Measurement of Three Paces

Business 20 Comments

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.

  • Sneha

    Diwali in the north being associated with Bali is a new thing for me…hope to get know more about this in future from u

  • “…we end up submitting to it” – I feel that is more because our ignorance of the culture/religion. All we learn in 15 years of school education is “how to get the info when required”.

    Thanks for another nice article. I also liked the similar session you had on ‘business sutra’.

    • GuruM

      We also learn not to question (out aloud anyway) or change things from the way they are.

  • Incredible…what a comparison. I am subscriber to all your new additions.
    Keep writing….some day I dream of being as knowledgable as you are and be able to write on Hindu topics

  • Chawla Jagjit Singh


    It changed my perspective…I have often seen that story and even heard quite a times…but never ever was brought about this understanding..

    A good eye opener…..

    @Jagjit Singh Chawla

  • Indranath Banerjee

    Thanks for another new perspective in analogy to myth…

    Aside, I think apart from looking into the particular measurement as who would do it, at times it is also necessary to probe as to “why” the measurement is required…

    In practical scenarios continuing with the right “why” s often lead to hints / insights towards unforeseen situations that gets attached or associated with the measurement.

  • Superb article as always… enjoy your thoughts

    Diwali in the north with Mahabali sent back ..??? Onam I agree they clearly say MAhabali in the temple and house ceremonies.. not Diwali

    Dear Dev, do explain your thoughts on Diwali as well, as there is always a debate whether it was Rams return to Ayodhya, or killing of an Asura by Krishna(forgot the story who had got a boon that only his mom can kill him) and now your statement about Mahabali(which is new)

  • dheeraj

    okay, i am convinced that asuras are not demonic, but then why do gods again and again favour only devas and not asuras???

  • Sid

    Hi,You wrote bali could not be moved down without cunning. So doesnt mean at times its necessary to cheat, to be cunning with people….

  • seshadri

    Thank you for bringing up awareness about the distortion brought by Greek and Biblical metaphors. The propogation of the distortion by the “english only reading eurocentric ‘scholars’ ” is another self-inflicted anamoly.

    • Devdutt

      No scholar is perfect, English-speaking or otherwise….a student has to learn what he can from every teacher and move on….

  • hi

    what according to you is the significance of the ‘teen lokas’..the three worlds..??

    HOw are Devas, Manavas and Asuras different??

  • Dr. Shamoly

    I do not exactly agree with ‘We end up submitting to it’. I think that those who do not agree about evil existence may not necessarily voice their opinion probably coz they havent found a fitting measure to stand upto the title of ‘enemy of gods’. But then again, according to law of opposites, if God is that good, then something evil should exist to balance it out in the world. I remember you said once you dont believe in evil in one of your articles; but I feel thinkers, writers and humans in general find solace in ‘demonising devil/evil existence’ to find answers for ‘why me’ and other unbearable circumstances. An escape probably.

    Also, your whole lookout on the ‘subjective measurement in reality about ‘3% discounts/gift vouchers/ flat feet lengths is bang-on. The problem is, India has been functioning this way since years now, and tomorrow if I hand you a free voucher gift worth 10k and actually claim its 10k, chances are you will raise your eyebrow, doubt in frown and then smile to yourself saying ‘Yeh right. I wasnt born here yesterday!’ So if you get accused anyways, why not commit the crime? :) I speak in general considering what I see..

    Brilliant perspective as always.

    • GuruM

      Out of 10 people who lose to the legal-con-men, only 1-2 will fight back.

  • Asuras are beings of rote (mechanical repetition). Devas are beings of perception. The modern analogy for Asura is a robot. Quite naturally, asuras can be either good or evil. But they can never replace the devas.

    Because of their blind repetition and habit, the Asuras derive great force. This is why they were invited as necessary aides in the episode of the churning of the milk ocean.

    It is interesting to note that the Greek “demons” also represented similar ideas. The idea of a demon being evil (and depicted with horns) is a Semitic idea, borrowed from Christianity and Islam. Even today, we sometimes use the words “daemon” or “demon” to represent an activity of mechanical repetition (one example is in software systems).

    • GuruM

      I think daemon is more like a demi-god in Greek and not demon.

  • Satish Gundawar

    Yes, Bigbazar has also perfected this technique. When Bigbazar buys old stuffs from people at 5 times than the market prices, consumers do not understand that they have to give their stuffs practically free to bigbazar. Consumer feels that they have sold old paper at Rs 25!! But actaully Bigbazar has sold goods 5 times than he would have actually bought!!!


    Satish Gundawar

    • GuruM

      If this is true it’s quite ironic.
      Mr Kishore Biyani was the one who started Big Bazaar.
      He’s also the employer of Mr. Devdutt in his role as CBO.

      I personally do not like Big Bazaar. In normal bazaar we can pick and choose what we like and discuss with the salesperson. However in Big Bazaar, there are big piles of stuff lying unattended, nobody to respond to your queries and a smell like being in a cupboard full of soap, linen etc. Usually avoid such places.

      On the other hand really like Devdutt-ji’s articles.

  • GuruM

    “**Conditions apply”,
    “Read the offer document carefully”…
    “Caveat Emptor (Buyer beware)” are age old sayings.
    The reason we ‘submit to it’ is the same reason the fish takes the bait.
    The intention is semi-hidden until after the deal is over.
    What is visible is the bait alone.
    This happens really in business and laws protect the legal-cheaters.

  • Harsha Muddu

    Always with mixed emotions after reading any version of vamana avatara. If both devas and asuras are equal…then why are the devas allotted swarga…while asuras are allotted patala……..why not other way around…….