Leadership and Governance Lessons from the Ancient Indian Epics: Mahabharata by Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi (Retd)



The Mahabharata is one of the two major Smriti texts and Sanskrit epics  of ancient India, other being Ramayana. It narrates the events and aftermath of the battle of Kurukshetra, which was fought between two groups of princely cousins, Kaurava and Pandavas for the claiming of inheritance of descendants of Bharat who were from Chandra vans for the Kingdom of Hastinapur.

It is a treatise of Statecraft and operational Art. Among other material, it contains philosophical discussion on four goals of life which are, namely Arth (wealth) Kama (desire), Dharma (righteousness) and Moksha (liberation). It also contains Bhagwad Gita, which emphasizes the importance of self-realisation and pursuit of knowledge as a means to attain spiritual enlightenment.

Traditionally, the authorship of the Mahabharata is attributed to Vyasa. There have been many attempts to unravel its historical growth and compositional layers. The bulk of the Mahabharata was probably compiled between the 3rd century BCE and the 3rd century CE, with the oldest preserved parts not much older than around 400 BCE. The text probably reached its final form by the early Gupta period  4th century CE).


Although in the form of poem conveyed through stories, Mahabharat  conveys lessons in governance, statecraft, operational Art, decision making and leadership.  There is a need to examine critically some of the stories mentioned in this epic to unravel lessons about the aspects mentioned above. At the outset it needs to be underlined that in situations when a leader faces decision dilemma there is a need not only to consider hard data and past precedences but also to take into account emotions, intuition and spiritual discernment based on discrimination (Viveka).

Scope of Talk

To bring out lessons on governance and leadership based on the contents of Mahabharata


  • Building Scenario to draw out lessons of leadership and governance.
  • Case study of Sri Krishna as a Leader.

Part-I: General Concepts


Leadership is a powerful enabler that can leverage an organization to great heights, fame and a credible position among the stakeholders. On the other hand, if the quality of leadership is bad, the same organization will experience a downward slide leading to its eventual destruction. Therefore, one of the major issues of great interest as well as concern in Armed Forces, Business Organizations, Government and the Society is the issue of leadership. Leadership can either be based on the  perspective of responsibility & ownership or there is a second approach to leadership, where the  leader believes  that the unique position that he had attained and the endowment of resources at his command provides him a great opportunity to help others do their best. In first case the leaders believe that they have the freedom to take decisions the way they considered it appropriate. This approach of a leader is based on the belief that it is his  responsibility to get the right performance for the organization. Such leaders tend to be overbearing and as such give very little space to his subordinates to work independently. Such relationships are transactional and many a times work on the basis of reward and punishment. Obviously the motivation for subordinates in such a case is to work from the orientation of ‘Fear of Failure’. As such the results may not be disappointing but not very promising either. In the second case, it helps subordinates to identify with the objectives of the organisation and they have a sense of being a stakeholder. Although, a leader’s oversight is necessary even in this case but since the Team works on the ‘Hope of Success’, no wonder results are generally good. Such an approach helps in nurturing young and uninitiated into nuances of leadership.

