Water in a Waterless Desert

Ancient Vedic tale translated from Sanskrit by U. Mahesh Prabhu

Long ago there were two old merchants, who were close friends and together began preparations for a dangerous trip to a distant land to sell their goods and, of course, to make considerable profit. They had to decide whether to travel separately or together. Eventually they agreed to embark upon this long and arduous journey separately. This was because each had a caravan of over 500 carts and moving together on the road would be too crowded.

The first merchant decided that it would be advantageous to go first. He thought, “The road will not be rutted by the carts, the bullocks will be able to choose the best grass, we will find the best fruit and vegetables, my people will appreciate my leadership and, in the end, I will be able to bargain for the best prices.”

The other merchant considered the option carefully and realized there were special advantages to going second. He thought, “My friend’s carts will level the ground so we won’t have to do any road work, his bullocks will eat the old rough grass and new tender shoots will spring up for mine to eat. In the same way, they will pick the old fruits and vegetables and fresh ones will grow for us to enjoy. I won’t have to waste my time bargaining and can take the price already set and make my profit.” So he agreed to let his friend go first. This first merchant was convinced that he fooled his friend and got the best deal – and commenced his journey shortly thereafter.

As expected by the second merchant, the one who went first had a troublesome time. His caravan came to a wilderness called the “Waterless Desert”, which the local people said was haunted by dacoits. When the caravan reached its centre, they met a large group coming from the opposite direction. The group had mud smeared carts dripping with water with lotuses and water lilies in their hands. The headman, who had a know-it-all attitude, said to the merchant, “Why are you carrying these heavy loads of water? A short distance from here you will reach that oasis on the horizon with plenty of water to drink and dates to eat. Your bullocks are tired from pulling those heavy carts filled with water – so throw the water away and be kind to your overworked animals!” Assuming that they were helpful people, the merchant followed their advice and emptied all his water on to the ground.

As they continued on their way they found neither oasis nor any water – none at all! Some realized they’d been fooled, and recognized they were taken by thugs, such as they had been forewarned. They soon started to grumble and accuse the merchant. At the end of the day, all the people were worn out. The bullocks were too weak from lack of water to pull their heavy carts. All the people and animals lay down in a haphazard manner and fell into a deep sleep. Lo and behold, during the night those very same thugs raided the merchant’s caravan, stole their belongings and killed everyone. When they were finished there were only dead bodies scattered around – not one human being or a single animal was left alive.

After several days, the second merchant began his journey on the same path. When he arrived at the wilderness, he assembled all his people and advised them – “This is called the ‘waterless desert’ and I have heard that it is infested by thugs and dacoits. Therefore, we should be careful.” In this way they started into the desert.

After getting about halfway through, in the same way as with the first caravan, they were met by the water soaked people. They told them the oasis was near and they should throw away their water. But the wise merchant saw through them right away. He knew it didn’t make sense to have an oasis in a place called ‘waterless desert’. And besides, these people had an aggressive and pushy attitude, so he suspected they might be thugs or robbers. He told them, “We are businessmen who don’t throw away good water before we know where the next is coming from.”

Then seeing that his own people had doubts, the merchant said to them, “Don’t believe these strangers, who may be thugs, until we actually find water. The oasis they point to may be just an illusion or a mirage. Have you ever heard of water in this ‘Waterless Desert’? Do you feel any moist wind or see any storm clouds?” They all said, “No”, and he continued “If we believe these strangers and throw away our water, then later we may not have any to drink or cook with – then we will be weak and would be an easy prey for thugs or dacoits! Therefore, until we really find water, do not waste even a drop!”

The caravan continued on its way and, that evening, reached the place where the first caravan’s people and bullocks had been killed and eaten by the demons. They found the carts, human and animal bones strewn all around. They recognized the deserted carts as belonging to the merchant from the first caravan. By the time they had given those misfortunate friends a burial it was night. While they decided to halt, the wise merchant told his men to stand watch in turns. Those shrewd thugs stood no fighting chance and quietly withdrew.

The next morning the people ate breakfast, and fed their bullocks well before marching ahead. They finished their journey successfully, returned home safely and enjoyed their ample profits.

Observation: In this era where “fast and speedy” instead of “slow and steady” are supposed to be “obvious winners” this story definitely has something to say about second mover advantage. Life is not a race neither is business. Yes, your competitor may have a lead; but then nothing is for eternity. There’s no point in regretting lost opportunity; but there’s certainly  wisdom in considering those avenues that aren’t sought.

The second wisdom that this story tries to impart is with respect to observation. In the broader picture that we paint of our success; we often fail to see the importance of minor details. Our ability to observe and act on those observation is the key.

When your team members are wary; you need to be stern and also convincing with your wisdom and logic. Wisdom and logic have substantial power to swing the public opinion. These two qualities often differentiate between leaders and mis-leaders.

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