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Followership Principles as discussed in Mahabharata

Those who have read a typ­i­cal abridged ver­sion of the Mahab­hara­ta under­stand that it talks about the con­flict between two fam­i­lies of cousin broth­ers- The Pan­davas and The Kouravas. The sto­ry­line might seem sim­ple in which the good Pan­davas fight the bad Kouravas with the help of Bha­ga­van Krish­na and tri­umphs (amidst great loss to the whole of Bhara­ta Var­sha in terms of lives and resources). But the con­densed or abridged ver­sions don’t con­vey much and the unabridged ver­sion of the Mahab­hara­ta is more nuanced than its con­densed ver­sions. As Bibek Debroy puts in his book “The unabridged Mahab­hara­ta is any­thing but that. It is much more nuanced. Dury­o­d­hana isn’t invari­ably bad. He is referred to as Suy­o­d­hana as well, and not just by his father. His­to­ry is always writ­ten from the point of view of the vic­tors. While the Mahab­hara­ta is gen­er­al­ly lauda­to­ry towards the Pan­davas, there are sev­er­al places where the text has a pro-Koura­va stance. I rec­om­mend every­one to read the full ver­sion of the epic to under­stand the immen­si­ty of the work of Mahar­ishi Vyasa. One of the best things about the unabridged ver­sion is that it offers exten­sive wis­dom to us, the read­ers, in almost all aspects of life. The iti­hasa dis­cuss­es on com­plex sub­tle­ty of the four Purusharthas or the pur­pose of life con­sist­ing of Dhar­ma(Right Prin­ci­ples), Artha(Pros­per­i­ty), Kama(Enjoy­ment or Ful­fill­ment) and Mok­sha(Free­dom), as well as prac­ti­cal advice for those who pur­sue these four Purusharthas of life. Be it Vid­hu­ra Neeti(click for the link) or Vidu­ra’s State­craft, nar­rat­ed in the form of a dia­logue between Vidu­ra and King Dri­trash­tra that dis­cuss­es on the Dhar­ma of a Rajan, or Bheesh­ma Neeti, which is a dia­logue between King Yud­ish­tra and Bheesh­ma on Good Gov­er­nance, or Yak­sha Prash­na, also known as the Ashkard­hama, which is the sto­ry of a rid­dle con­test between Yud­hishthi­ra and a yak­sha on abstract and intel­lec­tu­al dis­cus­sion on the Phi­los­o­phy of Life and Dhar­ma, the amount of under­stand­ing and sense that we can draw from this great­est of epics is almost inex­haustible . Let’s see one such less-known instance from the epic that has some prac­ti­cal advice for a ser­vant who will work for the king (or in the con­tem­po­rary sense, a per­son who will be work­ing under a leader/manager). I call it the Fol­low­er­ship Prin­ci­ples.

The Context

After a long-sim­mer­ing cold war between the Pan­davas and Kouravas, RajaYud­hishthi­ra was giv­en a piece of land as his share and was coro­nat­ed as a King. He rules his land well, strives hard and con­ducts a Raja­suya Yaj­na to become the Emper­or or the King of Kings. But the envi­ous Kau­ravas rob­sYud­hishthi­ra of his King­dom, through deceit. The Pan­davas were then ordered to spend 12 years in Vanavasa (for­est dwelling) and 1 year in incog­ni­to dur­ing which if they are spot­ted, they have to repeat this pun­ish­ment of Vanavasa again. He leaves for the Aranya­ka (for­est) along with his four broth­ers and their wife- Drau­pa­di, his Guru Dhoumya and some of his fol­low­ers. He com­pletes the 12-year peri­od of Vanavasa. Now, he, Drau­pa­di and his broth­ers have to take-up the 1‑year chal­lenge of stay­ing incog­ni­to with­out the Kau­ravas find­ing their iden­ti­ties. The Pan­davas decid­ed that each of them will take up a job as a ser­vant in the King­dom of Vira­ta. At this point, Raja Yud­hi­s­ti­ra bid good-bye to his fol­low­ers and to his Guru who stayed with him all these 12 years. At this junc­ture, Guru Dhowmya gives some advice to KingYud­hishthi­ra on how to behave dur­ing this one year. To reit­er­ate, know that we are wit­ness­ing a sit­u­a­tion here in which the once-famous Emper­or of the whole Bharata,Yudhishthira and his equal­ly regal broth­ers and their wife is going to be work­ing as ser­vants to anoth­er King, who at one point of time accept­ed the Pan­davas as his Emper­or! Even thoughYud­hishthi­ra was once an Emper­or and he may be coro­nat­ed again (which even­tu­al­ly will hap­pen at the end of the epic), the advice giv­en by Dhowmya high­lights on how one should act suc­cess­ful­ly as a ser­vant to a king. The advice giv­en by the Guru to his dis­ci­ple is full of prac­ti­cal wis­dom. He holds no words back but states in clear terms on how they should behave, what they should do and should not do as long as they are the ser­vants of a King. What drew my atten­tion here is the prag­mat­ic approach to life shown in the sto­ry­line. Who­ev­er you may have been in the past, if you take up a role, make sure you fol­low its Dhar­ma. And this, as I said ear­li­er, I call the Fol­low­er­ship Prin­ci­ples because it also offers some insights to us on how we should behave to our supe­ri­ors. So here are the some of the high­lights of what Rishi Dhowmya toldYud­hishthi­ra

