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Krishna: A Study in Transformational Leadership

Satya Chaitanya

[Developed from a lecture given by the author to senior MBA students at XLRI, Jamshedpur. The article
analyses the saying “Don’t let your sense of morals get in the way of your doing what’s right” in the light of
Krishna’s leadership ethos in the Mahabharata, and also Krishna as a transformational leader in the light of
this statement. It does this by comparing and contrasting Krishna and Bheeshma as leaders. All translations
from the Sanskrit are by the author and are based on the popular version of the Mahabharata published by Gita
Press, Gorakhpur.]


There is an old story about a sage who was sitting serenely under a tree in the
jungle, lost in the immense beauty of the world around him. The trees around
him, the vines climbing on them, the birds perched on the trees and vines, the
animals grazing gently among them all, the placid lake some distance away, the
remote mountains, all seemed to be bathed in a stillness that took the breath
away. The soft wind that blew did not in any way destroy the serenity of the
jungle; on the contrary, it added another dimension to it.
And then suddenly, in a moment of explosive violence, the divine tranquillity
was shattered into a million shards by the terrified, shrill cries of animals that
began fleeing in all directions and the cacophony of birds that left their perches
and took off into the skies shrieking. A thousand monkeys seemed to be
screeching all at once, filling the jungle with their panic.
The sage opened his eyes wide in alarm. What he saw before anything else was
a beautiful stag, a magnificent creature that seemed to embody all the beauty of
the jungle, all the bounty and opulence of nature, running towards him like a
bolt of lightning and then disappearing in the other direction the next instant,
raising a cloud of dust in its wake. In that one split second, the sage saw in the
terrified eyes of the animal the pure dread of death that was chasing him. The
muscles of the splendid creature of the wild rippled and quivered – as much
from exertion as from terror.
Then came the hunter, in a royal chariot resplendent in gold – the king, with
his bow stretched to the full, an arrow ready to leave it and pierce the target
with savage power. At a sharp instruction from him, the driver pulled the reins
and brought the chariot to a screeching halt before the sage. The king looked
around and not seeing the stag anywhere, jumped down from his vehicle and
approached the sage. He saluted the sage hurriedly and enquired of him, his
voice still aquiver from the excitement of the hunt, “Master, did you see a deer
fleeing by?”
The sage had two alternatives before him now. He could tell the truth, which he
was bound to say by his oaths, and save his integrity. That would mean death
to the deer and a moment of exhilaration from the kill to the king. Or he could
tell a lie, and save the life of the deer. Which could mean failing his vows,
compromising, committing a sin. Satyena vitata sukrtasya pantha – say the
Upanishads. The path of spirituality is paved with truth – take one step away
from truth, and you will be erring from your path, remembered the sage.
However, says the ancient wisdom tale, the sage did not take much time to
decide his course. Without blinking his eyes, he looked at the king – and lied.
No, he hadn’t seen any deer, he said.
No doubt the sage in this story did commit the sin of lying, but no one would
say that the sage’s action was immoral. What he had done when he lied was to
choose a higher value, rise to a level of higher morality. In a situation where he
had to make a choice between two values, rather than following the path of
conventional morality, he chose higher morality.
The famous story about Jesus and the adulteress presents to us a similar
situation of value conflict, in which a man decides to choose the path of higher
morality. When the adulteress was brought before him and Jesus was asked to
judge her and pronounce her punishment, he had the choice of taking the easy
course and pronouncing her guilty, which she was according to the law of the
day in her society, a law Jesus was thoroughly familiar with, and which would
allow the men who had brought her to him to stone her to death. In all
likelihood Jesus knew that this was a trap set for him – if he forgave her, he
would be breaking the law of the Pharisees, and if he condemned her, he would
be practicing against his own teaching of forgiveness and love. Yet he decided to
take the risk and chose the path of higher morality when he said, “he that is
without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”1 It is said that Jesus
sealed his own death warrant by this statement – for what he had done was
expose the hypocrisy of the men who was trying to trap him to the glare of the
Here again, like the sage in the earlier story, what Jesus had done was to
forsake conventional morality and rise to the level of higher morality.
Great leaders are transformational in nature. Forsaking conventional morality
in order to rise up to the level of higher morality is one of the qualities of a
transformational leader.
Speaking of transformational leadership, leadership that transforms the leader
and his followers from the inside out and raises them into higher moral planes,
develops a sense of collective identity in them, produces superior motivation
and commitment to goals, and creates greater levels of performance and yields
more intense performance satisfaction, an expert says: “Transformational
leaders deal with issues from a higher moral plane”.
The Mahabharata, that majestic epic of India that supplies us with an endless
amount of material for leadership study, provides us with a complete contrast
in leadership ethos through two of its greatest men – Bheeshma and Krishna.
Young Devavrata Bheeshma in Vyasa’s immortal epic comes across to us as a
youth with immense leadership potentials. Taken away by his mother in his
infancy and presented back to his father Emperor Shantanu in his early youth,2
it is as a brilliant young man that we see this scion of the Bharatas first. He
impresses us as someone who has the personality, the competencies and the
values needed to become one of the greatest emperors this land has seen,
someone no less than his legendary ancestors like Nahusha, Yayati and
His first encounter with his father after all that time is fascinating. Years have
passed since Ganga disappeared taking the infant Devavrata with her. Chasing
a wild animal that he had wounded, one day Shantanu reaches the banks of
the Ganga. He sees that there is very little water in the river on that day, which
surprises him because the Ganga there was always a mighty torrent. Puzzled,
he walks upstream seeking the reason for this and comes across an adolescent
boy practicing archery with his arrows endowed with magical powers, who had
stopped the current of the river with them. Shantanu, surprised by the
superhuman feat, looks in wonder at the youth who is lustrous like the lord of
the gods. However, before he has a chance to speak to him, the boy vanishes
from his sight. Soon however, he reappears with his mother and Ganga
introduces their son to Shantanu.
Devavrata has by now mastered all weapons of the day, ordinary as well as
those endowed with magical powers. He is mighty in strength, of tireless energy
and determination, fearless, and a superb master of the chariot. He has learnt
all the Vedas from Vasishtha himself, and such is his valour that even the
powerful gods and the formidable Asuras respect him. He has studied
thoroughly, along with all its branches and sub-branches, the laws of
Brihaspati as well as the science of niti as taught by Acharya Shukra. His
master in archery was none other than the redoubtable Parashurama himself.
