• Welcome to all New Sikh Philosophy Network Forums!
    Explore Sikh Sikhi Sikhism...
    Sign up Log in

Walking Away From Power


Sep 24, 2004
Walking Away From Power

Power is addictive, even more than the best intoxicants that mankind has ever discovered or invented. We all seem to understand that; yet we can’t ever leave it alone. This isn’t a bottle that we can smash so easily.

History provides some interesting lessons. Let me first cherry pick my evidence from our political institutions. Then we can segue to familial and religious matters as well.

Until very recently in the history of civilization, power often emerged from the barrel of a gun, ergo, political institutions were designed, controlled and run by alpha males. That remains true in much of the world even today, although there is an increasing visibility of women in managing power, whether political or corporate.

Given the chance, women too seem to adapt to the alpha-male worldview of strategy and tactics, perhaps because they are so few and their climb in the political hierarchy so fraught. I offer Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi as prime examples. Will things materially change when the disproportionally low representation of women evens out? I sure hope so.

There are very few prominent examples of political leaders who opted to willingly walk away from power at their zenith. Emperor Ashoka of ancient Pataliputra and Magadha turned Buddhist when his rule over a vast territory was absolutely unchallenged. He was so touched by Buddhist teachings on non-violence that he disbanded much of his large and much-feared army.

One could argue that by this action, Ashoka weakened the nation so much that invading Muslim hordes had an easy time conquering, ruling and terrorizing India many centuries later. Thereafter, you can add another two centuries to account for the British rule of India.

The world’s political stage offers very few examples that capture our imagination for willingly abdicating power, whether they were unchallenged or not. Ashoka was possibly the most notable politically dominant ruler to voluntarily diminish his power without being challenged by any rival.

In this short but selective list, I would inscribe the name of Mikhail Gorbachev in neon lights. Adopting the models of glasnost-perestroika, this ruler of the former USSR opened the state’s institutions, knowing full well that the resulting transparency would rock his power. And it did, to deadly effect. There is also evidence that his hand was forced and his renunciation of power not quite that freely and voluntarily done. But he understood that his people needed to enter a new world of transparency, accountability and self-governance.

Then I think of George Washington. History tells us that this first president of the United States was immensely popular. He served for two terms and a third was offered to him but he refused, starting a precedent that a president would not serve more than two consecutive terms. His example was dutifully followed by most incoming presidents even if they harbored other ambitions, except four: Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant tried but did not succeed, and finally Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) who was elected to four consecutive terms. But after his death Congress passed an amendment that was ratified only in 1951, banning such practice.

In this matter, most political leaders are like FDR; they really believe that the country, without them at the helm, would go to the dogs. They forget that the world existed for untold eons before they discovered power and will continue after they are dead - and die they will, like everyone else. (I am an admirer of FDR for what he achieved.)

Dictatorial tendencies are universal. Is this hubris located in the hormones, driven by testosterone and encoded in human DNA, I do not know. But most, if not all, people have it.

All leaders come to power with loud claims and promises of wanting to dedicate their lives to service of the nation and its people; then they work unceasingly to destroy any possible rivals and fill their own coffers and those of their families and cronies. Exceptions just don’t exist.

People want to rule others, perhaps because they are no good at ruling themselves. The colonial powers, after all, didn’t exist to serve people but to dominate them for their own ends or benefit.

The world has seen so many such tyrants that an attempt at an accounting of all would take up many fat volumes and still remain incomplete.

Simon Sebag Montefiore recently provided a long but selective listing of the world’s dictators and their fate from Caligula to Ghaddafi. In the modern era we often look at Stalin and Mao as poster boys on a list of tyrants. Perhaps we should include Idi Amin of Uganda, the recently dead Ghaddafi of Libya, even the father and son duo of Hafez et Bashir al-Assad of Syria in this ignominious pantheon. They end usually by violent coups, rarely peacefully. It is a rare dictator who can successfully transfer power to his or her progeny.

