Mahabharata is a treasure trove of wisdom and leadership lessons for all walks of life. Given below are some important characters and lessons you can learn from their ideals, actions and circumstances they went through.


Decision Making, Context is important – Bheesma

Devavrata (Bheesma) takes a very brave decision and does the unthinkable.

I will not marry and produce children so that my father can marry the woman he loves. I will renounce sex for my father’s happiness. (Akhanda Pratigya)

This is a valiant decision he took in the context of his father’s happiness. But going forward, this decision turned out to be fatal. His father’s wife, Satyavati gives birth to two children who died without fathering a child. The kingdom is without a king and hence queen Satyavati, comes back to Bheesma again and requests him to either marry or make the two queens pregnant.

But Bheesma is tied with his vision of renouncing sex. He walks away saying

I have taken this decision and I will stick to it no matter what happens.

Satyavati then requests Vyasa to make Ambalika and Ambika pregnant but the results were not satisfactory. Dhritarashtra was blind and Pandu was a weakling.

So one side, you see integrity and commitment. On the flip side, you see the decision that produced a positive result on one context brought a negative consequence in the other.

This is what happens in life when you take decisions with shortsightedness. A decision which is fit in one context turns out to be complete opposite going forward and you are thrown into wilderness. So context keeps changing and you will have to keep changing your decisions with the context. If you do not change your decision making instinct with the context, prepare for a storm, prepare for the “Mahabharata”.

Negotiation – Unpredictable Outcomes ( Yes, your “perfect” plan will fail ) – Satyavati

King Shantunu fell in love with Satyavati and wants to marry her. Satyavati agrees but she puts up a condition

I will marry you but my child will be the king of Hastinapur. He will be the heir of the throne and he will be the ruler.

So what is she doing? She is negotiating. She is making her future secure, she is using the situation to her advantage and making the most out of it. In her context and POV, she is doing the right thing as the subject (King) has fallen for her and the ball in now in her court.

But what is the outcome? Her children turn out to be vagabonds, they die early without fathering a child. Her family bloodline is in a state of risk and her strategy has died an untimely death.

Inference: This is what happens in life. You plan so much, you make strategies and plans but life is nothing but a chain of unpredictable outcomes. You are nothing but a puppet in the hands of destiny, so do not plan too much. You can make the perfect business plan, you can use the best resources, you can put an amazing strategy in action but there is a high chance that all of this will fail. Life is full of uncertainty and strategies will fail. You will have problems no matter what you do.

Experiments / Curiosity – Wait for the right time – Kunti

Kunti had a vardaan from Durvasa muni that she can evoke any god and she will get a child. She is curious and tried experimenting when the condition isn’t right, she evoked the Sun god while she is not married.

Result : Karna is born and she has to let him go fearing the norms of the society. She gave birth to a talented fellow who is discriminated through out his life just because of his caste? What a shame.

What is the outcome of unprepared experimentation? A soul is always deprived of his legacy, a soul who is deprived of what he deserves, guilt followed by “Dharmasankat”.

Inference: You can do experiments but wait for the right time and situation. Do not cross the line, premature experimentation can lead to dangerous outcomes and you will have guilt all through your life.

Be Diplomatic – Pen is Mightier than the Sword: Madri

King Pandu was on his quest to expand the borders of Hastinapur’s empire. He decided to attack the kingdom of Madra.

Madri was the princess of Madra and she secretly adored Pandu. But Madra king was not in friendly terms with Hastinapur and hence the chances were very thin. This was the perfect moment she was waiting for.

She went to Madra king and told him that defeating the hastinapur army is no easy feat. Even if you defeat him, you will lose thousands of men, wealth and property. The only way to permanently avoid this war is to offer me to King Pandu and make friendly relationship with Hastinapur so that they can never attack Madra kingdom in future.

Madri acts diplomatic by not revealing her desire that she wants to marry Pandu. Instead she focusses on the part that she is helping her kingdom and saving the lives of thousands of people who might have otherwise died in the war.

Inference: One diplomatic decision can exceed the might of millions of men and an entire army. Pen is mightier than the sword. Be diplomatic when its required.

Determination succeeds against all odds – Amba

Bheesma forcibly kidnaps three maiden pricesses from Kashi – Amba, Ambika and Ambalika for the king of Hastinapur – Vichitravirya. Amba reveals that she already loves another prince and does not want to marry the king of hastinapur.

Bheesma lets her go but the other prince refuses to accept her. She returns to Bheesma saying

“You are the reason of my misery. You kidnapped me and now you have to take my responsibility. I demand motherhood from you, be a man Bheesma, be a man.”