Besides, he is a great scholar of political science, administrative science and the
science of economics.
Shantanu anoints Devavrata as the crown prince and his people are delighted
with their future ruler. They know they have a great emperor waiting to take
over at the death of Shantanu whom they loved and revered dearly.
Four years pass and then tragedy strikes Devavrata, metamorphosing this
wonderful youth into Bheeshma the terrible.
Shantanu was in a jungle on the banks of the Yamuna when it all began. After
Ganga left him, he had lived for years without a woman in his bed. As he was
roaming beside the river, he was suddenly inebriated by a heavenly fragrance.
Searching for the source of the fragrance, he comes across a very young, dark
girl, a maid of the fisher-folk, intoxicatingly beautiful, and is bewildered by the
fact that the heady scent that had ensorcelled him had come from her. Enticed
by her beauty and scent, charmed by her youth, his sexuality that he had
suppressed all those years suddenly awakened, desperate with an
uncontainable need for her, he approaches her and asks her who she is.
Learning from her she is Kali Satyavati, daughter of the chief of the Dashas,
fishermen who lived on the banks of the Yamuna, and is engaged in ferrying
people across the Yamuna, Shantanu approaches her father and asks him to
give her to him. The man tells the emperor that it has been his desire to give his
beautiful daughter in marriage to someone who deserves her. It would be a
pleasure to give his daughter to the emperor, of course, but he requires an oath
from the emperor. Asked what the oath is, the Dasha chief tells Shantanu that
he should vow that the son born to her should be installed as the crown prince
in Hastinapura and only if the emperor vowed to do so would he give his
daughter to him in marriage.
Shantanu, of course, could make no such vow. In spite of all his temptations,
the idea of disinheriting his highly competent son who had been installed as
crown prince four years ago and who is the heartthrob of the entire populace,
and giving that position to a son who would be born to this fishergirl was
unthinkable to him. However, the old emperor is disappointed greatly at not
getting the girl and the loss breaks his heart. He loses all interest in life and
withdraws from his royal duties from that day and spends his time in his
apartments, his fiery need for the girl sending him into deliriums. The young
Devavrata discovers the truth, goes to the chief of the Dashas along with several
ministers and nobles and gives him the promise he wanted: he solemnly gives
up all claims on the throne of the Bharatas through an oath.
But that is not enough for the Dasha chief. Devavrata might give up his right to
the throne of the Bharatas – but what would happen when he gets married and
has children of his own? Wouldn’t they lay a claim on the throne? Hearing this
Devavrata takes the vow that was unthinkable for a warrior prince in his days:
he shall never marry, he shall never have sex, he shall remain an oordhvareta
all his life – a man whose seeds never left his body, but travelled inward into
himself. “Listen, Oh Dasharaja, listen to what I say with these rulers of men as
my witnesses. And listen, you kings, too,” he said. “I have already given up my
kingdom in your presence. Now listen to my oath about having children, too. I
swear to you, Oh Dasha, from today mine shall be a life of brahmacharya. I
shall forever remain sonless and yet the immortal worlds attained after death
only by those who have sons shall be mine. Never in my life have I spoken a
word of untruth and by that truth of mine I swear: I shall not beget a child to
the last day of my life. I give up the kingdom forever, and forever I give up sex. I
shall live to my last breath a life of the oordhvareta. I swear.3”
Those vows give Devavrata the name Bheeshma.
However, unknown to Bheeshma, those vows take all desire for life away from
him forever. For the Devavrata that we see in the Mahabharata from then on is
a very different Devavrata. He is a man imprisoned by his vow, a man in an iron
mask that he has put on on his own face, like the mask worn by he prisoner in
Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, though this mask is of a different kind.
For his vows would soon become redundant, would take the hoary royal line of
the Bharatas to the brink of extinction, the need of the hour would be for him to
break his vows and he would be asked to do so by the very woman for whose
sake he had taken those vows. And he would refuse – refuse in words that leave
nothing uncertain, in words that show with absolute clarity the deep-rooted
hatred in his heart, the frustrated fury he had been nourishing in the depths of
his being, the pains and agonies he had gone through from the day he took his
Shantanu has two sons by Satyavati. Soon after his death, Chitrangada, the
elder of them, dies in a battle at a young age. Bheeshma snatches away from
the swayamvara hall, from the ceremony in which a princess chooses her
husband on her own free will from among the assembled princes, three
princesses of Kashi as brides for the other while he is still too young to marry.
One of the princesses, Amba, refuses to marry him; the other two accede to
Bheeshma’s demand and marry Prince Vichitraveerya. However, such is the
young prince’s passion for his two young, beautiful wives that he spends all his
time in their company and soon dies of diseases arising from overindulgence in
sex with them.
Though the epic does not tell us anything about this, it is possible that
Bheeshma did nothing to stop such overindulgence on the part of the young
prince. Did the man who had taken the vow of celibacy and whose throne had
been snatched away from him hold deep in his heart a malevolence that he
himself did not know existed towards this youth who was now sitting where he
should have been sitting? Did he turn a blind eye towards his adolescent half-
brother who was overindulging in pleasures that were denied to him by a cruel
fate, just as he had done nothing to stop his elder brother from death in battle?
While we can never be sure of these, it is possible that he did.
While it is heartless to accuse such a noble prince as Bheeshma of this,
common psychology tells us it is possible that he deeply resented this unknown
young girl who had walked into his old father’s life from nowhere and shattered
his beautiful world. For, it is legitimate that every young prince dreams of
greatness and Bheeshma certainly could have had dreams of greatness, which
were forever destroyed by her. Did Bheeshma who resented her deep within his
heart allow her dreams, or her father’s dreams, of her progeny becoming the
rulers of the Bharata empire come to nought through his indifference and
inactivity, or even actively encourage it? Subtle are the ways of the human mind
and devious the paths it often takes to achieve its goals.
The harshness in Bheeshma’s words as he rejects Satyavati’s requests to him to
break his vows and do what the situation demands for her sake, for the sake of
her family, and for the sake of his own sake and the sake of the Bharatas
speaks volumes about this.
Finding the Bharata dynasty of which she is now the queen in deep crisis at the
death of both her sons, Satyavati, the woman for whose sake Bheeshma had
taken those vows, repeatedly requests him to break his vows and perform
niyoga in the wives of his step-brother and to sit on the throne of Hastinapura.
