Living Gita: 40: People are People

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hato vaa praapsyasi swargam jitwaa vaa bhokshyase maheem tasmaad uttishtha kaunteya yuddhaaya kritanishchayah ll 2.37 ll

If you are killed in battle, you will go to heaven; and if you win, you will enjoy the earth. Therefore, Arjuna, resolve to fight and get up.


In the previous article, discussing verse 36, we saw how Krishna comes down to the level of Arjuna to motivate him using his need for keerti, a strong need all kshatriyas shared. Krishna uses the word samarthya there:

avaachya-vaadaamsh-cha bahoon vadishyanti tavaahitaah
nindantastava saamarthyam tato duhkhataram nu kim
ll 2.36 ll

Krishna’s choice of the word there is brilliant but for reasons of space we could not go into the implications of the word but we shall do so here before proceeding further.

Samarthya or samarthata means competence, the ability to do something, a competence which at its height becomes excellence, the ability to do something brilliantly, a word that was extremely close to India’s heart in the ancient days. Our name for the master of all beings, the prajapati, was Daksha. Dakshata, competence or excellence was the Indian ideal in every field and India excelled in whatever field it went into, be it spirituality, literature, music, medicine, astrology, astronomy, mathematics, linguistics, erotics, aesthetics, natya-shastra, just name it.

No other culture went into such depths of spirituality as India did. For instance, moksha or apunarbhava, which the Buddhists call nirvana, is an understanding spiritual traditions from no other land speak of, most of them stopping at heaven, which is something that India holds in contempt saying that heaven is just a state of mind, a happy state no doubt, and even if you imagine it as a place of pure happiness, it is going to come to an end when your good karmas end and you are going to be born again on this earth – ksheene punye martya-lokam vishanti, as the Upanishads say.

Krishna in the Gita says speaking of heaven:

yaam imaam pushpitaam vaacham pravadanty-avipashchitah
veda-vaada-rataah paartha naanyad asteeti vaadinah
ll 2.42 ll

“Unwise are those, Arjuna, who speak about [the rituals of] the Vedas, who are obsessed with desires, who look upon heaven as the highest and argue that there is nothing beyond it, that there is nothing beyond pleasures.”

Just as India went deeper into spirituality, we also developed so many spiritual paths for man: ashtanga yoga, shakta tantra, shaiva tantra, vaishnava tantra, Buddhist tantra, jain tantra, swara yoga, laya yoga, nada yoga, raja yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga, janna yoga, kundlaini yoga, sahaja yoga, the list is endless.

India achieved such excellence in literature that we see Vedic poetry can compete with the best and the latest in world poetry. Look at this poem from the Rig Veda called Suryaa’s Bridal Journey for instance:

The raibhi metre was her bridal friend,
The narashamsi hymn her escort home.
Lovely was Suryaa’s robe,
Decorated by the gatha song.
Thought was the pillow of her couch,
Sight was the unguent of her eyes.
Her jewellery was the sky and the earth,
When Suryaa to her husband went.” [RV.X.85.6-7]
Or take the Hymn of Creation from the Rig Veda, called the Nasadiya Sukta, frequently called the most beautiful philosophical or mystical poem in existence, of which I am giving here only an English translation but to know the real beauty of which you should listen to it in the original Sanskrit:
There was neither non-reality nor reality then,
There was no air nor sky.
What covered it and where?
And whose was the shelter?
Was water there, fathomless and deep?
Death then existed not, nor life immortal,
Neither of night nor of day
Was there any sign.
The one breathed,
Airless, by self-impulse.
Apart from it was nothing whatsoever.

