Learning Lessons for Today from Age-old Indian Mythology


Growing up in a diverse country like India, our young minds have often been titillated by stories of deities and demi-gods, mythological tales of righteous kings, bizarre wars and so on. For those born in the late 80’s and early 90’s these stories were often backed by television shows filled with remarkable visual effects and the catchy title tracks, of course. And not to forget the countless hours spent figuring out the wily ghost Betaal’s fixation with King Vikramaditya, the perseverance and steadiness of Dhruva, who went on to become the Dhurva Nakshatra (Pole Star), the witty and insightful anecdotes of Akbar and Birbal, the intellectual, witty and humorous stories of Tenali Ramakrishnan and so on. A plethora of interesting stories; fictional, historical and some with deep messages. In other words, the Holy Grail of soulful enrichment.

Most of the time, Indian Mythology is equated to nothing but a tale as old as time, handed down generation after generation. However, looking at it closely, one realizes that the modern judiciary, administration, traditional training and more have all been inspired or inferred from many of the mythological scriptures. Take for instance, the inferences from Kautilya’s Arthashatra in Indian Public Administration (the source of our current day budgeting system, taxation policy, diplomacy and foreign policy). Similarly, in plain sight, Mahabharata and Ramayana are two mythological texts filled with stories about kings, their lives, the hardships and the ways in which they forged ahead. What could these ancient stories tell about modern day management, especially Learning and Development (L&D), Training Practices and Leadership Training?

Inspired by Author, Mythologist and renowned Leadership Coach, Devdutt Pattanaik’s interpretation of Mahabharata and Ramayana in L&D and how they can lead the shift in learning, here are some of my learnings from the “learning” lessons that can be drawn from our age-old Indian mythology.

  • Learning is Contextual and Personalized

Both Ramayana and Mahabharata cite several instances of training; from the traditional classroom setting or Gurukul, as it was known back in the day, to Ekalavya’s self-driven learning - with Guru Dronacharya as his “virtual” teacher, and the different phases of learning that the Pandavas and Kauravas underwent. What changes in each of these is ‘the context’ and ‘the way’ that learning manifests. While the Gurukul setting in both, Ramayana and Mahabharata, focuses on a more traditional and theoretical form of learning that is personalized for individual learners (considering the fact that King Ram was no short of a genius and needed a curriculum – so to say - that fit his caliber), the other side of learning is entirely experiential.

It is the mix of these two that modern L&D should focus on - contextual and personalized learning with ample opportunities for experiencing real-life situations for information application to ensure that the learning is meaningful for the learners. This is where Learning Management Systems come in for making personalized learning delivery. While the use of Mobile and Microlearning provides personalization and performance support in terms of content type and the just-in-time nature of the learning delivery, Deep Learning and Adaptive Learning focuses on giving the learners more relevant learning content that can be easily ‘pulled’, ‘when’ needed and ‘where’ needed.

  • Learning is Continuous (only the Environment Changes)

Going back to the Ramayana, Ram absorbed most of his learning in the Gurukul and continued learning even during his exile, all of which molded him into the person he became. Similarly, in Mahabharata, Ekalavya practiced self-paced learning, while Arjun grasped everything he could from various teachers: military science from Drona, about divine weapons from Indra, he learnt about Pashupatastra from Mahadev and a lot from Krishna while sitting on a chariot during the great battle of Kurukshetra.

But what does L&D have to do with this? Hinged on the fact that it is never too late to learn or unlearn or even relearn, learning is and should be a continuous process. Hence, it’s critical that the learning strategy equip the learners to ‘pull’ learning and learn from anywhere at all times. The use of real-life scenarios in learning design can be one way to go about it. In addition to this, the scope for exploration, availability of additional resources and social collaboration, etc. can be highly beneficial in triggering a Continuous/ Lifelong Learning Culture wherein the learners are able to raise queries easily, observe others at work, explore alternative methods of putting the learning into practice and reinforce training in a flexible, self-paced setting. With Learning 4.0 and the new LMSs that support knowledge sharing and collaboration, competitive and non-competitive interactions and more L&D avenues can create the arena for an open learning culture and allow the learners to stay up-to-date with the latest information.

  • Leadership Training is Multi-faceted

While Mahabharata is entirely about the good strategy - an essential skill-set for leadership development, Bhagavad Gita, presented as the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, a man and a God, a seeker and a knower, could actually be the first guidebook for leadership training. While it talks about Karma (in Hinduism and Buddhism - the sum of a person's actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences), it also discusses how ‘Power’ is released or absorbed and about how basic ‘Humanity’ is the most essential skill that make a good leader. The incident where Maharshi Durvasa (a sage notorious for his habit of cursing people over small mistakes) and his disciples visited the Pandavas in their hermitage in the forest, as per Duryodhana's request, and there was no food left to be served, which left the Pandavas flustered, points at the pitfalls of mismanagement. On the other hand, the way in which Pandavas engaged the sage and persuaded him to go for a bath while they figured out the way to feed him, highlights the importance of staying calm during difficult situations, being resourceful, and the power of engagement. This showcases that Leadership Training is not just about the norms and management, but also about the attitude, approach and other nuances of managing, leading and guiding through innovation and emotion. In other words, Leadership Training cannot be one-dimensional and should cover areas of soft and behavioral skills, EQ and empathy building, change management, conflict resolutions along with the basic leadership skills.

According to Devdutt Pattanaik, “Though Ram and Krishna are both reincarnations of Vishnu, the context and the scenario is quite different. One same God can’t behave in the same way in two different markets. He has to adapt, be agile and transform as per the changing context.” From an L&D standpoint, it clearly highlights the fact that the Leadership Training for different organizations depends on the actual learning environment and the learning goal, hence pushing the need for a more à la carte kind of learning approach than a standard one-size-fits-all.

Dronacharya and Vishvamitra were teachers with different competences and used different approaches for their students. L&D today needs to shift its focus from ‘the learning’ to ‘the learners’. A switch that focuses on a learner-centric, personalized approach that also brings in flexibility (mobile content, offline accessibility, social media integration, etc.) and convenience. As Devdutt Pattanaik puts it, “There are some employees who lack the awareness of their own potential while there are others who know their capabilities. These two categories of individuals can’t be taught in the same way. While the former needs to be inspired, the other one is to be taught empathy.” But building an anytime, anywhere, pull-based learning ecosystem is just one part of the story. Drawing insights from the results is another one altogether. No matter what the results are, the role of the L&D calls for constant analysis and finding new ways for learning delivery and implementation. As said in Mahabharata, “Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana, Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani.” Which translates to: You have the right to perform your actions, but you are not entitled to the fruits of the actions. Do not let the fruit be the purpose of your actions, and therefore you won’t be attached to not doing your duty.