A list of politicians who love power too well and not too wisely would surely include Jawahar Lal Nehru, free India’s long-serving Prime Minister, as also Russia’s current strongman, Vladimir Putin. I am also tempted to add the late, unlamented Indira Gandhi to the list of these who adored power too much and unwisely, but she still has her loyalists.

In India, a nominally secular democratic nation, Indira’s hunger for power was so insatiable that when a civil court set aside her election because of her violations of the electoral law, she promptly declared a state of emergency in the nation, dissolved the Parliament, and ruled by fiat. Some years later she went after the Sikhs to pursue her agenda of unchallenged power.

The late (Mahatma) M. K. Gandhi, widely promoted around the world as the patron saint, if not the apostle, of non-violence had perhaps the most imaginative, unusual but stupendously successful take on power - how to grab it and how to keep it.

He was a man of the poor people, he claimed, and never formally joined a political party but his hold on the Indian Congress Party that has ruled India for almost 50 out of its 60 years of freedom was absolutely dictatorial and iron-fisted. His policy vision came only from within himself and did not emerge from national referendums or consultative bodies. He blackmailed those who disagreed by the threat of a fast unto death.

To be fair to him, unlike most politicians the world over, Gandhi was prepared to die. The result: He always got his way and, in India’s pseudo-spiritual, passive-aggressive culture, morphed in the public mind into a holy man.

Of the Sikhs contemporaneous with our lives who had tasted power, I see none who was willing to relinquish it. None ceded that he had completed his promised mission and now it was someone else’s turn to bat.

I mean here all who served us in the public eye - from Gurcharan Singh Tohra who ran the SGPC (Shiromini Gurduara Parbandhak Committee) as a personal fiefdom for decades, Parkash Singh Badal who has dominated Punjab politics for a generation, Zail Singh who became the President of India, or the so many who have become presidents or otherwise led the many Sikh associations and gurduaras in India or outside in the diaspora. Each and everyone had to be cajoled into office and later had to be driven out, unless death intervened.

These are some of the more exiguous examples; it is not a complete list by any means.

Is there any doubt that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? Is this the work of ego, or haumai as Sikhi dubs it?

Not all is pitch black though. A few rays shine blindingly bright.

Emperor Ashoka’s icon, Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born a prince but walked away from the glory, glitter and power when he saw human suffering in his realm.

Sikh history provides some fascinating chapters. The movement started by Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469, was led by ten founder Gurus until Guru Gobind Singh, who died in 1708.

What I find absolutely mind blowing is that, ignoring the claims of his own sons, when Guru Nanak handed the torch to his successor, Guru Angad, he also directed him to move his center some miles away to a different township. This makes it a very modern process of transfer of power and authority. Companies and universities strive to do this but if the retiring CEO or Dean stays on even at a lower rank the transfer of power remains somewhat messy.

I hammer home my point by two events in Sikhi. History tells us that Guru Angad, after his investiture, moved his center to Khadur Sahib. Guru Nanak was still alive and continued to till his land and live in Kartarpur - for how long exactly we do not know. Whether it was days or months, he lived as a Sikh while Guru Angad directed the affairs of the movement. In this period, however brief it may have been, there is no evidence, direct or implied, that Guru Nanak intervened in the judgment calls made by Guru Angad.

The sons of Guru Nanak and of Guru Angad thought the Guruship was theirs by right and that power should come to them by entitlement. But they were rejected.

When Guru Gobind Singh created the institution of the Khalsa in 1699, he invested the five Sikhs with the authority to ceremoniously admit others into the Khalsa brotherhood. And they did; under their new authoruty, they even transformed Guru Gobind Rai into Guru Gobind Singh. Here then was a totally peaceful, willing and collaborative sharing of power.

We seem to have forgotten to treat power as it is: fleeting and temporary to be purposefully used and never a matter of entitlement. Power really lies in the sangat - the people. We The People are and should remain supreme as the preamble to the Constitution of the United States reminds us.

But in our gurdwaras, the mindset is that of politicians who would rather die than relinquish power.