She also asks him to marry and beget children. She tells him again and again
these are the right things to do under the circumstances, these are the
demands of the hour, all his ancestors call for it. She tells him the pinda, the
keerti and santana – the welfare of the dead ancestors, the glory of the dynastic
line and offspring that will continue the line of the Bharatas, all – depend on
him and if he does not marry and beget children, or does not produce offspring
in the wives of Vichitraveerya, they will all be destroyed.
“The two queens of your brother, daughters of the king of Kashi, Oh Bharata,
are both richly endowed with beauty and youth and they both crave for
children. I ask you to follow the ancient custom of niyoga that your forefathers
have followed and beget children by them for the sake of producing heirs to our
family line. This is your dharma and you must follow it. Install yourself on the
throne, rule over the subjects of the Bharatas, get married as dharma enjoins
and save your manes from falling into hell.”4 This is how Satyavati, by now
reduced to begging to him, pleads earnestly, though as queen she could have
commanded him.
Niyoga is an ancient custom practiced in India, particularly in royal families,
whereby either a highly respected individual or a brother of a dead man
produced children in his widow. This was not a very respected custom at the
time of the Mahabharata, it was criticised, the children born of such union were
often subjected to ridicule, and women generally hated being subjected to it;
and yet it was a time-honoured custom, the scriptures sanctioned it, and men
of great honour and integrity had taken recourse to it in the past when no other
option was open to them.
Bheeshma refuses.
The words he chooses to express his feelings in are extremely significant.
“No doubt, Mother,” he says, “what you have spoken of is supreme
dharma [paro dharmah]. But I shall not crown myself as king for the sake
of the kingdom, nor shall I have sex - you know very well my vow about
begetting children. Satyavati, you are aware of the oaths I took in your
presence in the form of your bride price – remember them.
“I shall give up the three worlds, I shall give up the empire of the gods,
and if there is anything greater than these, I shall give up that too. But
never shall I give up my truth. The five elements may give up their nature
– earth the fragrance it exudes, water the taste it brings, light the forms
it reveals, air the sense of touch and space its capacity for sound. The
sun may give up its splendour, the moon its coolness, Indra, slayer of
Vritra, his valour and the lord of justice, justice itself, but I shall not give
up my truth. Let the world end in dissolution, let everything go up in
flames, but I shall not go back on my word. Immortality holds no
temptations for me, nor overlordship of the three worlds.”5
If Bheeshma proved his character one way earlier when he took the vows, he
proves it in another way now when he refuses to break those vows.
What Bheeshma does here is being true to his oath taken years ago. And
keeping one’s promises, not breaking one’s vows, to oneself and to others, is a
very admirable quality in any one. Societies, nations, organizations and
cultures are sustained by such individuals. This is one of the qualities that
generate trust in individuals. And leaders of men particularly should be able to
command such trust by their integrity. In an organization, in a society, in a
culture where people break their word, distrust sets in soon, and distrust
makes people weary of each other, there will remain no solid ground on which
people can interact with each other, and soon disintegration follows. Fidelity to
the spoken word is at the very foundation of all group endeavours of the human
being, without which none of the edifices he builds can survive.
And yet there are occasions when this very fidelity to the spoken word threatens
the existence of the group, the good of the community and culture at large. A
great leader is one who shows on such occasions the courage to take upon
himself the ill fame that comes to him from breaking his spoken word in the
larger interest of the world and thus rises to a level of higher morality.
It is this challenge to sacrifice one’s ego at the altar of the welfare of the larger
community that Bheeshma fails by rejecting all the requests of Satyavati to
him. His words define his attitude unambiguously: let the world go to hell, I
shall not break my word. Let annihilation overtake the world, I do not care, so
long as the world does not accuse me of breaking my word.
To Bheeshma here, he becomes more important than the whole world. He is
moral, in the sense that he keeps his vow, but his morality is of the lower kind,
the morality of the egotistic, morality of the selfish, ordinary morality,
conventional morality.
Bheeshma here is obsessed with his own image – in his mind and in the minds
of others. He is obsessed with his remaining Bheeshma the terrible, obsessed
with his own greatness. His words speak to us of his megalomania – and a
megalomaniac cannot be a great leader, certainly not a positive force.
A great leader, for whom the other is greater than himself, more important than
himself, who transforms himself in his encounters with life and its challenges,
creates metamorphoses around him, should be able to rise to levels of higher
values, deal with issues from a higher moral plane, leaving the stands that
conventional morality demands when occasions call for it.
It is this higher moral plane that Bheeshma fails to rise to. Bheeshma lets his sense of
conventional morals stand in the way of his doing what is right, in doing what is the
larger good. And Bheeshma would do that again and again. Throughout his life,
Bheeshma would show that he is unable to rise to the level of higher morality. He would
show this to such an extent and so clearly that even people who love him dearly, who
respect him greatly for his integrity, would fail to confide in him, entrust him with their
knowledge, their feelings, as Vidura does when he holds back from him the fact that he
knew the Pandavas were alive when Bheeshma thought they were dead and was sad for
their death after Duryodhana had the house of lac built for them set fire to. Vidura
suspected, perhaps rightly, that if Bheeshma learnt that the Pandavas were alive, he
would, in his integrity, reveal that fact to Dhritarashtra and he to Duryodhana, and the
lives of the Pandavas would be in danger again.