Bheesma denies saying that he can never marry because of his vow of Brahmacharya.
To this Amba pledges

“I will be the reason of your death, no matter how many times I have to take birth. I know you cannot be killed because of your vardaan of Ichyamrityu but I will take birth time and time again and will be the reason of your death.”

So what do we have here?

An impossible situation of killing Bheesma by a woman who does not know how to hold a bow. This woman, however is determined to kill Bheesma. Her determination is as strong as a rock and she did become the reason of Bheesma’s death on the 10th day of Kurukhshetra battle. She was reborn as Shikhandi – half woman/half man.

Bheesma would never fire a weapon towards a woman and Arjuna utilized this weakness (Achilees heel of Bheesma)

Inference: Work hard and you will succeed and overcome any situation, no matter how difficult it is.

Focus on the entire thing, listen carefully before you act – Drona

In the battle of Kurukshetra, Drona is an unstoppable warrior. He has to be stopped or else the Pandava army will be ruthlessly destroyed.

So Pandavas announced that Bheema has killed Aswathama. They suppress the fact that Bheema has actually killed an elephant whose name is the same as Drona’s only son. (Ashwathama hatha, iti gaja.)

Drona loses focus and listen with only half ear. He drops his weapons and as a result he is beheaded by Dhristyadhumna.

Inference: Focus on the entire thing, do your research and then act. Do not just listen to sources and act, think and do your own research no matter how credible the sources are. Drona relied on the “credible” Yudhistira and ignored to research on his own which cost him his life and Hastinapur a costly defeat.

Little knowledge is a dangerous thing – Abhimanyu

Only Arjun and Drona knew how to crack the Chakravyuha – an invincible formation which is deadly enough to finish the war in one day.

Abhimanyu learned to crack Chakravyuha while in Subhadra’s womb but he didn’t knew how to get out of it.

Arjuna was fighting the war on a different front and Drona laid out Chakravyuha, so that Yudhistira can be leisurely captured. Abhimanyu came to the rescue saying that he can break this formation. He was given the defence of 3 other pandavas but Jayadratha held them off in the first door of Chakravyuha.

Result: He was killed mercilessly by Kaurava warriors and died an unfortunate death. He was courageous, but his half knowledge cost him his life. The fact that he relied his defence on his 3 pandava uncles, whom he considered superior to him in warfare was a costly mistake.

Inference: Be careful while you practice your application of knowledge in real life. Also, do not blindly trust your resources, you never know when they will fail.

Even the best needs a mentor – Arjuna

Arjuna is one of the best warriors, on the parallels of Bheesma and Drona. He has all kinds of weapons which he had obtained from Indra but nevertheless, he seeks a mentor – Krishna.

He is not overconfident, he is not stubborn. He knows the value of proper guidance.

It is the combination of Arjuna and Krishna that wins (Nara + Narayana), not Arjuna alone. Without mentorship and proper guidance, even the best resource is directionless and cannot be used with supreme efficiency.

Inference: Seek a mentor, no matter how talented you are.

Stubbornness is not wise. You cannot have everything in Life – Duryodhana

Duryodhana is foolish and stubborn. He is hell bent on not giving anything to Pandavas no matter what. He won everything in the dice game and when Pandavas returned after 14 years from exile and demanded half the kingdom, he denies

Listen, you have lost everything and you cannot have any claims over the kingdom. It’s all over now, get over it.

Krishna says

What about 5 villages? Just give them 5 villages or we will go at war with you

Duryodhana is so stubborn and egoistic he says

Forget about 5 villages, not a needle point of territory will I give to them.

Result: His stubbornness costed him his entire kingdom, 100 brothers and his life. Had he given those 5 villages to Pandavas, he would have avoided all this but no, he chosed to be stubborn.

Inference: You cannot have everything. Learn how to curb stubbornness or else you risk everything.

Organization is bigger than the Individual : Yudhistira

Yudhistira is a noble king, an epitome of wisdom and righteousness. Yet he decides to gamble away his entire kingdom not just once but twice.

Draupadi asks who gave him to right to lose her, his brothers and the Kingdom? Just because he is the king does not entitle him to gamble away his kingdom. Yudhistira loses his self control and gambles away everything, thinking that the kingdom, the property, his brothers and his wife are all his “possessions”.

Inference: The organization (Kingdom) is bigger than the individual (King). The individual has no right to destroy the organization, even if he has founded it. He maybe the manager or owner but the organization is certainly greater than him.

