Published in Corporate Dossier ET, November 17, 2010

The oldest Greek stories, Iliad and Odyssey, deal with the triumph of the heroic leader who breaks all the rules. The oldest Biblical narratives, Genesis and Exodus, deal with the value of compliance to the rules of the institution.  In contrast, the oldest Indian epics, Ramayana, Mahabharata, revolve around family dramas.

Ramayana tells the story of Ram of Ayodhya and his antagonist, Ravana, king of Lanka. Mahabharata tells the story of Krishna and his warring cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas of Hastinapur. Another epic, the Bhagavata, often considered a prequel to the Mahabharata, tells the story of Krishna’s early life in Gokul. Together these three epics deal with every possible family-related issue from inter-generational conflict to succession planning to talent management to sibling rivalry. It is filled with thoughts and ideas that are considered timeless, hence of value even to modern family businesses as they go through dharma-sankat, or ethical dilemmas in the new world order where the demands of institutional business tower over traditional family assumptions.

1.    What is a family?

Families in Ramayana and Mahabharata, significantly, are not defined by blood. Ram and Laxman are half-brothers, with a common father but different mothers. Of the five Pandava brothers, three have a common mother, and none have a common father. Krishna is raised by foster parents, and even his brother Balabhadra is actually his half-brother. What defines a family then is not blood or law or custom, but trust. In a family governed by trust, there are no rules; only love defines all actions, as in the Bhagavata. In a family with no trust, rules have no role; only power defines all actions, as in the Mahabharata. In between, stands the Ramayana, where there is love but also rules.

2.      How critical are rules to bind a family together?

Rules are the fundamental building blocks of an institution. Members of an institution can be either the sheep, who follows the rule or the independent goat, who challenges the rules. Greek narratives understood the free thinking goat. Biblical narratives celebrated the sheep and equated the goat with the Devil. In Indian epics, however, rules play second fiddle to intent. More important than compliance or defiance is the reason behind the compliance or the defiance.

Ram, hero of the Ramayana, keeps rules, and so does Duryodhan, villain of the Mahabharata. But Ram does it to ensure stability in Ayodhya while Duryodhan does it for his own satisfaction and this results in the war at Kurukshetra. Krishna, hero of the Mahabharata, breaks rules but so does Ravan, villain of the Ramayana.  Krishna does it to bring joy in  Gokul with his many pranks as he goes about stealing butter and with his ruthless war strategies to get justice for the Pandavas, while Ravan does it for his own satisfaction and causes the burning of his island-kingdom of Lanka. Family businesses need Rams and Krishnas who work for the welfare of the kingdom (symbol of business), not Ravans and Duryodhans who work for themselves.

3.    What should be the relationship between family and the business?

In the Ramayana, the kingdom of Ayodhya is more important than Raghu-kula the family that governs it. In the Mahabharata, the Kuru-kula family is more important than the kingdom of Hastinapur it is responsible for. In the Ramayana, Ram, son of King Dashrath, upholds the tradition of the Raghu-kula, goes into exile so that the integrity of the royal family is never questioned and Ayodhya feels secure under its leadership. In the Mahabharata, Bhisma, son of king Shantanu, gives up conjugal life, not for the sake of his kingdom, but so as to satisfy the lust of his father who wishes to marry Satyavati, the ambitious daughter of an ambitious fisherman. The kingdom of Ayodhya plays a key role in all decision-making in the Ramayana. This is not so in the Mahabharata, which is why the kingdom of Hastinapur is divided and the kingdom of Indraprastha is gambled away.

But placing the institution over the family comes at a price in the Ramayana – the very same royal traditions (Raghu-kula-riti) that celebrate the obedience of the son also demand that a woman of tainted reputation should not be queen of Ayodhya. Thus Ram-Rajya witnesses the rejection of Ram’s innocent wife, Sita, whose abduction by Ravana makes her the subject of public gossip.  It is a case of professional and personal conflict where profession wins. Ram’s children grow up in the forest, not the palace. As the follower of the rules, Ram is not allowed to change the rules. But trust remains firm. Ram abandons the queen of Ayodhya but not his wife; he never remarries.

4.    Does loyalty matter?

Loyalty to dharma matters more than loyalty to a person. Ravana has two brothers, Vibhishana and Kumbhakarna. The Ramayana celebrates Vibhishana who leaves Ravana’s side and joins Ram, and berates Kumbhakarna who remains by Ravana’s side till the very end. In the Mahabharata, the noble warrior, Karna, is killed for siding with the Kauravas and so is Shalya, king of Madra, who is tricked into fighting against the Pandavas.

