By Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik – Author, Speaker, Illustrator, Mythologist
In a popular social media short video, a young stand-up comedian says that he bought an iPhone because its greatest feature is that it makes you confident. As soon as he got the iPhone, he felt confident enough to abuse his friends and colleagues who did not have an iPhone. Power that came with the brand was used to acquire even more power by abusing those who did not have the brand. Power thus is a currency that can be bought (through brands) and grabbed (through abuse). It can be given, taken and received, like food. In Hindu mythology, power is embodied by Goddess Shakti, also known as Goddess Durga. But to a keen observer, Shakti is different from Durga. Every God has Shakti within him. Durga is created outside, when the Gods release their inner Shakti. In other words, Shakti is power that is inside us, our inner confidence. Durga is power that is outside us, power that comes to us in the form of praise, recognition, respect, status, brands, tools and weapons. Finding the inner Shakti is difficult so we crave external Durga.
Language is a powerful source of Durga. When someone praises us we feel powerful. When someone insults us, we feel powerless. When someone praises us we feel we matter, when someone insults us we feel we don’t matter. So we crave motivation and shun those who criticise us. Politicians understand this well. Using the power of language they can inspire people to do good or they can rally a mob to tear down citadels. To disempower opponents, they very consciously use words of disrespect, words that strip people of dignity. By eroding the self-worth and self-confidence of others, a politician nourishes himself with power, like a demon.
During a Hindu ritual, even before the deity it is venerated, veneration is expressed to every implement that is used in the ritual, from the bell, to the pot, pans and ladles that are part of the ceremony. In other words, while every object has Shakti, they are also given Durga, expressed through flowers, sandal paste and words and gestures of veneration. You show respect for the implements of the ritual, not just the ultimate object of the ritual. In an organisation, likewise, everyone deserves respect, not only the “deities” that is, seniors and owners of the company, but also everyone who constitutes the company — from employees, partners, vendors and support staff. But yet, unlike temple rituals, in organisations, we see power moving primarily towards the powerful ones (seniors) from the powerless ones (juniors), which seems illogical. Those with power granted by station and rank instead of empowering the rest of the organisation, remain hungry for more power and so demand subservience.
Could this have something to do with the popular Indian belief that “elders” and “teachers” must be respected? What is derived from this, that if you’re not an elder, you are not deserving of respect, if you’re not in a powerful position, if you’re not the teacher, you do not deserve respect. Respect as a result goes to people who have more knowledge, more resources, and more status. Power is thus distributed on grounds of caste and rank. The higher you are in the social hierarchy, the more power you deserve, the more power you demand. This creates a feudal structure, mimicking a forest. In dharma, power has to flow towards the powerless.
In India, we find people saying that if you’re nice to people they will take advantage of you because they think you’re powerless. In other words, abusing people, insulting people, being obnoxious is seen as an indicator of power, commonly seen in the rich, the powerful, the famous. Celebrities and politicians and the elite feel entitled to abuse people, especially service staff. They feel they have this right. It is what defines their status. To be an elder means you have the privilege to abuse and disre- spect. When we believe that power can be grabbed through disrespect, we are not content buying brands, or acquiring status, to feel powerful; we feel the need to abuse those who do not have those brands, or that status.
On television shows we see how rude and obnoxious people become instant celebrities, as they have the courage and the wit to put down people. These people justify their rudeness on grounds that they are fighting the good fight: they are the victims, and those opposing them are vile villains. Thus there is something heroic in being rude. We have thus given permission to the righteous to be rude. So the Police feel entitled to be abusive to the criminal, strip him of humanity. To be civil is seen as a burden, a sacrifice. Hence the stinginess with giving Durga even if it costs nothing.
In offices the powerless junior grants himself power by bitching about his seniors in the privacy of the canteen. Today, disempowered people feel powerful by abusing those in positions of power using the anonymity of social media. Rather than turning into the dharmic sun, that gives energy to everyone around, with respect and motivation, we are encouraging people to aspire to be adharmic black holes, those who take power from everyone around them, by being disrespectful, and additionally being smug about it.