Living Gita: 16: Heroic Leadership

Continued from Previous Page

What pleasures can be ours, Krishna, by killing these sons of Dhritarashtra? Only sin will be ours by killing these atatayis. BG 1.36

There is a big difference between the way Arjuna looks at the Kurukshetra war and the way Krishna sees it. For Krishna, it is essentially a dharma yuddha, a war for establishing dharma, righteous ways of living and leading, and for destroying evil, which is the purpose of his incarnation. But for Arjuna, the war is a preeti yuddha: a war for acquiring the pleasures of power and wealth and also for the pleasure of vengeance for what was done to Draupadi during the dice game Yudhishthira played with Duryodhana. And standing there between the two armies, a highly sensitive man that he is, he suddenly realizes that those pleasures are not going to taste very sweet because all said and done, Duryodhana and his brothers are his own people, his cousins, however evil they are. The epic tells as that this is what actually happened too – after the war was over, Yudhishthira felt so guilty about it that he refused to wear the crown and sit on the throne. And Vyasa, Narada and so many other wise men had to explain to him again and again what happened was inevitable under the circumstances and he had to accept that reality and fulfill his responsibilities towards the Bharata dynasty and its subjects by accepting the crown. Arjuna is now getting a foretaste of what Yudhishthira later felt. He feels he will get no pleasure from killing Duryodhana and his brothers and will only accrue sin from it, even though they are atatayis.

Atatayi is a Sanskrit word that means someone who commits the most heinous of criminal acts. Killing them in no sin, said ancient Indian culture. And as far as a kshatriya is concerned, not only does he accrue no sin from killing an atatayi, it is his duty to do so since he is a warrior sworn to protect virtuous ways of living, even laying down his life if necessary in the process.


Let’s take one or two contemporary examples for atatayis. In November 2008, ten members of the extremist terrorist organization carried out ruthless shooting and bombing attacks that lasted for four days across Mumbai, brutally killing 166 innocent people and wounding three hundred others, several of them guests and tourists in India from such countries as the United States, Israel and so on.

The terrorists reached India using a hijacked fishing trawler. In Mumbai they seized cars and split into different groups to carry out their relentless attacks at some of the most popular and prestigious places in the city, including the Taj Hotel. Using automatic weapons and grenades they wrecked havoc at the sites. The first site to be attacked was the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus [CST] where they opened indiscriminate fire into the teeming crowds there at the peak hour. Fifty-eight people fell victims to these shootings and over one hundred were injured.

Elsewhere they blew up a petrol pump. Attacking the Nariman House complex, they killed a Jewish rabbi and his wife and five other Israelis during a three-day siege. The terrorists had no mercy for women, old people or children. The two-year-old child of the rabbi survived only because of the presence of mind showed by his nanny who smuggled him away to safety.

Entering the popular Leopold Café, they shot and killed ten people dining there.

Entering the prestigious Taj Hotel, India’s national pride, by a side door that they broke down, they began spraying bullets at random and set off bombs under the hotel’s world famous central dome causing a massive fire that raged through the top floors of the hotel.

The terrorists continued to viciously spread death and devastation in other chosen locales in the city, putting into effect the plans they had made before they reached India.

The men who did these barbaric acts fit into what India called atatayis. Ancient India said killing them is no sin and added that eliminating such people was the duty of those who have vowed to protect the society – like the police and allied forces today, the kshatriyas in ancient days.


The Hindi movie Rowdy Rathore is centered on the asuri activities of a man called Baapji who along with his son Munna rules a vast network of villages with an iron hand ruthlessly torturing men, looting their wealth and raping women. With the help of a few pitiless henchman, Baapji has enslaved all the villagers who have no option but to submit themselves to his and his son’s lust, greed and sadism. They enjoy torturing the hapless villagers, their pain thrills them, and they laugh fiendishly watching them writhing in agony. It is a picture painted in a single colour: black. Pitch black with no shades of grey to it.

Even the police have no power over them because of Baapji’s political influence. They are constantly humiliated and made to dance to their tune. In a very disturbing scene we see a police inspector standing humbly before Baapji with his bead down because he wants his wife back – she has been carried away by Baapji’s son who is keeping her with him until his lust for her is satiated. The son comes out of his room along with the inspector’s wife who is in tears of agony and shame and bluntly tells he will give her back to him after two days and the inspector has no choice but to nod his head in agreement and go back. Such is the terror unleashed by Baapji even among the police.

Baapji and his son are atatayis and there is option to destroying them, which is precisely what the fearless local Assistant Commissioner of Police begins to do and his look alike goes about systematically achieving guided by the police.