Dharma is the journey of man out of animal instincts, where he outgrows his desire to be dominant and territorial. Both Ravana and Duryodhan are alpha-males, lions that establish pecking orders, demand obedience and work for their own aggrandizement. They don’t care for people. They use people as instruments. Both drag their brothers and sons to their death as they cling to their own desires. Such behavior is acceptable in animals but not in humans. Ram and Krishna have outgrown the desire to dominate or establish territory. Thus dharma is the journey from a Ravana-mindset to a Ram-mindset, from a Duryodhana-mindset to a Krishna-mindset. Dharma is about achieving a Vishnu-mindset that ensures the flow of wealth into the kingdom.

Ram is king who upholds the law not for personal ambition but because it is his duty. Krishna is a participant in a war not his own, to help transform five brothers from irresponsible gamblers to responsible rulers, even at the cost of his own family, who are cursed by the mother of the Kauravas following their final defeat.

5.    What is the role of the leader?

Leader in Indian thought is called a Karta or a Yajaman. A Yajaman is not an alpha-male who establishes pecking order and demands obedience. He increases the sensitivity of family-members so that they take responsibility for themselves and the world that depends on the family. To do this, he has to increase his own sensitivity to the needs and wants of his own family. Thus increased sensitivity towards responsibility in the family depends on the increased sensitivity of the Yajaman for the family. Their growth mirrors his growth.

In the Ramayana, Dashrath is a Yajaman whose children uphold values even when all is threatened by the ambitions of one of their mothers. In the Mahabharata, neither Bhisma nor Dhritarashtra who are elders of the Kuru clan are Yajamans as their wards end up fighting over property. Kunti serves as a Yajaman to her children. She realizes that individually no son of hers is strong enough to be king, but collectively they are powerful, and so she ensures that they are always bound together by a wife.

6.    Is the eldest the natural leader?

Ram is the eldest in his family but Krishna is not. With or without the crown, both act as leaders as they function as Yajaman, understanding people and enabling them to transform and grow.

Once Laxman, the loyal brother of Ram, complained to his brother, “I always have to obey you because you are my elder brother.” Ram responded thus, “In our next life, you will be the elder brother but you will still agree with me, not out of obligation or loyalty but because you will realize that all my actions are rooted in dharma.” And so Laxman was reborn as Balabhadra and Ram was reborn as his younger brother, Krishna. Krishna never obeyed Balabhadra but, after initial irritation, Balabhadra always understood.

7.    How does one handle individual aspirations?

This is alluded to through the food and marital arrangements of the Pandavas.

When they were children, the mother of the Pandavas, Kunti, divided the food into two halves. One half was given to Bhima who had a great appetite. The second half was divided equally between the other four brothers and their mother. The brothers understood Bhima’s need and there was no resentment.

When they got married, however, the brothers had to share their common wife equally. Each brother could spend only one year with her and then wait for four years before his next turn. Bhima did not resent this. And when Arjuna accidentally interrupted Yudhishtira when he was with Draupadi he accepted his punishment of a year’s exile with grace.

In the household of Draupadi, no one husband was dominant, even though Yudhishtira is the official Yajaman. To satisfy his individual aspiration, each Pandava brother was allowed to have another wife. But this second wife was not allowed to live in the same household as Draupadi. It was a separate house where the brother could also be Yajaman.

8.    Why do break ups happen?

Break-ups happen when the Yajaman fails, trust collapses and territoriality rises. Basically when trust and dharma give way to the insecure animal within.

In the Ramayana, stability of the family and kingdom is not the result of Ram being eldest or talented, or because of his brothers’ loyalty, but because every brother displays integrity and sensitivity in the face of crisis. Technically, Ram’s other brother, Bharat, could have taken over the kingdom after his mother had secured two boons from the king: exile of Ram and coronation of Bharat. But he refuses. To accept would be turning into a Duryodhan, focusing on the letter of the law not the spirit. He refuses to be an opportunist alpha-male. For he knows that will be the collapse of the family order and inspire other brothers to follow suit. Bharat and Ram are thus both Yajamans, understanding their responsibility to each other, the family and Ayodhya.

In the Mahabharata, like Ram, Bhisma gives up his claim to the throne for the benefit of his half-brothers. His half-brothers however do not behave like Bharat. They claim the throne. Things go downhill after that as no one behaves like a Yajaman. Bhisma’s eldest grandnephew, Dhritarashtra, is not allowed to be king because he is blind resulting in a lifelong resentment in his children, the Kauravas; the second grandchild, Pandu, is allowed to be king but he is unable to father children and so needs the help of the gods to create the five Pandavas. Focus of the cousins is all about inheritance rights, not royal responsibilities. Dharma collapses. Rather than share, the kingdom ends up being divided. But even that does not solve the problem. No one has transformed. The Kauravas remains resentful, spiteful, insecure and jealous. Krishna intervenes, as there is no Yajaman around. He hopes to inspire the next generation of kings to rise above their animal nature and in doing so enable others around them to rise above animal nature. The process is not easy. It demands many a sacrifice, years of exile, humiliation, war and bloodshed.

