Managing Dharma: Mahabharata Has The Answers

Gautam Chikermane

Aug 03, 2017, 06:53 PM | Updated 06:49 PM IST

The Mahabharata
The Mahabharata
  • In order to live your dharma, you will need to be your dharma. In every decision, you will have to weigh the scales of justice, evaluate the moral impact on your department, company – and most of all, yourself.
  • Are you ready for dharma? Forget everything you know about dharma. Stop trying to comprehend the word. It is beyond the mind. It is outside the pale of any language but the one it was created in – Sanskrit. Thinkers have tried to package it into digestible nuggets but limited its scope to law, behaviour, governance, ethics. Dharma is water in your hands – do what you will, clasp it as tightly as you can, it will flow out.

    Dharma is a moment, every changing moment. Dharma is a word, it is an idea, it is the spaceless universe, the timeless eternity. Dharma is the market you seek to conquer, it is the organisation you stand for, the people you work with, the assumptions you take for granted, the values you think are permanent. It is there in every action you take and waits silently in every inaction. And then, it is the opposite of everything you do or can imagine.

    Despite its inscrutable nature, “experiencing” what these two-and-a-half letters in Sanskrit mean, versus “understanding” them within the narrow confines of modern education, is critical for your survival as a manager. Dharma has to be experienced in the hierarchies, ambitions and the value conflicts of the corporation. It has to be internalised within the various layers of our being, it has to be lived every moment of our breath. Dharma is an eternal entity, it never dies. It may change its form, its expression. It may contradict itself and yet remain pure like white fire. It may be one thing for you, its opposite for your board and a third unimagined for your consumers. And yet there could be no contradiction except in the three stances. It may serve a purpose today, only to discard it tomorrow.

    Nature’s arm may extend the past to provide civilisational continuity through tamas, inertia. Or, it may destroy the present on battleground Kurukshetra to create a new future through rajas, dynamism. All the while, hurtling towards its destined harmony through sattwa, truth. It is always growing, always changing. And in the process, it is transforming the intellectual-corporate being as the individual and social-corporate mankind as a collective.

    You can’t touch it. You have to wait for it to capture you, possess you. Then, you “experience” it. Dharma is a constantly evolving entity, a thread tied to the being on one end and to the transcendental spirit on the other. And then breaking out to higher, deeper, vaster, invisible and unknown domains.

    It is not surprising, therefore, that this idea, this dharma, excavated from the depths of eternity by rishis through direct communion with the spirit and turned into a life-governing law – to put one aspect of its infinite arms rather crudely – and be followed in the world of men has been the overarching deity of the world’s greatest text, the Mahabharata. It has left its imprint on the earlier text, the Ramayana, too. But the ruthless complexity of the Mahabharata has explored dimensions that we never knew even existed.

    Even today, five millennia after this great epic was composed, when we read the Mahabharata, we see mirrors of our different selves, our personalities mapped in it. We identify with Arjun, but see there’s a Duryodhana lurking within us with as much force. We empathise with the Karna in ourselves, examine the hypocrites in our being through Drona and live happily together in one kingdom, fight a common enemy, the Pandavas, whom we admire but remain helpless against.

    We see our pride through Draupadi when she humiliated Duryodhana in Indraprastha, we feel her disgrace as we get publicly disrobed at the Kuru sabha, we plan a vengeance unseen, a violence unheard of. And in the end, in our victories, we weep for the death of our values, as Draupadi wept at the loss of her sons.

    While the Ramayana introduced the idea of dharma through the perfect man, the maryada purushottam Ram (upholder of dharma), the Mahabharata explored it to depths unseen, raised it to heights unreached, hammered it to perfections unknown, chiselled it on bodies hardened by tapasya, one character at a time, exposing the shades of grey and the contradictions of dharma in each.

    Dharma runs through the veins of every, repeat, every character in the Mahabharata. And when it spills out of those veins in the end, it highlights new shades of red, where in victory we see defeat and in defeat victory. You need a grit not known to the modern, consuming mind to know and live by dharma.

    Each character believes he or she is “following their dharma”, “living in dharma”, “surviving by dharma”, and in the case of Krishna, “is dharma”. And yet, barring a handful of characters – notably rishi Ved Vyasa, warriors Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha, advisor Vidura and the conscientious Yuyutsu, the only son of Dhritarashtra (though illegitimate) to fight on the side of the Pandavas, dharma evaded every one. Neither Yudhishthira, Bhishma and Drona, nor Karna, Arjun and Bhima, nor Kunti, Gandhari and Draupadi could live in dharma all the time.

