By Gauranga Darshan Das

Exploring the anatomy of a superior-subordinate  relationship with the dynamics of subordinate’s autonomy and superior’s sensitivity.

How would you feel when your senior 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 wouldn’t interfere with your autonomy?

Interference with Independence

Every individual has an independence and he or she loves to exercise that autonomy without much interruption. However, does everyone have the necessary maturity and intellectual bandwidth to utilize one’s independence constructively? May be not! Therefore, corrections from a more experienced person are necessary. It is certainly within the responsibility and authority of a guardian to correct the dependents when they commit mistakes. This avoids unwarranted disasters. Śrīla Prabhupāda quotes Cāṇakya Paṇḍita to explain this –

lālane bahavo doṣās  tāḍane bahavo guṇāḥ
tasmāt putraṁ ca śiṣyam ca  tāḍayen na tu lālayet

“Pampering a subordinate will increase his faults. And chastising him will increase his good qualities. So, a teacher should chastise a student and a father should chastise a child and not pamper them unduly.”

Thus undue leniency from the side of a guru or an elder could lead to many faults in a youngster. This moral instruction by Cāṇakya Paṇḍita is especially applicable while training a novice.

Fortified or Mortified?

A humble and intelligent subordinate feels fortified or protected by the caring interventions of a responsible superior who helps him improve with timely suggestions. Thus correcting the fault of a subordinate is good, but is it necessary always? May be not! Corrective actions sometimes could turn out to be dreadful when it diminishes the inspiration and enthusiasm of the subordinate to work further.

It is also the responsibility of a superior to keep his subordinate inspired and enthused to continue the work or service. That requires to allow him to grow organically by even learning from his own mistakes. A father could easily tell the answer for a simple addition or multiplication that his child is attempting to do, but unless he restrains himself from doing so, the child may not learn mathematics only. Thus too much of rectification form an elder could limit the independent thoughtfulness of a learner. Sometimes grown up children get ashamed and bothered when mothers instruct them in doing trivial things. Sometimes, they feel restricted and mortified with the undue intrusions into their autonomy. Thus correction cannot be imposed, especially on upon a grown up subordinate.

A senior cannot always expect one’s junior to agree to his instructions, by exercising his authority arbitrarily. He should be willing to hear the subordinate’s thoughts, opinions and preferences. And if the subordinate is not inspired to render a service for a genuine reason, the superior should be willing to accommodate. When Lord Brahmā instructed the four Kumāras to create progeny, they denied expressing their desire to be permanent celibates and dedicating their lives for spiritual realization. Although slightly disturbed, Brahmā ultimately respected their desire and continued to be affectionate towards 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. Cāṇakya Paṇḍita has said,

lālayet pañca-varṣāṇi, daśa-varṣāṇi tādayet
prāpte tu ṣodaśe varṣe, putram mitravad ācaret

“Fondle a son until he is five years of age and then use the stick for another ten years. When he has attained the sixteenth year, however, treat him as a friend.”

When the student is very new and young, the teacher may encourage him and tolerate his innocent mistakes and if required correct him very lovingly. But when the student becomes little older and intimate, the teacher may frankly and strictly correct his mistakes. And when the student is quite grown up and experienced, the guide should minimize his supervision on him, treating him like a friend, trying to accept him the way he is. Micromanaging his activities might dishearten and demotivate him and could restrict his creativity. Thus the superior needs to avoid imposing his feedbacks upon him, but only inspire him with one’s personal example. If necessary, suggestions may be given occasionally in an acceptable manner with due acknowledgements to his accomplishments, experience and status.

Capable yet Sensible

When a subordinate’s decisions and actions produce negative outcomes, it is necessary for a superior to counteract them and correct him. But in the process of correction, if the superior surpasses the subordinate’s autonomy and invalidates him in front of his juniors, the subordinate feels mortified and his juniors would lose respect for him. That discourages and demotivates him to work further, for he is humiliated in front of his own dependents. Thus he might withdraw himself or may not continue to interact with the superior as before. However, a sensible senior counteracts the negative results of a subordinate’s actions, with minimal intrusion to his autonomy, thus facilitating pleasant future interactions.

The Supreme Personality of Godhead Viṣṇu is the master of the spiritual and the material worlds. All the demigods like Brahmā, Śiva, Indra, Candra, Varuṇa, Vāyu holding various posts in the universal administrative system, are the servants of Lord Viṣṇu. Viṣṇu is beyond all the rules and conditions administered by the subordinate demigods, and he has all the power and authority to kill any miscreant without paying any heed to the protective benedictions offered to him 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. Some examples emphasize this quality of sensitivity to be shown by a superior.

