The 18th Horse


Ancient Wisdom for Modern Management….


Once upon a time, long ago, a Spiritual Master was near death and wanted to make sure his three disciples would come under the guidance of another Spiritual Master after he passed away. He had accumulated 17 horses during his life by way of gifts given by his followers, so he laid down the following instructions for his disciples:


On my death, the three of you shall divide the 17 horses in the following proportions: the eldest disciple shall have half of them, the middle in age disciple shall have one-third, and the youngest shall have one-ninth.


He died soon after writing this bequest, leaving the disciples in a dilemma, so they sought out advice from learned men for how to interpret these instructions. Someone told them just to make the nearest possible division, while another told them to own the horses communally until they reproduced. A clever trader said they should just sell the horses and divide the proceeds among themselves, and a wizened old judge advised them that the bequest was null and void because it couldn’t be executed.

The three disciples weren’t happy with any of these suggestions, sensing that their master must have had some deeper and more helpful lesson in mind for them. But what exactly was that lesson?


Lesson 1: Remain Open-Minded

One obvious lesson the disciples learnt from their master’s instructions was that seeking advice and wisdom from others will always broaden their perspectives. No one ever has a monopoly on the truth, no matter how quick or smart they are. Genuine wisdom requires humility in the face of life’s many complexities, so a wise person not only knows how to tolerate and learn from diverse points of view but actually seeks them out.

This is as true in business as it is in life. Rather than seeking information to confirm his or her own current beliefs, a good manager actively looks for conflicting information – facts, information, or contrary perspectives that challenge these beliefs. Very few business decisions ever involve Absolute Truth. A business decision almost always boils down to a matter of opinion. Not only that, but the actual outcome of any decision will have just as much to do with the random and unforeseen events that surround it as with the intellectual prowess of the decision-maker, so a good manager always prepares for the unexpected.


Lesson 2: Have Patience

Something else the disciples learnt was patience. Their dilemma was significant and they certainly wanted to resolve it, but there was no urgency to the issue. For today’s managers, learning how to be patient is perhaps more important than ever before, given the fast pace of business and the proliferation of data and information. Every time our inbox is refreshed it produces a new batch of issues commanding our immediate attention. Figuring out not just how to prioritize, but how to “let go” of the unimportant issues while showing patience for the truly important ones is a skill that would come in handy for most bottom-line obsessed, goal-oriented, time-stressed up-and-comers today.


The Dilemma Resolved

In the end, our three disciples did find the answer to their Master’s challenge. After much searching, a wise old man solved the riddle for them:


Although I only have one horse myself, I will lend it to you so you now have 18 horses. The eldest disciple should then be given half of 18, or 9 horses. The middle disciple should get one-third of 18, or 6 horses, and the youngest disciple should get one-ninth of 18, or 2 horses. Now adding this up – 9 plus 6 plus 2 is equal to 17 and this leaves just one horse, which is mine and you can return it to me then.”

This was how the three disciples found their new Spiritual Master. It also taught them one final lesson.


Lesson 3: Share

Sharing with others is a natural human urge and it is becoming an increasingly vital idea as the cost of interacting continues to plummet and we all have the ability to maintain much more robust and diverse networks of friends and colleagues. The urge to share comes largely from the human instinct for empathy, and empathy and trust are becoming ever more important to people as we become more and more technologically connected.

It is the human instinct for sharing that drives our willingness to create Wikipedia articles, to post product reviews or comments on e-commerce sites, or to work for free on open-source software projects. So we should think carefully about how our customers’ and our employees’ own urge to share might be used to benefit our business in the e-social age. How can we do a better job empathizing with our customers?

Sharing comes from empathy, and for a business empathy is the ultimate form of customer insight.


The attitude of negotiation and problem solving is to find the 18th horse, that is, the common ground. Once a person is able to find the 18th horse the issue is resolved. It is difficult at times. However, to reach a solution, the first step is to believe that there is a solution. If we think that there is no solution, we won’t be able to reach any!


Ancient wisdom can often be very useful even in modern situations. Technology may gallop along, but wisdom is timeless.


The story of the 18th horse is often quoted in Vedaanta in different ways to explain the concept of the Sanskrit word “maayaa” (माया), which means – “yaa maa sa maayaa” (या मा सः माया) – that which is not is maayaa. The concept of maayaa is brought in to resolve the inexplicable issues like creation, for the time being, for the sake of spiritual seekers, who are at the moment in ignorance; like the 18th horse is added to solve the problem and having solved the problem it is taken away.

How can a non-dual, supreme, infinite entity ever have a desire to create or manifest as numerous names and forms? It is not possible. Desires manifest only in finite entities. But we do experience creation, even though it does not have absolute reality; it has only a relative reality. So it is said that it is the play of maayaa Shakti / माया शक्ति (the power of “divine hypnosis”). This is a temporary explanation given to the spiritual seekers until they realize the Absolute Truth and transcend the relative existence. Once they gain Self-Knowledge it is realized thatmaayaa” is non-existent.

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