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.
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’
- 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.
- 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.
- When you are shown the door, take to the door.
- 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.
- 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.
- Kings dislike those who disagree and people who speak lies.
- 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.
- A learned one serves, not thinking that he is favoured.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.