avatar

Many Avatars

Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, 25 Jan 2008

Vishnu is amongst the most popular manifestations of God in the Hindu pantheon. But curiously, there are very few Vishnu temples across India, the most popular, where he holds his four symbols, the conch-shell, the lotus, the mace and the disc, is that of Tirupati Balaji in Andhra Pradesh and Badrinath in Uttaranchal. Fewer still are temples of Narayan, the sleeping form of Vishnu, the most popular one being that of Padmanabhaswami in Thiruvanantapuram, Kerala. People mostly worship Vishnu in the form of Ram, the king and Krishna, the cowherd-charioteer. These are Vishnu’s forms when he walked the earth to reinstate order. Since Vishnu is the God responsible for sustaining the world and keep things running, one wonders if these different forms are indicative of the different roles a leader has to play as he leads a team or an organization.

The sleeping Vishnu or Narayan is associated with a time when creation has not begun or is just about to begin. Vishnu sleeps on an ocean of milk that is still. No waves, no currents, no movement. He sleeps in the coils of a serpent with many hoods. Only when a Cobra is still can it coil itself and spread its hood. By showing Vishnu sleeping in the coils of a hooded serpent, the artist is clearly representing absence of movement. The name of the serpent, Adi Sesha or Ananta Sesha, alludes to time because Adi means what exists before the beginning, Sesha means what remains after the end and Ananta means endless. Thus the sleeping Vishnu represents that moment before creation when all is still. It is the time of dreamless slumber, Yoganidra, when Vishnu is not even aware of himself, let alone his surroundings. Only when he wakes up will creation begin – time will start to roll, space will unfold, the ocean will be churned.

The sleeping Vishnu alludes to the latent leader within all people that has not yet expressed itself. This latent leader is awaiting self-discovery. Or the leader is preparing to lead. Before starting any project, a leader is Narayan – still, contemplating, making plans, thinking, observing, analyzing, preparing but not acting. Some leaders do not believe in planning at all – they just take the plunge and handle problems as they come along. Others plan too much and remain Narayan, sleeping, never waking up. The best method is to visualize the entire project through with the team – making notes of predictable problems and making contingency plans for the same and having done so, going ahead with the execution. Unpredictable problems being unpredictable cannot be anticipated.

When Narayan wakes up, he becomes Vishnu and sits alert on the hooded serpent at first and then when creation begins and plans start to get operationalized and resources start getting mobilized, he leaps on the back of his eagle, Garuda, that flaps its wings and travels above the skies and beneath the seas. Garudha holds a serpent (time) firmly in his talons – indicating the sense of urgency that every project demands. This is a leader supervising the execution of plans using his conch-shell to communicate his vision. His disc which rotates around his finger is a reminder to all that review is critical to ensure everyone is focused on the outcome. The mace and lotus are symbols of rewards and punishment that keeps everything on track. When all is well with the world, Vishnu returns to sit on the hooded serpent and watch things unfold. But when trouble erupts he rides the eagle, to do battle against disruptive forces.

But even this is not enough. Different situations are associated with different problems each of which demand a different solution. Hence, the avatars.

  • When the project is about rescuing an organization that is on the brink of collapse, he becomes the sensitive fish, Matsya, who navigates the boat full of life and wisdom to safety.
  • When the project needs brainstorming and cooperation between opposing even hostile factions he becomes the stabilizing turtle, Kurma, which holds aloft the spindle that can be used to churn the ocean of life.
  • When there are many ideas floating around but no base on which they can be applied or implemented, he becomes the boar, Varaha, plunging into the depths of the sea, getting his hands dirty, and bringing up the foundation (land or venture capital or regulatory changes), which can nurture all ideas.
  • When rules are established but there are many finding ways to slip between the rules, he becomes the dreaded Nara-simha, part man, part lion, outsmarting the smart troublemakers and preventing any disruption within the organization.
  • When people refuse to respect their respective roles in society, when Asuras choose to occupy even the earth and the sky, more than the space allotted to them, he becomes Vaman, the dwarf who transforms into a giant and shoves the king of Asuras back to the nether regions where he belongs.
  • When people break the rules, he rises up in righteous outrage as Parashuram, abandoning the peaceful ways of a priest who raises the axe and hacks the law breakers to death.
  • When rules continue to be broken, he as Ram, tries to become the model king, and by upholding the law even at the cost of personal happiness, inspires people to do the same.
  • When rules are upheld only ceremonially and not in spirit, he becomes Krishna, bending and breaking and redefining rules, choosing to be kingmaker rather than king.
  • When intervention is pointless and the best way is to provoke self-realization in the organization, he becomes the ascetic Buddha (according to some scriptures) and Balarama (in other scriptures), who though mighty refused to fight in the Mahabharat war.
  • Finally, when the situation is beyond repair, then as Kalki, riding a white horse and brandishing a sword, he systematically breaks down the existing system and prepares for a new cycle – a new organization.

Thus there is no one way to be Vishnu. It all depends on the context. Underlying this theme is the notion that everything is cyclical and impermanent. Organizations have to change because the world around them is changing. And with change, leaders have to change their way. They have to decide whether they are expected to be Narayan or Vishnu or Ram or Krishna or Kalki and act accordingly. Parashuram was successful in his time, Ram was successful in his time. Sometimes the same situation can have two different forms of intervention depending on what one aspires to achieve. Thus while Krishna provokes the Mahabharata war at Kurukshetra, his elder brother, also Vishnu, albeit not as famous, chooses not to fight.

The lesson: when you are going to office today, ask what avatar does today’s situation demand. And while doing that be a Narayan for tomorrow.