Leadership and War in Mythology

I had so much to learn back then. I thought that being a man meant putting yourself first and bullying others into following you, no matter what the cost. Now I understand that being a man means taking responsibility, and taking charge as a leader, so that others will follow you of their own volition.

Planet Mars from Dipa Sanatani’s The Little Light

The other night, I lay awake late at night with Dipa Sanatani’s The Little Light. At first glance, it is a whimsical tale of a soul—known as The Little Light—that meets the planets before it is born. As I dived deeper into the story, I discovered archetypal characters whom I had either known in real life as well as others that I found myself identifying with.

Each planet–or archetypal character–has its own light and its own shadow. It seems that one does not exist without the other. It is true for the myths and it is true for us.

The personification of the Planet Mars, in particular, shed light on the leadership journey of a young boy growing into a man. I saw myself reflected in the character of Mars. By the time we meet him, he is a leader who has earned the respect of those around him. He is the de-facto ‘Commander-in-Chief’ of the planets. He is resolute, tall, strong and brave.

But he did not start out that way.

The element of fire that is linked to Planet Mars is a highly unstable element. In the Greek Myths, Prometheus defined the Gods and gifted humans with fire—much to the irritation and astonishment of the Gods who resided on Olympus. For this act of rebellion, Prometheus is sentenced to eternal torment. He is bound to a rock. An eagle—the emblem of Zeus—is sent to eat his immortal liver each day. His liver would grow back overnight, only to be eaten again the next day in an ongoing cycle.

Fire is a consuming force. In the myths, fire is but one of the multitude of gifts that Prometheus gave humanity. Interestingly, almost all of the skills Prometheus taught humanity do not rely on fire. Fire, then, is is not the impetus behind all human progress, but a symbol of all technological and artistic advancement.

The Higher Purpose of War

In The Little Light, Mars is a warrior. A soldier. A fighter. But it takes him a while to channel that inner aggression for a higher purpose. This is true for most of us who are fighting for a cause. Do we fight for the sake of fighting; or we do we channel our inner fire towards creating much-needed change in society?

A vast majority of the world’s population will not willingly choose to fight. Since WWII, peace is a higher virtue than war. Due to the widespread destruction that ensued after the colonial era, we don’t see the purpose or the point in fighting–or even forcing able-bodied young men to fight.

Conscription is the mandatory enlistment of people in national service, most often in the military. The practise dates back to antiquity and continues to present day. Many countries no longer practise mandatory conscription and instead rely on those who feel called to serve their country. To serve the country is to protect the land and its people.

Mandatory conscription has been criticised by feminists and opponents of discrimination against men. They believe it normalises male violence and socialises young men into patriarchal gender roles. Yet, war was not always a man’s domain. The ancient Hindu myths draw our attention to Kali, the Goddess of Destruction. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment was the Women’s Regiment of the Indian National Army. The armed force was formed by Indian nationalists in 1942 in Southeast Asia with the aim of overthrowing the British Raj in colonial India with Japanese assistance. It was one of the very few all-female combat regiments of the Second World War on any side.

In this world, we all have to fight for something. As peace-loving as we all may claim to be, we must know that sometimes peace the byproduct of war; and not the absence of it. In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred texts of Hinduism, it is recognised that there can be situations when waging war is a better path than tolerating evil.

During the battle of Kurukshetra, Arjuna–the protagonist of the Mahabharata–realises that many of his kinsmen and old friends are among the ranks of the enemy. He is distressed by the fact that part of his duty as a warrior is to kill those he loves. Unable to bear the burden of this decision, he refuses to fight and says that he does not “desire any subsequent victory, kingdom, or happiness.” Arjuna questions, “How could we be happy by killing our own kinsmen?”

The Bhagavad Gita is not pro-war. The act of war is neither sanctioned, condoned nor celebrated. The purpose of war is to fight evil and injustice; it does not exist for the purpose of aggression or terrorising people. 

War is fundamentally about peace.


13 thoughts on “Leadership and War in Mythology

  1. A captivating read on youth leadership. Leaders are usually portrayed as these old learned men and women. But our leadership journey starts in youth. I found your thoughts on war beneficial in understanding the big picture.


  2. Conscription is mandatory in Singapore, Israel and many other countries. In smaller countries, there is no choice but to have mandatory conscription as it is more difficult to get volunteers. Each nation usually has its own policy for defence based on the likelihood of war. Aggression and terrorism is not condoned anywhere that I know of; but human nature is such that greed has a way of driving progress. I don’t like it either, but that’s life. War is sometimes necessary and cannot be entirely avoided. I think if a country has excellent defence in terms of an army then the likelihood of aggression from external parties is strongly reduced. It is in everyone’s best interest to invest in defence.


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