Another instance when Bheeshma fails to rise to a higher moral plane is when Draupadi
was being disrobed in the dice hall of Hastinapura. Here is this noble princess, a bride of
the family, dragged by her hair out of the inner apartments of the house to which she had
retired because she was in her monthly periods, and brought into an assembly of kings
and princes, including her husbands, their cousins, King Dhritarashtra who is like a father
to her and Bheeshma who is like a grandfather. The revered acharyas of the royal family
are seated there, there are numerous other guest kings and she is wearing a single piece of
cloth as custom required in those for women under her condition, and that piece of cloth
is stained with her blood. After being brought there in such a humiliating way, further
attempts are made to injure her dignity and self-respect, partly to humiliate her husbands
through it and partly to punish her for her dignity and self-respect. Eventually, in the later
interpolated brilliant version of the story, on the orders of Karna, Dushshasana in a
demonic act tries to pull even that single cloth away from her, thus taking the august
Bharata assembly to a nadir to which perhaps no other royal assembly in the history of
mankind ever fell. Right before the eyes of the eldest and most respected of the Bharatas,
right before the most powerful and skilled warrior of the day, right before this man who
was the very embodiment of kshatra dharma, the dharma of the warrior, a woman is
being humiliated as no woman in the history of this land has been humiliated and when
she appeals to him to intervene, he sits there pondering over whether it is right for him to
intervene or not, pondering over whether this woman being thus humiliated has become a
slave or not, because her husband had wagered her in the dice game after he had lost
himself – as though it made a big difference if she was a slave, as though if what was
being done was being done to female slave it is perfectly acceptable to him. Bheeshma’s
first duty as a kshatriya here was to save that woman from what was being done to her, to
stop the utterly barbarous deeds happening before him. Instead, by sitting there analyzing
the question whether the men doing that evil deed had the right of ownership over the
woman or not, Bheeshma shows how bound he was by ordinary morality, how, perhaps,
below even the level of ordinary morality he was. Bheeshma here fails utterly to rise to
the level of higher morality, which Krishna does effortlessly when he comes to
Draupadi’s aid by magically sending her an endless supply of clothes, so that the more
clothes Dushshasana removes, the more clothes he finds her draped in.
At the end of twelve years of life in jungles and one year of successful life incognito, the
Pandavas claim their land back. The Kauravas are bound to give it back to them as per
the agreement they had made during the dice game. Duryodhana refuses to do so, telling
that they have been discovered before the time ended. Bheeshma, who admits that the
Pandavas have not been discovered before their time and therefore Indraprastha should be
given back to them and says so before everyone, is not able to stand for what he believes
is right and fails to force Duryodhana to give Indraprastha back to the Pandavas. He
meekly swallows Duryodhana’s refusal and is forced to support him, following his
lifelong policy of supporting whoever is on the throne of Hastinapura. Here again his
morality is of the lower, conventional order and whatever leadership he exhibits, if he
exhibits any at all, is conventional leadership and not transformational.
Yet another striking example of Bheeshma failing to rise above conventional morality,
failing to rise to higher morality, is when he decides to fight on the side of Duryodhana
during the Mahabharata war. Bheeshma knows, and he says so repeatedly, that
Duryodhana is wrong, is unrighteous, the battle he is fighting is unrighteous. He also says
repeatedly that dharma is on the side of the Pandavas, that their cause is just and in his
heart he supports them. And yet, because of his loyalty to the Kuru king on the throne at
the moment, because he is bound to Duryodhana by the ‘debt of wealth’ as he puts it, he
not only fights the war on the Kaurava side, but also becomes the commander-in-chief of
the Kaurava army for the first ten days of the war, until his fall. He had the same relation
with the Pandavas and the Kauravas, both were his grandnephews, and if he believed that
the cause of the Pandavas was right and that of the Kauravas wrong, then he should have
fought on the Pandava side.
The whole brutal war in which millions lost their lives would perhaps not have been
fought at all, it is possible, if Bheeshma had decided to fight on the side of the Pandavas.
Chances are that even Drona and Kripa, those two formidable warriors and pillars of
Kaurava strength, would have joined him to be with the Pandavas – for, to them too the
just Pandavas were dearer than the unjust Kauravas; and it is possible that following
these, a vast section of the kings who joined Duryodhana to form his eleven-akshauhini
army too would have joined him and because of these turns the war itself would have
aborted. True, it is all hypothetical, but that certainly was a possibility that could not be
counted out altogether. Had Bheeshma risen to higher values, had he not allowed his
sense of morals to stand in the way of his doing good, it is possible that a great calamity
could have been aborted, millions of lives could have been saved, endless sorrow to
millions of others could have been avoided, and the tragedy that enveloped India post-
Mahabharata war would not have taken place at all.
It is also interesting to speculate if the war situation would have risen at all, had
Bheeshma risen to the levels of higher morality on that early occasion when Satyavati
asked him to break his vows that had by then become redundant and meaningless and
threatened the very continuation of the Bharata line and the survival of the empire – as an
outstanding leader should have risen, as all transformational leaders do rise, as the sage
sitting in meditation did in our story when the king asked him if he had seen the deer
fleeing by, as Jesus did when he said “he among you that is without sin, let him first cast
a stone” to the Pharisees who had brought the adulteress to him.
Of course, the following too is merely hypothetical. The empire of the Bharatas, the
empire of Shantanu, was in all probability the mightiest empire of the day. If someone
like Bheeshma had taken it over, with someone as powerful and as competent as him at
the helm of affairs, chances are the evil forces that subsequently rose up in different parts
of the country and threatened dharmic ways of living, the evil empire that Jarasandha was
building up with Magadha as its capital, with Paundraka Vasudeva from Bengal in the
east, Naraka from the extreme northeast, Kalayavana from the northwest, Bheeshmaka in
the southwest, Shishupala in central India and Kansa in Mathura as his allies, which
Krishna fought much of his life to wipe out, would not have become a possibility at all.
By the time Krishna had Jarasandha killed through Bheema, the emperor had already
conquered, captured and thrown into goals eighty-six kings from the length and breadth
of the country.
Similarly, to continue the speculation, had he taken over as king, had he married and
produced children, or alternatively had he performed the niyoga instead of Sage Vyasa,
chances are that the eldest child would not have been born blind and the complicated
situation of the Mahabharata that eventually leads to the war would not have risen at all.
The Mahabharata makes it very clear that Ambika, Dhritarashtra’s mother, expected
Bheeshma [or one of the other eligible Bharatas] in her bed that night of niyoga and that
it is as much the shock of seeing the sage as the fact that it was not Bheeshma [or one of
the other Bharatas] who was to perform that act that scared her and made her future child
Examples could be multiplied but the foregoing makes it clear that Bheeshma repeatedly
remains bound by conventional morality, by old world values in a world in which those
values were increasing becoming redundant, even ridiculous. Bheeshma reacts to the
situation from an idealistic standpoint, and not from an existential standpoint. He looks at
the world around him not from the present but from the past. What is, is not as real to him
as what should be. The vows he took as an adolescent becomes the be all and end all of
his life. That moment becomes the peak of his life and Bheeshma climbs no more. There
are plateaus thereafter, and there are valleys and abysses, but no more peaks in his life.