“My name is Elena and I used to be a human being. Now I am a sex slave. If you are reading this diary then I am either dead or I have managed to escape…” thus begins Trafficked: The Diary of a Sex Slave by Sibel Hodge, a gritty, gripping novella inspired by accounts of real victims of sex slavery and research into the dark underworld of sex trafficking, an international business with networks spread across the world trafficking hundreds of thousands of victims including children and turning their lives into pure hell. Few escape this hell that usually lasts so long as the victims can be used for the purposes of the business. It has been estimated that around 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year – eighty percent of whom are women and girls according to the US State Department. The trafficked women and girls are crowded into rundown apartments and cramped, filthy trailers, and are forced to have sex with up to thirty customers a day. They are closely guarded at all times and many are beaten and repeated raped by brothel guards and the trafficking bosses.

The tens of thousands of men and women involved in this ruthless business are all atatayis.

Unspeakable atrocities were committed against young Nirbhaya in Delhi in 2012 by a group of rapists, arousing the righteous anger of the entire nation and making us demand the heads of the monsters who perpetrated those acts. The men who made hapless Nirbhaya undergo hell on earth are atatayis.


While these are extreme cases of atatayis from the fast paced modern world where the nature of crime itself has changed and new forms of crimes are invented every day, a perfect example for an atatayi from the Mahabharata world is Duryodhana. While he was still a child, even before he began his education under Kripa and later under Drona, he had already committed several monstrous crimes for which ancient Indian law books prescribed death as the punishment.

The first of his many atatayi acts the Mahabharata discusses in detail is the Pramanakoti attempt on the life of Bhima during which Duryodhana lovingly feeds him with his own hands food mixed the deadly kalakoota poison and then ties him up and throws him into the Ganga to drown. However the poison that would have killed a bull does not kill Bhima because of his almost superhuman constitution and he comes back alive. Duryodhana then once again plots to kill Bhima with poison more deadly than before. Yuyutsu, Duryodhana’s half-brother who was friendly with the Pandavas, informs Bhima of this and he in spite of knowing the food is poisoned, he swallows it all without being harmed in the least by it because of the medicinal treatments he had received in the land of the Nagas which he had reached after he was thrown into the Ganga at Pramanakoti. Duryodhana with the help of Shakuni and Karna makes attempt after attempt to end the life of the Pandavas – all of them, not just Bhima – for long, we are told by the Adi Parva of the epic.

evam duryodhanah karnah shakunis chaapi saubalah
anekair abhyupaayais taan jighaamsanti sma paandavaan.

– [MB BORI 01119042a-c] [MB GP Adi 129.40]

“Thus through numerous means Duryodhana, Karna and Shakuni the son of Subala repeatedly kept trying to kill the Pandavas.”

The attempts to end the life of the Pandavas of course continue after they grow up too. The jatugriha incident stands out as one of the worst atatayi acts from the ancient world. Instigated by Duryodhana, the Pandavas are told by Dhritarashtra that there is a grand festival in the Shiva temple in Varanavata and they should attend it – this happens when Yudhishthira is ruling as the crown prince. The Pandavas agree to go there with their mother, despite knowing it is a trap. A special palace had been built for them there under Duryodhana’s man Purochana, the plaster on the walls of the entire palace mixed with lacquer, a highly inflammable substance. The Pandavas escape with their lives from the palace of lacquer only because of Vidura’s advice and help.

[Incidentally, on a personal note, Varanavata is a mountain in the Himalayas on which I used to take daily walks for months during my younger days when I was in Tapovan Kuti in Uttar Kashi. The small Shiva temple still stands close by, just on the other side of the Ganga which flows between the Varanavata and the Hara Parvata. My param guru Swami Tapovanji Maharaj, a great Sanskrit scholar and the vidya guru of my guru Swami Chinmayanandaji, has written a Sanskrit poem in praise of Shiva there, called Saumya Kashisha Stotra.]

After escape from the house of lacquer and life in forests for years when the Pandavas, now in alliance with Drupada after their marriage with Draupadi, come back more powerful than before, Duryodhana refuses to give the kingdom back to Yudhishthira. Eventually the kingdom is divided and they are sent to the wilderness of Khandava. The Pandavas once again emerge as winners and turn Khandavaprastha into Indraprastha, their magnificent capital whose amazing glory awakens intolerable envy in Duryodhana. He snatches away their kingdom and all their wealth from them through a cunning, unfair dice game. Not content, an attempt is made to disrobe Draupadi in the dice hall in the presence of her husbands, her brothers-in-law, the kuru elders, and a large number of invited kings – perhaps the most shameful incident in all of ancient Indian history.

Duryodhana fits the term atatayi perfectly. And it is him and those who are in the battlefield fighting for him that Arjuna says he does not want to kill even though they are atatayis – because they are his swajana, his own people. The Gita is taught to Arjuna to show him how he is bound to do that unpleasant act in spite of his compunctions, since he is a soldier for dharma, a dharma yoddha, sworn to protect righteousness and destroy unrighteousness.


