Sharad Mathur

Tyaaga, Enlightened Self-Interest and Leadership

Sharad Mathur

Wisdom Tradition_Tyaaga_Enlightened Self Interest_Web

Vajra, the mythical weapon of the god-king Indra is one of the most potent weapons described in the Hindu mythology. It has been depicted in the Puranas as a weapon that is indestructible like a diamond and destructive like a thunderbolt. Both of these are not the reasons why it finds its place on the Param Vir Chakra, the highest military decoration of India. It gets inscribed on the Param Vir Chakra because it symbolises valour and self-sacrifice for a greater cause.

According to the legend, asura (roughly translated to demon) King Vritra had a divine boon which gave him immunity against any weapon made of wood or metal. With all the powerful heavenly weapons of little threat to him, he easily captured the devaloka (heavens) and ousted Indra, the king of devas (gods). He did not stop at that and captured all the water in the world, to scorch out every possible threat to his eternal reign of the devaloka. Losing all hope of regaining  heaven, the gods, led by Indra, went to seek lord Vishnu’s help who  directed them to sage Dadhichi from whose bones alone could a weapon be forged which could kill Vritra.

This is where it got interesting, as Indra had earlier be-headed Dadhichi because the latter had taught Brahmvidya (skill of reviving dead people) to Ashwini Kumar twins, the doctors of the gods. Even though Dadhichi was brought back to life by the Ashwini Kumars, Indra was hesitant to ask for the bones of the man he had once be-headed. To his surprise though, Dadhichi heard him calmly and agreed to give up his life to save the creation. He, through a yogic exercise, released the life force from his body and the gods fashioned multiple weapons from his body, including the Vajra. It was carved out of Dadhichi’s spine. Where else could they find the potency of a weapon like Vajra!

Through the valour and self-sacrifice of Dadhichi, Indra defeated Vritra and good triumphed over evil. He left the physical world, attained Moksha (state of being one with the God) and inspired the Param Vir Chakra.

The Idea of Tyaaga

Dadhichi did not think twice before giving up his life to help Indra, the one who had previously beheaded him. Why would anyone do that? What was in it for him?

Pantheon of Hindu GodsI would argue that the ‘what was in it for him’ is a wrong question as the worldview in which this myth originated was not an individualistic world-view with a primacy of self. In traditionally agrarian societies, collectivist sentiment has always been a survival mechanism. Sacrificing one’s own immediate gratification for the greater good of the group has been an expected behaviour. If your neighbour’s field is flooded this year, you will give a share from your produce. This is your accident insurance policy in case next year your field gets flooded. You know for sure it will be flooded, scorched or raided in the foreseeable future. You have no control over the rains, the sun, the winds, the fire and some of them find their place in the pantheon of your gods. You can pray to Indra, Odin, Zeus, Surya, Apollo, Ra, Ameterasu and the others, but you can count only on your Samaj, a group of people with tacit agreement to back each other, when the going gets tough. And for you to be able to count on your Samaj, you have to at times prioritise the collective interest above your own. At times you have to sacrifice your interest for the greater good as you are but a part of the whole. This is the spirit of tyaaga.

The Tradition of Indian Asceticism and Leadership

When Gandhi returned to India in the year 1915, many powerful and influential individuals from the Indian National Congress were already providing leadership to the Indian freedom movement. And yet, by 1920 he had become the face of the Indian freedom movement with a mass support that heavyweights like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Moti Lal Nehru, Lala Lajpat Rai, Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Sardar Vallabh bhai Patel could never garner. What explains this?

For starters, Gandhi did not talk about swarajya, He talked about Ram-rajya. He did not have an office, he had an ashram. He did not wear a silk kurta, he wore a cotton dhoti. He renounced worldly possessions to help his people. This act of renouncing, his tyaaga, transformed him from being a Jan-Neta (mass leader) to a Mahatma (sage). And a Mahatma was to be followed. A long tradition of Indian ascetics consisting of Buddha, Mahavira, Sankara, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Dayananda Saraswati, and Vivekananda demanded so.

Even today, the image of Mahatma and the idea of tyaaga still find resonance among the Indian masses. Greatest of minds in the country needed a septuagenarian who operates out of a temple in Ralegan Siddhi to get the masses involved in the greatest anti-corruption struggle India has ever seen. It was Anna Hazare who got the popular support behind India Against Corruption movement. In an interview with me, Anna Hazare listed tyaaga as one of the core aspects of Indian leadership. He said, “When you want to grow a crop, you need to give the mother earth some seed grains first.”

Tyaaga and Enlightened Self-Interest

It is not pragmatic for every leader to live the life of renunciation like Gandhi or Hazare did, or make the ultimate sacrifice like Dadhichi. What can we do?