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning
With no distinguishing sign.
All this was water.
The life force that was covered with emptiness

That one arose through the power of heat.
There arose primal Desire in the beginning
The first seed of the mind
Wise sages searched into the heart of mystery
and found Existence’s kinship with Non-existence.
We were easily the most advanced people in medicine in the ancient world, including in surgery. The book Bharat ke Pranacharya or Masters of Medical Science in Ancient India, a product of Ratnakar Shastry’s lifelong research into the subject, speaks of the excellence we achieved in medicine. The Shushruta Samhita gives us drawing of 125 surgical instruments used by him!
And in mathematics, there were no rivals to India. Advanced mathematics in the west begins with Pythagoras who came to india with the specific aim of learning Indian philosophy and mathematics. What we have all studied as the Pythagoras theorem in school is actually an Indian theorem by Baudhayana, several hundred years prior to Pythagoras, originally used for constructing fire pits for Vedic sacrifices. And the numerals known all over the world today actually originated in India from where it went to the Arabs and cme to be known as the Arabic numerals. Zero, of course, so central to all mathematics and to computers, was originally an Indian number which no other culture had.
Our achievements in music are unparalleled. To us music was divine, a subsidiary Veda called the Gandharva Veda, and we associated each of the basic six ragas of music with a season, a time of the day and a deity. Indian music divides the octave into twenty-two shrutis or demi-semitones, says the You Tube video Origin of Music: Sama Veda. These microtonal intervals permit, continues the video, fine shades of musical expression unattainable by western chromatic scale of twelve semitones.
To us, music was one of the paths that led to God.

We raised excellence to such an extent that we said excellence is divine and wherever there is excellence, it is divinity itself, God himself.  Yad yad vibhootimat sattvam shreemad oorjitam eva va; tattad eva avagachhas tvam mama tejo’msha-sambhavam, says the Gita: “Whatever is splendid, whatever is endowed with glory, whatever is filled with energy, understand that as born of a part of me [God].”

We saw God in excellence.


When Krishna says those who wish bad for Arjuna will ridicule his samarthyam, Krishna means much more than what the words say.

Arjuna is one of the highest examples for excellence from ancient India. His samarthya, his dakshata, was the highest in his chosen field. Even as a student, he excelled. He was born with a passion to excel as subsequent events show. Podf course, none of us comes into this world as empty slates – we all bring with us karmas, vasanas and samskaras from our innumerable past existences. Our past life scripts accompany us into this lifetime, which is one reason why we must write positive life scripts in this life time.

No learning we do, no good karma we do, is ever wasted. Avashyam anubhoktavyam krtam karma shubhaashubham, the past masters said, and they meant neither our bad karmas nor our god karmas ever abandon us.  

There is an interesting story about how his own guru, Dronacharya, tried to stop Arjuna from excelling in archery and failed. The story found in the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata says that one day Drona told the gurukula cook never to serve a meal to Arjuna in the dark. The instruction was specifically about Arjuna, not about all the students, and the as we read the story we are confused – why would the great acharya give such an instruction to his cook?

We reaslize the why of it only after subsequent events happen. As ordered, the cook was careful never to serve Arjuna a meal in the dark but one day while Arjuna was having his supper the wind blew out the lamp and Arjuna continued to eat in the dark. And in the middle of that night Dro0na was woken up from his sleep by the booming sound of a bow string being released. Drona came and saw exactly what he had feared: Arjuna was practicing shooting in the dark.

Drona until that day wanted his own son Ashwathama to be his best student and the best archer in the land. He had done things a guru should not do to to make Ashwatthama the best and to prevent any other student from becoming the best and in every one of these dark games the guru played Arjuna had beaten him. This time too Arjuna had done exactly that. Just as he could eat in the dark, Arjuna had intuited that he could also shoot in the dark. Whch is the eventuality that Drona had foreseen and wanted to prevent with his cunning.

It should be said to Drona’s honour that on that night he changed. He hugged Arjuna with tears in his eyes moved by his commitment and dedication and said that now he would see that Arjuna became the best archer in the whole world. And that is what happened too, as we all know.

That was Arjuna – a man whose name is synonymous with samarthya.