Lower your standards, do not ask for what you can’t manage – Draupadi

Draupadi had done ghor tapasya and asked for a husband with 14 qualities. Lord Shiva told her what she is asking for is an impossibility, because all these qualities cannot co-exist in one man. Shiva warns her time and again but Draupadi acts like the stubborn Duryodhana, and says that it is up to lord Shiva to grant her the wish she had demanded.

So here we see greed and desire crossing all limits. Shiva granted her the wish but warned her of the consequences that are bound to follow.

Note that Draupadi rejected Karna on the ground of low caste. Karna is probably the only character in the epic with all the qualities. But she rejected him and married someone who shared her with his brothers.

Also, Draupadi is extremely proud of her beauty and she uses it to create jealously among the cousins time and again. Apart from Duryodhana, many men lusted for her. This provoked the disrobing incident to a grat extent.

Inference: Do not ask for things you can’t handle, lower your standards. Also, dont be besotted by your beauty and looks, for they are likely to go against you.

Beware of the company you keep – Shakuni

Young Duryodhana is not as arrogant. But he is slowly spoiled by Gandhar prince, Shakuni. Shakuni slowly fills Duryodhana’s heart with bitterness and exploits him. Duryodhana is an unmellowed clay, he is provoked to be raged against Pandavas.

Duryodhana is just a vehicle, Shakuni is the instrument here and sadly, Duryodhana’s parents are literally “blind” on the company their son keeps.

Inference: Be very careful of the company you keep. Your company shapes up your thoughts, so choose it wisely.

Dedicate yourself to a cause: Karna

Karna is an exceptional character in Mahabharata. He was the eldest son of Kunti but due to unavoidable circumstances, he grew up as a charioteers son. Karna is exceptionally talented fellow, he is loyal and well built, intelligent and handsome (all the qualities Draupadi demanded from Shiva).

But he never gets what he deserves. Neither the respect, nor the legacy or love. Politics was played on him time and time again but he always stood his ground. He never gets his due but he never gave up on his efforts. His courageous spirit led him to achieve impossible odds, he was no less than other Pandavas when it came to virtues and valor. Krishna and Bheesma concede that karna is a noble spirit which rarely appears in the human race.

Despite all this, he is a loyal friend. He knows Duryodhana is wrong but he still takes his side and not his brothers. This is because it is Duryodhana who has given him identity in the society. He promises Kunti that he will not kill any Pandava except Arjuna. Karna knows that kauravas will lose but he fights to repay Duryodhana’s debt.

On many occasions, he was provoked to switch sides. Kunti, Indra, Krishna tried to provoke him but he walked away. He said – I cannot leave my friend at a time when he needs me the most.

Inference: A friend in need is a friend indeed. In Life, you may not get what you deserve but nevertheless, you got to dedicate your life to something.

Make powerful Allies – Network is Power

Kauravas were the greatest empire of that time and the presence of Bheesma and Drona guaranteed that their victory is certain. Nobody can kill Bheesma, he has ichhaa-mrityu, so he alone can finish the war (which he almost did for the first 10 days).

They did not focus on making allies except from old relations from far off places like Gandhara (Shakuni), Sindhu (Jayadrath) and Kambodia (Camboja – Bhagadutt)

Pandavas on the other hand did not have wealth so they focused on making powerful allies.

  • Panchal through marriage with Darupadi.
  • Dwarka through marriage with Arjuna and Subhadra.
  • Magadh through marriage of Sahdeva and Vijaya.
  • Chedi through marriage of Nakula and Karenmayi.
  • Kasi through marriage of Bhima and Balandhara.
  • Kekaya through marriage of Yudhisthira and Devika.
  • Matsya through marriage of Abhimanyu and Uttara.
  • The Rakshasas through marriage of Bhima and Hidimba.
  • The Nagas through marriage of Arjuna and Uloopi.
  • The kingdom of Virat – Arjuna saved Virat from Kauravas while disguised as Brihannala

This is synonymous to merger and acquisition.

Inference: Network with people and expand your reach. Connect with people who will fight with you because you share a similar cause.

Teamwork succeeds where Individual effort fails

Kauravas lacked team spirit from day one. No coordination at all, the Kaurava generals fought their individual wars.

  • Bheesma is fighting for his vow of protecting the throne
  • Drona is fighting for Hastinapur’s salt and Drupad’s revenge
  • Kripacharya is fighting to help Drona
  • Shalya – Tricked by Duryodhana, he wanted to fight for Pandavas.
  • Karna – Fighting to prove his superiority over Arjuna.
  • Aswathama – fighting to support his father Drona.
  • Shakuni – Favors Duryodhana but not interested in Hastinapur’s throne. His only interest is to spoonfeed Duryodhana in the battlefield.

