Published in First City,  January 2012

A sorcerer once requested the legendary King Vikramaditya of Ujjain to fetch him a Vetal or ghost that hung upside down, like a bat, from the branches of a tree that stood in the middle of a crematorium.  Not wanting to disappoint anyone who approached him, Vikramaditya immediately set out for the crematorium determined to fetch the Vetal. “Make sure you do not talk to him. If you speak, he will slip away from your grasp,” warned the sorcerer.

Vikramaditya entered the crematorium, found the tree, and the Vetal hanging upside down from its branches. He caught the ghost, pulled it down and made his way back to the city when the ghost started chatting with him, telling him all kinds of things, annoying him, yelling into his ears, cursing him, praising him, anything to make him talk but Vikramaditya refused to succumb to these tricks.

Finally, the Vetal told Vikramaditya a story, a case study one might say, and at the end of it asked the king a question. “If you are indeed the wise Vikramaditya, as you claim to be, you should know the answer to the riddle. But how will I know if you are truly he, unless you speak? And if you choose to stay silent, I am free to assume I have been caught by a commoner, a pretender, a mimic!” Too arrogant to be called a commoner, the king gave the answer. And it was a brilliant answer, one that made the Vetal gasp in admiration. And then, he slipped away and went back to hang upside down from the branches of the tree in the middle of the crematorium.

So Vikramaditya had to walk back to the tree once again and pull the Vetal down once again. Once again, the Vetal told him a story with a question at the end. Once again the Vetal told the king, “If you are indeed the wise Vikramaditya, as you claim to be, you should know the answer to the riddle. But how will I know if you are truly he, unless you speak? And if you choose to stay silent, I am free to assume I have been caught by a commoner, a pretender, a mimic!” Once again, the arrogant king gave the answer. Once again the Vetal gasped in admiration. And once again he slipped away.

This happened twenty-four times. The twenty-fifth time, a tired and exasperated Vikramaditya, sighed in relief. He had succeeded. “Have you really?” asked the Vetal, “How do you know the answers you gave the previous times were right? Each decision was subjective, not objective. You thought you were right, and so you spoke. Now you are not sure of the answer, and so remain silent. This silence will cost you dear. You will succeed in taking me to the sorcerer who will use his magic to make me his genie and do his bidding. His first order for me will be to kill you. So you see, Vikramaditya, as long as you kept answering my questions, rightly or wrongly, you were doing yourself a favor. You had to keep chasing me, but you stayed king. Now that you doubt yourself, and stay silent, you are sure to end up dead.”

At the moment of decision-making, decisions are not right or wrong. They are right or wrong only in hindsight. He who takes decisions proactively, he who is not afraid to let the Vetal slip away, he who knows that life is about solving one problem after another, is Vikramaditya.

To improve decision-making, Vikramaditya has to visit the crematorium where the past hangs upside down like ghosts and confront the Vetal. This is where learning takes place. This is where he hones his skills. The Vetal is the mentor, the trainer, the coach, the teacher, the guru, who presents the past as case studies and asks questions in the form of riddles and puzzles. Does the Vetal know the answer?

Maybe yes, maybe no. It does not matter. What matters is that Vikramaditya answers the questions and solves the problems. Every answer, every solution, is subjective; only time will reveal if they are right and wrong. If Vikramaditya refuses to answer, he will end up destroying himself and his kingdom. A leader matters only as long as he seeks to solve problems.

Vikramaditya must always go to Vetal; the Vetal must never go to Vikramaditya. Vetal is Saraswati. Unlike Lakshmi and Durga which can be given, Saraswati cannot be given. She has to be taken.

The crematorium is not a place where business happens, but it is here that the mind is expanded and beliefs are clarified. It is a place of new ideas, new thoughts, new frameworks, that facilitate decision-making. The more Vikramaditya visits the crematorium, the more he expands his mind, the more he gains Saraswati and the more attractive he becomes to power and prosperity, Durga and Lakshmi.

The process of gaining Saraswati is two fold. There is the outer voice called Smriti and the inner voice called Shruti. Smriti means that which can be remembered hence transmitted. Shruti means that which can only be heard but cannot be transmitted.

What a teacher teaches a student, what is passed on through texts and puzzles and riddles and questions and case studies, is just Smriti. These can be parroted and passed on. These can be mouthed to impress people.

But real learning happens when the aspirant listens to his own voice, the inner voice of his mind. This is the only voice we hear. This is Shruti. Only when Smriti provokes Shruti, do we internalize wisdom. It becomes part of us. When this happens, we do not have to provide references for our knowledge (“This idea comes from that teacher”). We become the source of the knowledge (“This is my idea”).

Books and lectures are Smriti; they can be remembered and passed on. The reader or listener can allow it to provoke Shruti. Only when they listen to their inner voice and truly ‘get it’, will this knowledge of the past transform into timeless wisdom. The way to this is to introspect on it, personalize it, rather than intellectualize it. Frameworks appear when we see the mirror and are comfortable with the reflection.

As long as frameworks are meant to change the world, not ourselves, Saraswati will remain Vidya-Lakshmi, skill that grants prosperity, but not peace. We will stay trapped in Swarga, like Indra, eternally on a shaky throne. We will never find Vaikuntha, where Lakshmi sits at our feet, and we always enjoy the rhythmic swing of the waves.

Every king whose rule extends up to the horizon, the Chakravarti, is no different from the Kupmanduka, the frog in the well. The walls of his kingdom define his well. However great the size may be, it is but a drop in the canvas of infinity. There is always scope to grow, outgrow the animal within, stop chasing Durga and Lakshmi, and make them chase him instead. For this he has to cut his head.

Vetal cuts the head. Shruti cuts the head. Cutting of the head is a metaphor for intellectual as well as emotional growth. Intellectual growth may make us more skilled and less insecure, but it does not enable us to empathize. The point is not to be knowledgeable; the point is to be wise. And in India, wisdom happens when knowledge combines with empathy, gyan with karuna.