The Mahabharata. One of the greatest books of all time, Is not simply the story of a fratricidal war or a fount of wisdom for philosophers; it is also a comprehensive manual on strategy. From this storehouse of knowledge, Meera Uberoi selects the most pertinent shlokas to reveal the secrets of leadership and the path to success. She shows that the Mahabharata is equal, If not superior. To other management bibles such as The Art of War, The Prince and go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings).
The aphorisms in Leadership Secrets from the Mahabharata have been selected from the Santi Parva, The Bhagvad Gita Parva and the Adi Parva. As Bhishma lies dying on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Krishna realizes that with Bhishma’s death, the world will lose ‘all knowledge’. To prevent this, Krishna asks him to impart to Yudhisthira all he knows. These teachings, coming as they do from Bhishma, the wisest of them all, contained in the Santi Parva, form the core of Uberoe’s book. Apart from detailing how to apply the craft of kingship to modern business practices, the book also explores the analogy between kingship and leadership.
Pithy and insightful, Meera Uberoi’s selection is a practical guide to leadership in any field of life. The aphorisms, grouped under heads like Duty, War, Spy and conduct, deal with eternal values and truths that are as relevant today as they were 3,000 years ago.
The precepts in this book have been culled from the Mahabharata, one of the greatest literary works of the ancient world, and the longest epic poem we know. It is eight times as long as the Illiad and Odyssey put together. The text comprises eighteen Parvas, books/sections, each of which are further subdivided. Together, they make up 1,00,000 shlokas. Most of the aphorisms come from the twelfth book, the Santi Parva, which contains the bulk of the Upanishadic wisdom; political, military, philosophical and metaphysical dissertations in the text. The rest come from the Bhagvad Gita Parva, a section of the Bhisma Parva, and the Adi Parva, Book I of the Mahabharata.
In the Santi Parva, Bhishma, grandsire of both the Kauravas and Pandavas, lay dying on his bed of arrows in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, waiting for the sun to turn north. That was fifty-six days away and his arrow-iddled body wass screaming for release. But he kept Death at bay so that he could release his soul at an auspicious moment. Thanks to a boon he received in his youth, Death could not approach him until he said so. Bhishma was more than just the greatest warrior of his time, he was a veritable storehouse of wisdom and knowledge. As his mother Ganga said, ‘He has no peer on earth. He has been taught the Vedas by Vasishtha himself, trained in the use of weapons by parasurama and studied the Shastras under Vrihaspati, guru to the very gods.’ Krishna looking down at the dying warrior knew that with his death, the light of knowledge would be snuffed out. He could not let that happen, and so he asked Bhishma to teach Yudhisthira, the eldest Pandava, all he knew. These teachings lie in the Santi Parva.
To explain the Bhagvad Gita Parva would be presumptuous and an insult to the reader’s intelligence. Suffice to say that Krishna expounded the duties of a warrior to a shattered Arjuna, incapable of raising arms against those he saw as his kith and kin. The maxims from this section will be familiar to most.
The aphorisms from the Adi Parva have been taken from the Sambhava Parva, when the blindking Dhritrasshtra admits to his chief adviser Kanika, his growing jealousy and unhappiness at the universal popularity of his five young nephews, sons of his brother Pandu, and legal heirs to the throne. Kanika’s sagacious advice to treat the Pandavas fairly, to beware their might, not to do harm which will rouse their ire and not to deprive them of their patrimony falls on deaf ears. A plot was hatched with ‘the sanction of Dhritrashtra,’ to kill the Pandavas and their mother Kunti; burn them to death. Though the dastardly plot was unsuccessful, the consequences ultimately led to the horrific war which took place on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
The Mahabharata is generally thought to be simply an account of a fratricidal war, a book of hoary myths and legends, and tales of gods and goddesses. Hardly anyone considers it a fount of wisdom and knowledge, much less a manual on strategy. But our forefathers certainly knew their Mahabharata-Kautilya, known to most as Chanakya, knew it well. It is in the very warp and weft of his Arthashastra. Today most know the Mahabharata only through small, heavily abridged versions, and they are surprised to learn that the Bhagavad Gita is a tiny fraction of the Mahabharata.