As a transformational leader, Bheeshma fails completely.
In comparison, Krishna comes across to us as an outstanding transformational leader in
situation after situation. Again and again, throughout his life, he takes the risk of rejecting
conventional morality and rises to levels of higher morality for a cause he espouses
throughout his life. In doing so, he calls upon himself possible censure of his own
generation and generations to come. But to him his cause was larger than himself, larger
than his personal ego, larger than his name and fame, which could all be sacrificed for the
larger good, the welfare of mankind, lokasangraha. If we accept the tradition that says
Krishna was God incarnated in flesh, then that goal was what he states in the Gita as:
Yada yadi hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharata,
Abhyutthanam adharmasya tadatmanam srjamyaham.
Paritranaya sadhoonam, vinashaya cha dushkrtam
Dharmasansthapanarthaya sambhavami yuge yuge.”6
“Whenever dharma declines and adharma prospers, then I create myself. For protecting
the good and destroying the evil, for establishing dharma, I am born again and again in
age after age.”
And if we look at him not as an incarnation but as another human being like us, then
again we find this is what he did all his life: protecting the good, destroying the evil,
establishing dharma where adharma reigned. And this mission was so sacred to him that
at its altar he could unhesitatingly sacrifice his personal glory. Krishna burnt – so that
others might get light and warmth.
Looking at Mahabharata’s Krishna [who is very different from the Krishna of the
Bhagavata and in popular lore], we find that several of his actions are of questionable
morality from a conventional standpoint. During the Mahabharata war, he encourages
unrighteous acts repeatedly – and many of these acts that the Pandavas perform
throughout the war are first conceived in his brain.
Thus we find Krishna suggesting to the Pandavas a treacherous plot to kill Drona on a
day when Drona’s fury and skill in the warfield had become impossible to face and he
was causing the death of thousands of Pandava warriors by the minute. Drona was like a
whirlwind on that day, uprooting mighty warriors and ordinary soldiers alike by their
hordes. Seeing the Kaurava side losing the battle, Drona had entered into a savage rage
and after using other weapons to decimate huge chunks of the Pandava army, he had
eventually begun using the brahmastra itself, one of the most powerful weapons of mass
destruction of the day. Krishna realizes the grave seriousness of the situation and tells the
Pandavas how Drona is simply invincible – not even the lord of the gods himself can
defeat him in war so long as he wields weapons in his hands. Krishna asks them to forget
conventional morality and rise up to the need of the hour. True, he tells them, slaying
one’s teacher in the worst of sins, but time has come to do it. “The only way he could be
killed is if he lays down the weapons,” says Krishna. “And therefore, Pandavas, forget
about the sin of killing one’s teacher and do what is needed for victory… I believe he will
give up battle if he hears that his son Ashwatthama is dead. Someone should now go to
him and tell him that Ashwatthama has been killed.”7
A mean, vicious, cruel plan. Unrighteous to the core.
And that precisely is what they do, though Arjuna, the acharya’s favourite disciple, does
not like it and Yudhishthira has grave compunctions about it. Bheema readily goes and
slaughters an elephant called Ashwatthama that belonged to a king on his own side and
then goes and announces to Drona loudly that Ashwatthama has been killed. The acharya
does not trust him, and approaching Yudhishthira, known for his integrity, asks him if it
is true. Yudhishthira is closer to Bheeshma in spirit and in his perception of dharma; he
lacks the daring and courage, the higher vision of Krishna. Left to him he would not tell
the lie – knowing this Krishna rushes to his side. The Mahabharata describes Krishna as
very distressed at that time – he has reasons to be agonized, this is a decisive moment,
Yudhishthira in his obtuse understanding of dharma is capable of giving up the whole
plan – and with it the war and Krishna’s mission in life – establishing dharma in a land
from which it was fast disappearing. Krishna tells him, “If a furious Drona fights the
battle this way for just half day, let me assure you, your entire army will be decimated. I
beg you, Yuidhishthira, save us all from Drona. This is a time when a lie is superior to
the truth.”8
Satyat jyayo’nrtam vachah – lying words are superior to the truth. It takes the courage of
a Krishna to say that. It takes the vision of Krishna to justify that.
Bheema too rushes to Yudhishthira and informs him that he has just killed an elephant
called Ashwatthama and begs him to listen to what Krishna says and tell Drona that
Ashwatthama has been killed. And then Yudhishthira, the one everyone believed was
incapable of telling a lie, is more or less persuaded to lie, though he still clings to the
truth in word and lies only in spirit, as is frequent with those of conventional morality. He
tells the acharya aloud that Ashwatthama has been killed and then adds softly that it is an
elephant that has been killed, so softly that Drona does not hear those words.9
The Acharya, the revered and beloved guru of the Pandavas, is shattered by the news of
the death of his son who was dearer to him than his life – it was for the sake of this son
that he had taken up weapons, it was for his sake that he had climbed down from the
austere heights of brahmanahood and become a kshatriya by profession, if he was
spreading death in the battlefield like a firestorm now, it was all because of what he had
to do for the sake of his son. Drona suddenly loses all interest in the war and laying down
his weapons, announces to Duryodhana and others that it is now for them to carry on the
war, he is finished with it.
Drona sits down in his chariot in deep meditation and enters a world of serenity that only
the great yogis know and his soul leaves his body. It is while his body is thus seated, after
his soul has departed his body, that the man born to kill him, Dhrishtadyumna,
Draupadi’s brother and the son of Drona’s one time friend and later enemy, cuts off his
head. Arjuna rushes towards him to stop that horrid act, shouting at Dhrishtadyumna not
to kill the Acharya – he is Dhrishtadyumna’s acharya too – but he is too late. So vile and
despicable is this action, and such the subsequent fury in the Pandava camp itself at this
treachery to the revered acharya, that Dhrishtadyumna, the perpetrator of the final act of
this sordid deed almost loses his life at the hands of his own friends and partners.
