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Ego: The Prison Of Wisdom

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Acharya Vineet picked up a chalk and wrote on the board the closing question of the day before: "So, if leaders and teachers must do their duty, how does Drona get away? When Ekalavya approached Drona, wasn't it his duty to accept a student who came to him?"

Without preamble, Vineetji eulogised Drona to the students at TABS where he was teaching Indian knowledge tradition: "Drona is beyond description and praise. No words can express his valiance, his greatness, his power. Duryodhan himself praises Drona's learning and intelligence, and declares him incomparable.

"Drona's conduct at various points in time in his life stands out sharply, because they were acts of a Brahmin and a warrior unparalleled. [I repeat, ‘Brahmin' is not a status acquired by birth, but a mindset acquired by action.]

"Drona is like a picture which is best understood from afar. From childhood to adulthood, his wrongs have been sought to be analysed and defended. Why, when Dhritrashtra, the CEO himself, heard of Drona's death, he was speechless. He refused to believe that one so great could be conquered. His attack of the Pandavas has been described as the attack of inferior animals by a lion!

"So are we all great humans. But we get derailed somewhere. And when we see our career slide downhill, we forget our suboptimal role in the yagna and say ‘life is unfair!' Through Drona's life we will be able to see how we cheat the yagna of life first!

"Two core reasons for Drona's fall, of which one was the cause of the other. A brahmana by birth, hence a knowledge creator, he could not — like a brahmin, be happy with little. He was a fine brahmin until one day he hurt because his little boy Ashvattama could not get milk to drink. ‘Want' entered his heart, and Drona decided to invoke an old promise made by King Drupad when they were both in school that he would share his kingdom with Drona. Now when Drupad rejected the promise, Drona was wounded and he swore revenge.

"When our ego demands fulfilment, it will make an idiot out of us. Angry, Drona thereafter spent his life seeking revenge. By handing his life to his ego, Drona abandoned his svadharma.

"Drona the strategist is the MBA. The aggressive opportunist first moves towards Hastinapur — traditional enemies to Drupad's Panchala; homes in on the Kuru princes, watches them play, sees ball fall into well, retrieves the ball, demonstrates his talent, boys carry story home to their grandfather, who then headhunts Drona as the new teacher.

"Drona as teacher... Recognising the potential in Arjuna, Drona swore to make him the best archer, and  rejects good students Karna and Ekalavya. Yet he teaches his son Ashwattama exclusive skills, which he does not teach the princes. This was yet another covert dishonesty.

"When the training period was over, Drona stated his gurudakshina: the Kuru princes will capture Drupad and bring him to the teacher, tied. Arjun and others became the means for this hostile takeover, like companies use employees to commit crimes on their behalf. Drona then takes away half of Panchal and frees Drupad. That unsatiated vengeance spent itself during the Big Battle, attacking Drupad and the Panchal army whereas the battle was against the Pandavas! Drona of perfect pedigree, great lineage, best education, had lost his mind throbbing with anger. Not a good quality for productive work.

"We see a complex persona in Drona. He hated Drupad to the point of distraction, rejected Ekalavya and Karna to favour Arjun, yet he trained Drishtadyumna — the son whose birth Drupad engineered to kill Drona! Such is the human mind — it responds to hatred, to anger to fear to regret, to deep inner sorrow... in ways we can never know. This is the broad story of Drona, which teaches us stunning lessons in svadharma and the dangers of following another's dharma.

Student: Yes, but why not see this as aberration and glorify the warrior in him as Dhritrashtra did? Great people have a bad side to them, too!

Vineetji: Drona the teacher, Drona the father, Drona the professional, Drona the warrior — underlying these personas is the fundamental Drona-mind. Drona was by birth a brahmin, a knowledge creator; But Drona enters warfare, abandoning his teacher svadharma, to settle an old score. Look at the reason or cause behind abandoning his svadharma!

Drona is the kind of teacher that organisations will give their right arm for. Much as he chides Duryodhan for his competitive anger, he himself nurses competitive aggression — so he is driven and focussed on work, competition, accomplishment, targets, winning at all costs if you see his bull-headed chase of Drupad.

Student: Sir... is that wrong? We are in fact taught to win, we are forced to win... our teachers goad us to win this battle of supremacy!

Vineetji: Today's education is not for excellence but supremacy. Since we globalised in 1991, we have forced a change upon the character of our people, through the way we do business, why we do business and even what our business is. Office memos read like a war manifesto: aggressively grow top line, ruthlessly prune inefficiencies, attack rivals, battle for market share, kill competition, seize the markets, takeover modern trade, bulldoze the consumer, grab share of wallet... it should terrify, not motivate! The manager has become an ogre, the businesses concentration camps! Why should the sale of soap appear like the Battle of Plassey?