The Followership Principles

as told by Guru Dhoumya to the Pandavas,

tak­en as excerpts from the book ‘The Mahab­hara­ta by Bibek Debroy’

  1. I will tell you about life in a king’s abode and about how, hav­ing reached the king’s house­hold, you can free your­selves from harm.

  2. Life in a king’s abode is dif­fi­cult, even for those who are acquaint­ed with it. For an entire year, you will be unknown and will not be shown any hon­our, even though you deserve the hon­our.

  3. When you are shown the door, take to the door.

  4. Seek out seats that no one else desires. If evil-mind­ed ones are sus­pi­cious of the seat that you occu­py, do not ascend there again. That is the way one can live in a king’s res­i­dence.

  5. One should nev­er offer advice to the king unless he has asked for it. Be seat­ed in silence and hon­our him at the right time.

  6. Kings dis­like those who dis­agree and peo­ple who speak lies.

  7. One should fol­low the instruc­tions of the lord and avoid neg­li­gence, pride and anger. One should always offer advice that is good and pleas­ant, but one should attend more to the good than the pleas­ant. n every kind of con­ver­sa­tion, one should be kind­ly dis­posed of. One should nev­er say that which is unpleas­ant and brings no gain.

  8. A learned one serves, not think­ing that he is favoured.

  9. One can live in the king’s abode as long as one does not serve those who wish him ill, as long as one does not con­sort with those who seek to harm him and as long as one does not stray from one’s sta­tion.

  10. Do not con­verse with men the king does not like. Do not be proud because of your brav­ery, or vain because of your intel­li­gence. One becomes dear and com­fort­able by doing that which brings plea­sure to the king.

  11. One should not force­ful­ly move one’s lips or thighs, or utter words with great force. Sneez­ing, break­ing wind and clear­ing the throat should always be done gen­tly. When there is an occa­sion for laugh­ter, one should laugh gen­tly, and not like one who is mad. But one should not be too solemn. Oth­er­wise, one will be tak­en to be too severe. Instead, one should smile gen­tly, show­ing one­self to be benev­o­lent.

  12. One who earns his liveli­hood from the king, or dwells in his king­dom, must be saga­cious enough to recount his good qual­i­ties, both in his pres­ence and in his absence.

  13. An advis­er who strong­ly desires to obtain some objec­tive from the king, will not remain in that posi­tion for long and faces dan­ger to his life.

  14. For the sake of what is seen to be one’s one gains, one should not say any­thing that goes against the king. In par­tic­u­lar, one should always advise the king at the right place. One who is always cheer­ful, strong, brave, faith­ful like a shad­ow, truth­ful, gen­tle and self-con­trolled, is capa­ble of dwelling in a king’s abode.

  15. If anoth­er one is instruct­ed with a task, a per­son who jumps for­ward and asks what he should do is capa­ble of dwelling in a king’s abode.

  16. If one does not waver when giv­en instruc­tions, whether it is hot or cold, or night or day, one is capa­ble of dwelling in a king’s abode.

  17. One who lives away from home and does not remem­ber one’s loved ones and one who finds hap­pi­ness in unhap­pi­ness is capa­ble of dwelling in a king’s abode.

  18. One should not dress like him. One should not laugh loud­ly in his pres­ence. One should not offer a great deal of advice. In this way, one will become dear to the king. Appoint­ed to a task, one should not touch rich­es.


And final­ly, Rishi Dhoumya con­cludes ‘O sons! Spend a year in this way, adorn­ing your­selves with good con­duct. You will then regain your pos­ses­sions and act accord­ing to your plea­sures’( remind­ing them that they will win the chal­lenge if act­ed this way!). And sure enough,Yudhishthira fol­lows the advice of his Guru to the let­ter. The Mahab­hara­ta is full of such hid­den trea­sure. Do take up read­ing this great epic and share with us on what oth­er less-known prin­ci­ples that you encoun­tered while read­ing.

P.S.: There are two ver­sions of unabridged ver­sions of Mahab­hara­ta that I know of.

  1. The recent one, The Mahab­hara­ta trans­lat­ed by Bibek Debro­ry.

  2. A lit­tle bit old­er ver­sion by K. M Gan­guli


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