Dictators that are at one time almost universally celebrated are, after a while, just as universally derided and detested. Look at the unfolding Arab world with Egypt’s Mubarak, Saddam of Iraq, Ghaddafi of Lybia, and Syria’s al-Assad.

Power is seductive. Henry Kissinger labeled power the greatest aphrodisiac - he should know. He takes you back to the idea of the alpha male and the T-level as it is euphemistically labeled.

Slippage of power is hard to accept. Look at America; it has been at the pinnacle for almost a century; now reality seems a slippery slope. Nevertheless, some political leaders and analysts continue to think that the term “American Exceptionalism” means that ordinary rules don’t apply to them.

Power arises from ego, and the two continue to feed each other; they remain mutually interdependent.

That’s why Guru Granth tells us (p 466) that the ego is the mortal malady that we have; the next line promises us that the cure, too, lies in the disease (“haumai deeragh roge hai/ daroo bhi iss mahi”).

How then to regard power, riches and worldly possessions becomes a critical issue. What kind of a person can comfortably walk away from power?

Guru Tegh Bahadar provides some clear directives in Guru Granth (p 633): “One who in the midst of pain feels it not, remains unaffected by pleasure, affection or fear, and looks alike upon gold and dust. One who is not swayed by slander or praise, nor enslaved by greed, attachment or pride. One who remains unmoved by joy, sorrow or dishonor ..."

A tall order but this is what the Guru lays out as the ideal.

We may never be able to hold it in the sweaty palms of our hot little hands, but an ideal, like a star to a sea-faring man, can put us on the path and lead us home.

November 11, 2011

Tejwant Singh

Jun 30, 2004
Henderson, NV.
Inder ji,

Guru Fateh.

Thanks for the insightful, eye opening, chest deflating, thought provoking essay. Hope to have more of them here. Our visionary Gurus had it right all along and handed us the treasure, not for us to sit on it like snakes but to share it with anyone and everyone. They showed us how to get rid of Me-ism and lasso Kaam, Krodh, Lobh, Moh, Hankaar and use them to our advantage. In other words enslave them rather than being enslaved.

When I say Visionary Gurus, this is exactly what I mean which your great essay elaborates it so beautifully. Only those who do not seek power or cling to theirs with tooth and nail are the true powerful ones.

Our Gurus gave us the directions. It is our duty to find the way so we can walk away when the time and the situation demands it.

Thanks & regards

Tejwant Singh

Harry Haller

Panga Master
Jan 31, 2011

Wonderful post and a reminder of my own struggle with the whole concept of power, as a child, I remember thinking who would want to be a King, or a President, or even in charge of a company, they probably have to drag people to do these jobs, as the responsibility is huge, you are basically a servant, a slave to the people under you, it is your job to look after your subjects, voters, employees, better than you look after yourself. I was a naive child

The problem is that in the real world we live in, an absence of the desire of power can hinder your progress, I think power is like a sword, if all other means fail, then it is lawful to utilise power.

I have ran a company, 6 employees, all of whom were treated like kings, all of whom drove cars, and were better paid than myself, I considered it my duty to educate them and make them happy, they turned into spoilt children, one by one, they took the part of my business that they specialised in, and then left and started up on their own, even when they left, I supported them, and remained on good terms with them all, so the lack of power brought a thriving business to its knees, and left the owner bankrupt.

The use and understanding of power, in my view, is not to walk away from it, but to use it with understanding, logic and in accordance with Gurbani, too many fools, like myself, walk away from it, and leave ourselves naked, we twist the knife ourselves when we are being stabbed to assist the stabber, and we think this is in accordance with Gurbani, I do not believe that, I do not believe that Guruji meant us to be shying away from power, after all, the Gurus were powerful in their own right, but they wielded it with compassion, intelligence, they used it to educate, to improve, to make things better, they used it wisely.

Surely the aversion to power is as bad as the attatchment to it, but we should be in no doubt that power exists, we cannot afford to ignore this



📌 For all latest updates, follow the Official Sikh Philosophy Network Whatsapp Channel: