The Anatomy of Autonomy

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Exploring the dynamics of the superior-subordinate relationship, with lessons from Lord Krishna’s pastimes.

How do you feel when someone in a position superior to you often intervenes to correct your decisions and actions? Do you get frustrated when your choices and opinions are not appreciated, but altered? Would you love to have a guide who allows you to operate with freedom and doesn’t interfere with your autonomy?

Interference with Independence

Everyone desires independence and loves to exercise autonomy without much interruption. But does everyone have the maturity and intelligence to use their independence constructively? Maybe not. In that case, corrections from a more experienced person are necessary. In the relationship between a guardian and dependents, for example, it is certainly within the responsibility and authority of the guardian to correct the dependents when they commit mistakes. This avoids unwarranted disasters. Srila Prabhupada quotes Chanakya Pandita to explain this:

lalane bahavo doshas
tadane bahavo gunah
tasmat putram cha shishyam cha
tadayen na tu lalayet

“Pampering a subordinate will increase his faults. And chastising him will increase his good qualities. So, rather than pamper unduly, a teacher should chastise a student, and a father should chastise a child.”

Undue leniency can lead to many faults in a youngster.

Fortified or Mortified?

Humble and intelligent subordinates feel fortified and protected by the caring interventions of responsible superiors who help them improve with timely suggestions. Thus, correcting the fault of a subordinate is good, but is it always necessary? Maybe not. Corrective actions can sometimes turn out to be dreadful, such as when they diminish the inspiration and enthusiasm of the subordinate.

It is the responsibility of a superior to keep the subordinate inspired and enthusiastic to continue the assigned work or service. That requires allowing the subordinate to grow organically by learning from mistakes. A father can easily give his child the answer to a simple problem of addition or multiplication, but unless he restrains himself from doing so, the child may not learn arithmetic. Thus too much help from an elder can limit the independent thinking of a learner. Older children, especially, may be ashamed or bothered when mothers instruct them in doing trivial things.

A senior cannot always expect a junior to agree to instructions, such as when the senior is exercising authority arbitrarily. The senior should be willing to hear the subordinate’s thoughts, opinions, and preferences. And if the subordinate, for a genuine reason, is not inspired to accede to the superior’s request, the superior should be willing to accommodate. For example, when Lord Brahma at the beginning of creation instructed the four Kumaras to create progeny, they rejected the instruction, expressing their desire to be permanent celibates and dedicate their lives for spiritual realization. Although disturbed, Brahma respected their desire and continued to be affectionate toward them.

From Imposition to Inspiration

When is a correction bad or good? It depends on time, place, circumstances, and the persons correcting and being corrected. Chanakya Pandita has said,

lalayet pancha-varshani
dasha-varshani tadayet
prapte tu shodashe varshe
putram mitravad acharet

“Indulge a son until he is five years old, and then discipline him for another ten years. When he has attained the sixteenth year, treat him as a friend.”

When the student is new or young, the teacher may wish to encourage by tolerating innocent mistakes and, if required, correct lovingly. But when the student is a little older and has developed a relationship with the teacher, the teacher may frankly and strictly correct mistakes. And when the student is even older and more experienced, the teacher should give much less supervision, treating the student like a friend. Micromanaging the student’s activities can dishearten and demotivate, impeding creativity. Thus the superior needs to avoid criticism, and rather should inspire through personal example. If necessary, the teacher may occasionally give suggestions, while acknowledging the student’s accomplishments, experience, and status.

Capable Yet Sensible

A superior must counteract and correct subordinate’s decisions and actions that produce negative outcomes. But the superior should not invalidate the subordinate’s autonomy in front of others, lest the subordinate feel mortified and lose the respect of juniors. That only produces discouragement and demotivation and may cause the subordinate to withdraw and not interact with the superior as before. A sensible senior counteracts the negative results of a subordinate’s actions with minimal intrusion into his or her autonomy, thus encouraging pleasant future interactions. 