Few would put the Mahabharata in the same league as the three revered manuals on strategy-The Art of War by Sun Tzu, The Prince by Machiavelli and Go Rin No Sho (The book of Five Rings) by miyamoto Mushasi. These three texts, considered the bibles of strategy by the pundits, are required reading in universities and boardrooms the world over.
The Art of War, written by the Chinese warrior/philosopher Sun Tzu 2,000 years ago and steeped in Taoist philosophy, has been used by the Chinese to wage a war, run a country, head a business or a Triad. The Japanese imported a fully mature Chinese culture en bloc. With it came the Art of War, which has been studied and followed in Japan ever since. That they did so is evident in the successes of post-war Japan following Sun Tzu’s dictum-To win without fighting is best. Today The Art of War is considered ‘the most prestigious and influential book of strategy in the world.’
Machiavelli, the fifteenth century Florentine statesman, completed his manual for princes around 1513. His book, The Prince, has long been studied and just as long been sorely misunderstood. This is evident from what his name has come to represent-cunning, treacherous, crafty, cruel. And the reason for that is it offended the moralists who could not stomach unpleasant truths and facts such as ‘Princes who have accomplished great things are the ones who cared little for keeping promises and who knew how to manipulate the minds of men.’ Petty moralists like their unpleasant truths drowned in dressing, preferably invisible. For centuries The Prince was considered immoral, unethical and downright wicked. Now people know better. (Kautilya, suffered the same fate. The Arthashastra was considered positively Machiavellian by many.)
Miyamoto mushasi, the author of Go Rin No Sho, is known in Japan as Kensei, sword-saint. His book, studied by both beginners and masters, is at one level a manual for swordsmen and generals, for single combat or fighting 10,000. At another, its strategies are applied to atain the highest goal in any field. Mushasi, the greatest swordsman Japan has known, was also a brilliant painter, calligrapher, poet and metal-worker and his book is studied by martial artists, businessmen, politicians and poets. ‘On Wall Street, when Mushasi speaks, people listen, ‘Time magazine reported.
The Mahabharata, though not yet in the ranks, can effortlessly hold its own with the Big Three. And it is in a class by itself when it comes to exhaustive dissertations on everything under the sun-from why forests should be protected to how a king must conduct himself, from the paradoxical nature of life to the relativity of morality. The list is endless; the book (8,000-10,000) pages in text, depending upon font and size) is rife with these treatises. The other remarkable quality of the Mahabharata is its total lack of mawkish sentimentality and its distaste for euphemisms. The sages who wrote the book displayed a stunning ability to present nasty, ugly truths baldly-no frills, no gloss. Their knowledge of human nature would put modern psychology to the blush. (Authors should avoid reading the Mahabharata; they will forever wonder, when they write, whether the Mahabharata hasn’t said it already. It has scarcely left anything for future writers- a galling and humbling thought.) Everything; good, bad, indifferent, is treated with objective detachment and is blissfully devoid of sermonizing.
The authors of the Mahabharata say, ‘What is in the Mahabharata is everywhere and what is not is nowhere.’ It seems they are right. The Mahabharata can be seen in the Chinese, Italian and Japanese texts, separated as they are by time and space. As evidence, the Mahabharata will speak for itself.
Sun Tzu and the Mahabharata
Sun Tzu-Therefore those who win in battle are not really skilful. Those who render others’ armies helpless (without battle) are best of all. Therefore one who is good at martial arts overcomes other’s forces without battle, conquers other’s cities without siege.
The Mahabharata-A king should win victories without battle. Victories achieved by battle are very inferior.
Sun Tzu-Glean from rich fields (i.e., when crops are ready) and the armies will have enough to eat.
