Vedic management recommends the path of shreyas as against the path of preyas to individuals and organizations. The path of shreyas always wins even when it appears to lose, say the Vedas; and the path of preyas is a loser’s path, they say, even when it appears to be winning. Vedic wisdom tells us that management based on the path of preyas will eventually lead to disaster whereas management based on shreyas will lead to lasting good.
Let’s take a look at what shreyas and preyas mean.
This is a story told by Kanika, Dhritarashtra’s minister in the Mahabharata, by way of advising the Kuru king on administrative policy. After narrating the story, Kanika sums it up saying: “If kings always act in this way, they can be happy.” According to Kanika then, the story teaches us the way to achieve not only organizational and personal goals, but also happiness.
Let’s now listen to Kanika’s story, which he calls the story of ‘a wise jackal fully acquainted with the science of polity.’
Once upon a time there lived five friends in a jungle: a jackal, a tiger, a wolf, a mongoose and a mouse. One day they saw a mighty deer in the prime of his youth – he was the leader of the herd, powerfully built, fleet of foot and majestic in every way. The friends were tempted and the tiger, the fastest and mightiest of the friends, made many attempts to kill it but he failed every time as the stag was always on the alert and it ran swifter than him.
Eventually the friends sat in counsel over the matter. It was the jackal who came up with the idea. They will wait for the deer to sleep and when he sleeps, the mouse will stealthily crawl to him and bite his leg. Once wounded, the deer will no more be able to run as fast as he does and then the tiger can hunt it down easily and they can all feast upon it.
And that’s exactly how they went about it. Soon the just killed deer was lying before them, its young meat making their mouths water. However, before they began their feast, the jackal, the wisest of them all, said, “Friends, we have done that. Now go, perform your ablutions and come back. In the meantime, I shall guard the kill.”
Everyone knows a bath is important before a meal. Especially when it is a special feast.
The tiger was the first to come back. When he reached where the deer he had killed lay, he saw the jackal sitting beside it lost in deep meditation. “What’s wrong, friend?” asked the tiger. “You look so sad.”
“Well,” said the jackal, “it’s what the mouse just said. He was saying “Fie on the strength of the king of the beasts! I have killed this deer and the mighty king of the jungle shall gratify his hunger today by the might of my arm!’”
When the tiger heard this, he became so indignant he turned around and walked away in disgust. He was not going to touch the meat if that’s how the mouse felt. He vowed never to eat meat in future unless he himself had made the kill.
The mouse was the next to come. And the jackal told him, “Listen dear friend, to what the mongoose has said. He said, ‘The carcass of this deer is poison since the tiger has touched it with his claws. I will not eat of it. On the other hand, if you, O jackal, will permit it, I’ll kill the mouse and feast on him.'” The mouse heard this and bolted into the nearest bush, running for his life.
Now came the wolf and the jackal told him, “O my dear wolf! The king of the beasts is angry with you. Evil is sure to fall on you. He is expected here with his wife any moment. Do as you please.” The wolf fled from the spot as fast as he could.
It was then that the last of the friends, the mongoose, came. The jackal looked sternly at him and said, “Look mongoose. With the might of my arms I have driven away all the others. If you want to have the meat, fight me first.” The mouse decided not to fight the jackal that had driven away the tiger, the wolf and the mouse with his might and slunk away.
And the jackal had the entire deer to himself.
Kanika concludes the story: “If kings always act as the jackal did, they can be happy.”
It is the Kathopanishad, belonging to the Yajur Veda, that tells us of shreyas and preyas. Speaking of the two, the Upanishad says: “Shreyas is one thing and preyas, another... Of these two, the one who chooses shreyas comes to good and the one chooses preyas misses his goal. Both shreyas and preyas appear before man and wise men distinguish between the two. The intelligent ones choose shreyas over preyas and fools choose preyas hoping to attain and retain things.”
Preyas here is immediate good and shreyas, lasting good. Preyas is the transient and shreyas, the enduring. Preyas is short term satisfaction and shreyas, long term good.