For more clarity in these matters, we can look to the example of the Supreme Personality of Godhead Vishnu, the master of the spiritual and material worlds. All the demigods holding various posts in the universal administrative system – Brahma, Shiva, Indra, Chandra, Varuna, Vayu, and so on – are servants of Lord Vishnu. He is beyond the rules and conditions administered by the subordinate demigods, and He has all the power and authority to kill any offender without paying heed to the protective benedictions offered to that person by the demigods. Nevertheless, the Lord chooses to preserve the autonomy of His subordinates by not violating their benedictions, and yet He protects the innocent by punishing the demoniac. The following examples emphasize this quality of sensitivity that should be shown by a superior.

Counteractions that Continue Interactions

Desiring to become immortal, Hiranyakashipu, the king of the demons, performed severe austerities to please Lord Brahma. He asked Brahma for many boons that he hoped would protect him from death, including not dying within or outside any residence, during the daytime or at night, on the ground or in the sky, or by any weapon, human being, or animal. Brahma obliged and granted the benedictions.

Puffed up, Hiranyakashipu terrorized the universe. But when he tried to kill his own five-year-old son, Prahlada, who worshiped Lord Vishnu, the Lord appeared from a pillar in a most wonderful form that had never been seen before, as half man and half lion. Nrisimhadeva killed Hiranyakashipu at sunset, which is neither daytime nor night; by placing him on His lap, which is neither earth nor sky; on the threshold of his palace, which is neither inside nor outside; and by piercing his abdomen with His nails, which are not generally considered a weapon. Thus the Lord not only protected His devotee Prahlada, but also respected the benedictions of His other devotee Brahma, although He is never bound to uphold Brahma promises. Later Lord Nrisimha cautioned Brahma not to offer such benedictions to demoniac people again. (Bhagavatam, Canto 7, Chapters 7–10)

Lord Brahma also gave a boon to the demon Ravana, that he wouldn’t be killed by anyone except a human being or a monkey. Ravana was so puffed up that he thought that insignificant humans and monkeys could not harm him. Preserving the promise of Brahma, the Supreme Lord incarnated as an ideal human being, Lord Ramachandra, and killed Ravana with the help of monkey soldiers. (Valmiki’s Ramayana)

In both cases, the Supreme Lord respected the benedictions offered by Brahma, although He is not obliged to, and yet killed the miscreants and protected the righteous.

The Patience to Rectify Repeatedly

Indra once became proud due to his material opulence. To humble him, Krishna encouraged the Vraja-vasis, the residents of Vrindavan, to cancel their Indra-puja (sacrifice to Indra) and instead perform Govardhana-puja (worship of Govardhana Hill). Indra became enraged, and to inundate Vrindavan sent the clouds meant for universal devastation. To protect the Vraja-vasis from the wrath of Indra, Krishna held up Govardhan Hill for seven days, thus defeating Indra, who became ashamed. To avoid further embarrassing Indra, Krishna went to a secluded place to give Indra a private audience. Indra begged forgiveness for his offense and offered prayers. Lord Krishna warned him to never again become intoxicated by his power, and He allowed Indra to continue his universal administration services as the king of heaven. (Bhagavatam, Canto 10, Chapters 24–27)

Besides shame, Indra’s prayers to Krishna were also inspired by fear of punishment by Krishna. This is explained by Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti in his commentary on this episode. He says that because Indra was trying to save himself, he didn’t offer his prayers with “a completely pure heart.” The result was that he again acted improperly sometime later during Krishna’s time on earth. While living in Dwarka, Krishna wanted to take a parijata tree from heaven to please His wife Satyabhama. Since the parijata is unique to Indra’s abode and never goes elsewhere, Indra chose to challenge Lord Krishna, and again Krishna had to teach him a lesson, this time by defeating him in battle. And again Krishna allowed Indra to continue in his exalted post. (Bhagavatam, Canto 10, Chapter 59)

Thus Krishna exhibited the ideal nature of a guardian by exhibiting patience while correcting the mistakes and attitude of Indra.