True, Drona had done many things a brahmana, a man of his exalted status who was
supposed to spend his time in studies, teaching and meditations, should not have done. In
the last moments of his life he was engaged in a war and slaughtering men by the
thousands – when a brahmana is not allowed to kill any living thing under any
circumstances. And, moments before Dhrishtadyumna cut off his head, he was using the
brahmastra against all and sundry – the first rule taught to a man before he is given the
brahmastra is that it could be used only against another man who knows the brahmastra
and not against ordinary warriors. In his blind fury, sharpened by Duryodhana’s incessant
badgering that he was not sincere in the battlefield, that he did not want to kill the
Pandavas, he had forgotten that first lesson of morality that rules the use of that
consuming weapon. But in spite of all that, the betrayal of a man of his quality and
stature in such a heartless fashion, that too by his own disciples, is an immoral act.
Unless, of course, you look at it from the perpective of the higher morality – that of
lokasangraha, the larger weal. This mighty warrior, the man of many virtues, was battling
on the side of darkness and his victory would have meant a failure to dharma, failure to
Krishna’s mission of establishing a righteous world, to his vision of a world of light.
Conventional morality cannot justify it, the morality of the word cannot justify it, but
from the vantage point of higher morality, morality based on not just rules and
regulations but on the larger good, it is not only justifiable, but essential. Except for that
one thing, the larger good, it flouts all other rules of established behaviour in cultured
societies, social norms and traditions, the values cultivated through centuries of noble
living. But Krishna was looking at the situation not from the standpoint of lower
morality, but from the perspective of the higher dharma for which he had lived all his life.
True, by choosing the higher dharma over conventional dharma, over the dharma of
tradition and customs, Krishna made himself open to the criticism that he betrayed trust,
that he fouled, played the game of war treacherously, as treacherously as the Kauravas
had played the game of dice. How then, one may ask, is Krishna different from the
Well, there is one difference between the actions of the Kauravas in the dice hall of
Hastinapura and Krishna’s act of treachery in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. And that is a
big difference. The actions of the Kauravas in the dice hall were immoral – below the
level of ordinary morality – and were prompted by greed, by anger, by vengeance, by
jealousy, by bitterness and resentment, by intolerance, and by a dozen other dark and evil
powers in their hearts. Whereas Krishna’s actions in Kurukshetra were of higher morality
– above the level of ordinary morality – and they originated in his desire for the welfare
of the world, in the desire to establish a just society, to destroy the powers of darkness
and bring light to the world.
Higher morality and immorality are often confused. The wicked fall into immorality and
truly great men soar to the level of higher morality.
Krishna again uses breaks the rules when he had Bheema kill Duryodhana treacherously
at the end of the war. Here again, as in the case of Drona, he had no choice except to
follow a path, take his followers through a path, that the world at large, with its values of
ordinary morality, would call immoral. Yudhishthira, when he challenged Duryodhana to
come out and fight, made a stupid blunder by promising that if Duryodhana beat any one
of the Pandava brothers, using any weapon of his choice, then the entire kingdom that
they had won through the war would go back to him. Duryodhana was the best mace
warrior of the day, with none of the Pandava brothers, including Bheema an equal to him.
He could easily have beaten Sahadeva or Nakula, or even Arjuna or Yudhishthira himself
in mace and the kingdom would have gone back to him and all the war, and all those
deaths and misery, would all have been wasted. It was partly the nobility in Duryodhana
and partly his arrogance that made him choose Bheema for a battle with the mace – and
even Bheema was losing and the only way to save the situation was to do what would be
ordinarily called an act of adharma, but was necessary for the welfare of the world and
therefore a higher dharma. And that is what Krishna chooses to do when he asks Bheema
to strike Duryodhana below the waist and kill him against the rules of the mace.
To go by the interpolated story of the disrobing of Draupadi in the Mahabharata, there
were many persons present in the assembly who could have intervened decisively on her
behalf. Except for Vidura and Vikarna, two not very powerful figures there who did
intervene at least in words on her behalf, the others who felt for her were all afraid of
speaking out on her behalf, not to say anything about doing something. These included
mighty warriors like Bheeshma, Drona, Ashwatthama and Kripa, and all five of
Draupadi’s own husbands. I do not think it was fear of the physical might of Duryodhana
that cowed them down – they were fearless men in the battlefield and an encounter with
weapons is something that thrilled them all, excepting perhaps Yudhishthira. What made
them keep quiet was confusion regarding dharma. In some corner of their minds they felt
what was going on was fine. What was being done to Draupadi there was monstrous and
ugly, but Duryodhana had the right to do it because Yudhishthira had staked her in the
dice game and lost her and therefore she was his slave and tradition and customs gave the
master the right to do what he liked with his slave – he could sell her if he so wished, gift
her to someone else, have sex with her, give her for sex to another, make her do whatever
he wished, do with her whatever he desired, including denuding her and parading her
naked in an assembly. So what was to be decided was the question that Draupadi had
raised: Was she a slave or not? If she was, even if not because Yudhishthira had staked
her but by the fact that she was the wife of men who had become slaves and everything
that belonged to the slave belonged to the master and in that sense she belonged to
Duryodhana and was his property and he could do what he liked with his property, then
he had the right to do what he liked with her, including denuding her and parading her
Na dharmasaukshmyat subhage vivektum shaknomi te prashnam imam10 – “when I
examine the situation, oh beautiful one, I am not able to arrive at a clear answer to your
question because dharma is very subtle”. This is what Bheeshma tells Draupadi finally
responding to her question whether she has been won in the dice game or not – jitam va
ajitam va mam manyadhve sarvabhoomipah: “what do the kings present here consider –
that I have been won, or that I have not been won?”.11 A little later he repeats:
Uktavanasmi kalyani dharmasya parama gatih
Loke na shakyate jnatum api vijnair mahatmabhih…
Na vivektum cha te prashnam imam shaknomi nishchayat
Sookshmatvad gahanatvad cha karyasya asya cha gauravat12
“I have already told you, auspicious one, the path of dharma is subtle indeed. Even great
men with immense knowledge find it difficult to comprehend it… I am not able to arrive
at a definite conclusion about your question – because the matter is subtle, deep and of
enormous import.”
The essence of dharma is difficult to comprehend; hidden is the path of dharma. Dharma
is too subtle and in this case he is not sure what is right and what is wrong. That is what
Bheeshma says.
And that is what ties him down.
Bheeshma is looking at the whole situation from the perspective of Duryodhana’s
ownership rights and from whether Duryodhana owns Drauapdi now or not. He does not
see the woman in distress standing before him, he does not see the bride of the family
being so unforgivably humiliated before them all. Nor do Drona or Kripa or
Ashwatthama see this. The four Pandavas feel their dharma does not allow them to act
against their eldest brother and that eldest brother feels more or less the same as
Bheeshma and Drona feel.
