Women Leadership Series

Profile: Meenakumari Venkateswaran

Read Time:11 Minute

Meenakumari Venkateswaran

“When the speaker, the hearer, and the words said thoroughly agree with one another in course of a speech, then does the sense or meaning come out very clearly?
When, in the matter of what is to be said, the speaker shows disregard for the understanding of the hearer by uttering words whose meaning is understood by himself, then, however good those words may be, they become incapable of being seized by the hearer.
That speaker, again, who, abandoning all regard for his own meaning uses words that are of excellent sound and sense, awakens only erroneous, impressions in the mind of the hearer. Such words in such connection become certainly faulty. That speaker, however, who employs words that are while expressing his own meaning, intelligible to the hearer as well, truly deserves to be called a speaker. No other man deserves the name.” 1

Is this from a management manual on communication skills? No – it is an extract from a speech by Sulabha, in the court of Dharmadhyaja Janaka, as narrated in the Santi Parva of the Mahabharata by Bhishma to Yudhishtra.
Our epics and scriptures narrate, amongst others, the stories of a number of ‘ordinary’ women who have lived extraordinary lives. These women are not management gurus, yet their lives and deeds could reflect the many lessons taught by management luminaries after long illustrious careers.

‘The various kinds of education and knowledge are like different rivers, whereas spiritual education or knowledge is like the ocean. Just as all the rivers go and merge into the ocean, all kinds of education and knowledge too merge into the ocean of spiritual knowledge.’ 2

Below are just a few such lessons from some women in our history and scriptures. From varied stations and walks of life, they each bequeathed precious legacies of wisdom that, as sparks from the luminous fire of Self – Knowledge, light up the path in the mundane world as well.

When the one innate entity in all is recognized, respect is accorded to capabilities and efficiencies regardless of differences in external identities.

Sulabha: Diversity
Sulabha, a mendicant woman yogi, visits King Dharmadhyaja Janaka’s court on hearing that he was devoted to the pursuit of Emancipation. Through yogic measures she enters the understanding of the king to test his self- realisation, whereupon the startled king shoots off a barrage of questions at her, starting with “whose are you, from where do you come and where will you go when you finish your business here”, followed by a lengthy condescending exposition of his achievements on the path of Emancipation, and concluding with why his achievements, even in domestic royal life, were superior to those of her celibate mendicant life.
In striking contrast, Sulabha’s response is calm, clear and measured (the verses above are a sample). His questions immediately reveal to her the incompleteness of his emancipation, centering as it does on her apparent physical identity. She addresses his queries and the underlying assumptions and prejudices even as she shatters his delusive self-aggrandizement. She wins the respect of the king and the court through her self-confident tranquillity and calm clarity in the face of this very aggressive provocation.
Her counter questions to his queries on her identity and mission are a clear reminder that the lofty goal of diversity (across race, class or gender) presupposes an acknowledgement and respect of the Unity (the One Divinity) manifesting as the diversity:

“If it is true that thou seest an identity with thyself and others, why then didst thou ask me who I am and whose? If it is true that hast, O king, been freed from the knowledge of duality that (erroneously) says—this is mine and this other is not mine—then what use is there with such questions as Who art thou, whose art thou and whence dost thou come?” 1

The Self appropriates no race, class or gender to Itself.
When the one innate entity in all is recognized, respect is accorded to capabilities and efficiencies regardless of differences in external identities.
Choodala: The Simplest Solution is Almost Always the Best
Queen Choodala’s story is recounted in the Yoga Vasishta, a riveting conversation between Brahmarishi Vasishta and Sri Rama.
A beautiful and accomplished queen dearly beloved to her husband, Queen Choodala embarks on her spiritual journey while executing her wifely and royal duties, reaching very advanced levels of realization and acquiring many yogic siddhis along the way.
She understands and accepts that her husband, though a ruler of acknowledged expertise, is significantly lagging behind in spiritual evolution. Her maturity shines through not just in her acceptance, but also in her willingness to let him adopt a circuitous and perilous route to Self Realisation, acknowledging that each learns best through his own experience. When the king renounces his kingdom and riches in spite of her best advice and retires to a secluded life of privation and penance in a distant isolated hermitage in pursuit of emancipation, she takes upon herself the responsibility of the forsaken kingdom, ruling it wisely and well for eighteen long years.
Sacrifice does not imply renouncing of possessions or responsibilities but of ignorance and attachment: this is the lesson she realizes her husband would have to learn after experiencing for himself the futility of a false renunciation.
She hastens to her husband’s hermitage when she realizes he is ready. In the awareness that he might not value the message due to his perception of and emotions for her, the messenger, she takes the form of a young Brahmin boy. Through a long and patient conversation she enlightens him that possessions, relationships, roles or forms do not constitute the identity that define egoism and that true renunciation involves the detachment from the false self, rather than from these.
One of the parables she narrates is of the philosopher’s stone. A man after a long quest finds it suddenly within easy reach. Doubting its authenticity (since he thought the stone would not be this easily available), he does not reach out for it till after it vanishes. Much later, after arduous practices, he finds a glossy bauble that he secures, mistaking it for the philosopher’s stone.