The Mahabharata-Troops should be moved when it is not too hot or cold, when the crops ripen and when water is not scarce.
Sun Tzu-So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.
The Mahabharata-A king should never be heedless in looking after his own weaknesses as those of his foes. He is the best of kings who has his senses under control.
Machiavelli and the Mahabharata
Machiavelli-When you see the minister thinking more about himself than about you, and in that all his actions he seeks his own interest, such a one will never be a good minister.
The Mahabharata-An undevoted minister who works for his own purposes can ruin his master like a fire consuming a tree.
Machiavelli-He (the Prince) must not separate himself from the good, if he is able, but he must know how to take up evil should it become necessary.
The Mahabharata-Kings desirous of success are obliged to adopt both righteous and unrighteous measures. Both kinds of wisdom, straight and crooked, should be within the call of the king.
Machiavelli-Let him (the Prince) abstain from what belongs to others for men more quickly forget the death of their fathers than the loss of their patrimony.
The Mahabharata-A king should not covet the wealth of others. People hate the king who has a voracious appetite.
Mushasi and the Mahabharata
Mushasi-know the ways of all professions. The Mahabharata-The King should learn the duties of all orders of men.
Mushasi-Discern the enemy’s capability and, knowing your own strong points, ‘cross the ford’ which means attack the enemy’s weak point.
The Mahabharata-Ascertaining the beginning, the middle and the end of his foes, a king should defeat his foe.
Mushasi-When the enemy is agitated and shows an inclination to risk, make a show of complete calmness and the enemy will be taken (in) by this and will become relaxed.
The Mahabharata-The king should be able to lull his foes into a (false) sense of security.
Any more comparisons will be excessive, a little too much fervor to prove a point, and the Mahabharata really doesn’t need anyone to cut out a case for it. All the parentheses in the comparisons given before are mine.
To praise the Mahabharata is not to disparage the others; on the contrary, it proves the old saw-great minds think alike-whether Chinese, Italian, Japanese or Indian. If the Mahabharata is more exhaustive (the Santi Parva alone is close to 1,000 pages, longer than the other three books put together), it is simply because it had a lot more time and space-and a lot more minds working on it. The extant text is the result of hundreds of years of thought and experience. The Mahabharata started out with just 8,000 shlokas, attributed to Ved Vyasa, and over the course of time, became 1,00,000 shlokas long.
The teachings in the Mahabharata deal primarily with eternal values and truths, not shifting traditions and morals, making them as relevant today as they were 3,000 years ago. Human nature has altered little since man stood erect and scratched the earth to sow the first crop. Strategies for success in any enterprise remain much the same for us as they were for our forefathers. Countries and businesses, armies and wars existed 3,000 years ago and they are still here and the strategies for running them successfully remain unchanged. When peaceful, fair means fail, then as now, people resort to violent and crooked methods. Then as now people have bosses, and then as now they must be pleased.
The material for this book has been sourced from a translation of the original by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, published in 100 folios from 1883 to 1896, today published by Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., in twelve volumes. This is not a free translation, rather it is a faithful rendering of the incomparable epic, bringing out the beauty and grandeur (an extremely difficult task when one considers the rendering of a Sanskrit poem into English prose, and Sanskrit, a language of such precision that one sentence becomes a paragraph in English) despite the heavy odds. Ganguli’s aim was clear-‘The object of a translator should ever be to hold a mirror up to his author. That being so his chief duty is to represent so far as practicable, the manner in which his author’s ideas have been expressed (note, not his own), retaining if possible, at the sacrifice of idiom and taste, all the peculiarities of his author’s imagery and of language as well. He must represent his author as he is, not as he should be to please the narrow tastes of those entirely unacquainted with him-even at the risk of making oneself ridiculous.’
The maxims of this book have retained the flavor, language and idiom of the translation, barring a couple of extremely archaic words or, in a few cases, extremely convoluted sentence constructions. It is just a tiny aperitif-for the soup, main course, dessert and cognac one must go to the Mahabharata.