Kingship & Mr. Narayan Murthy.

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(A free-wheeling article on power, by Tarun Cherian, published in Sunday Hearald, Deccan Herald, provoked by Mr. Narayan Murthy's act of stepping down as CEO, and taking a developmental role in his company. This was in 2002. He then took on the role of Chairman & Chairman Emeritus. His raising of serious governance questions in 2017, some would argue backseat driving highlight precisely the issues dealt with in the article. The article is now archived in Deccan Herald.)

Power as potency

In Golden Bough, Frazer relates legends of kings who were kings for a year. At the end of that year of power, they were ritually killed. Many tribes had formal, periodic challenges, by which the tribal chief had to defend his kingship, one to one against a challenger. In modern times, we may not do it with spears, but leaders in some democracies have to prove their power through elections.

Power is a strong addictive. Which is why Mr. Narayan Murthy's act of stepping away from power is such a potent act, it focuses attention on the issue of power, its limits, its responsibilities, its gravity, its impact on human beings.

The most primeval reason to limit power is rooted in the belief that a top bull should rule a tribe, and so periodically the top bull must reveal his potency. A practice taken to the extreme, where Kings paraded through streets, naked and penis erect to prove their vigor.

While few corporate kings are paraded naked, many leaders find that a periodic display of power is essential. For example, it helps an advertising creative director no end to create a brilliant campaign, or scalp a few awards to command respect. This power is basic power vibrant in the human being, not that accumulated by power or by use of secondary power. It is sheer mana .

In this trajectory, the limits on power were placed to prevent kings from hiding impotence behind the cloak of power. For by assumption, a king who had lost his basic power could try to cling to power through the power of position.


Power as corruption

“Power corrupts”, according to one view, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

A fair amount of kings have abused this power horrifically. But this fear is not just the reality of external fear. From this perspective, power is coloured by fear of oneself, of the foul evil desires that sit in every heart. Countermeasures here are distinguished by a basic fear of power itself.

This is an Orwellian fear of power, that of the animal farm, replace men with pigs the same power dynamics would lead to tyranny. In actuality, Orwell's 1984 big brother versus individual conflict hides an inner ambivalence, for individuals inevitably will turn the world into an animal farm to feed other's greed, they will create big brothers who crush them, who will be rebelled against in a rebellion that is doomed not merely by the big brother's absolute power but by the nastiness, the pig within the man.


Power as rebellion

A great many of us join in when the singer screams, “I've got to break free”. Here the individual is true, in a state of innocence, it is society around him that distorts, imprisons and restricts.

In this scenario, the pioneering, the innovative, the scientist, the spiritualist are oppressed by society's inevitable narrowness. While this may resemble the earlier dynamic. It is distinct from that. For here the fear is not one where the individual is distrusted, but where the individual is perceived as mythically wonderful, yet fragile. Crushable, destroyable, oppressable.

For example in the American context, the individual is good; arming him is a good thing.

Power as helplessness

In Kerala, there's a temple where on a particular day, the lowest and most oppressed of society participate in an incredible festival, they abuse the goddess with the vilest curses.

When you are completely helpless or feel that you are completely helpless, desperation becomes a huge and terrible force.

Many would argue that the answer to this is being rational. Not true, for it is the ruthless impersonality of the rational that often generates this - the rational economy, the rational world order, the rational weapons of destruction.

A commentator on the brutality of race riots in Gujarat , did the usual thing of pointing outside to a vegetable vendor who set someone ablaze. It of course had nothing to do with him in his safe castle.

Mr. Narayan Murthy has crafted one of the more equitable companies, a company of millionaires. Yet, do these millionaires actually spread their wealth as equitably as he did?

The power to resist authority

In a chilling behavioral experiment, ordinary people off the street were asked to participate. In the experiment, they were asked by a white, lab-coated authority figure to give a person shocks to correct him. The person being punished would pretend to react to the true intensity of shock supposedly given. Those giving the shocks actually believed they were giving the shocks. While few had a problem giving mild shocks, what would happen when asked to escalate the shocks where they could kill someone? An amazing, 60% pushed the button when ordered. Would I be the 40%? Would you?

Power as outward prestige versus inner satisfaction

Being true to yourself, is a core source of inner satisfaction, but can one be true to oneself and survive?

On a personal note, I became the creative director in a leading agency not because I enjoyed the exercise of power, or was particularly good at organising a department, but because at that time, career wise, there seemed to be no other alternative in moving forward, or ahead.

Now, a fair number of IT firms formally recognise the need for an alternate to a power-over-others career path. But can a caring state, no matter how caring, guide someone not to betray himself without being smothering?

To corporate dropouts, Mr. Narayan Murthy is one who has taken the ultimate step of being true to himself.

Or is he undergoing an IT vanvas ?

Power as a time of life

In a traditional Indian worldview, the individual's duty is to fill his roles to his utmost. Matching social expectations with biological imperatives. Retiring then becomes the enlightened transition of life, the giving up of winter to the spring of youth. The converse of this is the more ‘modern' attitude.

One of the most compelling fears that drives us today is the fear of growing old, of becoming utterly helpless. One can either die gloriously young, rage against the dying of the light, or shut up and dry up in an old people's home. Here power is the false power that promises much, but is the ultimate betrayer.

Power as the white man's burden

There are times when you have power. But the answers are not really clear, and good and bad are not conveniently caped like comic books. In such a circumstance what does one do?

This is one of the hardest questions that confronted colonialists. Of course, many tyrants mouth it too, “If you didn't rebel, I wouldn't have to torture you”. Precisely the kind of logic that General Franco used. And so has each of us. Times when we fired someone because one had no choice, rather than because one truly saw that it was right.

Power as transformer

Power however is not only that which corrupts or threatens. It is easy to forget how it uplifts.

Beckett, for example, when placed in power became more than the mere tool of his king. Puppets don't always remain puppets when touched by power. A tactic used by many governments to destabilise opponents is to create terrorist movements, the problem often is that power sweeps many beyond the role of being puppets.

‘Mutant Message Down Under', a real story about initiation into the original aboriginal tribes, presents a brilliant example of the transformatory use of power. An American woman becomes part of an aboriginal tribe. After a period of training, she is given the responsibility of leading the tribe for a while, in the harsh outback. For days she can't find water or food, but they will follow her, to their deaths if need be, rather than betray the trust in her ability to be a full human being. She finds water, draws food to them. Power here becomes the supreme trust, the supreme means to create that greatest of achievements – the empowered human being.

Power as liberating Shakti

In a great legend, an enlightened king receives a renunciant. “Why do you cling to riches?” he asks the king. The king passes on to other topics. Suddenly there is a huge commotion, the palace is on fire, courtiers inform them, the renunciant gets up and says “Shouldn't we try and save the palace and our lives?” “They are only things, why cling to them?” the king replies.

While Mr. Narayan Murthy possibly has not encountered the transcendent, he has encountered that which many would argue is transcendent – obscene, almost unimaginable sums of money and power. To his credit and that of the society that shaped him, he has risen above them.

Sometimes power lies in grasping one's power. Sometimes in letting it go.


Tarun & Celia Cherian, Are Spiritual Guides. Aura Masters. And Founders of Devadhara Healing. They help sufferers fight the incurable, the lost find clarity and seekers touch the ultimate, through their spiritual initiative – Creators Child.