“That searcher after the philosopher’s stone, was undoubtedly acquainted with science, but had no knowledge of the truth (tatwajnana); he searched the gem but knew not what it was…
Know O holy man! that it is relinquishing of errors, which is said to be the philosopher’s stone.
After you have let slip the precious gem of resignation from your hand, you have chosen the false glossy gewgaw of austerity for some fond wish in your view.”3

When the prince’s intellect is moulded into receptive humility through honest introspection, she teaches him that laboriously casting away possessions or roles is similar to lopping off the branches of the tree (the glass bauble) instead of burning away the root of ignorance with the fire of relentless self-inquiry (the philosopher’s stone):

“Prince, the fire which is able to consume the seed of the noxious plant of the mind, is the expostulation of the question, “what am I that bear this corporeal form upon me.”3

Very often, the obvious and the simplest solution is the best.
Ubhayabharathi: A Lot Can be Accomplished if You Don’t Care For the Credit
Ubhayabharathi, the wife of Mandana Mishra, was so respected for her wisdom and impartiality that she was appointed as the judge in the philosophical debate between her husband and Adi Sankaracharya. When Ubhayabharathi declared her husband’s defeat, he took to sanyas as per the terms and she followed suit.
Once, while on a walk with her disciples, she chanced upon a mendicant resting with a dried bottlegourd under his head.
Ubhayabharathi saw this renunciant’s attachment to the bottlegourd and said to her disciples, “Look! This man calls himself a renunciant, but he’s attached to a bottlegourd, which he keeps under his head as a pillow.”
The renunciant heard this comment but said nothing. When Ubhayabharathi and her disciples were returning from the river, he threw away the bottlegourd in front of them in order to demonstrate that he was not attached to it. Observing his action, Ubhayabharathi remarked:

“I thought there was only one defect in him, namely, attachment (abhimana). Now I realise that he has another defect also, i.e. ego (ahamkara). How can one with attachment and ego become a wise person and renunciant?” 4

The abashed renunciant left the place, having gained a priceless lesson.
Detachment requires the renunciation of external validation.
Maithreyi: Prioritize and Focus
This is yet another remarkable woman who is credited with ten of the Rig Veda’s 1000 verses. Sage Yajnavalkya, (the seer of the shukla yajurveda) had two wives, Katyayani and Maitreyi. When he decided to renounce his gruhastha (householder) status to leave for the forest (vanaprastha), he offers to split his wealth equally between his two wives. While Katyayani is content, Maitreyi is not so. She puts forth a few questions to him that makes him expound on the nature of the Self and worldly attachments.

Intelligent and wise questioning has the power to draw forth the sought after knowledge. The questioner requires honesty and humility to request for clarity at times of doubt…

Intelligent and wise questioning has the power to draw forth the sought after knowledge. The questioner requires honesty and humility to request for clarity at times of doubt and courage to approach the subject and the mentor with self-confidence and respect (qualities exemplified by Arjuna, the questioner who secured the priceless Bhagavad Githa from Bhagawan Shri Krishna as a reward).
The very first question that Maithreyi asks reflects her keen intellect as well as her genuine sincerity:
‘Sir, if indeed this whole earth full of wealth be mine, shall I be immortal through that?’
The single-minded focus on her goal of liberation is strengthened when she learns that immortality would not accrue on account of wealth. Clearly and simply she asks the next question:

‘if this is so, what shall I do with that wealth which will not make me immortal? Tell me, sir, of that alone which you know to be the only means of immortality.’ 5

Yanjnavalkya, greatly pleased with her, imparts the supreme knowledge.
Single-mindedness requires the sacrifice of lower goals in pursuit of the higher.
What We do Matters Less Than How We do It:
Answers may come from the least likely source and open mindedness opens many doors.
‘āno bhadrā kratavo yantu viśvato’: May Noble Thoughts Come To Us From Every Side (Rig Veda 1.89.1)
A young sage, Kaushika, gets some crucial directions from an unnamed housewife in a story narrated in the Vana Parva of the Mahabharatha.
Kaushika was meditating when a she-crane seated atop the tree he was seated under and befouled his body. His wrathful gaze reduces the bird to ashes. Later in the day, he proceeds on his daily ritual of begging for alms. A housewife who offers to serve him is diverted by the task of attending to her husband. As a very irritated Kaushika calls out to her, she replies:
‘I am no she-crane, O regenerate Rishi! O thou that art endued with the wealth of asceticism, cast off this anger of thine. Engaged as thou are, what canst thou do to me with these angry glances of thine?’ 6
The ascetic is astonished that she knows of the incident with the she-crane. Seeking his forgiveness, she then advises him to understand the true subtleties of virtue and detached performance of duties from a butcher who lives in a nearby village. Truly abashed, the ascetic humbly approaches the ‘lowly’ butcher and is rewarded with the ‘Vyadha Githa’, a treatise on performance of duties with detachment. The ascetic is enriched hugely through the chance interaction with the humble housewife.
It is not ‘what’ one does but ‘how’ it is done that determines the status of the deed and the doer. Ordinary? Yes, indeed—this lady does not merit even a name in the story. Extraordinary? Without doubt—as are all lives defined by simple living and high thinking.
Peter Drucker has famously said: “Management is doing things right, while Leadership is doing the right thing.”
Spirituality teaches that the only way to do things right is to do the right thing. Sulabha, Maithreyi, Choodala, Ubhayabharathi, the anonymous housewife—a few stars in the galaxy of spiritual luminaries.
Ordinary Women.
Extraordinary Lives.

Ms. Meenakumari Venkateswaran is a rank holder in the CA Intermediate and CA Final Examinations and a Sivabhogam Award winner for Best Lady Candidate in the CA exam. She started her professional career with Pond’s India Limited. After her stint at Pond’s, she has had a varied exposure: teaching (ICAI and MP Birla Institute of Management Studies), NGO (Planet Finance, Dubai) and start-up (Fragrance Delivery Technologies, Dubai). An accomplished Bharathanatyam dancer, (disciple of Smt Sudharani Raghupathy), Ms. Meenakumari has trained several students over the years. She is also deeply interested in spiritual studies and social work and currently spends her time largely in voluntary activities, writing and family.