Examples for Emphasis

Counteractions that Continue Interactions

Desiring to become immortal, Hiraṇyakaśipu, the king of the demons, performed severe austerities to please Lord Brahmā. He asked Brahmā for the boon of having no death within or outside any residence, during the daytime or at night, on the ground or in the sky, by any weapon, human being or an animal. Brahmā was obliged and granted him the benediction, cautioning him not to misuse it. Puffed up, Hiraṇyakaśipu caused turbulence all over the universe. When he tried to kill his own five-year old son, Prahlada, who worshiped Lord Viṣṇu, the Supreme Lord appeared from a pillar. He manifested in the most wonderful form that was never seen before, as half man and half lion – Nṛsimhadeva and killed Hiranyakasipu at the time of sunset, which is neither daytime nor night; by placing him on His lap, which is neither earth nor sky; at his doorstep, which is neither inside nor outside a residence; and piercing his abdomen with the weapons of His nails. Thus the Lord not only protected His devotee Prahlāda, but also respected the benedictions of His other devotee Brahmā, although He was never bound to abide his statements. Later Lord Nṛsimha cautioned Brahmā not to offer such benedictions to demoniac people again. (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 7.2-10)

Lord Brahmā also gave a boon to another demon called Rāvaṇa that he wouldn’t be killed by anyone except a human being or a monkey. In fact, Rāvaṇa was so puffed up that he thought humans and monkeys are so insignificant that they cannot harm him in any way. Preserving the promise of Brahmā, the Supreme Lord incarnated as an ideal human being Lord Rāmacandra and killed Rāvaṇa with the help of monkey soldiers. (Rāmāyaṇa)

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

Patience to Repeatedly Rectify

Once Indra became puffed up due to his material opulence. To humble him, Kṛṣṇa suggested the Vraja-vāsis, the residents of Vṛndāvana, to stop Indra-pūja and perform Govardhana-pūja. Indra became enraged and sent samvartaka clouds that are meant for universal devastation, to inundate Vṛndāvana. To protect Vraja-vāsīs from the wrath of Indra, Kṛṣṇa lifted the Govardhan Hill for seven days, and defeated Indra. Indra became ashamed and fearful of Kṛṣṇa. Kṛṣṇa, not to further embarrass Indra, went to a secluded place to give Indra a private audience. On Surabhi’s recommendation Indra approached Krsna. In fear of punishment, he begged for forgiveness for his offence and offered prayers. Lord Kṛṣṇa gave him a warning note and allowed him to continue his universal administration services as the king of heavens. (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 10.24-27)

Although Indra begged forgiveness, it was more to avoid punishment from Lord Kṛṣṇa and it wasn’t that sincere. The proof of this is seen when he prepared himself to fight with Kṛṣṇa when Kṛṣṇa wanted to take Pārijāta tree from the heaven to please His wife Satyabhāmā. Again Kṛṣṇa had to teach a lesson to Indra by defeating him. Yet Kṛṣṇa allowed Indra to continue in his exalted post. (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 10.59)

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

Forgiveness for Honest Repentance

Once, Lord Brahmā stole the cowherd boyfriends and calves of Lord Kṛṣṇa in Vṛndāvana to test Him. Understanding the mischief of Brahmā, Kṛṣṇa expanded Himself into an equal number of boys and calves, exactly replicating all of their physical features and behaviors. After one year, Brahmā returned only to be astonished to see all the boys and calves with Kṛṣṇa normally. Then to enlighten Brahmā, Kṛṣṇa caused all the boys and calves to manifest as four-handed Viṣṇus and also exhibited His opulences in front of him. Brahmā came to his senses, realizing his mistake of underestimating the potency of the Supreme Personality of Godhead Kṛṣṇa. He then honestly repented and offered heartfelt prayers to Kṛṣṇa seeking forgiveness. Kṛṣṇa mercifully forgave Brahmā and kindly sent him back to resume his services as the universal creator with his God-given autonomy. Thus as a mature master, Lord Kṛṣṇa forgave the mischief of Brahmā that served as a great unforgettable lesson for him. (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 10.13-14)

Allowing Growth Through Honest Mistakes

Sometimes it is beneficial for the youngster to learn from his own experiences rather than being told by an elder always. For example, a child who is just attempting to walk may be initially offered support by the mother’s loving hand. However, the mother has to gradually allow the child to walk independently without her assistance. That might also require her to witness the child’s falling down sometimes in his endeavors to stand and walk. If she always lifts and carries the child, probably the child will never learn to walk!