Fools choose preyas and intelligent ones, shreyas, says the Upanishad.
Now let’s take a look at the jackal in the story whom Kanika, the narrator, calls a wise animal, fully acquainted with the science of polity.
Is the jackal really wise?
Taken superficially, the jackal indeed appears wise. He gets his friends to kill the deer and gets the whole deer for himself through his polity. The jackal appears admirable and his path promises success and happiness. As Kanika puts it, “If kings always act like the jackal, they can be happy.”
However, when we look at the story a little more deeply, we find the jackal is not all that wise or intelligent. True he gets the whole deer for himself, but does he need it? Except satisfying his vanity, his ego, his greed, does it serve any purpose?
Can he, for instance, eat the whole deer, which in all probability is larger than him? Can he preserve it for the next day in the jungle? Wouldn’t the meat start rotting soon and become inedible by the next day? Can he share it with his friends, if not preserve it? But he has no other friends – it is from the friends he had that he has snatched it away.
Remember all five of the animals were friends living together in the same forest. What if the other animals talked among themselves? What happens when they learn that they have betrayed by the jackal to satisfy his greed? Made them look like idiots? What happens when they learn that he has played them against one another?
Even as it is, the team, which was their strength, has been destroyed. So long as the wolf believes the tiger is out to get him, he is not going to go anywhere near the tiger. And the mouse will always be suspicious of the mongoose from now. And the mongoose will never help the jackal in another hunt because he believes he will then have to fight the jackal for his share of the meat.
The jackal by himself is not capable of killing another deer like this.
By creating suspicion against one another in the minds of his friends, the jackal has not only destroyed the team but has also sowed seeds of mistrust and darkness in the hearts of every one of them.
All this so that he can have the whole deer to himself, though he can neither eat it all, nor preserve it for future, nor share it with others.
This precisely is preyas – immediate satisfaction as against long term good.
The jackal’s action is stupidity itself. As a team they could have killed hundreds of deer but now all he has is that single deer.
This is what the Upanishad means when it says fools choose the path of preyas.
The entire Mahabharata, from which we get the story of this deer-slayers, could be seen an epic essay on preyas vs shreyas.
Of the two Bharata cousins, Duryodhana consistently chooses preyas and Yudhishthira always goes for shreyas.
The kingdom of the Bharatas actually belongs to Yudhishthira. On completion of his studies, Yudhishthira was made crown prince initially as the successor of his father Pandu who was king before him. But Duryodhana gets rid of him through treachery and occupies the throne. Eventually as Yudhishthira becomes strong again, as a compromise solution, the kingdom is partitioned, Duryodhana getting the prosperous part of the kingdom with its original capital and Yudhishthira, a wilderness. But so good is Yudhishthira as a king that he succeeds in transforming that wilderness into a powerful, rich kingdom in a few years and then Duryodhana once again snatches it away from him through treachery in a game of dice. As per the conditions of the dice game, Yudhishthira and his brothers, along with their common wife Draupadi, is forced to live in jungles for twelve years, following which they had to live a year a life in disguise, during which if they were found, they would have to repeat the cycle. Even though they complete the thirteen years successfully, Duryodhana refuses to give their kingdom back to them and war becomes inevitable. And in the war, Duryodhana not only loses all of his kingdom, but also all his brothers and near and dear ones, and eventually loses his own life.
Duryodhana throughout follows the path of preyas. It does give him immediate satisfaction, but eventually he is the loser. Had he followed the path of shreyas even at a later stage, he could have remained king all his life and at his death, his successors could have become kings. Choosing preyas destroyed all these possibilities. Besides, he led the land of India to unspeakable loss. Such was the devastation caused by the war, it took ages for it to resurrect again.
It is interesting that Kanika tells the story of the jackal in answer to a question by Dhritarashtra about how to destroy foes. Here it is friends who are destroyed, and not foes – the Pandavas were not really Duryodhana’s foes but cousins, and under different circumstances could have become his best friends, especially Yudhishthira. Perhaps there is a lesson there – greed erases the distinction between friends and foes.
