Recruiting Leaders in the Mahabharata

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Published on 12th September, 2014 in The Economic Times

Mahabharata tells us the story of how Pandavas are created smartly thanks to the intervention of a responsible Kunti and how a pressurized Gandhari hastily creates Kauravas. These stories of the birth of the Pandavas and Kauravas in the Mahabharata tell us a lot about how recruitment policies can help us or hurt us in the long run.

Pandu could not produce children himself as he was cursed. He felt he had no right to rule the kingdom and so, without consulting his wives, he simply renounced the throne and went to the forest. There, he learnt from his senior wife, Kunti, that she had a mantra that had the power to invoke the devas, and get a son by them. Realizing its value, regretting his hasty decision, he quickly told Kunti to invoke Dharma, dispassionate god of governance, and have a son; this son was called Yudhishtira. Then he told her to invoke Vayu, the wind-god and get a son as strong as Hanuman; this son was Bhima. Then she invoked Indra, rain-god and sky-god; thus was born the skilled archer, Arjuna. Pandu wanted more sons. But Kunti said she could not use the mantra anymore. He asked her to share it with his junior wife, Madri. Madri invoked the Ashwini twins and secured twin sons, Nakula and Sahadeva, who were well versed in animal and occult lore. More sons, said Pandu. ‘No,’ said Kunti, ‘If Madri has more sons than me then there will be tension between my sons and her sons and that will not be good for anyone.’

Pandu makes up for his initial hasty decision using Kunti’s capability. When Kunti’s capacity is exhausted, Madri’s help is sought. Later, Kunti warns Pandu from being too greedy for sons, for she anticipates a possible power struggle if Madri, the junior queen, has more sons than her, the senior queen.

Let us contrast this with the birth of the Kauravas.

Dhritarashtra, though elder to Pandu, was not given the throne because he was blind. Furious, he was determined to father a son before Pandu did to prove his virility. Unfortunately for him, though his wife Gandhari conceived his child first, Yudhishtira was born first – instantly – thanks to Kunti’s mantra. Refusing to accept this situation as a twist of fate, an angry Dhritarashtra blamed and scolded Gandhari for ‘her failure’. Desperate, Gandhari tells her servant to strike her pregnant belly with an iron bar repeatedly with great force in order to push the baby out. But instead of a premature baby, out rolls a ball of flesh, cold and firm like metal. Gandhari is horrified. She wails in despair. She begs the rishi Vyasa to help. She pressurizes him by reminding him of the blessing he gave her – that she would be the mother of hundred sons. So Vyasa takes the ball of flesh, cuts it into a hundred pieces (hundred and one, because Gandhari wants a girl too, a sister for the hundred brothers), put them in pots full of ghee, and chants mantras. When the pots are broken, the hundred Kauravas are born, along with their sister Dushala.

Of these hundred, we remember only the name of the first two, Duryodhana who was skilled fighting with a mace like Bhima, and Dusshasana, who blindly followed his elder brother. The other 98 are insignificant. We don’t even know their names.

And since there is a poverty in talent on the Kaurava camp, despite vast numbers of brothers, Duryodhana has to recruit Karna from the outside, a talented but ambitious charioteer’s son, and Ashwatthama, the son of his tutor, Drona. But he remains dependent on his elders: Bhisma, his granduncle, and Drona and Kripa, his tutor, who grudgingly help him despite really favouring the Pandavas. Being one of a hundred sons, Duryodhana never really gets the attention of his mother, Gandhari, who is anyway blindfolded, or his father Dhritarashtra, who is blind, and who cares more for the throne than him.

In other words, the Kaurava camp, born of a single mother and single father, is high on numbers, high on insecurity, and low in skill. By contrast, the Pandava camp, despite being born of two mothers, multiple surrogate fathers, and fewer in numbers, are high on skill and bonding, with lower insecurity levels.

These stories show the price of haste, the consequences of lack of faith which manifests as impatience. Pandavas are born with due delegation and support of many people (the surrogate fathers) and size is controlled with the awareness of the power games that are an inevitable part of human relationships. Kauravas are the outcomes of anxiety and rage, vast in numbers but rather mediocre and so bad for the kingdom in the long run.