Becoming a Leader

Business 18 Comments

Published in Corporate Dossier, ET, 16 April 2010

When commenting on the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, people often point to the question raised by Draupadi: “Does a man who has gambled himself have the right to gamble his wife?” But very few have asked the question: Does a king have the right to gamble his kingdom? What gives the Pandavas, in general, and Yudhishtira, in particular, the right to gamble his kingdom? A king is not the owner of the kingdom; he is its custodian.

If the kingdom is a cow that gives milk, then the king is the cowherd. That is the traditional model of a leader in Hindu mythology. The king takes care of the kingdom and the kingdom nourishes him. He defends the kingdom and the kingdom empowers him. A cowherd cannot exist without a cow and a cow isn’t safe without a cowherd. It’s a symbiotic relationship. This is the essence of a king’s role: to protect the cow, help it produce more calves, enable her to multiply and thrive, and in the process create more cowherds. This is growth – growth for the cow and growth for the cowherd.

In the Mahabaharata, there is a great debate on who should be king. Should kingship be determined by bloodline or meritocracy? After much debate and discussion, and violence, which even involves an assassination attempt against the Pandavas, it is decided to divide the lands. The Pandavas get the underdeveloped half called Khandavaprastha, while their cousins, the Kauravas, get the prosperous city of Hastinapur. With the help of Krishna, the Pandavas transform Khandavaprastha into a great city called Indraprastha, which becomes the envy of the world. With the help of Krishna, the Pandavas even become kings. But then, Krishna leaves, and in his absence, they gamble the kingdom away. It is almost as if, while they have the capacity to be king, they lack the attitude of kingship.

And so, Krishna offers them no reprieve when they have to suffer twelve years of exile in the forest living in abject poverty followed by a year of humiliation when the former kings live in hiding as servants in another king’s palace. In this time there are tales of how each brother gets a lesson in humility and patience. In one episode, the brothers reach a lake where a heron warns them against drinking the water until they answer its question; the impatient Pandavas drink nevertheless and die, all expect Yudhishtira. Yudhishtira pauses, answers the questions, and is then allowed to drink. This displays a shift in character. The man who without thinking gambled away his kingdom, is now ready to pause and think and question his actions and listen to good counsel before taking an action. He is suddenly more patient and prudent.

The heron then tells Yudhishtira that only one of his brothers will be brought back from the dead. He is asked to choose. “Save Nakula,” he says. “Why a weak step-brother,” asks the heron, “when you might as well save a strong brother like Bhima or a skilled one like Arjuna.” To this Yudhishtira says, “My father had two wives. I, the son of his first wife, Kunti, am alive. Let one son of the second wife Madri live too.” Here again we see a transformation. Nakula was the first of the five brothers to be gambled away in the game of dice. Thus the unwanted step-brother, who mattered least in the gambling hall matters most in the forest. Yudhishtira has learnt the lessons of Raj-dharma, that it is not due to his greatness and grandeur that the crown is placed on his head. He exists for others; he exists for the weakest in his kingdom; he exists to help the helpless. Otherwise, his kingdom is no different from the jungle where might is right. Otherwise, he is no different from an alpha male.

Krishna, the supreme divine cowherd, thus acts as a coach in the Mahabharata. He is not king as in his previous life of Ram (whose story is told in the Ramayana). Here he plays lowly roles as cowherd and charioteer, but acts as a kingmaker. He knows that it is not just about skill alone (turning the wilderness into a rich kingdom). It is about attitude. And to shift attitude, sometimes, one has to be dragged through misery – 13 years of forest exile.

  • Thank you for explaining this in terms of character arc. I did always wonder why Yudhishtira is credited as being the very epitome of dharma when he made such an egregious lack in judgment. I hadn’t considered that it was part of his growth as a character.

    • Akshay L

      In one of the episodes of “Business Sutra”, Devdutt mentions that Yudishtira is someone who transforms from Ravana to Rama.

  • Sid

    Bravo. Sir.
    Too good. Lovely.

  • Amit

    Dear Doc,

    So how does one become a leader? Scratching my head, may be that why I am not a leader.

    But as usual, a brilliant article. Also, good to see you did observe the fact that Yudishtira gambled away recklessly and then regained his composure and patience during the exile! Very few people have this acute sense of observation.

    Best wishes,


  • Hareesha

    It’s a very interesting perspective..

    I often wonder why the kings are allowed to indulge in such sports itself (where you are allowed to put everything at stake).

  • Ranjeet Jha

    Lovely insight, thanks for educating…..

  • Another lovely story ! A wonderful character development.. Yudishtara is none but an incarnation of Yama, the best of all judges.

    A country would be great if it is ruled by him, but only aided by the counsel of Krishna :)

  • That is indeed a different angle to Yudhistara’s character. This interesting maturing of him never occurred to me.

    Though there remains some doubts which i may ask you later.


  • GK

    I have one dissent.
    I have heard/read the story that Yudhistara was epitome of Dharma and Wisdom but for addiction to the dice game.
    Knowing his this weakness,shakuni enticed him to the game easily where shakuni had some special skills and strengths,of which Yudhistara was unaware.
    My point is,its not that after loosing the dice game or kingdom Yudhistara became wise.He was wiser right from childhood(many instances ,as you know).He had all the great virtue of patience and prudence even before.
    Had the Yaksha prasna incident were to happen before the dice game ,Yudhistara would have acted in the same way !!
    But I agree,he became wiser on this point too (i.e playing of dice game ,may be.I donno).

  • abhishek

    Thank you for sharing your opinion. I had watched Mahabharat when I was a kid…Reading your article now makes sense to me as I can correlate all Mahabharat incidents to your article.

    Really liked it.

  • Subhasis Pujapanda

    Great Sirji

    Just amazing!! What a fantastic way of explaining someone’s character. From such a common epic you have derived extra ordinary character and elucidate the beauty. Hats off!! keep Spreading knowledge & make us knowledgeable.


  • Ganesh.V

    Dear Devduttji.,
    A great article on kingship only very few indian authors have the guts to question Yudhishtira.

    Dear kiranji.,
    Yudhishtira is not incarnation of Yama, he is actually the son of him.

    Vidura is the actuall incarnation of yama., for claries please read THE COMPLETE MAHABHARATA volume 1 by Ramesh Menon

  • Neat observation… Great message in leadership – a leader is not about skills, but about attitude! It is not about might, but about serving the weakest.

    The ideal servant can be the ideal master! :)

  • Narendra Negi

    Amazing observation and lesson from the story.let us learn from other peoples mistake

  • Avnish

    Dear Mr Dev Dutt,

    In my opinion, Yudhishtra could not have gambled his kingdom, he just gambled his right as a custodian of the kingdom and consequently Duryodhan (kaurvas) became the custodian of his kingdom.

    Would like to know your opinion on my this observation


  • Siva

    While we all have read these purans as stories and comics!, this is the first time the context is being explained, its application is being explained.

    Dr. you are a genious!. God Bless You. May you always spread gyan like this.

    Best Wushes

  • pramisha shukla

    Great sir,

    what a nice story.you are really a divine person.u hve explained very beautifully.now i m understanding your thoughts.bt still knowing all this “A COWHERD CANT EXIST WITHOUT COW N COW IS NT ALSO SAFE WITHOUT COWHERD”.Just read it n get what i ant to say

  • “he exists to help the helpless.”

    The kings were chosen in past for specific reasons but then it all became hierarchical. And Hindustan has suffered the consequences.

    The same is happening with India right now.