When the world is corrupt and men in power are following wickedness, we have two options: We can either join hands with the corruption or fight to destroy it. Joining the corruption is the way of the ordinary man. He finds it not only easier but the right thing to do in his personal interest and in the interest of his family. This is what the Upanishads call the path of preyas – the road widely travelled, the tempting, easy path that takes us nowhere. Fighting to end corruption and to destroy the corrupt is the way of the hero, which very few opt to do. The Upanishads call it the path of shreyas, the road less travelled, the path of the heroes, of the dhiras, the path that leads to success for the individual and the good of the world. Speaking about these two paths, the Katha Upanishad, from which several verses appear in the Gita verbatim, says:

anyachchreyo’nyadutaiva preyah
te ubhe naanaarthe purusham sineetah
tayoh shreya aadadanasya saadhu bhavati
heeyate’rthaad ya u preyo vrneete

Shreyas and preyas are different from each other. Man comes across a choice between these two and good happens to those who choose shreyas. Those who choose preyas miss their goal and fall.

Shreyas is the path of lasting good, the path less travelled, the path that leads to fulfillment and glory, the path that makes life worth living. And preyas is the path widely travelled, the path of short-lived success, of illusory victories and joys, and ultimately of disappointments and depression. The man who travels by that path finds in the end that he has wasted his life.

When Arjuna says ‘only sin will be ours by killing these atatayis,’ he is choosing the path of preyas, the path of momentary joys and illusory successes that will eventually lead him nowhere. What he wants to do is to abandon his responsibilities as a kshatriya and as a prince and to run away from the scene of the war because it is his own people he will have to fight against. He forgets that not doing anything against the wicked and letting them continue with their wickedness amounts to practicing wickedness himself.

Destroying atatayis is one of the first duties of a kshatriya, something he is taught to live for right from his infancy. He is taught from his earliest days that felons who commit felony have to be punished for their crimes not only to prevent them from committing more such crimes but also as a lesson for others who might have a tendency to do commit such crimes.

Running away from the battlefield is not a choice that Arjuna has.


India has always been interested in leadership as a subject. Both of our grand epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, could be seen as studies in effective leadership. Besides, while the Ramayana has chapters devoted exclusively to leadership, much of the largest parva of the Mahabharata, the Shanti Parva, is devoted to the exploration of leadership. Apart from this, several of our Puranas and all our dharma shastras contain sections of raja dharma, the dharma of leaders.

The Mahabharata clearly states that kingship was invented to protect the weak from exploitation by the strong. And according to Krishna, the teachings of the Gita are the same as what was taught to rajarshis – seer kings or philosopher kings – in India from the beginning of time: how to live for others, how to make service to the people their religion, their way of worshipping the Divine.

And in its discussions of leadership, India insisted that a leader has to be heroic and fearless in destroying evil and protecting the good. When adharma raises its head in the society, it is the duty of the leader – the king in the old days and modern leaders today – to destroy it from the roots. It is this role of the leader that Krishna is reminding Arjuna by asking him to stay in the warfield and fight and destroy ways of evil by destroying those who practice them. As Krishna sees it, turning away from this noble responsibility would make Arjuna a coward, which is what Krishna would call him when he lashes out at his friend for contemplating running away from the battlefield.

Several students of the Bhagavad Gita see the battle of Kurukshetra as a battle between the powers of darkness and the powers of light, among them Mahatma Gandhi. Just as in political life today and in the past, in our organizational life too darkness is widespread. Not all organizations are committed to the good of the society, the basic commitment in most of them being to the single motive – profit. And some of these organizations do not mind going to any extremes for maximizing profits. While we cannot do without organizations, it is important that the practices of the organizations are founded on ethics and they are committed to what ancient India called lokasangraha, the common good. And when they fail to do so, it becomes the duty of leaders within and outside the organization to fight and end organizational corruption.

The numerous whistle blower movies we have speak of ethically committed leaders raising their voices against corruption from within the organization, a brilliant example for which is whistleblower Mathew Lee whom a Wall Street Journal article called ‘perhaps the lone hero of the ugly collapse of Lehman Brothers.’ Mathew Lee, an employee of the corrupt firm, showed the tremendous will power to stand up against his powerful employers and raised red flags about the company’s accounting, risking his life itself. Movies like Erin Brockovich based on the life of a real life activist speak of leaders – anyone who has leadership qualities is a leader, whether he or she in the position of an organizational leader or not – risking their lives to fight against the evil that organizations do.

Active opposition to evil does not necessarily mean violent opposition to evil. For Krishna the war – the path of violence – was always the very last choice. As the Mahabharata shows us again and again, Krishna would do all that is within his powers to avoid the war – sometimes risking his life, sometime accepting humiliation on himself. But if the war becomes absolutely necessary in spite of all this, then he is ready for that too.

And that is the path of heroic leadership which Krishna wants all of us to walk, just as he taught Arjuna how to walk that path fearlessly, with unwavering attention on his goal.

Continued to Next Page 


More by :  Satya Chaitanya

Top | Hinduism

Views: 3344      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.