The first part of the chapter 18 of Srimad Bhagwad Gita explores the idea of tyaaga in practice.  Krishna describes three types of tyaagas to Arjuna – tamasika tyaaga, rajasika tyaaga, and sattvika tyaaga. The first two are where one renounces the worldly affairs for ignorance and fear of strain respectively. Krishna explains the third one, satvika tyaaga, in the Verse nine of this chapter as performing of one’s action with a sense of duty without an attachment to the fruits one would receive. It stands for ignoring immediate gratification and doing the right thing which is for the greater good. It is the awareness that your self-interest is eventually located in the interest of the samaaj or society you live in. This is the spirit of enlightened self-interest and is not so difficult to practice, or is it?

What is Enlightened Self-Interest?

Merriam Webster dictionary defines enlightened self-interest as “behaviour based on awareness that what is in the public interest is eventually in the interest of all individuals and groups”. However, to practice enlightened self-interest, it is important to see it differently from philanthropy which the same dictionary defines as “the practice of giving money and time to help make life better for other people”.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) invoked Gandhi to transform all the international partnerships in the spirit of enlightened self-interest. He slipped a little there, for the quote he attributed to Gandhi – “One must care about the world one will not see” – was actually Bertrand Russel’s. However, in no uncertain terms he reiterated India’s position vis-a-vis financial help the developed world should provide towards development and environment issues to the developing world. The rationale is simple, in his words, “As we see now, distance is no insulation from challenges. And, they can rise from the shadows of conflict and privations from distant lands.” The message was loud and clear; you must help us not because you are rich philanthropic noble men but because helping us is in your own long term interest.

Philanthropy has a sense of grandiosity, as it is a giver-centric activity where the one who ‘gives’ is the bigger man. It comes from the Greek word philanthropia which means love, kindness, and benevolence to the mankind, from great men and gods. On the other hand, when you are acting in enlightened self-interest, you are not doing it for anyone else, but yourself.

Practicing Enlightened Self Interest

In today’s post-industrialised era, where threats of global warming, global economic meltdown, and global terrorism loom large, working with a sense of enlightened self-interest is fast becoming an imperative for the global leaders. Developed European nations, led by Germany, have granted safe and legal access to 64,193 Syrian refugees via the UNHCR programmes for resettlement and other forms of admission. German chancellor Angela Merkel has received a lot of flak for this but making this tough decision of taking in the refugees is in the enlightened self-interest of these European nations. Yes, it will be a burden in the short run but will prove to be an asset in the long run, given the aging population in these countries.

Leaders can shape the industry they operate in by acting in the spirit of enlightened self-interest. French oil and gas giant Total, headquartered in France, redefined the norms of the energy sector because it is in their enlightened self-interest. When major players like BP are winding up their renewable energy businesses after investing billions of dollars with virtually no return, Total has invested heavily in the renewable energy players like SunPower and Amyris. At best, it will help them reap the fruits if these renewable energy companies do well without having to actually dabble in the renewable business. At worst they will lose money. But they have shown the way to the other super-rich oil and gas majors to go about renewable energy business and have given humanity another chance when it will run out of fossil fuel.

Sergey Brin of Google endorsed the Project Loon at Google X Laboratories because it was the right thing to do and let its revenue model evolve over the period of time. This project is helping remote and rural areas of the world to access internet by creating a network of balloons travelling high up in the atmosphere, which will transmit internet signal to a special antenna attached to the buildings below. More people on the internet will mean more potential users for Google, which ultimately will mean more revenue.

Jamsetji Tata

Jamsetji Tata

Leaders can act in enlightened self-interest while growing their organisations. Filip Vandenbergh, managing director of Atlas Copco India Limited, tried to accept all the invitations his employees extended to him. Being approachable and participating in his employees’ family events helped him understand the very people he had to lead in a foreign country. Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments, gave a great raise to his employees by giving up 90% of his salary. Common sense dictates that his start-up will now not need to worry about attrition figures any time soon. Ricardo Semlar, after inheriting Brazilian manufacturing major Semco, focused on empowering the workers to decide their work hours and pay levels. His idea of participative management set his company on a path to double digit growth for 14 straight years. Jamsetji Tata, the Founder of the Tata group, and his sons Dorabji and Ratanji donated much of their personal wealth to the trusts they created for they felt responsible for the greater good of India and its people. Today, 66% of Tata Group shares are controlled by these trusts and by the virtue of this, 66% of all the profits that Tata Group companies post is spent on social welfare. This is why brand Tata enjoys goodwill like no other Indian or multi-national organisation in India.

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