Karna’s bitter rivalry with Arjuna was about their samarthya. Karna wanted to beat Arjuna in samarthya. When Karna entered the rangavedi and challenged Arjuna while Drona’s students were displaying their skill in dhanurvidya, it was to prove that he was superior to Arjuna in samarthya – at least no less than Arjuna in samarthya – that Karna wanted. He was denied the opportunity because of his supposedly lower birth as we all know. But Karna kept his rivalry with Arjuna alive till his very end. When his mother Kunti asked him to join the Pandavas he told her he cannot do that but instead would promise to spare the lives of all her sons except that  of Arjuna. He told her either Arjuna or he would live, thus still leaving her with five sons, such was his rivalry with Arjuna, for which there was no reason other than the question who had greater samarthya as a warrior.

Perhaps the darkest stain on Drona is the Ekalavya incident in which seeing that the nishada has superior samarthya in archery than Arjuna had, he asked for the boy’s thumb as his gurudakshina though he had not given Ekalavya a single lesson – this too was to retain Arjuna’s fame as the best young man in samarthya in archery.

How Arjuna won Draupadi as is wife was also through his samarthya,

Samarthya is so important to Arjuna that he had vowed to kill anyone who had questioned his samarthya and the samarthya of his bow Gandiva. At one stage during the eighteen-day war Yudhishthira, smarting from defeat and humiliation by Karna, questioned both Arjuna’s samarthya and the samarthya of the Gandiva for failing to kill Karna in that day’s battle. When he did that, Arjuna wanted to kill Yudhishthira from which it was only with great difficulty that Krishna could prevent him, such was Arjuna’s feelings towards his samarthya.

It is this samarthya that Krishna says people would laugh at if he refused to fight the war. Krishna knows that the one thing Arjuna is more proud of than anything else is his samarthya and that saying people would question that will really hurt Arjuna.

For all men of excellence, samarthya is important and they cannot tolerate an insult or a wound to it. When I was young and used to live and study in an ashram, I used to help in the international headquarters of the organization to which the ashram belonged – it was a huge organization with branches in more than a hundred countries across the world. Working voluntarily with me after his retirement was someone who in his earlier days used to be the Managing Director of several leading corporate houses of the country. He was an excellent driver with a passion for driving but one day, now in his seventies, for the first time in his life he had a driving accident. A very simple man, a wonderful human being, sensitive to the core, he took the accident as a failure of his skill and I remember how he remained in deep gloom about it and couldn’t sleep for many, many nights.

Krishna wanted to awaken in Arjuna’s heart lokabheeti, the fear of censure by the world, in order to reawaken in Arjuna his commitment to dharma and make him fight the war for dharma.  The world needed the war for destroying the philosophy among leaders of the day that power was an end in itself. And Krishna knew more than anything else this is what was going to work because people questioning his competence is something that Arjuna will not be able to accept at all.

I am sure when Krishna tod Arjuna people would laugh at him ridiculing his skill, the image of Karna and Duryodhana laughing at him came to his mind.

During Yudhisthira’s rajasuya sacrifice, while touring the ‘palace of illusions’ that Maya had made for them, Duryodhana had experienced sthala-jala-bhranti, had taken the floor for water and water for the floor, while Draupadi was standing and watching along with her maids. The maids had burst out laughing at Duryodhana’s embarrassment though Draupadi did not. She maintained a dignified silence. But when Duryodhana reported the incident to Dhritarashtra back at Hastinapura, what he said was that she had laughed at him along with her maids, which insult to his intelligence is something that couldn’t forgive. [A dialogue that has become very popular about this scene is that seeing Duryodhana stepping into water thinking it was solid floor Draupadi had laughed aloud and said ‘andhe ka beta andha hi hoga,’ the son of the blind too will be blind. There is nothing like this in the Sanskrit epic and it is totally illogical. We know the children of the blind are not necessarily blind. Besides, such speech befits a common woman of the street and not the stately Draupadi.] It is in part to avenge this insult to his samarthya that he humiliates Drauapdi in the dice hall so horribly, perhaps the most shameful and shocking incident in all of Indian lore.   