9.    How must talent be nurtured?

The ashrama system of Vedic times was an attempt to ensure smooth transition to the next generation of kings while the old king was alive. After being a student, one became a Yajaman or head of the household, then when the son came of age, one had to retire and finally renounce the world.

Retirement was a critical step, a quarter of one’s lifetime, when one stepped away from actively running the business to enabling the future generation to take over the reins. The point was to render oneself useless over a period of time so that when it is time to renounce the world, the next generation is already running the show responsibly. Thus a vast proportion of time was invested on the next generation.

This explains Dashratha’s decision to retire when Ram comes home with a wife. Bhisma, however, is never happy with the capabilities of the next generation and refuses to retire even after his grandnephews (the Pandavas and the Kauravas) have children of their own. His over-protective nature results in over-dependence upon him. No talent is nurtured and the family collapses. In the end, Bhisma has to be pinned to the ground with arrows, so that a new world order can finally be established.

10.What about daughters taking over family businesses?

Mythology is symbolic. It must not be taken literally. Ideas are communicated through male and female forms. For example, a male form represents king while a female form represents kingdom, thus indicating the mutual dependence. Without either there is neither. Somewhere along the way, there was confusion between idea and the form (vehicle of the idea). Rather than representing kingship, men became identified with kings while women, rather than representing kingdom, became identified as kingdom, hence property.

Stripped of patriarchal bias and literal analogies, Ram, Krishna, Ravan and Duryodhan are mindsets that can exist in men or women. Vishnu is the mindset that ensures prosperity, hence Lakshmi. Anyone can be Vishnu, a daughter as much as a son.

11.How does one cope with shift in values over generation?

Ram upholds dharma very differently from Krishna. One upholds the rule while the other breaks it. This is because the two belong to very different yugas, or contexts. Ram belongs to Treta yuga and Krishna to Dvapar yuga. The conditions of the world in each yuga is different and so is the response to it. Awareness of this change is critical.

In an earlier age, the Krita yuga, when kings of the earth broke all rules, Vishnu descended as Parashuram. He killed all kings. But then he saw a king called Ram. Impressed by Ram’s nobility, Parashuram withdrew from the world. Ability to change with yugas is the hallmark of Vishnu. To cope with the shift in values over generations, Yajmans have to strive to be Vishnu.

12. How can professionals be included in family businesses?

India is named Bharat-varsha after a king called Bharata (son of Shakuntala, not to be confused with Ram’s brother). The story goes that his wives gave him many sons but he rejected them all as they did not ‘look’ like him. So he invoked the gods and the gods gave him Vithata, an illegitimate abandoned child. Vithata ended up being Bharata’s heir. This indicates the value Bharat gave to the kingdom he was responsible for. His sons did not match up to his expectations and so he considered an outsider. This is not an easy task and perhaps because Bharata succeeded in taking such a monumental decision, the entire subcontinent came to be named after him.

Often the Yajaman has to struggle between family members and professionals. Family members are viewed as ‘mine’ and professionals are viewed as ‘not mine’. With the former there is more trust while with the latter there is more transaction. Because family members are mine, there is room for more assumptions, more allowances, and more risks, which is not possible with professionals. The professionals, because they are expected to be professional, are encouraged not to have emotional attachment to the business, and focus only on the rules. They are expected to be more logical and less emotional, hence less prejudiced, which an enterprise needs. Unfortunately, what is ‘mine’ for the Yajaman ends up becoming ‘not mine’ for the professional. This creates a distance that is difficult to bridge. Often the professional thinks he is Ram, but the family looks at him as Duryodhan. Or the professional believes he is Krishna, but the family is convinced he is Ravana. Sometimes, the Yajaman thinks of the professional as Ram and Krishna, making family insecure, who refuse to see the professional in the same light.

In the Ramayana, Ram does not consider Ayodhya mine. He does not derive his identity from it. Hence he is able to give it up with ease. Ayodhya is not his territory that secures his self-image. Unfortunately, for most entrepreneurs, businesses are territories that secure their self-image and the self-image of their family. Detachment is not easy.

Governance rules will never create a Ram. And Ram does not need governance rules to decide who will bring greater value to Ayodhya: a son, a daughter, a nephew, a niece or a professional.