Lessons from the ghost

Business, Indian Mythology 23 Comments

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.


  • P.R.Kaushik

    Thought provoking. Thank you Sir.

  • Puneresident


    1. Till today Vikramaditya was greatest emperor in current Kaliyuga
    2. Much less was written about him by western historian’s
    3. After his name Vikram saka started in north India
    4. Elsewhere it was written on Gold dish fortunate were those who were born in the kingdom of Vikramaditya
    5. In south india people use Shalivan saka after the name of king Shalivahana. It was belived that he is grandson of vikramditya who ruled from Pratishthan Maharashtra.

    About the article

    1. The sorcerer was about to give bali of Vikramaditya to achieve long living
    2. But in the end with the help of Betaal, Vikrama will kill the sorcerer

  • Very true !!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    A great article, sir …….

  • sachin

    as usual fantastic!!!

  • aarthi raghavan

    Hi Devduttji,
    It was a great article & a new perspective of Vikram & Vetal, according to me.

    I have always wondered why I am not able to explain or somebody is not ablt to understand what I know. Now I know understand that it is shruti & that one should learn it from oneself.

    Thank you for the great article.

  • Aditya Shembekar

    As usual, the article has a lot of gems; this one for instance – The more one expands one’s mind, the more one gains Saraswati and the more attractive one becomes to power and prosperity, Durga and Lakshmi.

    However, there is one part which I did not understand. A lot of times, we are faced with situations in which we need to take tough decisions in spite of them leading to uncertainty in the short term. We take those tough decisions instead of opting for the easy way out in the hope and belief that those tough roads will lead us to our goals. Vikramaditya, however, chose to take the route which led to certainty (letting Vetal slip away and escape). Why? Was it simply because of arrogance? Maybe I’m looking at it the wrong way but I understand the gist of what you are trying to say – that one needs to keep solving problems (the questions posed by Vetal) and move forward in life.

    The second part of the article about wisdom and knowledge is brilliant! This is superb – “The way to this (wisdom) is to introspect on it, personalize it, rather than intellectualize it.”

  • Rajesh

    Great thank you sir as always nice article

  • vibha

    Awesome..!!! Mind blowing…!!!

  • Yogesh

    This part is the key in my opinion. ‘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’
    Decisions are tough or simple in the hindsight only to the observer. They are the decisions that need to be taken at the respective moments by the person in the hot seat. Tough or simple. Good or bad. They reveal the strength as opposed to arrogance I reckon.

  • Rajashree

    Brilliantly written. How our ability to learn from the past-the Vetal, who presents all experience to us to distill into personal growth,depending on how well we listen to our inner voice…you have brought it all together elegantly and simply.
    Loved it.

  • Pramod

    You have transcended the obvious , now moved to universality of knowledge and understanding , it is reflected in your writing and thoughts . You communicate to look for meaning and expansion of mind in a absolute mundane .

    Brilliant is the exposition ! fantastic in brevity and expression , thank you !

  • Shashi Sharma

    As always very interesting and nice piece of the article. Just want to say why dont you compile all of these articles written till date into a book of short stories. Would like to have it in the form of book so that can be preserved for my future generation.

    Thanks & Regards,
    Shashi Sharma

  • Mohan Hosur

    Thanks for rekindling my memories of the neeti bodhane that i had been given by my grand father which over the years had got smudged.Refreshers of this type are most needed and welcome.

  • Minu Mehta

    A very humbling realisation for us teachers!

  • Ankita Suri

    Nice read.. :)

  • Dev, once again an awesome article … Really appreciate your thought process and your efforts to wake up the shruti in every reader of your blog.. Keep up the good work !

  • Nice article, thanks :)

  • Puneresident

    More Comments:

    * Four vedas were considered as shruti previously existed, exists today and exists for forever. Even gods has to abide the vedas

    * Interpretation of vedas such as vedanga, manusmriti etc were considered as Smruti

    * That is vedas remembered by various saint’s written in book format to get easily understandable to mango people is called as smruti

    Jai Hind

  • Prashanthi Chennupati

    Exceptional writing..:)…Contemporary writing model which intertwines past analysis with present situations…You are a very blessed person and writer. All the very best Mr. Devdutt.

    Best Regards,
    Prashanthi Chennupati.

  • Ankitgar

    what an article !

  • Yangchen thapa rawat

    you have given a proof to my belief! may “saraswati” color your language, “durga” give you power to write more and “laxmi” follow your satisfaction! may “force” be with you!

  • Lakshmi

    The story actually goes like this. If the King knew the answer and still kept quiet, his head would explode. Thus if he knew the answer, he should tell and if he did tell correctly and wisely, Vetal returned to the tree again. Vetal actually gets impressed by King Vikaramaditya’s patient attempts for a long time then tells him the truth about socerer and how to outwit him.

  • Anupriya

    Thanks…experiencing logics after a long long time…