In our last article we discussed how Arjuna’s predominant guna is rajas, how his needs are predominantly rajasic and how the way to motivate him is the way rajasic people are motivated. Understanding people from the standpoint of the gunas is one of the most important ways of understanding people. But there are other ways too, though none of them is totally unrelated to the gunas. As we just saw, Arjuna’s whole life is a search for excellence, a constant striving for excellence. A lifelong learner, he excelled in what he did and his self-image as an outstanding individual is extremely important to him. Just as Karna had a need to prove that he is superior to Arjuna, he too had a need to prove that he is superior to everyone in his chosen field, including Karna. Esteem needs are extremely important to rajasic individuals, just as power needs are. Just as a brahmana’s life is driven by his intellectual and spiritual needs, by his search for peace and serenity,  by his constant striving for the higher in life driven by his sattva guna, a kshatriya is driven by  the need for esteem which comes through power and authority over others. the German philosopher Nietzsche speaks of ‘the will to power’ – if anyone can exemplify the will to power, it is the  kshatriya – and I don’t mean a kshatriya by birth but a kshatriya by gunas, exactly as Krishna means the word in the Gita. The kshatriya seeks power because it is through power that prestige comes, which is his central need.

Insulting samarthya leads to loss of prestige which a kshatriya cannot tolerate. He may even go on a war because his prestige, his honour, has been challenged by someone.

All people have egos. Speaking about one of the seven people truths, Tom Peters, author of the world’s first Management best seller, says: people are people and they have egos. It is a universal fact, something true even about very saintly people. And one of the most effective ways of mentoring, guiding, counseling, teaching, and leading people is to appeal positively to their egos and to their ego needs. These ego needs differ from person to person. During one of my Management Development Programmes for senior corporate executives I asked them what they expected from their jobs and here are some of answers they gave me in writing, showing how people’s needs differ:

  • “I want to make a difference in what I do at work.”
  • “I love to travel and this job provides me with the opportunity.”
  • “I’m a bit of a show-off really so that’s why I demonstrate products to people.”
  •  “I get a kick from solving problems. The bigger the problem, the more I love it.”
  • “I look forward to coming to work because we have a great team and I love to be with them.”
  • “I like this job because I am always learning new things. I have developed enormously here.”
  • “I’ll be honest. I need the money and I work here because the pay is good.”
  • “What motivates me is a fear of failure. I never let people down.”
  • There is nothing like a challenge. It’s great when my boss throws a challenge at me.”
  • “I just want to be liked and loved, to be honest with you. When I am praised and appreciated then I am motivated.”
  • “A sense of achievement is what motivates me. I am always wanting to achieve things.”

Don’t think what motivates you is what motivates others. Each one of us is motivated by different things. The deer is delighted by fresh grass. The lion by the young deer’s meat.

I have heard:

You cannot put a big load in small bag
Nor can you, with a short rope,
Draw water from a deep well.

You cannot talk to a politician
As if he were a wise man.

Have you not heard how a bird from the sea
Was blown inshore and landed
Outside the capital of Lu?

The Prince ordered a solemn reception,
Offered the sea bird wine in the sacred precinct,
Called for musicians to play the compositions of Shun, Slaughtered cattle to nourish it:

Dazed with symphonies, the unhappy sea bird
Died of despair.
How should you treat a bird?
As yourself
Or as a bird?
Ought not a bird to nest in deep woodland
Or fly over meadow and marsh?
Ought it not to swim in river and pond,
Feed on eels and fish,
Fly in formation with other seabirds,
And rest in the reeds?
Bad enough for a sea bird
To be surrounded by men
And frightened by their voices!

That was not enough!
They killed it with music!
Play all the symphonies you like
On the marshlands of Thung-Ting.

The birds will fly away
In all directions;
The animals will hide;
The fish will dive to the bottom;
But men will gather around to listen.

Water is for fish
And air for men.
Natures differ, and needs with them.
Hence the wise men of old
Did not lay down
One measure for all. 