Relevant Scenarios from Mahabharata

Following scenarios are being taken up: –

  1. Scenario-1: Duty Vs desires in a leader.
  • Context– Yudhistira when in exile in Agyatvas before the battle of Kurushetra uses time to improve their war fighting skills. Once they were requested by a sage to trace his one small instrument to produce fire. During the search they  felt thirsty and Youngest of the brother Sahdeva is sent to fetch water. Near the water he hears a voice of a Yaksha to first answer his questions and then drink the water and if he drinks the water he will die. In his arrogance of power Sahdeva ignores the voice and drinks the water and dies. Yudhistira sends other brothers on the same mission one by one and each of them meets the same fate now Yudhishtira himself comes and he answers all 18 questions on ethical leadership to the satisfaction of Yaksha. Yaksha offers to bring back one brother to life and Yudhishtira goes for his half brother Nakul. Thus he chooses his commitment to his step mother Madri at the time of her death instead of his self-interest. Pleased Yaksha offers another boon and Yudhishtira asks for the device of the sage which he had promised to bring back to the sage.  Yaksha reveals his identity as Yama and besides instrument of the sage he brings back to life all brothers.
  • Lessons –
    1. Having capability to discern right from wrong and practicing righteous way leads to wise decision making.
    2. Even in crisis, for a leader it is important to take care of family and his commitment.
  1. Scenario-2: Relevance of Righteousness as a virtue of a King.
  • Context– Despite the wise counsel of Vidhur Dhritrastra fails to rein in his son and take a just decision to grnt share of kingdom to Pandavas as he was partial to his son, the crown prince. His action caused the war and destruction of the Kingdom.
  • Lessons-
    • Attachment keeps a a leader from making wise decisions.
    • Knowing Dharma or ethics is not sufficient, impartiality is a necessary virtue of a leader.
  1. Scenario-3 – Role clarity Vs Goal clarity.
  • Context- Just before  the beginning of war Arjuna feels unsure of moral righteousness and gets overwhelmed with an anticipatory grief on account of becoming a cause of the death of near and dear ones. Krishna reminds him of his responsibility to uphold the law. Krishna reminds him on a philosophical level that the death is inevitable and therefore it is necessary that we should do our duty. Finally Krishna shows him his divine form and tells Arjuna that he would be playing only his role because others are already destined to die due to their acts.
  • Lessons-
    • A warrior’s role is that of a protector of moral and ethical values- need for equanimity in a warrior leader.
    • In human relations it is difficult to separate out friends and foes. This Labyrinth can lead to role confusion and a lack of clarity in making an ethical and morally correct decision.
    • There is an important part in decision making that attachment, indulgence and crisis thinking if impact decision making it results into disaster.
  1. Scenario-4: Decisions need to be both discernment and discrimination.
  • Context- Towards the end of war bot sides turned to unjust and unethical means to win the war. On Krishna’s advise Pandavas visit Bheeshma Pitamah on his death bed to seek his views on governance and leadership secrets. Yudhishtira was initially embarrassed to go but goes based on persuasion of Krishna. Bheeshma gets surprised and says that what could he add to what Krishna has already said. Krishna points out that he never ruled on the contrary Bheeshma Pitamah was Regent for a long time. Bheeshma agrees and shared his perspective on leadership.
  • Lessons-
    • Lessons should be welcomed even if from a vanquished leader.
    • Bheeshma in his earlier days had challenged the king on throne, when king was unjust but he continued to back the king till the end as he had taken a vow to protect the kingdom- This showed sufficient discernment to grasp and assume his role. However, he failed to discriminate the subtle point that his role was to protect the Kuru Kingdom not to protect the incumbent- It highlighted need for discrimination.
    • This also showed that the context could become complex and there is a need to cultivate ethical clarity which Bheeshma had failed.

Analysis of Scenarios

  • A leader has to have capability to differentiate between Gola Clarity and Role clarity.
  • The decision making has to be based on ethical construct.
  • Decision has to be practical and implementable.
  • The framework for developing discernment should be through intuition, instinct and emotions along with data effectively.
  • The leadership’s success and failure should not be based on being reactive or unreflective to cater for rapidly changing situation or the uncertainty based on enemy’s action.
  • The Capability to detach from desired outcomes; and a stance of courage, humility and ethical clarity, are essential traits of a leader.

