Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

August 3, 2007

First published August 2, 2007

 in Economic Times

Vishnu as Leader

Published as ‘Worldly Affairs’ in Corporate Dossier (Economic Times) on Friday 3, August 2007

Case studies appeal to the rational side of the mind. But the mind has another side, the intuitive side, which is informed by various emotive, metaphysical, cultural and personal truths. This side rapidly understands concepts presented through mythology. Mythology is a little exploited teaching tool. An inherited body of knowledge, transmitted over generations, it contains ideas that connects with individuals at a deep subliminal level. Take the ‘mythic’ idea of ‘Vishnu as leader’, for example, which unravels the traditional notion of leadership.

In Hindu mythology, God creates, sustains, and destroys the world as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Of these three only Vishnu is visualized as a king or raja, which is the traditional equivalent of a leader. Shiva is visualized as an ash-smeared ascetic while Brahma is a priest or teacher.

Most books shy away from narrating the story of Brahma. Yet it is found, in some form or the other, in each and every sacred Hindu chronicle known as Puranas. Brahma is the first conscious being to emerge when the world awakens. He wonders who he is. And to answer this question, he concludes he must distinguish himself from what he is not. And so he creates the ‘other’, which takes the form of a woman, a goddess called Shatarupa or she-with-a-thousand-forms. Brahma is so enchanted by this woman, who is his creation, hence his daughter, that he forgets why he created her in the first place and proceeds to possess her. She gives him the slip, changing into a mare, a cow, a doe and other creatures as she runs. He follows her, changing accordingly, taking the complementary male form each time as horse, bull and stag. Disgusted by this unbridled display of passion, the goddess cries out and Shiva appears. With one sweep of the sword, he cuts Brahma’s head.

Shiva, the skull-bearer of Brahma, or Kapalika, is the other extreme. He shuts his eyes and refuses to see the goddess, let alone be enchanted by her. He knows who he is and so does not need the ‘other’. In his self-containment, he withdraws from the goddess and becomes still. Such is his withdrawal that even his semen moves in the reverse direction. This urdhva-retas or reverse flow of semen ignites the spiritual fire known as tapa which generates heat. All this heat remains trapped within Shiva’s body and so the landscape around him turns icy cold and desolate, supporting no life.

Brahma’s curiosity makes him creator. Shiva’s indifference makes him destroyer. Neither is worthy of being visualized as king or leader. Because a leader needs to have balance, a bit of both.

Brahma, though creator, is not even worshipped because he is so attached to the world he has created that he forgets why he created it. He ends up identifying himself with it, becoming horse, bull and stag when she is mare, cow and doe. There are many Brahmas in the corporate world, who have lost all sense of self, and derive their identities from their organization/job. They are unable to step back and view the organization/job dispassionately as their own creation, a source of wealth, knowledge and power, a tool that enables them to self-actualize and eventually self-realize. This dependence on the organization/job for their identity makes them insecure and fragile. They spend all their time reinforcing their stranglehold, keeping away potential contenders to the throne. Eventually, they stop caring about the organization/job. What matters only is their control over it.

Then there are the Shivas of the corporate world totally disengaged and disinterested in their roles, organizations and jobs. Their self-worth and self-esteem is not tied to the organization. Extremely intelligent, extremely capable, they don’t see the point of it all and often become cynical and withdraw from the rat race in the quest for something higher. They often become angry with mediocrity, but see no point in doing something about it. They understand so much that it immobilizes them. They pity all those who are entrapped by the ‘system’ and help everyone — the saints as well as the crooks, much like Bholenath Shiva who in his transcendental wisdom knows that what goes around comes around and so allows himself to be hoodwinked by Asuras and Rakshasas, the demons of the trade.

Between Brahma and Shiva is Vishnu, full of guile and smiles. Unlike Brahma, he is not attached to the organization. Unlike Shiva, he is not disengaged from it. Like Brahma, he creates. Like Shiva, he also destroys. Thus he creates balance, harmony. A true leader who is wise enough to distinguish god from demon, fighting for the gods but knowing their frailties and defeating the demons but knowing their value. In the Hindu pantheon, gods or Devas harvest the earth’s wealth and distribute it and enjoy it. But only the demons or Asuras, know to regenerate wealth, for they possess Sanjivani Vidya. Vishnu therefore uses Devas and Asuras, wealth distributors and wealth generators, to churn the ocean of possibility to create Amrita, sustainable wealth. And whenever there is a crisis in the world, Vishnu takes a different form, an avatar, either as Ram or Krishna, to set things right. All the while, as he re-establishes order, he knows that eventually the world/organization/job will reach its eventual climax and die. Either he will outgrow the organization/job and leave. Or the organization/job will cease to relevant. Till the parting, without a shred of cynicism or frustration, he will remain an enthusiastic participant in worldly affairs. This clearly is the model of a leader the ancestors thought of —a mixture of heart and head, engaged but not attached, constantly aware of the big picture.

While the mythology of ‘Vishnu as leader’ may open new windows of thoughts to many Indians, its appeal will be restricted to people who share or at least are familiar with the Hindu cultural context. A Chinese or an American or a European will not be able to make as much sense of it. But what mythology as a learning tool lacks in width, it more than makes up in depth, appealing to the very soul of India Inc..

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