That is why Tom Peters says: Motivation is a door closed from the inside. Only a person himself can truly motivate him, no one else. Of course if you know that person well, from deep within him, you can help him motivate himself. That is what Krishna is doing here: help his friend motivate himself. Giving him the drive needed to motivate himself. Krishna knows Arjuna well, even better than Arjuna knows himself. After all, Krishna is the antaryami, the antaratma of all – the one inside us all, the one who controls us from within us. Sarvasya chaaham hrdi sannivishtah, as he says in the Gita: I am present in the heart of all.

Remember the words emotion and motivation come from the same root word. What motivates us is our emotions, what will motivate others is their emotions. Lokaninda, the censure of the world, is a powerful motivating factor and that is what the master guru, the best friend, philosopher and guide a man can ever have, Krishna, is using with Arjuna.  

In many primitive societies they have no rules, no laws for social control, to maintain social order. All they have is ridicule and the fear of ridicule by one’s own people keeps the entire society ethical, bound to its mores, customs and traditions. They do not need any other means of social control, any other means of social regulation.


Be careful about stepping on people’s egos. A man might forgive someone stepping on his foot, but never on his ego. Stepping on someone’s ego is like stepping on a deadly snake- the snake turns around and bites. There is no escaping that. The bard of avon said hell hath no fury like a woman spurned. Being spurned is unbearable to all, men and women. And arrogant people tend to spurn others, which is the reason why an arrogant person cannot be a good friend, a good colleague, a good boss, a good husband or a good wife, or anything good for that matter. Arrogance antagonizes all.

Humiliate the ego, you become an enemy forever. Even Rama, always the model for behaviour with people,  had to pay a high price for once for humiliating someone. When Shurpanakha came to him and requested him to marry her, he sent her to Lakshmana, telling her he is without a wife. Lakshmana sent her back to Rama and then an infuriated Shurpanakha attempted to eat up Sita – the rakshasas were cannibals. The subsequent actions of Lakshmana on the orders of Rama led to the entire later events of the Ramayana, including Sita’s abduction by Ravana and her subsequent imprisonment in Lanka for almost one full year, every day of which was like everlasting hell of Sita.

One of my students once submitted to me an article as her assignment on leadership. The article was almost ninety percent from Wikipedia and, besides, was totally irrelevant to the topic. You cannot expect high marks for copy-pasting form the Net and her marks were naturally low. The student was so furious with me for the rest of the year – she was my student for two consecutive semesters, doing two different courses – and I remember her turning abusive in her fury, making me sad for her.   There is a widespread belief that Hitler became the monster he eventually became because he was spurned by women for his short height, his lack of self confidence, his plain looks and other poor qualities. Six million jews were forced to live nightmare lives in concentration camps and eventually killed there, either poisoned in gas chambers or by other means. A man’s ego wounded and hell results.

Wounding the ego creates hell.

But the ego can also be used constructively, creatively, for noble purposes. Which is what Krishna is doing here. He is using the power of the ego to motivate Arjuna to fight for the good of all, to take up weapons against adharma, and to accept the golden challenge the samashti has brought to Arjuna as agift – the dharma yuddha.

Krishna asurres Arjuna he has nothing to lose, whether he wins or loses. “If you are killed in battle, you will go to heaven; and if you win, you will enjoy the earth. Therefore, Arjuna, stand up, determined to fight.”

hato vaa praapsyasi swargam jitwaa vaa bhokshyase maheem
tasmaad uttishtha kaunteya yuddhaaya kritanishchayah
ll 2.37 ll

Veeraswarga, the heaven of the heroes, is something every Mahabharata warrier looked forward to and that is what Krishna is talking about here, having climbed down from the heights of Upanishadic wisdom to Arjuna’s current level. In doing that, Krishna is following the ancient Indian tradition of beginning teaching at the highest level and then gradually climbing down to lower levels.

Continued to Next Page  


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