Krishna has no such hesitations, no such wrangling goes on within his heart. He sees the
situation clearly from his higher moral standpoint. Here is a woman in distress, she needs
his help, he is capable of rendering that help and he helps her. Whether Yudhishthira had
a right to stake her, whether she is a slave and other questions like that are immaterial to
him. He rises above such petty questions and sees with unerring clarity the human
situation there and intervenes decisively showing how he can effortlessly rise to levels of
higher morality when the occasion demands.
There is a beautiful encounter between Krishna and Bheeshma in the middle of the
Mahabharata war. This happens in the later half of the ninth day of the war. Bheeshma is
in a furious battle mood, at his very best as a warrior. Warriors are falling dead all around
him in heaps, as are horses and elephants. Banners fall from flagstaffs in their hundreds,
broken chariots form mounds around where he is battling. Bheeshma is no less than a
fierce forest fire. Unable to stand his ferocity, the Pandava army screams and runs helter-
skelter. Such is the terror and confusion, says the Mahabharata, that fathers start killing
sons, sons fathers, and friends, friends. Maddened by dismay and dread, the army has lost
its mind. Krishna tells Arjuna time has come to put an end to this – Bheeshma should be
killed, and he should do that immediately and fulfill his earlier promise. Arjuna looks at
Krishna and then he looks at Bheeshma once again – the grandfather in whose lap he had
played as a child. Once, he remembers, seated in Bheeshma’s lap, he had called him
father and Bheeshma had corrected him – no, he was his grandfather13. Arjuna goes into
the vishada, melancholy, that he had gone into at the opening of the war, from which
Krishna had brought him out through the teachings of the Gita. “Tell me, Krishna,” he
says, “killing those who should not be killed and attaining a land [rajya] that would be
worse than hell, and living a life of suffering in the jungle – of these two, which is
He then reluctantly asks Krishna to take his chariot to where Bheeshma is. The two
engage in a battle – fierce no doubt, but Krishna can see clearly that Arjuna’s heart is not
in the battle, whereas Bheeshma, in spite of all his love for his favourite grandson, is
merciless in his attack. Bheeshma’s attack grows more and more fierce by the minute,
wounding both Arjuna and Krishna all over, bathing them in blood. As Krishna sees the
Pandava army perishing all around and realizes that Arjuna is not going to strike back
with all his heart, he realizes time has come to break his promise and act on his own.
Leaving Arjuna in the chariot, he leaps down from it and still holding his whip in his
hand and roaring like an enraged lion, rushes towards Bheeshma to kill him with his bear
arms [on another occasion with a chariot wheel he picked up from the field in his hand].
The earth quakes as Krishna’s wrath-filled steps fall on it. Cries rise up from a thousand
terrified throats – “Bheeshma is finished, Bheeshma is finished.”
Bheeshma sees Krishna approaching him like a whirlwind, murder in his eyes. “Come,
come Krishna, and put and an end to my life today,” he says, readying his bow for battle.
“I am honoured, Krishna, as never before; it’s like all the three worlds showering
blessings on me. Come and finish me, Krishna.” Arjuna jumps down from his chariot and
runs after Krishna, and it is only after a furious struggle with him that he succeeds in
stopping him by holding on to his legs from behind and clinging on to them. Krishna’s
fury does not abate even after Arjuna reminds him repeatedly of his vow of not fighting
in the battle. Arjuna tells Krishna that world would call him a betrayer of his own word
if he did not stop, a common liar. And then Arjuna vows not to spare Bheeshma, to kill
him. He vows to do so by all his merits, by the weapons that are sacred to him as a
warrior and by his truth. And it is only then that he is able to lead Krishna back to their
Here again we see Krishna breaking his word. He has vowed not to fight and yet he
rushes towards Bheeshma in battle fury, ready to slay him. Once again proving that
unlike Bheeshma, he would break his word if the occasion demands of it – so long as his
goal is the good of the world, Krishna does not mind committing that sin. Arjuna
specifically reminds Krishna here – the people would accuse him of breaking his word, of
being a hypocrite, a liar and a betrayer. But Krishna does not mind that, at least does not
mind it enough to stop him from doing what he thinks is right. Once again, he does not
allow his morals to stand in the way of his doing what is right.
Two other incidents that prove the transformational nature of Krishna’s leadership need
to be mentioned. As we saw earlier, one of the things that a transformational leader does
is to raise his followers into plains of higher morality even as the leader himself rises to
those levels. Towards the end of the great war, a moment comes when Arjuna has to
choose between conventional morality and higher morality. The wheels of Karna’s
chariot are stuck in mud wet with the blood of warriors and the chariot wouldn’t move.
Karna jumps down from the chariot and tries to pull up the stuck wheel, requesting
Arjuna not to attack him while he was down. The conventions of war said that Karna
could not be attacked under such conditions. Let to himself, Arjuna would not have
attacked him. But Krishna knows this opportunity to slay one of the most formidable
warriors of the enemy army, the most formidable one alive by then, should not be missed
– and Krishna asks Arjuna to shoot Karna dead. He tells him the man who is now asking
for justice and fair treatment, for dharma, has no right to do so, for this is the man who
stood with Duryodhana as his mainstay in all his unrighteous acts, the man who not only
stood by and watched when Draupadi was being humiliated publicly in the dice hall, the
man who ordered her final humiliation. Arjuna obeys Krishna. By ordering Arjuna to kill
Karna, what Krishna does is to help Arjuna see the situation from the perspective of
higher morality and give up the stance conventional morality would force him to take.
Krishna raises Arjuna to the level of higher moral values here.
Krishna does the same thing during what has become one of the most important incidents
in the Mahabharata. Arjuna’s inner conflict and the grief rising from that, about which he
talks at great length in the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita and in the beginning of the
second chapter, is a result of his inability to see things from a higher moral plane. The
entire message of the Gita is addressed to help Arjuna look at the war and his duty in it
from the perspectives of Krishna’s vision – the higher values based on lokasangraha.
Here too Krishna functions as a supremely competent transformational leader. And in
doing so, he gives us what has become one of our greatest national treasures, the book
that has guided our actions through millennia, one of humanity’s most cherished
scriptures: the Gita, Krishna’s book of transcendental action, the flowering of his
transformational wisdom.