    They all fell by the wayside before this brutal life-companion, this white shadow that accentuates the dark shades of our personalities – this unfathomable, indiscernible, all-pervading idea. This dharma.

    For those of you who are fighting for an MBA and those who are fighting after an MBA, the Kurukshetra of 5,000 years ago is not very different from the wars you fight. The road ahead is a constant state of war, both in terms of your swabhava (discovering who you are and knowing what you are born to do) as well as your swadharma (building your career by doing what you have been born to do).

    In this battle, remember, you are building on a ground of shifting sands, fighting the constant flood of change.

    Creative destruction has a new face – creative disruption – and is recalibrating every good, service and idea, questioning every path to work you’ve learnt. A new surge of knowledge is pushing its own boundaries, challenging every book you’ve read, every assignment you’ve checked, every exam you’ve cracked, every interview you’ve cleared. New technologies, notably artificial intelligence and robotics for now but several ahead, will do most of the jobs you were planning to do, leaving carcasses of past and present jobs and careers bleeding on the business battleground for a future that nobody knows much about.

    Spreadsheets have been replaced by Big Data. Presentations have outlived their utility as the currency of “being busy”. Information, that little leverage-creating firefly, has been democratised – the trading edge you have on it is gone, or will be in the next micro-second. On the shopfloor, plants are being robotised, leaving time-and-motion in the footnotes of history. In communications, tools like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp and their smart usage are replacing real work or content. In the new work, packaging is paramount, serving workers, consumers and shareholders alike. From the CEO to the salesperson, the hierarchy of organisations is being narrowed into clumsy lumps of short attention spans that live and die by the last big event that impacted the last ticker price on which your next bonus will be based.

    In this Mahabharata, how do you live your dharma? When the dharma of even Krishna, the avatara, was questioned and for which he asked to be cursed by Gandhari, who are we 21st century mortals to dare imagine that our path will be flawless? As an executive, your dharma would largely be that of a Vaishya. What is the Vaishya-dharma? It is to help organise the resources of society such that the sum is greater than its parts. It is to create wealth, and once created, to return it to society through consumption, taxes, philanthropy. Over the past seven decades, the Vaishyas of India have been turned into little bonsais, dwarfed by political ideologies, smothered by bureaucratic overregulation, and worse, shunned by society. Not for us the global-scale projects that we admire and envy the US, Europe and now China for. We want the jobs but not the scale, we want the taxes but not the entrepreneurs, we want the companies but not their creators.

    In a system of several stakeholders, how you fight each battle will determine the quality of your swadharma. Need raw material that lies atop a mountain? Then, serve at least eight large stakeholders. One, a government that gives you permission to do the business and set up a plant. Two, a tribe that feels the mountain is God and it can’t be touched. Three, a politics that creates and exploits emotions and raises barriers to business. Four, millions of shareholders who seek a return on investment. Five, thousands of workers who would be employed in the plant and in the extraction. Six, hundreds of downstream producers who wait for the smelters to convert minerals into raw material for value addition. Seven, millions of consumers who will buy the products. Eight, dozens of NGOs that often thrive on conflict and have a vested interest in holding up projects or whose hearts actually bleed for the backward. Worse, the interests of these stakeholders are often at cross purposes with one another – consumer versus tribals, government versus opposition, workers versus investors, NGOs versus producers.

    Figure out all these permutations and combinations, then we’ll see how you move forward. This is what the nation seems to tell you.

    You stand in the middle, holding the burden of decisions. What will you do? What can you lean on, is your dharma? That depends on who you are. If you’re Abhimanyu, death in the form of a glorious and romantic failure awaits you. You will get no support from your investors or workers as you enter this chakravyuha. You will fight in the quagmire of deceit alone. The NGOs will smother you with lawsuits, the politics by brute force, the government by its bureaucracy, the tribals by their faith. They will attack you individually and together. They will destroy you. Your dharma thrives in your innocent reading of it, you live your dharma but at the end you’re nothing but a lamentation of sorrow.

