Published in Corporate Dossier ET, July 16, 2010

In the Hindu mythic world, the Devas live in the sky, the Manavas or humans live on the earth, and the Asuras live under the ground.   In the 19th century, English scholars equated Devas with gods of Greek mythology and so the enemy of the Devas, the Asuras came to be described as the ‘demons’. Unfortunately, there is nothing demonic about most Asuras, at least not in the Biblical sense of the term. Some European translators used other words like ‘giants’ and ‘Titans’ and even ‘old gods’ to refer to Asuras, but these did not capture what the Asuras were.   This is what happens when one uses Greek or Biblical templates to explain Hindu mythic structures. As a result, even today, in modern comic books, Bali, or Mahabali, the great king of Asuras, is described as the demon-king, though mercifully they avoid depicting him with horns, which incidentally is a Persian visual metaphor for demons introduced by Mughal court painters.

Mahabhali was so great a king that he rose up from the subterranean realm of the Asuras, and went on to become became master of the three worlds – those above, those below and all that in between, displacing even Indra, king of the Devas.

This created chaos in the cosmos and the sages begged Vishnu, preserver of the universe, to intervene and restore order. Mahabali was impossible to defeat at war.  The only way to defeat him was by cunning. Mahabali was known for his charitable nature, which is why he was much loved and difficult to overthrow. So Vishnu approached him in the form of a dwarf and asked Mahabali three paces of land, enough for me to sleep on.   “Take it,” said Mahabali, without a second thought. Vishnu immediately turned into a giant.   With one step, he claimed the sky, and gave it back to the Devas. With the second, he claimed the earth. With the third, he shoved Mahabali back to the realm under the ground where all Asuras belong.

The story draws attention to the notion of measurements.  Vishnu asks for three paces of land. Mahabali gave it, without checking who would measure the paces.   He assumed it was the dwarf, when in reality it was taken by a giant. Often when signing contracts, we assume measurements but when it comes time to settle, we are in for a surprise.

A classic example is when one buys a house – 1000 square feet means very different things to a buyer and a builder. One has terms like carpet area, built-up area, super built-up area, words that are so difficult for the common man to comprehend that in the end, the vast apartment of one’s imagination ends up becoming a tiny flat in reality, or should we say realty.

Another example is when one gets gifts valued at Rs. 10,000/-.   The cost of the gift, on bulk purchase, would be 30% or less of the MRP.   The one who receives the gift is made to believe that the value is Rs. 10,000/- while the one who gives the gift knows the cost is Rs. 3000/-.   The beneficiary is happy so long as he does not know the measuring scale of the benefactor.

Sandeep was the owner of a firm that distributes mutual funds and insurance.   He promised new agents a 3% bonus, if they sold an old slow-moving product, ABC, and reached a particular target.   Rajesh did reach that target and went to claim his 3% bonus.   He expected cash or cheque. Instead he was given a new fast-moving product, XYZ.   “The margin of XYZ is 3% more than the standard rate. Just cross-sell this product to the clients who bought ABC and make your money,” said Sandeep. Rajesh could do nothing but nod his head.   He had been paid 3% but not quite the way he assumed it.   Like Mahabali, he did feel rather crushed.

Subjectivity in measurement creates chaos and problems.   The Asuras are enemies of the Devas, but they are also worshipped: the rise and return of Mahabali is associated with harvest festivals in India such as Onam of Kerala and Diwali in the North.   But the only way the European translators could ‘measure’ the enemy of the gods was by calling them ‘demons’.   What is often convenient for a few need not be correct or comprehensible for the rest.   But we end up submitting to it.