Leadership lessons from Bhagwad Gita

As identified by Prof B. Mahadevan of IIM Bangalore these are as follows:-

  • Strong need to lead by example– Leading by example Leaders derive their credibility, respect and power from their unwavering commitment to walking the talk. Therefore Krishna warns Arjuna that he needs to lead by example. Viewed from the perspective, leaders hands are tied, they lose the degrees of freedom and the whole world will keenly watch the leaders’ action and blindly follow the leaders.
  • Importance of developing a high degree of equanimity- Lord Krishna drives this point in Gita in several places. The first instruction that Arjuna receives from Krishna is on this issue, thereby signalling the importance of this aspect. According to Lord Krishna, the world is full of dualities, it will blow hot and cold and we will experience joy and happiness as well as some unpleasant moments. These are the realities of life and an important lesson in  Leadership to remain unaffected in happiness or in the moments of despair. Therefore locus of control in a leader should be internal and not external.
  • Understanding the principle of mutual dependence- By virtue of the position and the endowment of resources that a leader can command, it tends to lull him to think that he can do things alone. Sooner he realises that the led are as important as leader he becomes a successful leader. For example; A happy and successful married life revolves around the husband and the wife understanding the value of mutual dependence. Particle physicists today have found out that both at the sub-atomic level (Pinda) and at the cosmos (Anda) everything works in perfect harmony because of the universal principle of mutual dependence. Government and society have to honour the principle of mutual dependence.
  • In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna defines three specific disciplines that are required for effective leadership: discipline of learning, discipline of speaking properly and discipline of equanimity. These are qualities which help a leader to know his own self.
  • Likewise, without effective communication skills, leadership cannot become effective. Krishna says, the most important part of communication is to communicate with honesty and with respect toward others. For leaders to be effective, they must be able to motivate their followers when they speak, so they can guide them toward the common vision and goals.
  • The eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita culminates with an important lesson for effective leadership; this lesson is about leadership renunciation. The Gita defines renunciation as abstaining from selfish acts (sanyasa in Sanskrit) and detaching from the results of an action (tyaga in Sanskrit).
  • Leadership is at its best only when it becomes inspirational. Inspirational leadership has several attributes which we are unable to see clearly in current day leadership theories. These include:
    • Outgrow their own vision from the narrow perspective of “what is in it for me?” to an opportunity to make a difference to the people and the place that they associate with
    • Not afraid of anyone and not generating any sense of fear in others
    • An ability to dramatically transform people and entities that comes to their contact in a sustained fashion. How many entities and people in this country and elsewhere have been significantly influenced by a person like Mahatma Gandhi till date? It will not be surprising to find that this phenomenon will continue for a long time to come.
    • Leave behind an impact that guides a large number of people and organizations for a long time to come. Is it not strange that Buddha, Rama, Krishna, and Christ, are able to influence people and society for a very long time? Such is the power of inspirational leadership. In order to achieve such a level of leadership, a strong current of spirituality must run in an individual. Spirituality will broaden the vision of an individual, melt their heart, embolden them to take great steps without fear of failures and significantly increase their leadership competence. People endowed with modern education, scientific knowledge and wherewithal to perform need to imbibe spirituality to make a winning combination of an inspirational leader. This seems to the underlying message in Gita on matters pertaining to leadership.

Part-II: Leadership lessons from Mahabharata

Lessons from Mahabharata[i]

Mahabharata epic is one work where all aspects of these parameters of leadership are evaluated through life experiences and informed decision making. Some of the areas which need underling are as follows:-

