The Fragile Charioteer

A few days back, I was thinking of an interesting counterfactual in the Mahabharata. As most people know, the story goes that Arjuna went to battle with his charioteer Krishna, and got jitters looking at all his relatives and elders on the other side, and almost lost the will to fight.

And then Krishna recited to him the Bhagavad Gita, which inspired Arjuna to get back to battle, and with Krishna’s expert charioteering (and occasional advice), Arjuna led the Pandavas to (an ultimately pyrrhic) victory in the war.

A long time back I had introduced my blog readers to the “army of monkeys” framework. In that I had contrasted the war in Ramayana (a seemingly straightforward war fought against a foreign king who had kidnapped the hero’s wife) to the war in the Mahabharata (a more complex war fought between cousins).

Given that the Ramayana war was largely straightforward, with the only trickery being in the form of special weapons, going to war with an army of monkeys was a logical choice. Generals on both sides apart, the army of monkeys helped defeat the Lankan army, and the war (and Sita) was won.

The Mahabharata war was more complex, with lots of “mental trickery” (one of which almost led Arjuna to quit the war) and deception from both sides. While LOTS of soldiers died (the story goes that almost all the Kshatriyas in India died in the war), the war was ultimately won in the mind.

In that sense, the Pandavas’ choice of choosing a clever but non-combatant Krishna rather than his entire army (which fought on the side of the Kauravas) turned out to be prescient.

When I wrote the original post on this topic, I was a consultant, and had gotten mildly annoyed at a prospective client deciding to engage an army rather than my trickery for a problem they were facing. Now, I’m part of a company, and I’m recruiting heavily for my team, and I sometimes look at this question from the other side.

One advantage of an uncorrelated army of monkeys is that not all of them will run away together. Yes, some might run away from time to time, but you keep getting new monkeys, and on a consistent basis you have an army.

On the other hand, if you decide to go with a “clever charioteer”, you run the risk that the charioteer might choose to run away one day. And the problem with clever charioteers is that no two of them are alike, and if one runs away, he is not easy to replace (you might have to buy a new chariot to suit the new charioteer).

Maybe that’s one reason why some companies choose to hire armies of monkeys rather than charioteers?

Then again, I think it depends upon the problem at hand. If the “war” (set of business problems) to be fought is more or less straightforward, an army of monkeys is a superior choice. However, if you are defining the terrain rather than just navigating it, a clever charioteer, however short-lived he might be, might just be a superior choice.

It was this thought of fleeing charioteers that made me think of the counterfactual with which I begin this post. What do you think about this?

PS: I had thought about this post a month or two back, but it is only today that I’m actually getting down to writing it. It is strictly a coincidence that today also happens to be Sri Krishna Janmashtami.

Enjoy your chakli!

The Teacher’s Village

Allen A D Rodrigues: 3 months
Krishna R Sundaresan: 6 months
Sangeet Paul Choudhry: 5 months
Vamshi Krishna R: 6 months
Karthik S: 10 months
Sriwatsan K: 3 years

Ok so this is a list of South Indian boys who got lured by the thought that “Gurgaon is a metro” or “Gurgaon is cosmopolitan” or as one of my grandaunts once put it “Gurgaon is like America”, and made their way North, only to realize that Gurgaon is actually a Gaon and not really fit for living in, and opted out. You will notice an outlier in the above data – Sriwatsan K  – and that is a result of him being married to a Punjoo.

By all absolute standards it is a horrible place – no public transport (save for the metro that’s just come up), hell, no autorickshaws, no proper water supply, no proper shops, unsafe roads and all that. Face it, it’s not a city. The only “advantage” that it has, if you could call it that, is that it is less than an overnight train journey away from most of the cow belt, and is hence attractive for educated boys and girls from the said area who don’t want to venture out too far.

Another major thing for these people is that Gurgaon represents a major “level up” for compared to the quality of life in their home towns (not talking about Delhi here; and Delhi, I think, is a wonderful city). Large houses, tap water, air conditioning, 100% power backup and the works.