It is interesting to ask oneself why Bheeshma, the highly competent prince, fails
repeatedly to provide transformational leadership to his people where Krishna so
effortlessly succeeds in doing so. The answer is that Krishna is what he himself describes
in the second chapter of the Gita as a sthitaprajna – a man whose consciousness is
steadily rooted in the higher. Whereas Bheeshma is a man trapped in his own self-image.
Greek mythology tells us the story of Echo and Narcissus, which Ovid narrates so
beautifully in his Metamorphosis. Narcissus was a wild man who lived in the jungle
hunting, living the life of a creature of the jungle. He knew no hungers other than that of
the stomach. Echo sees this youth handsome beyond description and instantly loses her
heart to him. But it was not in her power to address him, for a curse of Juno had reduced
her to mere last words – echoes. One day Narcissus calls for his friends who had been
separated from him and it is Echo who answers him – she had been following him around
in the mountains and caves. However, when she appears before him, stretching her arms
out to him in love, he pushes her away, shocked and horrified, for he knew not what love
for a woman was. Hurt, her heart still aching with love for him, Echo moves away from
him, to spend her time among the lonely mountain cliffs and caves. Gradually she wastes
away and becomes just a voice – the echo.
The story takes slightly different turns at this stage. One version of it says that Echo
cursed Narcissus that he too would pine away for a beloved and meet with his end, his
love unrequited. Another says that it was another nymph whom he rejected that prayed
that he would one day know what it was to love and feel the agony of unrequited love,
and that the furies heard her prayer and granted it.
One day Narcissus is bent over a lonely fountain to drink water, he sees his image in the
clear water and at that moment Echo’s curse takes effect. All on a sudden he feels the
awakening of love within his heart – for the beauty he sees in the water. He bends down
to kiss his beloved, stretches his arms out in his need to gather her in them, but at his
touch the water is disturbed and the image disappears. He stays there agonized until the
water calms down again and when he sees the image again, he stretches his arms out
again, only to see his beloved disappear again at his touch.
The story tells us Narcissus stayed at the fountain till he fell down emaciated and died
there, his love unrequited. The water nymphs and the nymphs of the forest and mountains
mourned for him, along with Echo, and prepared a funeral for him. But when they looked
for his body, it had disappeared and all they could see was a beautiful flower, purple
inside, surrounded by white petals: – the narcissus.
Narcissism in modern psychology stands for self-love, especially destructive, self-
consuming self-love. In his early youth young Devavrata took two vows, which
transformed him into Bheeshma the terrible. Bheeshma liked his new image very much –
he fell in love with it. It was a very honourable image, a glorious image: the martyr, the
self-sacrificer, the man of unshakeable vows, the incorruptible man of total integrity.
Bheeshma became allured by this self-image, enticed by it. He had turned his back to life
and life, Echo, had cursed him in her turn – he was now the accursed Narcissus,
bewitched by his own self-image, panging all his life for his own reflection in water, his
self-image created by the oaths.
A narcissist cannot be a great leader of men, cannot transform people, cannot touch them.
Bheeshma, in spite of all his several great virtues, fails not because he is incompetent but
because he is a man trapped in his own self-image, in conventional morality, trapped
within himself. The patriarch of the Bharatas lives an astonishingly long life and comes
into contact with several generations of people: Satyavati, Vyasa’s mother, belongs to his
own generation. Satyavati’s children, Vyasa, Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya belong to
the next generation. Dhritarashtra and Pandu, along with Vidura, belong to the third
generation and their children who battle it out in Kurukshetra, the Dhartarashtras or
Kauravas and the Pandavas, belong to the fourth. Abhimanyu and other Pandava and
Kaurava children belong to a fifth generation. What is shocking is that while all these
generations admire and revere Bheeshma immensely, Bheeshma himself has no positive
influence on any of these generations. He fails to touch any of them, to transform them
into greater beings.
Krishna, the supreme transformational leader, the sthitaprajna, transforms whoever he
touches throughout his life.
Rising above conventional morality to levels of higher morality, raising his
followers to these levels – this is not the only quality of a transformational
leader. A transformational leader has wisdom, has a vision, has the ability to
communicate that vision, has the courage to act out that vision, has the ability
to identify with his followers and to address their true needs. He creates trust in
his followers, has the power to motivate them, is proactive, has immense
energy, purpose, total commitment, passion, courage and a powerful presence.
At a personal level, he is kind, compassionate, shows understanding and
acceptance, and has the power to laugh in the middle of calamities. He is gentle
and firm and has the humility of, as the Tibetan Shambhala tradition puts it,
the Himalayan tiger – the proud humility of a person who is himself, has no
pretensions, does not wear masks.
Krishna, the supreme transformational leader, is all this – and much more.
The philosophy Krishna teaches, the philosophy Krishna practices in his own
life, is a dangerous one though. It could mean that the end justifies the means.
And to say that is to say something frightening in its implications, its possible
interpretations and applications. In the hands of the evil, the philosophy could
be disastrous – as the world has seen again and again, is seeing right now. For
what is a great end for one, in his preoccupation with his selfishness, in his
greed and avarice, in his egotistic self-absorption, in his search for personal
glory, maybe misery for another, maybe grief, death and devastation for
The only perspective from which the end can justify the means is when your
goals are set by a truly noble heart: a heart that wishes ill for nobody, that loves
the world as much as it loves itself, and is willing to sacrifice itself at the altar
of the good of the other, at the greater common weal. It is only then that we rise
to the level of higher values – otherwise what we do is immorality, plain and

1 The origin of this story is debated and the story itself is interpreted in other ways than

the one given here.

2 There is also a version that says Devavrata was much older when he was returned to

3 Adi 100.14-16
4 Adi 103.9-11
5 Adi 104.13-18
6 Bhagavad Gita 4.7-8
7 Drona 191.11-13
8 Drona 191.46-47
9 In the popular version of this story, Krishna blows his conch to drown the last words

of Yudhishthira that contain the truth. However, the Mahabharata does not tell us
anything like that.
10 Sabha 67.47
11 Sabha 67.41
12 Sabha 69.14&16
13 In the Mahabharata culture a granduncle is almost always referred to as grandfather

and an uncle frequently as father, as is done in some parts of India even today, though
less frequently.