The current world situation that we are experiencing, forcing us to think seriously of survival plans as we recently did at Copenhagen Summit, is a result of our consistently choosing preyas over shreyas. If our natural resources are fast coming to an end, not to be created again for millions of years to come, it is because we have chosen preyas over shreyas. If we are polluting our air, polluting our water, creating the greenhouse effect and causing world temperatures to rise and making glaciers all over the world to melt, it is because we have chosen preyas over shreyas.
Vedic literature gives us three consumption models: the angaraka [angarika], the malakara and the madhukari models.
The angaraka model is based on the profession of the coal seller. He goes to the jungle, cuts down trees, burns them down to make coal and sells this in the market. To him each tree is worth only the coal it can provide. The oxygen the tree provides, the shade and shelter it provides, the flowers and fruits it gives season after season, and its capacity to reproduce practically an endless number of young tress – none of these amount to anything to him. He reduces the tree to coal and sells it. In his hands, an entire forest is soon reduced to coal, never to bloom again, never to give oxygen to the world, never to have flowers and fruits, never to grow and reproduce.
This is the world’s model for consumption today and this is how we have been consuming the earth’s resources since the industrial revolution. And if this pattern of consumption continues, time is not far when the earth will become a totally inhospitable planet, as there are strong possibilities that it may any day become.
Malakaropamo rajan bhava ma’ngarikopamah, says the Mahabharata, asking us not to behave like the angaraka and suggesting to us a different model for consumption – that of the malakara, the garland maker. The garland maker goes from plant to plant and plucks flowers from them but he does not destroy the plant. And since he does not destroy the plant, there will be more flowers tomorrow. He never depletes his resources, unlike the angaraka.
What the Mahabharata is suggesting to us here is the sustainable of model of consumption. Taking from the world in such a way that we do not exhaust it in our greed and blindness. The Mahabharata is talking here about not making the forests of the world disappear. The Mahabharata is talking about not making plant, animal and bird species not disappear from the world.
I saw recently a programme on, I believe, the Discovery channel. In some part of Africa birds eat paddy crops cultivated by local farmers. These birds live in large groups in trees around farmlands. What the local farmers do in order to protect their crops is set fire to all the jungles around simultaneously, using explosives. A single explosion and the resultant fire frequently kill as many as three million birds at one go.
Because of the sustained use of chemical sprays on farmlands, honeybees are disappearing from many parts of the world, including India. What we are doing is suicidal. Apart from other facts, such as the honeybees’ right to live in this world and so on, even for farming honeybees are essential – they are the main pollinators for many crops. Honeybees are among the farmer’s best friends and yet what the chemicals he sprays do is kill them en masse.
Following the malakara approach to consumption of the earth’s resources would mean avoiding such blind brutalities committed against nature.
The Mahabharata does not stop at giving us the example of the malakara as a wise model of consumption. It goes further and asks us to follow a model still superior in our consumption practices – the madhukari vritti. The madhukari is the same honeybee that we are destroying all over the world. The Mahabharata holds them up as an ideal for the best way we should live in harmony with nature.
Madhukari vritti is the way of the honeybees. The honeybee goes from flower to flower and what it takes from each flower is a tiny bit of honey. In return, the honey makes the survival of the plant or tree itself possible. What it takes is so little, and what it gives back is so much. This is the ideal form of consumption according to our ancient ethos.