Forgiveness for Honest Repentance

Lord Brahma once stole Lord Krishna’s cowherd boyfriends and calves in Vrindavan to test Him. Understanding the mischief of Brahma, Krishna expanded Himself into an equal number of boys and calves, exactly replicating all of their physical features and behaviors. After one year, Brahma returned only to be astonished to see all the boys and calves with Krishna as before. Then, to enlighten Brahma, Krishna caused all the boys and calves to manifest as four-handed Vishnus and also exhibited His opulences in front of him. Brahma came to his senses, realizing his mistake of underestimating the potency of the Supreme Personality of Godhead Krishna. He then honestly repented and offered heartfelt prayers to Krishna, seeking forgiveness. Krishna mercifully forgave Brahma and kindly sent him back to resume his services as the universal creator with his God-given autonomy. Thus, as a mature master, Lord Krishna forgave the mischief of Brahma in a way that served as a great unforgettable lesson for him. (Bhagavatam, Canto 10, Chapters 13–14)

Allowing Growth Through Honest Mistakes

Sometimes it is beneficial for a youngster to learn from his own experiences rather than always being instructed by an elder. For example, a child just attempting to walk may be initially offered support by the mother’s loving hand. But, for the child to learn, the mother has to gradually allow the child to walk independently without her assistance. That might require her to sometimes witness the child’s falling down.

Assisting in the Time of Need

Competent superiors able to accomplish things themselves still allow their dependents to endeavor on their own to accomplish them. Thus they refrain from spoon-feeding their subordinates, yet are willing to assist them when required.

Once, the demigods, the universal administrators, having been defeated by the demons, approached the Supreme Lord Vishnu for help. Although the Lord could reinstate them in their positions in a moment, He told them to make a truce with the demons and churn the milk ocean to get the nectar of immortality. During the churning, He supported the demigods in various ways, and the demons and demigods together churned the milk ocean. When the nectar appeared, the demons snatched away the nectar pot, and the demigods became morose. Then the Lord took the form of a beautiful woman, Mohini-murti, enticed the demons, took the nectar pot away from them, and distributed the nectar to the demigods. (Bhagavatam, Canto 8, Chapters 7–9)

Summary of a Sensible Superior’s Dealings

Mature masters exhibit patience and perseverance in training and correcting their dependents. Sensible superiors do the needful to rectify the shortcomings of subordinates, through feedback, counteractions, cautions, or punishments – whatever works according to the time, place, and circumstance. They teach their juniors with a well-wishing heart, with empathy and affection, and not in a whimsical, grudging, and egoistic way that arbitrarily establishes their superiority by disturbing the subordinates’ autonomy. They keep the subordinates inspired to continue to work and do not demotivate or discourage them through undue intrusions into their autonomy. Rather than imposing their opinions on their juniors, they inspire them with their personal example.

God is supremely autonomous. As a part of the Supreme Lord Krishna, every living entity also has autonomy, but to a minute degree. Factually that autonomy, or free will, or minute independence, is the only possession of the living entity. All of one’s other possessions are temporary and superficial. God never interferes with the minute autonomy of the living entity, although He is able to do so.

The Use or Misuse of Autonomy

The living entity’s real self-interest is to take shelter of the Supreme Lord Krishna. The constitutional position of the living entity is to eternally love and serve Krishna. But in the conditioned state, the soul’s loving propensity and service attitude are covered due to his misuse of God-given autonomy. If Krishna wants, within a moment He can make us love Him and serve Him. But He doesn’t do so, because forced love and service are not palatable to Him, or anyone. But if the living entity voluntarily loves and serves Krishna, He is ecstatic to receive and reciprocate that loving service.

Thus Krishna is sensitive to the situation of the conditioned soul and patiently waits for the soul to develop its innate love of God. He doesn’t interfere with the soul’s autonomy. Yet He doesn’t leave the conditioned soul to rot in the material world, experiencing inevitable misery. He inspires the conditioned soul to come to Him in the spiritual world, for that is the ultimate way of attaining eternal spiritual happiness.

