Breaking the Rules

Business, Mahabharata 5 Comments

18 Jan, 2008, 0608 hrs IST

Two childhood friends, one the son of a warrior, the other the son of a priest, promised to share all they possessed even in adulthood. Fortune, however, favoured only the warrior’s son. In desperation , with hesitation, the priest’s son, reduced to abject poverty, decided to approach his rich friend. This story has two endings.

In the Mahabharata, the pauper Drona, is insulted by his friend, Drupada, king of Panchal, for assuming that promises of childhood matter in adulthood. He is asked to beg for charity rather than demand a share of the royal fortune in the name of friendship. A furious Drona leaves the palace determined to become Drupada’s equal – a decision that leads to a spiral of vendetta that culminates in the bloody carnage at Kurukshetra. In the Bhagavata, however, the pauper is Sudama and he is warmly welcomed and showered with lavish gifts by his friend, Krishna. So how must a leader behave – like Krishna or Drupada? The answer is not as simple as one assumes.

Drupada is doing what a king is supposed to: laying down the law, telling Drona not to curry personal favours, and advising him instead to behave in keeping with his role in society. As a priest, Drona can either ask for a fee (dakshina), if services are rendered, or for charity (daan), if no services were rendered. Drupada is doing the right thing. Unfortunately, he does so rather nastily, without empathy . His actions do not display the spirit of generosity and that is his undoing.

One often forgets why laws and rules and codes of conduct exist. They exist to ensure fairness. If there were no laws, anarchy would reign, might would be right, the meek would be at the mercy of the strong, favouritism and nepotism would breed, and only the fit would survive. Through laws, a leader overpowers the law of the jungle and creates a space where even the weak can thrive and grow to their fullest potential. Laws ensure that the urge of the strong and the loud to dominate is restrained so that the weakest can breed and the meekest are heard. Thus the ‘spirit of generosity’ underlies every ‘rule of restraint’ . At least it is supposed to.

One manager in a public sector company believed in an open door policy. Anybody could walk into his cabin anytime with any issue. This made him highly popular. But over time, he realised that this prevented him from giving people who came to his room his full attention. There was always someone entering the room, ignoring the one already in the room, distracting him with some other agenda. So he put down a rule: meetings ‘by appointment only’. His popularity dipped, until everyone realised this policy ensured that all those who went to him got full attention in the time allotted to them.

The rule had ensured fairness — no single meeting dominated other meetings. Months passed. The appointment rule became rigid. No one could meet the manager without appointment, even if there was a crisis. The secretary started enjoying the power he got in defining who got to meet the boss, and when. He enjoyed reminding the boss that it was time for the next meeting.

Sometimes, the manager really wanted to extend the meeting, but rules, his rules, were rules and had to be respected. The manager started being perceived as a rigid man who lacked the personal touch, because somewhere along the line he forgot the purpose of his own rules. He had become Drupada. When rules do not generate fairness, then it is time to bend them, or break them, as Krishna does repeatedly in the Bhagavata and the Mahabharata.

The story of Karna in the Mahabharata draws attention to how we often overlook the very principle that underlies laws. Karna was a generous man; anyone who came to his door never left empty handed. And yet, he abandoned the spirit of generosity when it mattered most — when a helpless woman, being publically disrobed by her own kinsmen , begged for help. The woman, Draupadi, ironically the daughter of Drupada, questioned the men about the appropriateness of their actions.

Everyone felt sorry for her, but not one of them raised a finger to help because everyone agreed no rule was actually broken : her husbands had gambled her, she had been won fairly and her new masters had a right to treat their new property as they wished. Here was an opportunity to challenge the law, bend it, change it, appealing to humanity, so that the law served its primary purpose — to help the helpless , to reverse the law of the jungle.

Unfortunately, everyone , Karna included, hid behind the letter of the law and forgot the spirit of the law. For this oversight, the gods never forgave Karna; taking advantage of his charitable nature, they stripped him of his divine armour and left him vulnerable in the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

Understanding the purpose of a law helps the leader bend it or change it as and when the situation demands it. A young executive wanted permission to leave his office early, 4 pm instead of 5 pm, so that he could attend his MBA classes at 6 pm. In Drupada’s world, this would not be allowed, for fear that others would demand a similar flexibility. This would have only bred frustration and created an executive who would have spent all day looking at the clock and sprinting out whenever the clock struck 5, leaving his work half done.

In Krishna’s world, the executive would have perhaps been allowed to take leave at 4 pm without being asked to compensate for time. This would have created a very happy executive but also an organisation where rules would never be respected. Luckily for Krishna, beside him sit his many wives, each one a form of Lakshmi. When he kept offering Sudama gifts, they caught hold of his hand and said, “Leave some for us,” reminding him that, while generosity is fine, restraint is good too if one wants to run a household, and an organisation.

In a world where Krishna rules and Lakshmi matters, the young executive would have been told why the rules of time were in place. A compromise would have been reached and the student would have been asked to compensate for the time lost by perhaps coming earlier to work or by working through lunch hour. This would have generated an enthusiastic and indebted employee, and not threatened organisational order. This is what the scriptures call a ‘win-win ’ situation.

  • Hi Devdutt,

    This is a very good acrticle , i totally agreed on the last paragraph on the article.

    Thanks and keep doing good work.
    Mohit Sharma

  • Deep

    It is not that Karna abandoned the spirit of generosity….but Draupadi when asking for help from Bhishma, Drona and so on…when came to Karna…she remembered him as a Suta-putra and did not ask him for help…..Karna was willing to Help her if she would have asked him for the same.


    sir, i have referred two links which gives an account of an indian doctor who attempted to date the mahabharatha and ramayana in the time line of the world using astronomical data.

  • vijay

    Hi Devdut,
    Gud evng,your articles are really thought provoking and are intact with ‘tatva’ which we ought to learn.I have a doubt about dharma of pandavas.They were born to indra,vayu etc who were brahmins and so they are priests.How could they rule kingdom as it was against their dharma,the same for which drona was killed.Or can priests rule a kingdom?we find this same instance in many stories like vikramarka whose father was a priest and was gifted kingdom along with his daughter by a king which then latter descended to vikramarka and in Ramayana where Ravan,being a brahmin,is the king of wrote Draupadi ended up marrying priests in disguise of princes in one of your articles.In stories of Parasurama,it was said that a brahmin can learn all the warrior skills but has to use them only in times of need,not as a job like kshatriyas.Can you please clarify on this point?
    You may be interested to know that your writings are really,changing lives.Thanks..

  • Aniruddha

    Hi Devdutt,
    Not only this but all your articles are meaningful. Its a treat to read them. The co-relation of the past wisdom/stories with current situations makes it more interesting! You are doing a very good work, by giving the readers a new vision!