India has always lived, until very recent times, by the madhukari vritti – the honeybee way. Ours kings were always asked to take as little from their subjects as possible and give them as much as possible and the vast majority of kings – unlike today’s politicians – strove to live up to that example. Our monks – the rishis, the sannyasis and the bhikshus – lived by that example. What they took from the society was a meal a day from the society – some of them, like the legendary philosopher-sage Kanada, refused to do even that and lived on what they could pick up grain by grain from the floor after crops have been harvested. And what they returned to the world was the highest gifts possible – knowledge, guidance and care. In the gurukulas of ours, great masters to whom students came from all over the world lived in unbelievable simplicity and gave the world everything they can. Chanakya, the first empire builder of India and the chief minister of Chandragupta Maurya, a contemporary of Alexander the Great, continued to live in a simple hut even as the most powerful chief minister in India at that time, refusing to take anything more than the bare minimum from the king-emperor he had made. And once he saw that the empire and the emperor were established, he refused to take even that and went back to his original profession of teaching. Chanakya’s management thoughts, by the way, have guided India for around two thousand three hundred years. His monumental Arthashastra, the book of statecraft, is unsurpassed even by today’s works on the subject.
And this is the vision we have consciously tried to live up to until recent times, though that style is fast disappearing.
The father of a friend of mine, a senior IAS officer, refused to take medical reimbursement from the government, though as a senior IAS officer he had a right to do this for his own and his family’s medical treatments. He believed that it is unethical to claim such reimbursement – diseases were the result of our wrong styles of living and we have no right to claim from others, including the government, expenses incurred on account of them.
The Indian ideal has from the time of the Vedic sages been the madhukari vritti. If we cannot follow the madhukari vritti, we should follow at least the malakara vritti and never the angaraka vritti. We owe this to the world, to ourselves and to our future generations.
I remember a recent television commercial in which two boys are talking. One boy says when he grows up he would like to be a wild life photographer. The other boy laughs at this and says there would be no animals then. Then the first boy thinks a little and says in that case he would like to be a forest officer – and his friend reminds him there will be no trees left by then. At that time the first boy hears the sound of a car and says in that case he would be a fast car racer – and his friend laughs at him again, saying there will be no petrol left by the time they grow up.
If we do not want this to happen, then we have to follow the wisdom of our ancients and follow the madhukari vritti or at least the malakara vritti.
Vedic management is management that leads to shreyas – both madhukari vritti and malakara vritti lead to shreyas. Our current management practices lead to preyas – immediate satisfaction, followed by lasting disaster.
Vedic management would take corporate social and environmental responsibilities far more seriously than we do now. To a vast majority of industries and businesses today, CSR and CER are no more than things that fetch them good grades, things they have no option but to do.
Here is something one of my students from Xavier Institute of Management & Research, Mumbai wrote in response to an assignment I had given them in a course I taught there in Indian Ethos in Management earlier this year.
“Very few corporations are working to protect the environment. It is against their interest to take initiatives to reduce consumption and most corporations oppose laws designed to protect the environment because they hurt their business. Corporations have caused environmental destruction globally for many years and the scale of the problem is increasing. The industries are seen to contribute to emissions of green house gases, noise pollution and release of toxic waste into the water bodies. Untreated water from the manufacturing units released into the water bodies has also endangered the marine life species. Corporations do not have a deliberate intent to harm the environment. Greed and laziness are behind their destructiveness. For example the Bhopal gas tragedy that occurred because of the Union Carbide’s negligence to follow the safety standards of the industry came to take the lives of so many innocent people living in the nearby vicinity.
“Few companies like the Tata and Godrej have come to take measures to save the environment. The Tata ethos places a special emphasis on environmental and ecological issues. And thus is engaged in harmonizing environmental factors by reducing the negative impact of its commercial activities and initiating drives encouraging environment-friendly practices. Its efforts to preserve and regenerate the environment can be seen in an array of projects and programmes it has undertaken in and around its facilities and operations. Similarly CII-Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre has been set up as the “Centre of Excellence” for the organization in terms of energy efficiency, “green buildings”, renewable energy, water, environment and recycling and climate change activities in India. Organizations when drawing the resources from the environment should also make concerted effort to preserve and protect the environment.”
Following the path of shreyas will make sure that our future generations will find the earth a place on which they can live – and live a life of happiness and contentment. And if we continue to follow the path of preyas as we have been doing since the industrial revolution, they will be forced to seek sustenance in a world that has been turned into an inhospitable desert.