Read an introduction to my ~CBR~ series here [Link to post] if you are a new reader to the blog.
The author Gurcharan Das decides to start with one of the ‘base’ human emotions – envy and uses Duryodhana’s envy of the Pandavas and their growth and prosperity as the basis for this chapter.
In the Mahabharatha, after the Rajasuya Yagna in which Duryodhana is asked to be the ‘treasurer’ (person who collects and accounts for all the gifts and tributes that Yudhishtira gets during the yagna), his uncle Shakuni finds him in a foul mood. Upon enquiring further, he finds out that his nephew is envious of the Pandavas, their growth, their prosperity and all their possessions which he rightfully feels are his. To appease his nephew, Shakuni suggests inviting Yudhishtira for a game of dice (which was anyway a part of the rituals of the Rajasuya) in which he would deceitfully defeat him and take away all his possessions. When Duryodhana approaches his father, Dhritarashtra with this idea, he is dissuaded to which his reply is – Low is the man, they say, who is incapable of indignation . . .Discontent is at the root of prosperity. That is why I want to be dissatisfied. His father is convinced by Duryodhana to conduct the game of dice and this sets in motion a chain of events which ultimately ends with the annihilation of the entire Kaurava clan. In many ways, Duryodhana’s envy seems to form one of the main reasons for the widespread destruction that the Battle of Kurukshetra results in.
The author goes on to talk about how open envy which Duryodhana exhibits is probably less harmful than the hidden hypocritical envy that Dhritarashtra exhibits when Yudhishtira loses all his possessions in the game of dice. This is something that I personally believe in as well and resonates a lot with some of the characters that I have encountered in my professional and personal life. Think about it, who do you hate more? Somebody who talks bad about you right in front of you or somebody who talks bad about you behind your back. I would rather face somebody who declares his ‘enemity’ with me openly than struggle trying to figure out who my actual ‘enemies’ are. I would prefer an outspoken opponent of my views, thoughts than somebody who just nods in front of me, but criticizes me behind my back.
The author cites examples from Roman and Greek mythology and history where popular politicians and philosophers were compulsorily given a ‘cooling off’ period by being ostracized (asked to go away for ten years and live outside of public gaze). This is because they inherently realized that the human emotion of envy could not be controlled and it was therefore better for the person whose success caused the envy to insulate himself from the rest of the world. The author also cites the examples of Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle, heroes of WW-2 who were defeated in elections immediately following their wartime heroics. These defeats were interpreted as the result of envy and resentment, and fears that they might become ‘too big for their shoes’ following their outstanding popularity post the war.
Duryodhana, however, uses his envy as a mask to hide his real ambitions and feelings. The author opines that conquerors and ruler throughout history have always used their envy for others as an excuse for their conquests. They however gave it different names – realistic thinking, realpolitik, etc. Hitler and the Nazis used their envy of the Jews to stoke up a political fervor against the community and ultimately committed genocide of millions of Jews in Austria and Germany. It is a well documented fact that the Jews were at their heights of prosperity in the 1920s and 30s in these countries.
The author then segues into corporate India to talk about how ‘envy’ on the part of Anil Ambani for his brother, Mukesh’s achievements is what led to probably the biggest corporate rift in corporate Indian history. While not being judgmental about whether Anil’s envy of Mukesh is justified, the author uses this as an example of how envy causes destruction wherever it raises its ugly head.
The author then brings out an important point as to how envy (and more importantly, the person affected by envy) ends up bringing the overall playing field to the level of the lowest common denominator. He quotes John Rawls – Envy is collectively disadvantageous; the individual who envies another is prepared to do things that make them both worse off, if only the discrepancy between them is sufficiently reduced. I have had this experience in both my professional and personal life where arguments end up talking about things which have absolutely no relation to the issue being discussed. The author also quotes Nietzsche who thought that the French Revolution was the result of the outburst of the sentiment of the envy of the ‘masses’ against the rich and egalitarian ‘classes’.
Another interesting aspect dealt with by the author in this particular chapter is the debate as to whether capitalism or socialism is better as an economic model of running a country. The author has deep misgivings about any attempts by the state to create excessive equality. To quote him – Envy will rise as the number of differences among people diminish; the fewer differences will result in fewer standards to measure one against, and since most will not measure up, there will be greater envy. This statement makes a lot of sense, albeit in a twisted manner. By advocating for more diversity, the author seems to suggest that this would result in a society where each and every individual is good at something or the other.
Rather than create a society where success is measured only by a few yardsticks and consequently, create very few successful people, he advocates society where the yardsticks to measure success are many, and therefore more people are successful. More successful people breed less envious people. I guess the same principle would work well for Performance Appraisals in organizations as well. Create more criteria (compared to the current Appraisal Ratings we currently have) and automatically, we will have more people who achieve success in one criteria or the other.
To conclude, here are some of my thoughts regarding envy. I personally believe that envy is some form is necessary for all of us. However, the envy which we have should be positive in the sense that it should propel all of us to take steps to make ourselves better and reach the position of the person that we are envious of. If we are envious of successful people, we should get to know them, understand what it is that makes them successful and then take necessary steps to replicate that person’s success ourselves. And I am sure all of us have been envious of somebody else at various points in life, be it in the case of someone else having a better flat than ours, better mobile phone than ours, getting a better increment than ours, being smarter than we are, being better looking than we are. So, my suggestion is that rather than shun envy as a bad emotion to have, we are all better off embracing it as something that is inevitable as a basic human emotion and then learn to channelize it in a positive way.
Image courtesy: Google image search for ‘duryodhana amar Chitra katha’