The Problem of Power
The Ramayana illustrates the problem of power and how to solve it.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
Looking around society today - the consequences of the abuse of power are incredibly stark. There are vast gaps between the rich and the poor - many live in luxury while others starve. Even amongst those who are doing well, almost everyone has an experience of being treated poorly by someone who has power over them in a particular situation. Beyond large societal problems, all the way to small personal interactions, the corrupting nature of power seems quite clear.
The problem of power is this: “Power leads people to act in impulsive fashion, both good and bad, and to fail to understand other people’s feelings and desires.”1 Gaining power tends to corrupt even people who start out with good intentions.
The story of the Ramayana, one of the great epics of Hinduism, illustrates the problem of power and how to solve its problems. The Ramayana narrates the life of Lord Rama, the prince of Ayodhya. The Ramayana is a central epic of Hinduism but also has a place in the Jain, Buddhist, and Sikh traditions as an illustration of the path of Dharma. It has deep roots in India but also across Southeast Asia.
The central villain of the Ramayana is Ravana, the king of Lanka, who kidnaps Lord Rama’s wife Sita. Ravana is the son of a great sage, Vishrava, and though he becomes a villainous character by the time of the events of the Ramayana - he does not start out that way.
Ravana is initially a great, intelligent, ambitious person. He was well versed in the Vedas and described as a great devotee of Lord Shiva. He gains his power by doing great penance and prayer. With this great power, he defeats Indra, the king of the Devas, and asserts himself as the most powerful in the cosmos. However, his power causes him to lose perspective and, ultimately, his downfall.
Though Ravana ruled a great kingdom, he used his power for selfish means rather than for the welfare of his people. All of the wealth that he gathered was plundered from others. And ultimately, as narrated in the Ramayana, he steals away Sita against her wishes.
Eventually this last part is what leads to his downfall. When Lord Rama finally arrives at Lanka, after many travails, with his army he still gives Ravana a chance to repent. However, at this point Ravana’s arrogance takes over, and ultimately he is killed in battle with Rama.
Ravana’s life is a clear illustrative parable about the dangers of power. Despite his intelligence and devotion, once he is powerful he acts impulsively without regard for others. Many politicians have gone down this route, they see themselves as ruling rather than serving the voters who grant them their powers.
Research shows power erodes empathy, which is what can lead to acting without consideration for the rights or feelings of others.2 Those in power actually show neurological differences based on the experience of power.3 In fact “people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the frontal lobes right behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior.”4
This might have been the process to blame for Winston Churchill diverting grain causing the death of more than three million people in the Bengal famine of 1943.5 While lionized in the western world for standing up to Hitler, Churchill is regarded differently in India. He had no empathy for Indians starving to death, shipping grain from India to well-stocked British troops and as a contingency for Europeans “if and when they are freed”. He regarded Indians as “beastly people with a beastly religion” and in language mirroring Hitler’s regarded them as “superfluous eaters”. Indeed Leopold Amery the British Secretary of State for India wrote in his private journal that he did not “see much difference between [Churchill’s] outlook and Hitler’s.”6 Churchill’s wife was asked to intervene with him by his cabinet because he had been acting “so contemptuous” toward subordinates in meetings that “no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming”.7
So if the experience of power can even affect even one’s brain, and can push some who are regarded as heroes in one part of the world to cause the death of millions in others, how does one avoid being corrupted by power?'
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It turns out the Ramayana has the answer as well. While Ravana is presented as the main antagonist in the Ramayana, his brother Vibhishan presents a clear contrast. Vibhishan counsels Ravana through the build up to avoid a needless war based on his impulsive desires. When Ravana refuses to listen to his counsel, Vibhishan leaves Lanka to serve Rama. After the death of Ravana, he rules Lanka at Rama’s behest and governs with care.
In Śrī Rāmacarita-mānas, during the final battle between Ravana and Lord Rama, Ravana arrives at the battlefield in a sophisticated chariot with many weapons. Lord Rama confronts him standing on the ground with no armor, and a simple bow and arrow. Vibhishan, fearing for Lord Rama’s chance of victory, asks him how he can win.