Lord Krishna descends into this world in various incarnations, He sends His representatives, the spiritual teachers, and He makes holy scriptures available – all to educate and inspire the living entity to come to the spiritual path and voluntarily choose to become closer to Him. He leaves the decision to the living entity to make the right choice.

Thus the autonomy to go on the right or the wrong path always lies with the individual soul, who is responsible for his experiences in life, those experiences being the results of his own choices.

The Attitude of a Sensible Subordinate

The subordinate’s disposition and his or her response to correction by a superior reflect the person’s level of maturity. Intelligent and sensible subordinates are not offended by a superior’s suggestions. They are grateful to receive instructions for improvement. They are not unduly attached to their autonomy, bestowed upon them by their superiors. Such humble subordinates make the best of their superior’s experience and wisdom, becoming close to their hearts. Submissive and simple subordinates, through their loyalty to their superiors, become accomplished in their endeavors. They win trust and are empowered with more knowledge, responsibility, and opportunities to excel.

When the superior doesn’t feel confident to correct the subordinate, the subordinate loses an opportunity to grow. Brittle subordinates who are possessive and independent and don’t invite any intrusions into their autonomy, even by their experienced seniors, have little possibility to flourish. On the other hand, malleability makes a subordinate praiseworthy. That requires sacrifice and the willingness to extend oneself despite inconveniences.

The dynamics of the subordinate-superior relationship in managerial circles seem considerably different from those in spiritual circles. But obedience to a superior is a general principle, and any subordinate is benefitted by submissiveness to a well-wishing and unmotivated superior, whether a parent, a teacher, or an employer. Still, such submissiveness is especially recommended for a spiritual seeker.

In the material world, conditioned souls, due to false ego, are generally not comfortable to think of themselves as subordinate to anyone, including God. But it is in the best interest of a soul to accept subordination to God and His representatives at various levels. Submissiveness to the Supreme Lord, the bona fide spiritual master, and their transparent representatives constitutes one of the vital aspects of spiritual advancement. Srila Prabhupada writes, “A spiritual master knows very well how to engage each disciple in a particular duty, but if a disciple, thinking himself more advanced than his spiritual master, gives up his orders and acts independently, he checks his own spiritual progress.” (Chaitanya-carityamrita, Adi 7.72, Purport).

The sages of Naimisharanya praised Suta Goswami for his simplicity and his submissiveness to his superiors, who revealed all confidential secrets to him.

vettha tvam saumya tat sarvam
tattvatas tad-anugrahat
bruyuh snigdhasya shishyasya
guravo guhyam apy uta

“Because you are submissive, your spiritual masters have endowed you with all the favors bestowed upon a gentle disciple. Therefore, you can tell us all that you have scientifically learned from them.” (Bhagavatam 1.1.8)

As gold not put in fire doesn’t shine, so a disciple or subordinate who does not undergo the necessary refinement under the guidance of an expert superior doesn’t excel.

Sensible Superiors and Subordinates

Thus sensible superiors respect the autonomy of grown-up subordinates and allow them to grow without micromanaging or spoon-feeding them. They tolerate honest mistakes and if necessary gently correct their subordinates with due credit for good work performed. On the other hand, sensible subordinates are willing to be corrected by experienced superiors without getting offended. They feel fortunate to be guided and invite intrusions into their autonomy that help them improve and render better service. When such sensibleness is maintained by both superiors and subordinates – whether teacher and student, master and servant, employer and employee, or God and devotee – their relationship becomes sweet, and their interactions, free of tension and insecurity, become nourishing.

About the Author: 

Gauranga Darshana Dasa

Gauranga Darshana Dasa, a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami, is dean of the Bhaktivedanta Vidyapitha at ISKCON Govardhan Eco Village (GEV), outside Mumbai. He has written study guides, including, Bhagavata Subodhini, and Chaitanya Subodhini, and teaches Bhagavatam courses at several places in India. He also oversees the deity worship at GEV.