First Published in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, March 21, 2008

In the Ramayan, Ram is asked to string a bow – a feat that will win him the hand of Sita in marriage. Ram, however, bends the bow with such force that it breaks. Since no one until then had even been able to pick up this bow, Sita’s father is so impressed with Ram that he is more than happy to accept him as his son-in-law.

One cannot help but wonder:  Why did Ram, known for his obedience, break a bow that was supposed to be strung? The bow is an ancient symbol of kingship. It represents poise and balance, useful only if the string is neither too loose or too tight. That Ram, the ideal king, breaks a bow in his youth is surely an act of some significance. No ordinary bow this: but the bow of Shiva, the great ascetic.

With a wife by his side, Ram’s father feels he is now old enough to be king and so declares his decision to retire. Unfortunately the planned coronation does not take place. Palace intrigues force Ram to go into forest exile instead. Is there a correlation between the breaking of the bow and the denial of his kingship? The epic does not say so explicitly. Nor has any scholar commented on it. But the question is an interesting one. After all everything in Hindu narratives is symbolic and there is surely here a meaning that is waiting to be decoded.

Ram’s breaking of Shiva’s bow probably suggests an act of passion and attachment, for Shiva is the god of renunciation and detachment. Is that why he is considered unfit to be king? Is that why he must go into the forest for 14 years, and return only when he has cultivated adequate detachment? Observe the almost inhuman lack of passion displayed by Ram, fourteen years later, when he finally kills Ravan and rescues his wife Sita. He tells her that he killed Ravan not to rescue her but to uphold dharma and clear his family’s honor. It is almost as if showing feelings for one’s spouse is unacceptable for one who seeks to be king. He had shown his passion once, when he broke the bow. He shall not do so again.

The ancient seers demanded such detachment from kings. Kingship had to be more important than family. That is why Ram is put on the highest pedestal. One may not quite agree with this philosophy today, but it is clear that the epic considers the years in the wilderness not as a tragedy but as a period to mature until one is ready to truly wear the crown.

This theme of ‘growing up’ in the wilderness is repeated in the Mahabharata. Krishna helps the Pandavas establish the kingdom of Indraprastha. But the five brothers foolishly gamble away their kingdom in Krishna’s absence, a crime for which they have to suffer thirteen years of exile. When Yudhishtira moans his fate, the sages tell him the story of Ram who suffered fourteen years of exile, one year more than them, and that too for no fault of his. They tell the Pandavas to stop whining and use the period in the forest to learn. And they learn: Arjuna learns humility when he is defeated by a common hunter (Shiva in disguise) in battle, Bhima learns humility when he is unable to lift the tail of an old monkey (Hanuman in disguise) and all the brothers learn humility when they are forced to live as servants in the final year of exile. Only then does Krishna lead them to a triumphant battle against their enemies.

Most leaders who have done anything worthwhile in the corporate world have had their own forest exile. Talk to any CEO, or successful entrepreneur, and they will tell of their years in the corporate wilderness, when no one respected them, when they were pushed down and not given what was due to them,  when they were kept away from power by lesser men, men who feared them. They will tell you of a time when they were treated as wannabes, or worse, as has-beens. Unfortunately, many leaders do not take such periods of corporate exile positively. It makes them bitter and more insecure. Rather than become Phoenixes, brilliant mythical birds who rise from their own ashes, they turn into Banyan Trees, giving comfort to all but not letting even a blade of grass to grow in their shade.

It has been observed that one leader of a medium sized company loves to give every member of his team the impression that they are powerful. But the truth is that he is the sole decision-maker. He has not created a talent pool, a second line of command. Ask him why and he will refuse to acknowledge this very evident truth. Perhaps he is not even aware of it. There was a time when he headed a marketing division of another company with high growth prospects. But when a new CEO took over the company, he fell out of favour and was shunted out, given a high sounding lowly post in a faraway country for three years. Those three years in the corporate wilderness shattered him. He became bitter and aggressive, determined to fight back and emerge a winner. In rage he left the organization and joined a new one and now, after years of struggle, is back – heading a bigger organization, in a far greater position that all those who shunted him out. He is enjoying every moment of his triumphant return. He has shown them!

But the event has taken its toll – he is not the generous man he once was. He looks upon everyone as a potential threat, a future back-stabber. His actions and influence on the organization display a pessimism that has seeped into his being. He lacks the hope that he should have discovered in the days of his struggle. Once a victim, he is now become a victimizer perpetrating the vicious cycle of bitter exiles and vengeful returns.

The scriptures frown upon such myopic leadership. It reeks of lack of character and a lack of faith in the bigger picture. Both epics view the forest exile as opportunities to discover inner strengths and return as greater men. Had Ram not gone to the forest, he would have not triumphed over Ravan and had the Pandavas not suffered the exile they would not have the moral high ground over their enemies. Ultimately, after a long period of glorious rule, both Ram and the Pandavas voluntarily give up their crown, passing it on to the next generation of worthy rulers, illustrating to all that ultimately every leader has to move on.