In response Lord Rama gives a wonderful analogy that contains the essence of how one can align oneself with the principles of Dharma:
सौरज धीरज तेहि रथ चाका। सत्य सील दृढ़ ध्वजा पताका॥ बल बिबेक दम परहित घोरे। छमा कृपा समता रजु जोरे॥
sauraja dhīraja tehi ratha cāka, satya sīla dṛḍha dhvajā patākā. bala bibeka dama parahita ghore, chamā kṛpā samatā raju jore. – (Rāmacaritamānasa - VI-79-iii)
The wheels (cākā) of this chariot (tehi ratha) are valour (sauraja) and fortitude (dhīraja). Steadfastness in truthfulness and good character (satya sīla dṛḍha) are its flags of victory and safety (dhvajā patākā). The horses (ghore) of the chariot are strength, discrimination, self-control and caring for others (bala viveka dama parahita). Its reins are made up of the ropes of forgiveness, compassion, and equanimity (chamā kṛpā samatā raju jore).8
He further explains:
ईस भजनु सारथी सुजाना। बिरति चर्म संतोष कृपाना॥ दान परसु बुधि सक्ति प्रचंडा। बर बिग्यान कठिन कोदंडा॥ अमल अचल मन त्रोन समाना। सम जम नियम सिलीमुख नाना॥ कवच अभेद बिप्र गुर पूजा। एहि सम बिजय उपाय न दूजा॥
īsa bhajanu sārathī sujānā, birati carma saṅtoṣa kṛpānā. dāna parasu budhi sakti pracaṇḍā, bara bigyāna kaṭhina kodaṇḍā. amala acala mana trona samānā, sama jama niyama silīmukha nānā. kavaca abheda bipra gura pūjā, ehi sama bijaya upāya na dūjā – (Rāmacaritamānasa - VI-79-iv & v)
Devotion to God (īsa bhajanu) is the intelligent charioteer (sārathī sūjānā); dispassion (birati) is the shield (carma) and contentment (santoṣa) is the sword (kṛpānā); charity (dāna) is the axe (parasu); understanding (budhi) is the powerful missile (sakti pracaṇḍā); knowledge of the Self (bigyāna) is the bow (kaṭhina kodaṇḍā); a pure and steady mind (amala acala mana) is the quiver (trona samānā); the arrows (silīmukha nānā) are peacefulness of mind (sama), the five noble values of life (jama) and the daily disciplines (niyama); the unbreakable armour (kavaca abheda) is devotion to the guru and to learned people (bipra gura pūjā). There is no other means to gain everlasting victory (ehi sama bijaya upāya na dūjā).9
Unpacking and explaining the whole of this analogy is beyond the scope of this article, but let’s focus on the points relevant to combating the corruption of power. The horses of the chariot are what move it forward - these are what allow one to progress. By including concern for others (parahita) here it is intended to be understood as a motivation and means of progression.
For Ravana the point of his power is self-aggrandizement. He is motivated by selfishness. Vibhishan, by contrast, is concerned about the death and destruction that would be caused by the needless conflict based on Ravana’s selfish desire. Furthermore, it is due to Vibhishan’s concern for others that he eventually leaves Ravana’s side and avoids destruction. Because of this, he progresses to become king himself.
The reigns of the chariot are also relevant, as these are what control the direction and pace of progress. Here forgiveness, compassion, and equanimity of the mind are prescribed. If power erodes empathy, the active practice of forgiveness and compassion is what helps preserve it.
Framing a perspective that helps one grasp the limits of one’s power also helps defend against the corruption that comes with power. Here Lord Rama advises devotion to God (īsa bhajanu) and devotion to the guru and to learned people (bipra gura pūjā). Finding respected mentors can help reframe one’s sense of power, and the realization that we only control so much can also help do so.
In this regard the philosophy of Karma that we discussed in the earlier article, “The Secret of Work”, can be very helpful. Realizing that while you can control your own effort, often the results are out of your hands can be a moderating factor on your sense of power. Keeping a sense of humble acceptance can be a great tool for keeping perspective when you are granted power.
Modern psychology also prescribes these activities - recommending active gratitude and appreciation. Taking actions that show empathy cultivates empathy, thus counteracting the erosion power brings. Getting feedback from mentors and executive coaches that help return you to a state of empathy and value-driven decisions also helps.
Ultimately the full analogy of the Dharma Ratha in the context of power and leadership paints a powerful picture of a true servant leader. Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy whereby an individual interacts with others to achieve authority rather than power.10
This is important to understand because the truth is that power is given, not strategically acquired. In the context of management, a company is not a democracy, but your customers vote with their wallets, and your employees vote with their time. Without either of those you have nothing, and Machiavellian tactics eventually lead to one or both of these forsaking you.
Empathy, compassion, cooperation, modesty, and service to others are the heart of avoiding corruption by power and maintaining your perspective. They are also valuable skills for those who seek positions of power and want to hold onto them. Remember Lord Ram’s advice to Vibhishan, and be a transcendent leader.
van Kleef, G.A., Oveis, C., van der Löwe, I.,LuoKogan, A., Goetz, J., & Keltner, D. (2008). Power, distress, and compassion: Turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. Psychological Science, 19 (12), 1315-1322.
Hogeveen, J., Inzlicht, M. & Obhi, S.S. (2014). Power changes how the brain responds to others. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 143 (2), 755-762.
Tejomayananda, Swami. Vibhishana Geeta (p. 18). Central Chinmaya Mission Trust. Kindle Edition.
Tejomayananda, Swami. Vibhishana Geeta (pp. 28-29). Central Chinmaya Mission Trust. Kindle Edition.
Greenleaf, Robert (2007). "The Servant as Leader". Corporate Ethics and Corporate Governance. pp. 79–85.