Fathers and Sons

Business, Indian Mythology 15 Comments

Published in Corporate Dossier on 27th Feb 2010

In Greek mythology, a recurrent theme is one where fathers are killed by their sons. Uranus is killed by his son, Cronos, the Titan. Cronus, in turn, is killed by his son, Zeus, the Olympian. The first to lead the gods is Uranus. When he is killed, Cronus takes his place. When Cronus is killed, Zeus takes his place. Thus, succession takes place by the death of the father. Fathers are always suspicious of their sons. Sons have to revolt against their father and claim the universe. Sometimes, the revolt and replacement takes place unknowingly. Heroes, abandoned at birth, left to die, manage to survive and return to kill their fathers. This theme is found in the story of Jason, who is left to die by his power-hungry uncle, Pelias. And most famously, in the story of Oedipus, who is rejected by his father, Laius, but who returns and fulfils the terrible prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother. These stories led Freud to develop the famous theory of psychoanalysis known as Oedipus complex, the guilt that rises when the son claims the exclusive love of the mother and sees the father as a rival. What follows is the violent struggle between the older and the younger generation in which the younger generation always wins. But in the process, the wisdom of the past is lost. There is guilt at the death of the father as well as ignorance leading to a recurring pattern. The son ends up doing what the father did and is in turn rejected by his own son.

In Hindu mythology, however, a different recurring theme is seen. Here, it is the father who triumphs and the son loses. And the defeat of the son, often voluntary, is glorified. What scholars have observed in India is the Yayati complex, which is rather the opposite of the Oedipus complex. Yayati was cursed to become old and impotent. To stay young, he begged his sons to suffer the curse on his behalf. The eldest son, Yadu, refused. He believed that the father should respect the march of time. The youngest son agreed and suffered oldage while his father enjoyed youth, like a parasite. Years later, having had his fill of youth, Yayati took back the curse of oldage from his son. He then made a decision: the younger obedient Puru would be his heir, not the elder disobedient Yadu. What Yayati celebrates here is obedience; he completely ignores the march of time. Puru is the ancestor of the Kauravas and the Pandavas; Yadu is the ancestor of the Yadavas, hence Krishna. This theme recurs in the story of Bhisma (descendent of Puru) who gives up all conjugal rights so that his old father, Shantanu, can marry a fisherwoman called Satyavati who he has fallen in love with. The son sacrifices himself for the pleasure of the father and for this he is glorified as a hero. Yayati complex is then about the younger generation submitting to the older generation. It is about the shame that the younger generation feels when it challenges the older generation.

The difference is stark. In the Greek way, the old is defeated by the new. In the Hindu way, the new surrenders to the old. Manish recently returned from the US, after completing his MBA. He comes form an old business family that has been trading in Andhra Pradesh for generations. His father, Pradip, wanted his son to have the best of modern education. So Manish was sent abroad at an early age and he has come back not just with a degree but also with lots of work experience in investment banking firms in the US. Now he is ready to take over the family business. But there is a problem. He finds everything wrong in the way Pradip runs the business. This has led to arguments and fights at home, and sometimes at office. Pradip is taken aback by his son’s attitude. Disagreement between father and son is natural. But in his youth, he never spoke against his father’s method of doing business. He surrendered to it, watched it carefully, learnt a lot from it, and when he took over improved on it. But Manish seems to be reacting very differently. He seems to mock the old ways of doing business. Is this the result of a foreign education? Is this the loss of Indian values?

Should Manish follow the Greek way and overpower the father and establish his way in the family business? This will be good as India is getting increasingly globalized and the rules of the game are being determined by the West. Or should Manish, follow the Indian way, and bow to his father and wait until it is time to take over the family business and make adjustments later? He is confused.

But the Indian way is not so simple. In the Ramayana, Ram obeys his father and endures forest-exile for 14 years. When he returns, the father is dead and he is crowned king. What follows is the perfect rule. But in the Mahabharata, that tells the story of Yayati and Shantanu, the rejection of Yadu in favor of Puru, and the great sacrifice of Bhisma, become the root cause of the horrific war in Kurukshetra. In both cases, the sons obey their father. But while in the Ramayana the result is glorious, in the Mahabharata the result is tragedy. Where is the difference stemming from?

In the Ramayana, the son is asked to suffer exile so that the father can keep his word and so uphold the integrity of the royal family. In the Mahabharata, the sons are asked to suffer so that the father can enjoy pleasure. So the point is not obedience. The point is whether this obedience is rooted in the desire to uphold order, or the desire to gratify the self. In Ramayana, the ultimate reference point is order or dharma; in the Mahabharata, the ultimate reference point is pleasure or kama.

Manish needs to decide: Does he want to be Ram or does he want to be Yadu? As Ram, he will establish Ram Rajya and as Yadu, he will be the forefather of Krishna. His decision depends on his reading of his father. Why does Pradip demand obedience: for the good of the company or for his personal aggrandizement? If it is for dharma, then prosperity will follow. If it is for kama, then collapse is inevitable.