  • Never be controlled by ego, arrogance, disrespect and humbleness to have an understanding of your own self: Case of Duriyodhana for his ego, his arrogance and disrespect for elders and knowledable advisors. He failed to appreciate the relevance and importance of Krishna with his adversaries.
  • Many psychological studies have revealed that the presence of the spiritual constant in one’s mind will help a leader to get better as the person, which will help him to get  connected with his surroundings  and relate himself to the universe around him.
  • As per a research by  Prasad L.Kaipa and his co-workers,  discrimination and ethical conduct are critical qualities required for a leader, these have to be developed by experiential trial and error and constant practice.
  • Greed management in any leadership would be a game changer- It is normally said power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Therefore as stated by Chakravarthi S.S, – The disastrous outcome of Mahabharata was the outcome of Dritarastra’s acquiescence to the greed of his son despite the sage advice of Vidhur.
  • Role of a leader to elevate the confidence of those who are suffering from mental dilemma on account of conflict between sense of duty and indulgence is crucial for the success. Krishna did that to Arjun who had gone into a kind of depression on account of such a mental dilemma.
  • Preparatory Strategy- At the end, War was the target for both Kauravas and Pandavas. Karna went to subdue other kings so that Kauravas may get wealth to fight the war but Pandavas during the same period acquired  Divyastras, strength and strategic wisdom.
  • Leadership and Mentorship: The main difference between Kauravas and Pandavas was this factor. Dhuriyodhana was a dominant leader and always liked to be the same in all situations ignoring experts like Bheeshma and Drona. But the opposite camp of Pandavas concentrated on situational leader depending upon the situation keeping Lord Krishna as the heart of the happenings. Apart from this the allies with Pandavas were significant in numbers compared to Kaurava. Even in case of Army, Kauravas had a one-man leadership hierarchy. The whole of the army was under one person’s command. On the other hand, Pandavas had different generals directing the operations and had authority to take decision. Unfortunately except for Karna all other chiefs of forces were not passionate about Kauarvas victory. Lord Krishna as a mentor was great force multiplier for Pandavas before the war and during the war. The Pandavas had Lord Krishna, and the Kauravas had Karna. However, Duryodhan was really weak without Karna.
  • Commitment and Common Goal- Duryodhana failed to motivate his forces for getting aligned to his objective of victory because higher goal of victory was missing whereas Pandavas managed to get his support forces aligned to their terminal objective.
  • [ii]Optimum Utilization of Limited Resources Kauravas were much stronger than the Pandavas, both in physical strength and skills. The Kauravas side had great warriors like Ashwattama and Bhishma who were immortal. They also had supremely talented warriors such as Dronacharya, Kripacharya, Kritavarma, Duryodhana and Karna. Still, Pandavas won the battle of Kurukshetra because of Krishna’s ability to use the available resources tactfully.
  • Presence of Krishna as a strategist amidst Padavas- With his vision he got many of those who could support Kauravas even before the war commenced and even during war he set up liquidation of Bheeshma, Drona, weaking of Karna. Even sacrificing Abhimanu was with a design and ensuring Duryodhana’s defeat and eventual death was due to his understanding of battle.
  • Winning doesn’t give us everything: Does all the above statement proves that just because we win we shall stay happy? Never! This is what Pandavas learned when they eventually defeated the cousin brothers, Kauravas. They found no reason in enjoying the hard fought price of ruling the kingdom ultimately leaving everything to their descendants and disappearing to the forests to know the real essence of their birth. They deeply regretted the triumph of the Kurukshtra war, which cost the life of various relatives and friends. This teaches us the important learning that obsession of winning alone will not give us everything in our life rather the real truth of knowing the reason of your birth and having spiritual quotient inside all are the ones which should be kept at the apex of all priorities. [iii]


Mahabharata therefor is not only an epic story of fight between two branches of family for a Kingdom which both branches claimed but among many other things it brings out lessons in leadership which are relevant even today. It highlights that for success in any conflict the leadership has be based on ethical values, discrimination, a visionary thinking, capability to take the team with you and everyone in the team to have their respective role clarity within the scope of goal clarity. A leader needs to have his locus of control internal and he should lead by example.

Author – Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM, VSM (Retd)  is a retired Indian Army General Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, NE, Andman Nikobar on various appointments at Command and Army HQs. . He is Sr Vice Chairman of Think Tank, “STRIVE”,  after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals, and think tanks.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the STRIVE.


  1. Prasad L. Kaipa , (2014),”Making wise decisions: leadership lessons from Mahabharata”,
  2. Manikutty, S. (2012). Why Should I Be Ethical? Some Answers from

Mahabharata. Journal of Human Values, 18(1), 19- 32.

  1. Bhaktivedanta, A. C. (1995). Srimad-

Bhagavatam. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust

[ii] Pujan Roka(www.pujanroka.com) is the author of “Bhagavad Gita on Effective Leadership: Timeless Wisdom for Leaders.” 

[iii] Prof. Tanushree Datta, Assistant Professor & Assistant Director – Placement, IQ City United World School of Business, Kolkata,“How relevant are the Strategic Management lessons of Mahabharata in the 21st Century? – An Intro”

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