And if you were to notice, there is no other city or town within some twenty hours of Gurgaon where there is substantial modern “industry” – the kind of industries where college educated people of nowadays will want to work in (IT/BPO/whatever). So, most people who do come to stay in Gurgaon, do so because it is close to “home”. So that they don’t need to live like “the_amit”s in Bangalore or Chennai. And that they can live in a land that celebrates Holi (need to write sometime about how uncivilised a festival that is, or I might already have) and Rakshabandhan.

So, most people who live in Gurgaon think it is a privilege to be living there, and wouldn’t really think of moving out. Hence, employers tend to consider them to be sticky and hence don’t make an effort to retain them and stuff.

Now, for South Indian boys from urban centres (like the ones named in the beginning of the post), Gurgaon represents a major level down in terms of standard of living. And hence, when they go there, they expect the job to compensate for it. And in most cases, given that employers are tailored to thinking that the employees WANT to live in Gurgaon, this ends up not being the case. And that leads to disappointment and hence the short shelf life of South Indians in Gurgaon.


This is regarding the Avatars of Vishnu.  It is quite fascinating how Buddha managed to enter the list (he is number 9 on the list). Apparently a number of communities give that spot to Balarama (Krishna’s brother), notably Iyengars and other Vaishnavite communities. I have also seen this in a few temples (don’t know which “denomination” (if such a thing exists in Hinduism) these temples belong to) which have Balarama as #9.

The most popular explanation (which I have no reason to disagree with) about the Buddha’s entry into the list is that it was a clever ploy to prevent the spread of Buddhism, which threatened to become the largest religion in the subcontinent in the few centuries before and after christ. By including Buddha in the Hindu Pantheon, and by declaring him to be an avatar of Vishnu, an attempt was made to describe Buddhism as just a branch of Hinduism. Looking at the way Buddhism has developed after that in the subcontinent, I have reason to believe that the ploy was successful.

Regarding the construction of the list, there are again two possibilities. One view says that it was constructed not more than two millenia ago, and it was constructed only as a response to Buddhism. That it was something like “Ok here is the Buddha. He threatens us. So let’s make him one of ours. Let us declare him to be an Avatar of Vishnu. But then, we need more avatars to make this look credible. Let us include evolution into this and put in a few animals, etc. and have a nice list. But we have only 9, and there is no logical person who can finish this list. So let’s assume that he will happen sometime in the future, when the world ends. So here is The List”.

The other possibility is that one such list already existed, and the Buddha was included in the list. Though 8 is not an inauspicious number, it is unlikley that there were originally 8 avatars. Which means that there were originally 10, including possibly Kalki, and the Buddha replaced one of these 10. Looking at the other popular version of the Dashavatara, it is likely that the Buddha replaced Balarama in the list.

This raises a couple of interesting questions:

  • What avatarish thing did Balarama achieve in order to be an avatar? Which demon did he kill? I only recall him being mentioned fleetingly in the early stages of the Mahabharata, and he walked away from the war later on. So what message did he carry?
  • Balarama being an avatar, and his being a brother of another avatar Krishna, means that two avatars coexisted. In fact, someone on the list pointed out that Parashurama is a Chiranjeevi, so he has coexisted with all avatars following him. So we need to dissociate the avatar concept from the concept of rebirth and reincarnation. In any case, fascinating stuff
  • It is remarkable that Hinduism was flexible and nimble enough to turn the Buddha into an avatar when they saw him threaten them. The presence of mind of the people who thought of this workaround is commendable. I wonder where Hinduism lost its flexibility after that.
  • I also wonder how this was implemented. Hinduism has no supreme leader. And in the days when the Buddha was included into the list, there wasn’t even a Postal system, leave alone conference call facilities. How did this idea spread and gain enough credence to become the norm, then? Where did this idea of making the Buddha an avatar originate? How did t hey disseminate it? Who was the powerful set of people who were instrumental in the design, development and distribution of this idea?

It’s all fascinating stuff. And if any of you have any theories regarding the points I’ve raised here, please leave a comment.