  • K K vasekar

    Sons to be trained in Ramayan and fathers to revisit Mahabharat and understand the dilemma.thanks

  • Amit

    Dear Devdutt,

    A masterpiece as usual. My personal experience: I followed the Greek way during the teenage year, becoming a rebel and when I was sent to London for my further studies, I’ve been since following the Yayati complex.

    The outcome is, I will be living my life the way my Father wants until the age of 30. And then I will start my own phase. At present, he wants me to be abroad and study, and study as much as I can! But there is an agreement that after 30 I will have it my way. Its been working good so far. The teenage years were really hard, fights and arguments. But since 6 years now, there are been a great bond of love and respect between each other.

    Good work! Keep it up.

    I am a big fan of yours, would be a dream come true to share some intimate space and time with you. ;)

    Kind regards and best wishes,


  • Anirudh Bhati

    This reminds me of a quote I read earlier today, with regard to paternalitic societies / welfare states.

    “No physical violence and compulsion can possibly force a man against his will to remain in the status of the ward of a hegemonic order. What violence or the threat of violence brings about is a state of affairs in which subjection as a rule is considered more desirable than rebellion. Faced with the choice between the consequences of obedience and of disobedience, the ward prefers the former and thus integrates himself into the hegemonic bond. Every new command places this choice before him again. In yielding again and again he himself contributes his share to the continuous existence of the hegemonic societal body.” [Ludwig von Mises, Human Action]

  • Bhavit Mehta

    Hi Devdutt,

    Was great hearing you in action at the Jaipur Literature Festival a few weeks back.

    Loved this piece on fathers and sons. Inspiring as ever.

    From my understanding, the difference between the examples of Yayati and Shantanu are that Yayati ‘asked’ Puru to swap his old age and Puru ‘obeyed’. Whereas Shantanu didn’t actually ask Bhishma. It was Bhishma who decided to give up all rights to the thrown and lead a celibate life in order to make it possible for his father to marry Satyavati and have happiness in his old age. Hence, not so much a question of obedience, but rather understanding and sacrifice.

    I love the relationship between Shantanu and Bhishma, their mutual respect and understanding for each other is admirable. Like Manish, Bhishma too studied away from home and had a privileged education. Shantanu thereafter respected the opinion of Bhishma when it came to the running of his kingdom.

    I think many fathers and sons can learn from their example.

    Best wishes,


    • Imagine sons sacrificing ‘willingly’ their youthful desires so that old fathers can remarry……what kind of a society will that create? Kurukshetra, not Ram Rajya.

  • Mohan Ramchandani

    As usual very good article. I am passing through the similar phase in life .

  • usha

    HI Devdutt,Am a follower of your work.You have some very beautiful insights.Inspite of my age,I find it difficult to be Bhishma.Much rather fight and hold my own.Must be my mental makeup.You are truly doing a great job.My nlessings for greater successes…usha

  • Raahul

    In reality, I believe there is always rivalry between father and son. If father is a smoker, son is almost always a non-smoker.

    Bhishma is too idealistic and so is Rama. They don’t seem to be power hungry. I think, it all starts from the hunger for power, control and then ruling. In a small family world, and in a larger political scenario, all these rivalry starts with power. Hunger for power is found more elsewhere than in India. And so India always got invaded.

    Anyway, your article is very good. The comparison between west and India is also very good and thoughtful. I guess it has much deeper insights than what had been brought out here.

  • cmpatnaik

    Dear Devdutt
    I can’t stop myself with out appreciating the insight you projected. A great work keep it up. Here I had a question which I want to share; I don’t know whether it’s a right kind of forum. What kind of a father Santanu is, for just sensual pleasures and happiness has accepted Bhishma’s sacrifice of the kingdom, which ultimately lead to war. Santanu should have thought of the future generations before taking such a step as a king. Has he fulfilled the king’s dharma in the process?

    • I don’t think he was interested in kingdom’s welfare….hence not interested in dharma

  • Shantanu’s acceptance of Bhishma’s sacrifice always confused me. I feel parents know they have the power to influence their children’s thinking – what made a father bring up a son in such a way that he agreed to something like this? Why didn’t parents and teachers of those times teach their sons to question parental (or any) authority?

    Unquestioning Obedience was seen as the ultimate virtue in ancient times, it also lead to abuse of power. I wonder if that has influenced us – and makes us submit to all authority – like government, god-men, teachers even today.

    In your example I think the business belongs to the father, if the son wants to run he has to accept the father’s decision. He could offer to take a small unit of it and run it his way if the father agrees. Education without experience is not of much use. He could also ask the father to help him start a new venture – preferably related to the same business, which when father is ready could be merged into the same business.

    First time on your blog… this is a thought provoking write up :)

  • Wow! The insight was remarkable!

    But problems also occur when the father and the son both want the good of the company but look at the good in different ways! The need to define good in a unanimous way is necessary and that such a definition exists, is the assumption on which this piece rests.

    But, I loved every bit of this writing. So lucid, and yet so deep! Glad to have reached this web page :)

  • This article reminds me of your piece on Bhishma-Krishna dialogue over Shikhandi’s presence in Kurukshetra.

  • Murli Lahoti

    good one sir