The Poetic Power Play: A Lesson from Indian Poetry and Professor Jeff Pfeffer

In this post, my first venture into bilingual blogging, I extend my thoughts primarily towards my English-speaking readers, while also preserving the rich context of its Indian heritage.

Recently, a dear childhood friend, dedicated to revolutionizing education for underprivileged children in India, reached out to me, sharing his struggles with political challenges in his career. With an unyielding commitment to his mission, my friend chose to devote his life to the service of children’s education, turning his back on potentially more lucrative paths he could have easily pursued given his privileged background. His choice represents a deliberate sacrifice, prioritizing societal impact over personal financial gain.

My friend has an innate aversion to political games. He is not wired for such maneuvering, nor does he find any satisfaction in it. But now, he finds himself caught in a tricky political situation at work.

Despite his innovative efforts and considerable accomplishments in children’s education earning him widespread respect, he is currently locked in a struggle at his workplace. The most senior and esteemed member of his team, he finds himself under attack from a colleague determined to oust him.

In our heart-to-heart discussion about his dilemma, he shared a poignant Hindi poem that resonates with his current predicament. Part of my advice for his struggle was to introduce him to the works of my good friend, Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer,1 at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

This blog post, while initially written to help my childhood friend, is also shared with a wider audience in the hope that it might guide others grappling with similar challenges.

Between Dinkar and Pfeffer: A Study of Power, Virtues, and Politics

First, I present the poem in its original Hindi form, written in devanagari script.

दिनकर की प्रसिद्द कविता क्षमा दया तप त्याग मनोबल

क्षमा, दया, तप, त्याग, मनोबल
सबका लिया सहारा
पर नर व्याघ्र सुयोधन तुमसे
कहो, कहाँ, कब हारा?

क्षमाशील हो रिपु-समक्ष
तुम हुये विनत जितना ही
दुष्ट कौरवों ने तुमको
कायर समझा उतना ही।

अत्याचार सहन करने का
कुफल यही होता है
पौरुष का आतंक मनुज
कोमल होकर खोता है।

क्षमा शोभती उस भुजंग को
जिसके पास गरल हो
उसको क्या जो दंतहीन
विषरहित, विनीत, सरल हो।

तीन दिवस तक पंथ मांगते
रघुपति सिन्धु किनारे,
बैठे पढ़ते रहे छन्द
अनुनय के प्यारे-प्यारे।

उत्तर में जब एक नाद भी
उठा नहीं सागर से
उठी अधीर धधक पौरुष की
आग राम के शर से।

सिन्धु देह धर त्राहि-त्राहि
करता आ गिरा शरण में
चरण पूज दासता ग्रहण की
बँधा मूढ़ बन्धन में।

सच पूछो, तो शर में ही
बसती है दीप्ति विनय की
सन्धि-वचन संपूज्य उसी का
जिसमें शक्ति विजय की।

सहनशीलता, क्षमा, दया को
तभी पूजता जग है
बल का दर्प चमकता उसके
पीछे जब जगमग है।

English Explanation

“Kshama, Daya, Tap, Tyag, Manobal” is a poem by the renowned Indian poet Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’. The title translates to “Forgiveness, Compassion, Penance, Renunciation, and Mental Strength”. It delves into the exploration of these virtues and how they interact with negative forces, particularly when those forces refuse to yield or change.

In the poem, Dinkar cites characters and events from Indian mythology, giving a cultural depth to the principles being discussed. For instance, Duryodhana, referenced as “Nar Vyaghra” (human tiger), is a character from the Indian epic “Mahabharata”. He was a prince known for his obstinacy and refusal to seek peace, pushing his kingdom into a disastrous war. Dinkar uses Duryodhana as a symbol of those who perceive the virtues of forgiveness and modesty as signs of weakness, drawing a universal observation that adversaries often misconstrue these virtues as cowardice.

In the poem, it is suggested that enduring injustice without retaliating could lead to a loss of courage and resolution. Dinkar uses the metaphor of a snake to communicate this message more universally. The idea is that forgiveness is significant when the one forgiving holds the power to cause harm but chooses not to, like a venomous snake that doesn’t bite. Conversely, those who are powerless, or “toothless and venomless” in the poem’s metaphor, might seem ineffective and submissive when displaying these virtues.

Another example used by Dinkar comes from the “Ramayana”, another Indian epic. Here, Lord Rama (referred to as “Raghupati”) symbolizes a person seeking a peaceful resolution. In the epic, Lord Rama asks the ocean to provide a path for him and his army to cross. After three days of peaceful requests that go unanswered, Rama shows his more assertive side and threatens to dry up the ocean. Only after displaying this power does the ocean God yield, providing Rama with a solution. This story is used to underline the poet’s argument that assertiveness and the display of power may sometimes be necessary to achieve righteous goals.

The poem concludes by emphasizing that genuine humility and dignity often reside within the capacity to wield power judiciously. A commitment to peace is truly respected only when one has the strength to enforce it. Similarly, the world respects patience, forgiveness, and compassion when there’s a strong force backing them up.

So, the poem skillfully navigates the paradox of power and virtue. It celebrates Indian mythology while making broader philosophical points. It suggests that virtues like forgiveness and compassion, though valuable, are often respected when they’re backed by strength and the ability to protect oneself and uphold justice. Thus, it paints a complex picture of virtues and power dynamics that is both tied deeply to Indian culture and universally applicable.

Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s works on power

With my friend Jeff Pfeffer in 2013 at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business

Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University, has extensively written and taught about power in organizations. In his seminal book “Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t”, he offers a pragmatic guide for anyone looking to understand the concept and application of power in professional settings.

Jeff posits that power is not inherently good or evil but a necessary component of success in personal and professional life. His idea parallels Dinkar’s poem, which underscores the value of power when underpinned by virtues like forgiveness and compassion.

Like Dinkar’s notion that forgiveness is significant when one has the power to retaliate but chooses not to, Jeff suggests that power is most effectively wielded with discretion and wisdom. He believes that understanding the dynamics of power can help people to use it judiciously, leading to more successful outcomes in their organizations.

The poem’s implication that assertiveness and the display of power may sometimes be necessary to achieve goals aligns with Jeff’s view. In his teachings, Jeff stresses the importance of assertiveness and self-confidence as strategies for obtaining power. He maintains that power must be actively pursued and that one must be willing to display it when necessary.

Jeff Pfeffer, much like the poet Dinkar, recognizes the complex relationship between power and virtues. He cautions that while qualities like honesty, transparency, and modesty are admirable, an excessive emphasis on these at the expense of developing power can lead to career stagnation. Instead, he advises understanding and navigating power dynamics while retaining one’s ethical compass.

In essence, both Dinkar’s poem and Jeff’s work serve to demystify the concept of power. They provide nuanced perspectives, emphasizing the necessity of power while advocating for its ethical and judicious use. They suggest that power, when paired with virtues and used wisely, can lead to righteous outcomes and success. Both works challenge us to reconsider traditional views of power and virtues, encouraging a more balanced approach in life and work.

  1. Here is a review that I wrote of Jeff’s insightful book on leadership []
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