Pandavas were one team with one Goal. Everyone listened to Krishna’s strategies while as warriors they were in complete awe of Bhima and Arjuna. Most of them were close relatives – cousins, brothers-in-law, fathers-in-law. More than that they all were part of the decision-making process. It was their “common” war.

Inference: The strength lies in team work and not in individual efforts.

Know your competitors weakness and exploit it silently: Yudhisitira

There is a reason why Yudhistira got that name – he is always calm and composed in the battlefield (Yudh mein sthir = Yudhisthir)

Yudhistir is an amazing strategist. On the first day of the war, he went over to the enemy side to seek blessings from Elders. In reality he made a covert deal with them, wherein all of them agreed to help him and unfolded the secrets of defeating them (Bheesma actually told Yudhistir how to stop him on the 9th day).

He took calculated risks. He made an offer to all the assembled people to change sides if they wanted to. He knew well of the lack of cohesiveness among the Kauravas. Yuyutsu, son of Dhritarashtra crossed over to the Pandavas. This exposed the weakness of the Kauravas for all to see.

Inference: Know your competitors weaknesses and exploit them but do it silently.

Women empowerment, do not neglect the opposite sex

Kauravas follow a Patriarchal structure.

Nowhere do we see women in the Kaurava camp except Gandhari, who is always ignored and nobody listens to whatever she says. No women in the decision making process. You dont hear many stories about Duryodhana’s wife, Dusassana’s wife or daugthers.

Pandavas follow a matriarchal structure.

  • Kunti is the final decision maker and everyone listens to her, no questions asked.
  • Draupadi was a companion in whatever the Pandavas did. She had a big role in all the decision making. It is Draupadi who bound all the Pandavas together for 14 years.
  • Hidimba, Bheema’s wife, sends her son Ghatotkacha to war.
  • Uttara inspires Abhimanyu and prepares her mind for the battlefield. Abhimanyu was hesitant at first because he is only 16 but it is Uttara who gives him inner strength.

Any team which doesn’t have women is unbalanced, for the Masculine traits of aggression and dominance should be balanced by the Feminine traits of harmony and sustenance.

Inference: Strike a balance, empower women.

You do not need the best man, you need the “Right” man for the Right job

On the Kaurava’s side, nobody wanted the war except Duryodhana. So even if the Kaurava side was more heavy, their motive was distributed.

  • Bheesma – He won’t kill the Pandavas, they are his grandchildren
  • Drona – He won’t kill Pandavas (his students)
  • Shalya – He was the maternal uncle of Pandavas and secretly helped them by acting as a spy. He also demotivated Karna in the battlefield.
  • Karna: Promised not to kill any Pandava except Arjuna.

So as you see, Kauravas are nothing but a directionless team of traitors. A team without any agenda, fighting cluelessly. No organization.

Pandavas had a common goal but they intelligently divided the responsibilities. They had an agenda and they picked the right man for the right job.

  • Dhratsadyumna – Drona.
  • Shikhandi: Bhisma.
  • Satayaki – Bhurisrava.
  • Arjuna – Karna.
  • Bhima – Duryodhana and his brothers.
  • Sahadeva – Shakuni and his sons.
  • Nakula –Karna’s sons.
  • Support system – Virat, Drupad, Chedi, Magadh, Kasi, Matsya and Naga king.
  • Krishna – Crisis manager and advisor.

Inference: A great example of proper resource utilization. The right team is made by selecting the right Individuals. Get the right man for the right job.

Your Future Does not Depend on what you “plan”, but what you “Do” : Krishna

Lord Krishna talks about people centering their lives around one failure or a single disappointment. He says, when some incident shatters all the plans, hopes and aspirations, people start considering that pain and hurt to be the center of their lives and continue to live their lives around it.

He asks,

“Is the future constructed based on the plans that we mortals make?”

Krishna uses a beautiful analogy:

When a mountaineer climbs up to the peak of a mountain for the first time, was it the plans that he had made at the bottom of the mountain that carried him to the top? No, it does not. In reality, as the mountaineer keeps climbing up, he faces different challenges and obstacles. At every step, he makes the decision for his next step. He has to change his plans at every step. The plan that worked for the last step may fail him miserably on the next.

Same is the fact with life.When people start considering one obstacle, challenge or misery to be the center of their life, and stops the very momentum of life, they cannot become successful in life. Nor can they achieve happiness and contentment. That means, rather than trying to make life worthy of one, making oneself worthy of life is the only way to success and happiness.

You do your work, do not expect results or make plans around your imagined results. Because you don’t know what the results are and when the results will come, you cannot control the outcome. So do your karma.

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