Published in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, 20 March 2009

Once upon a time there was a king called Indradyumna and after a long reign he passed away and went to heaven, where he spent centuries, enjoying the rewards of his good deeds on earth. Then, one day, the gods told him, “Indradyumna, you have have to go back to earth. You are no longer welcome in heaven.”

“Why?” asked a perplexed Indradyumna. “Because,” said the gods, “No one on earth remembers your good deeds.” “But how can that be?” wondered the king, “I spent all my life doing good deeds.” “If,” said the gods, “You can find at least one creature who remembers you for your good deeds then you can come back to heaven. Otherwise you will have to leave. That is the rule.”

Time flows differently on earth than in heaven. When Indradyumna reached earth, he realized that centuries had passed since his reign. The trees were different, the people were different, even his kingdom looked different. Who will remember me, he wondered. The buildings he built were all gone. The temples he built were no where to be seen. The people who were beneficiaries of his largesse were all dead. No one he met remembered any king called Indradyumna.

Disheartened, Indradyumna went in search of the oldest man on earth. He found Rishi Markandeya. But the Rishi did not remember him. “There is an owl who is older than me,” said the sage, “Go to him.” Markandeya did as advised. He found the owl and asked him, “Do you remember King Indradyumna?” and the owl said, “No, I do not remember such a king but ask the stork who is older than me.” Even the stork did not remember. “But I know someone who is much older than me, who may know of King Indradyumna,” said the stork, “He is an old tortoise who lives in a lake.”

Indradyumna went to the tortoise who was very old and slow and tired. But, to Indradyumna’s great relief, he did remember a king called Indradyumna. “He built this lake,” said the tortoise.

“But I never built this lake,” said Indradyumna, rather bewildered by this piece of information. “This lake did not even exist when I was king.”

The tortoise explained, “My grandfather never lied. He told me that this king spent his entire life giving cows in charity, hundreds of thousands of cows?” Indradyumna recollected that he had. He had been told that gifting cows assures one a place in heaven. Yes, it had, but only temporarily. Now, where were his cows? Where were the people who he gave the cows? The tortoise continued, “As these cows left Indradyumna’s city, they kicked up so much dust it created in a depression in the ground; when the rains came water collected in this depression and turned it into a lake. Now that lake provides sustenance to innumerable plants and animals and worms and weeds and fishes and turtles and birds. So we remember the great King Indradyumna, whose act of charity resulted in a lake which for generations has been our home.”

Indradyumna was pleased to hear what the tortoise had to say. So were the gods who welcomed him back. As Indradyumna rose to heaven, the irony did not escape him: he was remembered on earth for a lake that was unconsciously created, and not for the cows that were consciously given. He benefited not from things he did, but from the impact of things he did.

This story draws attention to the notion of legacy. In ancient India, the greatest good deed that outlived anyone was go-daan or gift of a cow. In modern times, most unfortunately, this is literally translated. In a cattle-herding community, gifting cows was gift of a livelihood. But as society evolved, the phrase was carried forward to convey a different meaning. It came to mean “gift of an opportunity.” The greatest gift a man can give another man is an opportunity that will enable the other to survive, to grow and to thrive. This could be education or a job or a loan to start a business. Gifting cows is about ‘teaching a man to fish’ as the Chinese proverb goes; it is not about ‘giving him fish’.

In his life, Arvindji built many factories, and he made a lot of money, but 50 years later nobody remembers how much money he made, but a large number of people remember that their fathers and mothers worked in Arvindji’s factory. And because they worked in Arvindji’s factory they had enough money to educate their children and their children have done well in life.

There is a hospital in Poona , and the hospital is called Arvind Hospital. Arvindji was long dead before this hospital was built. Like Indradyumna’s lake this is an unintentional consequence of his factory. The factory that he built gave livelihood to a young man who was able to raise his two sons and he had enough money to ensure that one of the two became a doctor. The young man was always obliged to Arvindji, because before the factory was set up in the small town where he lived, he had been unemployed for over a year. It was the arrival of the factory that gave him the job. And he was eternally obliged to Arvindji for creating that opportunity. When his son built the hospital, he insisted that it be named after that ‘giver of cows’ – Arvindji.

Often leaders plan their legacy. They say, “Let me be remembered for this or that.” But often, it is the unintentional consequences of our deeds that is remembered. Hopefully that unintentional consequence will be a lake, one that for centuries going forward will provide shelter and opportunity to millions.