Published in Corporate Dossier, ET, 5 Feb 2010

Agni is the god of fire. His is the first hymn to appear in the Rig Veda. Much adored by Vedic Rishis, he is the mouth of the gods who connected earth with heaven. Rishis placed fire in a specially prepared altar and made offerings of clarified butter while chanting hymns in order to invoke the gods and moisten their lips, so that they showered blessings on earth.

But one day, Agni grew tired. He felt bloated and sick. “Too much clarified butter,” he realized. He was advised to consume something raw and primal, like a dense forest. And so Agni approached the Pandavas and begged them to let him burn to the ground a dense untamed forest. On Krishna’s advise, the Pandavas offered Agni the forest of Khandavaprastha, their inheritance. When this was done, Agni regained his original splendor. Gratified, he showered both Arjuna and Krishna with many gifts.

The story draws attention to the difference between raw fuel and processed fuel, a recurring theme in mythology. Milk is raw; butter is processed. Forests are raw; fields and gardens are processed. The Goddess Kali, wild and naked and bloodthirsty, embodies the raw untamed aspect of life. When she is tamed and domesticated, she is dressed in a sari and appears as the demure and docile Gauri. While everyone is Gauri, there are times when the Goddess wants to break free, become Kali for a day or two, and regain her original splendor. It is kind of a regenerating activity, a catharsis, that is seen in wild bacchanal festivals involving ribald singing and dancing like Holi and Navaratri.

Every leader has his own original forest, where he discovered his flames. He would have been the brilliant designer who rose up the ranks, or the shrewd copywriter, or that master salesman or the brilliant strategist. These were the early days of his career when he was not sure what he was good at. Then one job comes along and his passion is ignited. He realizes he is good at something and goes ballistic. This is the tipping point. It catches the attention of the management who reward him by pulling him up the ranks – from executive to assistant manager to manager to assistant director to director to CEO. The designations vary but the responsibilities keep increasing and with it great span of control and influence. Until one day, the leader is far from the forest and finds himself in the sacrificial altar burning clarified butter. And then he falls sick.

This is what happened to Anish the other day. In the middle of a Board Room brawl, he felt bored and restless and irritated. He just wanted to go home and sleep. Instead, on a whim, soon after the meeting, he called up his local sales manager and decided to do a field trip. He wanted to spend time with the boys in the frontline filling up the pipeline at distributors and encouraging small traders to stock more. This is what Anish did early in his career, twenty years earlier, and he was good at it. He wanted to call on the old days, reignite the old passion and nourish himself emotionally.

And so a day was spent in the heat and the dust, talking to the new sales guys, sharing tales of triumph and failure, drinking tea on the street and meeting distributor friends now old and grey. The next day, a rejuvenated Anish, having had his share of Khadandavaprastha returned to the altar called the Board Room,ready to accept whatever ghee was offered to him.

The movement away from the forest to the altar, from milk to butter, is without doubt value addition. Domestication of the land brings in wealth. Gauri is the mother who feeds the children. That is the way to go. But from time to time, a reverse movement is required, a picnic, a holiday, a return to the roots, to bring oneself back in touch with nature. Gauri must never forget that she is fundamentally Kali. The raw energy is still lurking beneath the surface. One must never forget the forest that gave birth to us. Wings are good but never at the cost of the roots.