Drona's warrior persona likewise, wants success, victory, accomplishment of targets. The ego that promises excellence to Arjuna, is the ego that declares Ekalavya gained unfair/illegal advantage learning archery through observation. Calling it theft, Drona demands his thumb.

Student: Then Drona could have had Ekalavya imprisoned by King Dhritarashtra for espionage and stealing state secrets!
Vineetji: Ah, but then — no thumb, no comeback; and Arjuna remains number one. Besides Drona's own ego-based anxiety to prove his student the best!

Student: I feel Ekalavya being a tribal, lacked self esteem — mirroring society's rejection of him as unimportant.
Student 3: Drona sought to kill competition!

Vineetji: This is like the new entrants into India post liberalisation, fearing rocky roads and losing to local heroes. So they bought out many local brands one after another... That's right, many also sold their brands to the foreign entrant. We thought these brands would get an exalted status in the MNC stable. Instead? Many brands were killed. Many ice-cream brands died. Beverage brands died... put to sleep. Some brands were too hardy like Thums Up and Limca and put up a display of might and today stand taller than the foreign brands. This tradition of — ‘when I want my turf unsullied, I will decimate the slums in the vicinity' — is not new. This personality of Drona exists in all of us...

Student 1: Sir, so what is wrong in being a Drona? If you have dreams, if you have ambitions, must not one let them survive? Why are we reluctant to accept his drive for success? What wrong did he do? He wanted out of poverty and he worked towards that!

Vineetji: Except that he changed the course of his duty. And through his life his mind tosses him up and down trying to rein him back into his svadharma. You will see it in his confusion, in his anxiety, his attachment.

Student 2: Companies also abandon svadharma then, when they reject you for not being from an IIM, or even if you are not from the premier IIMs A, B or C!

Student 2: Like Drona, every organisation and manager is working for his security, his goals, his stock options! What was the problem at Parmeet Khare's office? His line management were looking after themselves and it was up to Parmeet to look after himself!

Student 1: My cousin gets praised for spying on competition's movements, watching their trucks leave their factory and counting the trucks to know their sales everyday! This is the Drona syndrome isn't it?

Vineetji: Let us come back to the yagna theory. The yagna is for greater good — we are agreed on that. Is the destruction of Ekalavya's skills, the killing of competition, good for the industry? The smaller brands were already a part of the yagna before I the foreign brand entered the country. If the smaller brand offered itself in ahuti, like some brands did, that is different.

Student: Sir, it is not the duty of the entrant brands to look after the smaller local brands...

Vineetji: Nor is it their right to destroy them deliberately! What is the yagna for a foreign brand coming to India? India is the yagna and in India whatever business enterprises are operating, are all contributors to the yagna and they have a right to live. But as long as they are operating, they must be respected and...

Student: And if the government permits, new entrants come in and change the playing field?

Vineetji: Then, the yagna's rules change, the participants have to align themselves.

Amrita: This is where it gets tricky acharyaji! How do we know if the government's intention is for greater good? How does one trust motive?

Vineetji: Then you have no choice, sadly. Accept what the yagna gives you, and continue to contribute as its rules demand.
Student: But to be optimistic, if the rules change, won't lesser brands die consequently?

Vineetji: The yagna will demand a certain robustness and when you cannot match that, you wither and die. True brands that recognise the gaps in their image and equity will recognise a great brand and surrender. We have the example of Thums Up which during the Coke takeover of Parle brands could not be decimated. So high was its equity among Indian consumers that Coke bowed before the greatness, the competence of Thums Up. Better still, Coke nourished the brand as its own so that to this day Thums Up is the number one cola brand in India! This is true yagna — where you nourish the total beverage business-yagna!

Time and again, keep asking, in the yagna is your commitment to duty? You cannot take away from the yagna more than you have put in or what you have not put in!

Back to Drona! Haha..! Drona is a very challenging character, yet fraught with many contradictions. Terrific warrior, great determination, fabulous pedigree, worked his way up with such dedication... but remained confused.

Amrita: This just strengthens the theory that Drona was very complex and confused an individual. Yet, as a leader look at the confidence that Drupad exhibits in sending his son to Drona. And, if Drona really felt remorse over capturing Drupad, he should have at the least returned the kingdom – which he did not.

Vineetji: Yes, he is a complex character yet he still belongs to the class of the ‘Great'! Undoubtedly! Drona's problem may simply lie in a confusion over his svadharma. He was not wired to be a warrior, I feel. Bad career choice.
Amrita: And the related emotion of revenge!

Vineetji: There lies our answer. Drona wanted revenge, got that chance and the matter should have ended there. He could have been the forgiving Brahmin, instead his thirst went up!

It coloured his choices, so that he stayed with the Kauravas to fight Drupad. He remained on the fence always! As long as Bhishma was the general, Drona remained subservient to him, knowing him to also be his employer, feeling obliged to him for having hired him many years ago. This is where his svadharma created even more confusion. Drona lost initiative as a result.