    Or, you could be Bhishma, the long-standing director of a company, once known for your business prowess, now a living institution of loyal righteousness, but needlessly attached to your position and through that attachment a compromised being, routinely humiliated by the CEO and the chairman. Your heart may bleed for tribals but you will pick up arms and side with the investors, your mind may understand justice but you will allow it to be hijacked by market capitalisation. Your loyalty to investors would be nothing more than a tool to protect your position. Your dharma is brittle.

    Arjun, that epitome of warrior-hood, valour, skill and seeking, could be you today, trying to break into new and disruptive markets. But it’s not just your skill or concentration that’s guiding you. What Arjun faced five millenna ago would not be very different from the challenges before you today. Against all rules of engagement, Arjun had severed the hand of great warrior Bhurishravas who was about to kill his friend Satyaki, hacking in the act his dharma. In the face of a corporate layoff, when you let a highly competent executive go in order to save your protege, you may seal a friendship, but it would be on the ashes of corporate interests. Not for you the nobility of righteous conquest but the betrayal of everything you stand for as a skilled ethical executive. Yours would be a fallen dharma, discarded at the altar of friendship.

    You could even be Yudhishthira, the son of Lord Dharma, to whom even enemies on the battlefield looked for truth. Like Drona did when he was informed that his son Ashwattama was dead, and which Yudhishthira confirmed, knowing fully well that it was an elephant Ashwatthama, not his guru’s son, who had been killed by Bhima. Like Yudhishthira, you might look away, when your company lies to the government about the tribals being coopted into the project. And, in fact, you might actually have set up schools and hospitals to handhold them – and into which they neither went nor sent their children. Your dharma is of the weak and the opportunist – it will crack at the most vital point.

    Being a Drona, you could be the chief strategist of the company, a position you reached after suffering much poverty and like your colleague Bhishma, are deeply attached to. Except that in your case, it is your child for whose future you fight. You use all your skills, developed over a lifetime of learning, engaging, working and creating projects, to ensure that the company gets the permissions, the project moves ahead. You love the tribals but you fight them and when the company seems to be losing the battle, you hit out by unleashing state power against them. You destroy careers of potential leaders within the company because you’re attached to the one who grants you the position. Your dharma would be dwarfed by the progress of your son.

    Like Duryodhana, you could be the leader of the opposition, seeking to win a kingdom by any which means. You know the project will create jobs and bring development to the area. You know that the tribals will benefit through education, healthcare, jobs, facilities, urbanisation. But you use them instead to enflame a rhetoric that you will grant them protection, you are their soldier. You will bring your forces at the centre to smother the project in the state. Development is incidental, power is primary. Besides, what development can you do without power? Your dharma will be suffocated by the compelling logic of power.

    As Karna, you will follow your leader, howsoever wrong he be. There could be a danger of upsetting the ecological system of the area. But because you were retrenched by the competitor and want to show how good you are as a manager you will support this project just to smite your old company. The CEO of the new company has given you status, respect and friendship – you are beholden to him; you will serve him, whatever the cost. You will fight any opposition to the project, at any price, even if you consciously lose your values in the process. Yours is the dharma of misguided loyalty and the nursing of a bitter humiliation.

    Dharma can’t be held in the mind – not 5,000 years ago, not today. The Kuru sabha comprising Bhishma, Dronacharya, Vidura and Kripacharya had no answers when Draupadi asked them a simple question: Can an enslaved man gamble his wife away, is she his property? From Bhishma the terrible came this feeble reply: “The course of morality is subtle. Even the illustrious wise in this world fail to understand it always. From the importance of the issue involved, from its intricacy and subtlety, I am unable to answer with certitude the question thou hast asked.”

    That moment, Bhishma lost his dharma.

    Dharma can’t be articulated by the weapons of the best of warriors. Today, as then, there comes a time when winning is all that counts. When trapped alone in Drona’s chakravyuha, Abhimanyu was wreaking havoc on the Kaurava army. It took six warriors, who attacked him together to fell him. Karna cut his bow and shield, Kritavarman slayed his horses, Kripacharya his two charioteers, Drona his sword, Aswatthama his mace, Shakuni’s son Kalikeya and Duhsasana’s son finally delivered the final and fatal mace hit on his head. Six warriors won but lost their dharma. Abhimanyu lost but his dharma won. Who was the victor?

