On Leadership, Statecraft and Faultlines : Kaliyug could use a Rama from Treta Yuga

I will confess straight off the bat – this post is from the Ramayana, but its learnings apply uncannily enough to modern day leadership too.

With that minor matter of a confession out, let’s get started. While one may not associate the Ramayana with expositions on statecraft, the fact is that the Ayodhya kanda itself has one such example. In sarga 94 (of the Critical Edition, sarga 100 in other versions) of the Ayodhya Kanda, when Bharata comes to meet Rama and to persuade him to return to Ayodhya as the rightful king, Rama, of course, refuses, but first asks Bharata about the state of the kingdom and whether Bharata, as the presumed king of Ayodhya, is following the duties of a king. This is one of the longest sargas in Ayodhya kanda, and is worth reading repeatedly. More pertinently, Rama exhorts Bharata to abandon the sins associated with kings. How many? Fourteen. Let’s look at them all:

  1. Non-belief – whether you call it atheism or non-belief, it amounts to the same. A leader has to believe in the nation, a CEO has to believe in the company, parents have to believe in their children. Without faith, all is lost.
  2. Falsehood – lying may be a part of statecraft, but not lying to oneself. A leader given to habitual lies will win neither the admiration nor the loyalty of anyone.
  3. Anger – anger destroys wisdom. Anger leads to decisions made in haste. Anger led Lakshmana to believe that Bharata was coming to the forest, not to meet, but murder Rama.
  4. Distraction – perhaps the most fatal of flaws for a king to have. I had written a three-part series on Karna and how, I believe, distraction was his fatal flaw. Worse than distraction would be to be focused on the wrong objectives!
  5. Procrastination – when is the right time to start? A leader who keeps delaying for no rational reason is guilty of betraying his charter, his mandate. Kabir immortalized this advice in his doha (couplet): “कालकरेसोआजकर, आजकरैसोअब| पलमेंपरलयहोयगी, बहुरीकरेगाकब||
  6. Disregard for the learned – Chandragupta Maurya became successful because he listened to the advice of Chanakya, the learned Brahmin. So did Arjuna, when he listened to Krishna’s advice. The day he didn’t was the day he lost Abhimanyu. A leader who believes he is the wisest, and therefore has no need for the counsel of the wise, is a leader with a short shelf-life and an inversely proportional ego. There is a reason why King Kousika, the kshatriya, could not also become Brahmarshi Viswamitra, the sage. It is also the reason why Krishna did not pick arms up during the Mahabharata war.
  7. Laziness – if distraction is not focusing on the objectives, and procrastination is delaying starting a mission, then laziness has to be the worst sin of the three.
  8. Pursuit of the five senses – like being led in different directions by the different horses that our senses represent, without anyone to rein them in, without anyone to harness them and propel them in one direction. We have had examples of leaders who led their country down the ditch, even as they indulged all their senses to the extreme. Naming names may not be politic, though.
  9. Single-minded devotion to artha – the modern world prefers to call it CSR – corporate social responsibility, but the exhortation itself is millennia old. It is a truth our sages had understood well. Some leaders would do well to heed this advice over all other faults listed here. Others have expressed the sentiment in different words, and yet the single-minded pursuit of economic growth, to the exclusion of everything else, has proven a soulless endeavour. Attempting societal good without economic prosperity is what the nightmare of socialism was. Compassionate capitalism is what the world may call it now, but our sages had internalized this philosophy thousands of years ago.
  10. Seeking counsel of those who don’t know the objectives – this could be interpreted as listening to idiots. It is open to debate as to how one recognizes an idiot, since many an idiot come in the garb of an intellectual, as the scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb has pointed out. If a leader cannot separate the intellectual from the idiot, (s)he shall soon come to electoral, or stock market, grief.
  11. Failure to start projects that have been decided – empty words are like empty vessels. They make little other than noise. Talking about doing is not the same as doing. If a leader decides, for example, to crack down on the corrupt, then not starting that project is a fatal fault with the leader.
  12. Failure to protect secrets – Chanakya has written extensively on this topic, and as the proverb goes, “loose lips sink ships“, it should be the motto of every wise leader.
  13. Failure to observe auspicious signs – while I would not exactly call it as a call to keep an astrologer or Oracle beside oneself, it can probably be interpreted in modern times as keeping an ear to the ground, to listen to the grapevine. Not every piece of news comes to the leader via a sworn affidavit. Sometimes, the answer is simply blowing in the wind.
  14. Readiness to rise from one’s seat for everyone – this can be interpreted as either being all too ready to engage in a conflict with all and sundry or being too indiscriminate in honouring people. In either case, the advice is to exercise selectivity. We have seen CEOs who got into pointless arguments with a driver; they did not remain CEO for long. Another way of understanding this fault is by asking, if one honours everyone, then who does one not honour? After all, honour is a distinction that should be conferred with care, not gay abandon.
    [the list of fourteen faults/sins have been taken from Valmiki Ramayana, Vol.1, translated by Bibek Debroy]

नास्तिक्यमनृतंक्रोधंप्रमादंदीर्घसूत्रताम्।  अदर्शनंज्ञानवतामालस्यंपञ्चवृत्तिताम्।।2.100.65।।  एकचिन्तनमर्थानामनर्थज्ञैश्चमन्त्रणम्।  निश्चितानामनारम्भंमन्त्रस्यापरिरक्षणम्।।2.100.66।।  मङ्गलाद्यप्रयोगंचप्रत्युत्थानंचसर्वतः।  कच्चित्वंवर्जयस्येतान्राजदोषांश्चतुर्दश।।2.100.67। [Valmiki Ramayana site]

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Let’s end with a bit from the Mahabharata. After the Pandavas had their great, grand palace built in Indraprastha, Narada paid them a visit and asked Yudhishthira questions on dharma, artha, and kama – loosely meaning, questions on the duties, economic policies, and the pleasures of a king. This is covered in chapter 5 of Sabha Parva. One of the questions that Narada poses to Yudhishthira is this:

Do you abhor the fourteen royal vices—atheism, falsehood, anger, negligence, procrastination, avoidance of the wise, laziness, restlessness of mind, consultation with only one person, consultation with those who are ignorant of artha, failure to act on something that has been decided, divulgement of counsel, abandonment of beneficial plans and addiction to material objects?”

अर्थान्नमिथ्यापश्यन्तितवामात्याहृताधनैः

नास्तिक्यमनृतंक्रोधंप्रमादंदीर्घसूत्रताम्

अदर्शनंज्ञानवतामालस्यंक्षिप्तचित्तताम्

एकचिन्तनमर्थानामनर्थज्ञैश्चचिन्तनम्

निश्चितानामनारम्भंमन्त्रस्यापरिरक्षणम्

मङ्गल्यस्याप्रयोगंचप्रसङ्गंविषयेषुच

कच्चित्त्वंवर्जयस्येतान्राजदोषांश्चतुर्दश[2.5.95 – 2.5.98, from the electronic text of the Mahabharata]

Does this sound familiar?

Good advice is timeless. What Rama knew in the Treta Yuga, sage Narada had to impart to Yudhishthira in the Dwapara Yuga. In Kaliyuga, we have neither a Rama nor a Narada, it would seem.


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