The Mahabharata and Mindsets
What the world's longest epic poem can teach us about how to approach self-improvement.
We've been talking for the last few weeks about how our choices define us and putting values into action. One point from last week I'd like to revisit is related to the theme of sreyas and preyas as well. Many of us recognize Yama's teaching to Nachiketa, that we should choose the ultimate good for ourselves, society, and the world, over what's convenient or easy for us.
Despite knowing this, we don't always make that choice.
This is what we discussed last week: the lesson from Dharmaraj Yudhishtir's youth was to help us see that for us to really understand Yama's lesson, we need to live it. Unless we are consistently choosing the sreyas over the preyas, we should not say we have yet comprehended the lesson.
This week let's take it a step further, if it seems so obvious to choose the sreyas, why don't we always do this? Why isn't it easy to make good choices, and why do individuals so often choose short-term personal gain over long-term societal gain?
To begin to answer these questions, we look again to the Mahabharata, and especially the Bhagavad Gita. We will analyze certain characters through the lens of mindsets. The central conflict in the Mahabharata is between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Pandavas are the five sons of King Pandu, and the Kauravas are the many sons of King Dhritarashtra. Duryodhan, the eldest of the Kauravas, becomes jealous because Yudhishtir, the eldest Pandava and his cousin, is appointed as the crown prince to inherit the throne due to his keen judgment, knowledge of Dharma, and valor.
Over the course of the Mahabharata, Duryodhan, possessed by jealousy, consistently makes the wrong choices in an escalating manner. He tries to have his cousins murdered, cheat them out of the kingdom, exile them, and eventually attempts to wage a destructive war to deny them any recourse.
Duryodhan, the antagonist, is powerful, valorous, and educated - but constantly makes the wrong choices. When Krishna tries to educate him on dharma, he replies that knowing right and wrong is not his problem.
Duryodhan says: 1
जानामि धर्मं न च मे प्रवृत्ति र्जानामि पापं न च मे निवृत्तिः । केनापि देवेन हृदि स्थितेन यथा नियुक्तोऽस्मि तथा करोमि ॥
jānāmi dharmaṃ na ca me pravṛttir-jānāmi pāpaṃ na ca me nivṛttiḥ ।
kenāpi devena hṛdi sthitena yathā niyukto'smi tathā karomi ॥ 57॥
"I know what is dharma, yet I cannot get myself to do it! I know what is against dharma, yet I cannot prevent myself from doing it! O Lord! You dwell in my heart and I will do as you impel me to do."
This is the familiar problem we are discussing - sometimes despite knowing what is best and knowing the consequences, we still choose something easier or more immediately desirable for ourselves.
Despite the relatability of Duryodhan’s statement, we should still view him with skepticism for how he articulates it. Notice how he gives up agency and responsibility for his choices. He frames the problem as unsolvable. There is some impulse that dwells within him that impels him to do these things, and he has no control over it.
Arjun, Yudhistir's younger brother, and the middle Pandava, expresses a similar problem but with a critical difference in his dialogue with Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.
Arjuna asks: 2
अथ केन प्रयुक्तोऽयं पापं चरति पूरुष: | अनिच्छन्नपि वार्ष्णेय बलादिव नियोजित: ||
atha kena prayukto ’yaṁ pāpaṁ carati pūruṣaḥ anicchann api vārṣṇeya balād iva niyojitaḥ
"O Krishna, by what is one impelled to wrong acts, even unwillingly, as if engaged by force?"
Arjun is expressing a similar sentiment to Duryodhan here: that there is some impulse within that sometimes overrides one's judgment and impels one towards making the wrong choices. The major difference here between Arjun and Duryodhan's dialogues with Krishna is that while Duryodhan expresses this as a certainty, Arjun asks a question. He asks "By what?", "Why", and later "how may I overcome it?"
This difference in mindset is what allows Arjun to seek the help and build the discipline he needs to overcome the impulse, while Duryodhan is doomed to repeat mistakes over and over until his ultimate defeat. In the modern context, this difference is synthesized by Stanford Psychology professor Dr. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
Professor Dweck, through her research, explains the difference between the fixed mindset, where one views oneself as static - either born with talent and intelligence or not, and the growth mindset, where one views oneself as capable of development and progression. A person with a fixed mindset like Duryodhan leads with a desire to look great and accomplished. Because of their desire, they ignore critical feedback (Krishna's advice) and feel threatened by the success of others (Yudhishtir's coronation). By contrast, a person with a growth mindset leads with a desire to learn and therefore accepts and learns from criticism and finds lessons and inspiration in the success of others.
Arjun exhibits growth mindset in his approach to asking questions of Krishna in the Gita. He expresses his concerns and sorrows but does not stop there. Instead, when faced with the greatest obstacles, in a life filled with many tribulations, he asks Krishna how to overcome them.
Another story from Arjun's childhood illustrates his rapacious desire to learn, which led him to be the favorite of his teacher Dronacharya. One night Arjun woke up late in the night to some strange sounds. He quietly crept out of his bed and made his way to the kitchen to discover his elder brother Bheem eating in the kitchen in the pitch dark. He thought to himself that if his brother could navigate the kitchen and eat in the dark, why couldn't he practice his archery and learn to shoot in the dark? He began practicing that night, and when his teacher Dronacharya observed his diligence, he was moved by his dedication and approach. Later this ability to shoot in the dark was key in his battle with the warrior Jayadratha in the Mahabharata war.
By approaching life as a series of lessons and opportunities to test oneself and grow, we gain the capacity to improve our choices continuously. This mindset of continuously questioning and improving is the key to overcoming the inertia and desires that lead us to the wrong choices. This is the first critical step on the path to being a leader who embodies the values and principles they espouse and lead with. These are the types of leaders who ultimately inspire others to follow, and accomplish great things.
Whether you are focused on simply improving yourself, or teaching growth mindset as a part of your company’s approach and culture, it will pay dividends. Satya Nadella credits this mindset and its conscious spread through the organization as a key to his success in revitalizing Microsoft's business. Under his leadership, Microsoft's market capitalization has grown from $330 billion to nearly $2 trillion.
More importantly, as an individual, going beyond a fixed view of oneself where outcomes rather than learnings determine your self-worth can profoundly impact your ability to absorb setbacks and bounce back from failure.
There is more to answering the questions I posed at the outset of our discussion. After all, we discussed the understanding and mindset posed by Arjun's question, but we haven't even gotten into Krishna's answer. These are deep questions, and though we won't be able to answer these in one sitting comprehensively, we can progressively approach the answer. In the future, we will discuss the internal influences on these decisions, and the techniques used for conscious control. Next week, though, we will take a break from this line of discussion. We will try to understand a parable of the 19th-century Bengali saint Sri Ramakrishna and how it relates to the formation of silos and politics within an organization and how it can lead to greater self-awareness in decision making.
What are your thoughts on fixed and growth mindset? What are your experiences making choices between sreyas and preyas?
From Pandava Gita. verse 56
Bhagavad Gita 3.36