is on the brink of destroyed.

Power should not be in the hands of durbuddhis, nor should our leaders and leadership be of asuri nature.

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More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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