    Dharma can’t be relegated to knowing alone. Dhritarashtra was well-versed in the workings of dharma. But he confessed to Vidura that whenever Duryodhana came before him, dharma fled and he became helpless. We know of several leaders who mouth ethics but fail to live by their own words. Some actually mean them but are helpless; others speak about them in order to deceive. Either way, knowing what is dharma is only a necessary condition—it is not a sufficient one. All the courses on ethics you studied are but empty words if you can’t walk them.

    Dharma is lived. In each being. Every conscious moment. And the Mahabharata is teeming with it. When Yudhishthira finds his brothers dead at the close of the Vana Parva, killed by one who identifies himself as a yaksha, a conversation of 34 primary questions with some secondary questions, taking the total to more than 100 questions, explores various aspects of dharma. More a set of interesting riddles, the session expounds on several practical aspects of dharma at one of the sensitive moments in the story.

    From theory to practice, in the Mahabharata, the supreme knowledge that includes dharma, spirituality and their practical arms has been expounded by Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras alike. As a cowherd, Krishna was bred a Vaishya. As the son of Vasudeva and Devaki, he was born a Kshatriya. But, the most followed text in Hinduism is the Bhagvad Gita, recited not by the man of knowledge or spirituality, the Brahmin, but by the man of war, Krishna. And Krishna is not the only non-Brahmin to hold forth on dharma.

    The Tuladhara-Jajali conversation in the Shanti Parva is as insightful in its simplicity as it is profound in living your dharma. Steeped in the arrogance of his penances, Jajali, a Brahmin, thought there was none equal to him. That’s when a pisacha told him to meet Tuladhara, a Vaishya. Tuladhara’s lessons were profound but his actions simple: to buy and sell merchandise without cheating. “My scales are perfectly even, O Jajali, with respect to all creatures.” The scales, in the case of Tuladhara, symbolised dharma, which every person needs to live by.

    Or take king Vrishadarbha, from whom a pigeon sought protection against a hawk. Once Vrishadarbha agreed, the hawk swooped down and sought the pigeon as food. Vrishadarbha offered the hawk the flesh of any other animal. The hawk refused and finally said if the king was feeling such affection for the pigeon, let him give the equivalent weight of his own flesh. As Vrishadarbha placed the pigeon on one scale and began to place his own cut flesh on the other, the pigeon grew heavier.

    Finally, the king put himself on the scale. Then the truth revealed itself – the pigeon was Agni, the hawk Indra, both of whom had come to test the strength of Vrishadarbha.

    When dharma possesses you, even life becomes incidental.

    From the Vaishya to the Kshatriya, we now come to another “repressed” category – woman. When the venerable and powerful Brahmin Kausika was reciting the Vedas under a tree, a crane dropped on him. When he glanced up in anger with the thought of doing an injury to her, the crane fell dead. He regretted his thought and went to a nearby village to beg for alms. At the door of a house he asked for alms. The woman of the household served her husband and was late. As the angry Brahmin began to threaten her, she answered, “I am no she-crane. What can you do to me with these angry glances?” A humbler Brahmin was sent to a butcher in Mithila for more lectures. When Kausika reached Mithila, the butcher stunned him further by saying, “The words that the chaste woman said to you are known to me. I also know for what purpose you are here.” A Shudra, the butcher said he sold pork and buffalo meat as a means to live but knew the nuances of dharma that in today’s violent times remain relevant. “We are only such agents in regard to our karma. Those animals that are slain by me and whose meat I sell, also acquire karma, because (with their meat), gods and guests and servants are regaled. This whole creation is full of animal life, sustaining itself with food derived from living organisms.” Again, living your dharma is the key.

    As a manager seeking dharma in your work, the Mahabharata is littered with deep insights. You can literally pick and choose the justification of your actions from any point. Besides the Bhagvad Gita, there are 15 other Gitas in this text, 13 of them in the Shanti Parva alone. As a text, it is rich, wide, deep, lofty and powerful. But mental attachments to ideas or following moral confirmation biases in the Mahabharata will lead you to words that will be empty unless you live them. You will end up like Dhritarashtra, who knew dharma but couldn’t follow it, and never followed it. In order to live your dharma, you will need to be your dharma. In every decision, you will have to weigh the scales of justice, evaluate the moral impact on your department, company –and most of all, yourself.

    Dharma lies waiting for you. Don’t waste your time looking for it. It lies within you and will find you. Dharma is ready for you. Are you ready for dharma? That is the question the Mahabharata attempts to answer.

    Gautam Chikermane is an author and Vice President at Observer Research Foundation.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.