Assisting in the time of need

Although a superior is competent and could accomplish things on his own, he still allows his dependents to endeavor on their own. Thus he restrains from spoon-feeding the subordinate, yet he is willing to assist them when they are in need of help. Once the demigods, the universal administrators, being defeated by the demons, approached the Supreme Lord Viṣṇu for help. Although the Lord could just reinstate them in their positions in a moment, he told them to make truce with the demons and churn the milk ocean to get nectar. And during their attempts in the churning, He supported them in various ways. Thus the demons and the 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 lady, Mohinī-mūrtī, enticed the demons and took the nectar pot away from them and distributed it to the demigods. (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 8.7-9)

Summary of a Sensitive Superior’s Dealings

Mature masters exhibit patience and perseverance in training and correcting their dependents. A sensible superior does the needful to rectify the shortcomings of a subordinate, through feedbacks, counteractions, cautions or punishments – whatever works as per time, place and circumstances. They teach their juniors with a well-wishing heart, empathy and affection and not in a whimsical, grudging and egoistic manner to arbitrarily establish one’s superiority, by disturbing the subordinates’ autonomy. They keep the subordinate inspired to continue to work and not demotivate or discourage him through undue intrusions into his autonomy. Rather than imposing their opinions upon their juniors, they inspire them with their personal example.

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

Use or Misuse of Autonomy

It is in the real self-interest of the soul to take shelter of the Supreme Lord Kṛṣṇa. The constitutional position of the living entity is to eternally love Kṛṣṇa and serve Kṛṣṇa. But in the conditioned state, the soul’s loving propensity and service attitude are covered due to his misuse of the God-given autonomy. If Kṛṣṇa 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 Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa is ecstatic to receive and reciprocate with that loving service.

Thus Kṛṣṇa is sensible to the situation of the conditioned soul and patiently waits for the living entity to develop his innate love of God, and doesn’t interfere with his autonomy, although He is capable. Yet He doesn’t leave the conditioned soul to rot in this material world experiencing the threefold miseries. He inspires the conditioned soul to come back to Him in the spiritual world, for it is the ultimate way of attaining eternal spiritual happiness. Lord Kṛṣṇa 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 Kṛṣṇa. Despite this He leaves the decision to the living entity to make the choose.

Thus the autonomy to go on the right or wrong paths always lies with the individual soul, and he is the one who is responsible for his experiences in life that are the results of his own choices.

Attitude of a Sensible Subordinate

The disposition of a subordinate and his response to a correction from a superior reflects his maturity level. Intelligent and sensible subordinates do not get offended by a superior’s suggestions. They become grateful to receive instructions for improvement. They do not become unduly attached to their autonomy that is in turn bestowed upon them by the superiors. Such humble subordinates make the best benefit out of their superior’s experience and wisdom, becoming close to their hearts. Submissive and simple subordinates, through their loyalty to their masters, become accomplished in their endeavors. They win the trust of their seniors who empower them with more knowledge, responsibility and opportunities to excel.

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

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

In the material world, a conditioned soul, due to his false ego, is generally not comfortable to think of oneself as a ‘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 constitute one of the vital aspects of spiritual advancement. Śrīla Prabhupāda 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.” (CC Ādi 7.72 Purport).

The sages of Naimiśāraṇya praised Sūta Gosvāmī for his simplicity and submissiveness to his superiors who revealed all confidential secrets to him.

vettha tvaṁ saumya tat sarvaṁ  tattvatas tad-anugrahāt
brūyuḥ snigdhasya śiṣyasya  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.” (SB 1.1.8)

Unless a vegetable is boiled in water or fried oil, it doesn’t give taste to the tongue. Unless gold is put in fire, it doesn’t shine. Unless a disciple or subordinate undergoes the necessary refinement under the guidance of an expert superior he doesn’t excel.


Thus a sensible superior respects the autonomy of a grown up subordinate and allows him to grow without micromanaging or spoon feeding him. He tolerates his honest mistakes and if necessary gently corrects them with due credits to the good work performed. On the other hand, a sensible subordinate is willing to be corrected by an experienced superior without getting offended. He feels fortunate to be guided and invites intrusions into his autonomy that help him improve and render better services. When such sensitivity 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 become nourishing without unnecessary tensions and insecurity.

Gauranga Darshan Das, a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami, is Dean of the Bhaktivedanta Vidyapitha at ISKCON Govardhan Eco Village (GEV), outside Mumbai. He has made study guides including Bhagavata Subodhini and Caitanya Subodhini. He teaches Bhagavatam courses at several places in India and oversees the deity worship at GEV.

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