Next, Drona was not the natural choice as Bhishma's successor. Duryodhan wanted Karna to succeed Bhishma, but finally went with Drona to appease the coalition! The Kauravs had already lost 10 days of the battle under Bhishma who was reluctant to attack the Pandava princes, and Drona with his insecurity, inherited a leadership mantle that was a compromise! He therefore wore his commandership very awkwardly.

Student: Why is breach of svadharma the pivot of Drona's character?

Vineetji: Because that is what led to his downfall! Let us say you are a CFO. The dharma devolving upon you is to protect the financial health of the company. Extended lines of credit are needed. You are unable to raise that. So you dress up the books or you offer as lien assets already mortgaged to another. This is adharma. This is deviating from your svadharma as a CFO.

Amrita: So simply speaking, it is doing that which you are avowed not to.

Student: And how do you link this directly to Drona's results?

Vineetji: Simply, he was not happy with the choices he was having to make! He chose to fight on the Kaurav side for his son's sake, and he was not happy doing that. He could not even have fought on the Pandav side because his arch enemy Drupad was there. Maybe his essential teacher mindset kept reminding him of his wrong each time!

Thus he always floundered between being a brahmin or a kshatriya. This is how svadharma, when abandoned expresses itself. This is in sync with the theory of duty and svadharma because you cannot ‘be' what you are not; and you cannot practice what you do not feel. Finally it is your guna (mindset) that determines your personality, not your birth or lineage! Drona is the epitome of a conflicted mind.

Then again, by then the Kauravas had become established as rulers. It is cause for great dilemma when you decide to leave an organisation after 15-18 years of service, especially when they are riding the crest of success and your salary, housing, stock options, everything is top drawer. How do you quit? That was another of Drona's dilemma. He could not quit...

Student: Yeah... it was Hastinapur that gave him his opportunity, his riches, a palace life... So is loyalty shreyas?
Vineetji: Loyalty can be a positive trait. But if loyalty is to support adharma, then loyalty loses its shine. A lot of ministers get torn like this when they hang on to the winning but valueless ship with the hope of furthering their careers.
Student: Sir, why else if not for wealth, would I work in an organisation?

Vineetji: That's it! You only want the fruit, you do not wish to contribute to the yagna! You only want to be a shareholder in the gains. Real yagna players are hardy fellows. Very hardy fellows. They will get mauled, pushed, beaten but they will be at it, fighting to win for their yagna. The point is: When you choose to participate in a yagna, be clear that this is where you want to be and make your choice firmly without being influenced by this one or that.

Amrita: I think all this gets more enhanced because Drona was a teacher and you expect a teacher to have more clarity between right and wrong. What brings down his performance is finally his floundering and fumbling! That is at the heart of why people are in doubt over whether to like him or not!

Vineetji: Yet there was Vibheeshan who also abandoned his brother and king Raavan and chose to be with King Rama. Vibheeshan was clear Raavan was treading the path of wrong when he kidnapped another man's wife. Vibheeshan told Raavan that he will not be party to his crimes but Vibheeshan did not leave Lanka! Maybe he did not know where to go, or he was unable to think of life outside the palace comforts, or he did not have the courage to get up and tell Raavan, or he hung on to a ‘mis'-founded obedience! Familiar? Vibheeshan stayed on living in comfort until he meets Hanuman who questions his ideals and values. Hanuman could see that Vibheeshan was greatly value driven, but wary of having his values challenged and tested! And then they talk about it etc and Vibheeshan leaves Lanka.

Dean Palusker: Excellent point Acharyaji! This is the sign of our times. How many people stick on with an organisation despite knowing that it is unethical in conduct. My own nephew chooses to ignore an accounting fraud on grounds that he is in sales! He is unable to give up the comfort of a well paying job!

Amrita: You know, after all this, one question becomes necessary: Does Drona realise his errors at all?

Vineetji: I guess he did. It must have revealed in various ways. Began with Duryodhan piling pressure on him for more conquests — and Drona was easy to manipulate. Examine your own self — why are you so easy to manipulate? So, we are looking at the Drona in all of us. The minute he goes and asks for half the kingdom from Drupad, he broke his svadharma. He could have asked for help as a friend. But he was a Brahmin and a brahmin is supposed to subsist on bhiksha. Drupad points this out to him. If Drona had heard Drupad's words without its packaging, he would have corrected himself immediately!

So Drona, to answer yesterday's question did not get away. He struggled all his life straddling two stools. The idea is to make perfect choices, first time right! Therefore, as Miyagi san says, "I tell, you do, no questions!" That is duty!

Classroom Discussion
Corporate warmongering fans desire for competition. Desire fans anger and anger goads foolish conduct


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 16-01-2012)

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