Sri Rama’s Lessons on Public Leadership

The beauty of the Indian epics is that they are not merely historical records. They carry timeless lessons for humanity. Every generation has read them and applied it in their context.

By Shobhit Mathur, Co-Founder & Dean at Rashtram

What would Sri Rama teach you on public leadership? Among the Indian pantheon of public leaders, Sri Rama stands out as the most revered. His rule is considered the benchmark for an ideal State to this day – Rama Rajya. So what would he teach us on public leadership? We can have a glimpse of this in the Valmiki Ramayana. As we know, when Bharata realizes that Sri Rama has been sent to a 14-year exile, he leaves in search of Sri Rama. He reaches Chitrakoot and pleads Sri Rama to abandon his exile and come back to Ayodhya. He wants his elder brother to take over the reins of the kingdom. In a beautiful conversation between the two, Sri Rama gives the lessons of Raja Dharma to Bharata. The wisdom and principles elucidated are timeless and relevant to this day.  

The 100th chapter of the Ayodhya Kanda (2nd book) of the Valmiki Ramayana has the above-mentioned conversation between Bharata and Sri Rama. While inquiring about the welfare of his father Dasaratha, Sri Rama gives instructions to Bharata on Raja Dharma. Bharata takes these lessons back home and rules on behalf of Sri Rama for the next 14 years. The 100th chapter of Ayodhya Kanda has 76 verses, but for the sake of brevity, we will delve into only 6 of them (65-70) here. Verses 65-67 describe the typical faults that a king should abstain from, and in 68-70 Sri Rama complements them by explaining the knowledge and skills needed in a king.  These are elaborated below with descriptions.   

Failings of Kings 

Sri Rama asks Bharta whether he is eschewing the following 14 failings that are typically found in a king: 

(1) atheism नास्तिक्यम् (2) falsehood अनृतम् (3) anger क्रोधम् (4) inattention प्रमादम् (5) procrastination दीर्घसूत्रताम् (6) evading the wise अदर्शनम्  ज्ञानवताम् (7) indolence आलस्यम् (8) gratification of all five senses पञ्चवृत्तिताम् (9) planning alone in the affairs of the kingdom एकचिन्तनम् अर्थानाम् (10) consultation with people who are proficient in worthless acts मन्त्रणम् अनर्थज्ञैः (11) failure to implement decisions अनारम्भम् निश्चितानाम् (12) inability to keep the counsel secret अपरिरक्षणम् मन्त्रस्य (13) omission of auspicious practices अप्रयोगं मङ्लम् (14) setting out against all the enemies at a time प्रत्युत्थानं सर्वतः

This is a comprehensive list of what-not-to-do when in a public leadership position. One can map the failures of contemporary leaders to this list. It includes all the modern leadership mantras (that focus on external skills) along with the spiritual and ritual elements. It is important to understand that without conquering your interiority, you cannot lead. Conquering the interiority needs rituals and wise counsel.  Hence, Sri Rama aptly elucidates the importance of conquering one’s senses and emotions, the rituals to achieve the same, and the company to keep.   

Knowledge and Skills Needed in a King

After pointing out the typical failings of kings, in the next 3 verses (2.100.68-70), Sri Rama puts forth an entire public leadership curriculum for Bharata. Sri Rama asks Bharta whether he understands and deals with the following appropriately: 

  • The subjugation of the senses
  • 3 branches of learning: The three Vedas; the knowledge relating to agriculture, commerce, and other vocational pursuits; and political science.
  • 3 objects of human pursuit: Religious merit (Dharma), material wealth (Artha), and sensuous enjoyment (Kama)
  • 4 expedients: Making peace (sama), liberality (daana), sowing dissension (bheda), chastisement (danda)
  • Mandalam: Awareness of the federal circle of which the king is the overlord
  • 7 limbs of state: King, ministers, friends, treasury, territory, forts, and an army.
  • 10 evils: Hunting, gambling, sleeping during the day, lustfulness, inebriation, pride, calumny, lounging about idly or aimlessly, diversions such as singing and dancing
  • 8 subjects: Agriculture, trade, defense, bridging, catching elephants, mining, extraction of tributes, emergency shelters. 
  • Prakriti: The condition of ministers of the kingdom, forts, treasury, and the army
  • 5 fortifications: By moat, high bank, trees thickly planted, a space destitute of grain or provisions, the turning of waters.
  • 6 strategic expedients: Coming to terms with the enemy, waging war against him, marching against him, biding one’s time to seek a favorable opportunity, causing dissension in the enemy’s ranks, seeking protection of a powerful ally.
  • Adversity brought about by divine agencies: Fire, water in the shape of excessive rains or floods, epidemic or endemic diseases, famine and pestilence, earthquakes, and tsunamis.
  • Adversity brought about by human agencies: Officials, thieves, enemies, king’s favorites, and the king himself when actuated by greed.
  • Krtya: The art of pleasing with suitable presents, the enemy’s agents and servants who have not been paid their wages, and who have been insulted, angered or frightened by their master
  • Marshaling troops in various formations     
  • 20 types of monarchs who are not worth negotiating with (10 listed here for brevity): 
    1. One who is a coward
    2. One who is greedy 
    3. One who has estranged his ministers and others
    4. One who confers with fickle-minded persons
    5. One who speaks ill of divine beings and brahmins.
    6. One who is extremely indulged in sensuous pleasures and luxuries
    7. One who is a fatalist
    8. One who is afflicted by military reverses
    9. One who has numerous enemies.
    10. One who is not devoted to truth and piety..

The list of topics mentioned above is a combination of theory and practice. It includes the realpolitik as well as the spiritual. This has been a unique feature of the Indian education system. Mere external skills are incomplete and without a sound basis. The foundation of individuals is built through imparting scriptural knowledge in the Guru-Shishya parampara and it culminates into wisdom via direct experience. This wisdom then helps in building the leader’s character and can be applied appropriately in various dynamic situations.  

A Relook into the Ramayana

The Ramayana is popularly known as the biography of Sri Rama. The beauty of the Indian epics is that they are not merely historical records. They carry timeless lessons for humanity. Every generation has read them and applied it in their context. But the application need not be limited to personal life alone. These epics need to be explored as political texts as well. They describe the polity and political leadership of their times. Reading them as a political text can help the present public leaders learn from their ancestors. The treasure of our intellectual civilisational heritage is yet to be discovered completely. Hopefully, this article has irked your interest to explore the Ramayana further in this light. 

To the future Bharatas of Bharat,

Shobhit Mathur

Dean

Rashtram School of Public Leadership

References:

  1. Valmiki Ramayana hosted at IIT Kanpur 
  2. www.valmikiramayan.net
  3. The Ramayana Polity by Pazhamaneri Chandrashekar Dharma

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