Irrespective of their ideologies, attitude and faith, every leader, ruler, or king strives to establish their greatness in one way or another. But when a leader’s pursuit of greatness results in suffering and destruction for their people, which is often the case, is it possible to justify it?
Many nations, extending to today, have been ruled by leaders who lead their people into war against powerful enemies to make a show of their bravery and prowess to the world, even if their nation must pay dearly for their aggression. How does Dharma view such acts of arrogance by these leaders?
Below is an engaging conversation from the Shanti Parva chapter of the Mahabharata between the Pandava king Yudhishthira and the grandsire of the Kurus – Bhisma.
Yudhishthira asked Bhisma, “Grandsire, how should a leader without strong armies but with a prosperous land and dedicated people, behave against a powerful and dangerous opponent?”
Bhisma replied with a story: “Long ago, the great Ocean asked an intriguing question to all the rivers”:
“I have observed that you carry large trees when you flow to see me, but you do not, however, bring even a single reed! The reeds that grow along your banks I am told have weak stems and, therefore, are destitute of strength. Why is it that reeds are not washed away by any of you rivers?”
The river Ganga replied, “O mighty Ocean, trees stand firmly in the same place and are unyielding, obstructing our paths. Reeds, however, act differently. Observing our advancing currents, they bow down to us and stand erect only after our currents have passed. They are humble and do not seek any confrontation. For this simple reason, they remain where they grow, without being uprooted by us like large trees.”
Bhisma observed “Any person who does not yield to a powerful opponent with a superior might, meets with certain destruction. A man of wisdom acts only after assessing the strength and weaknesses of both; himself and his adversary. A wise person when faced with a powerful opponent should behave like the reeds facing powerful currents of large rivers. While some may call such action cowardice, it is an indication of deeper wisdom. Son, a wise leader must understand the subtle difference between bravery and stupidity. A leader who seeks to prove his own greatness and bravery at the cost of the well-being of his subjects is not just stupid but becomes a disgrace. A king who gives up his own self-respect for the welfare and well-being of his people is not just wise but also great, not as a conqueror but as a preserver of his own nation. Accepting personal disrespect for the sake of your people is true bravery and humility.”