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“Bhagavad Gita Has No Lessons For Business Managers; It Has Lessons For Everyone”

The moksha dharma texts supplement these kinds of texts, not contradict them. I am bemused when I see books titled “Bhagavad Gita for business schools” or “Bhagavad Gita for managers’.

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When I use the word texts, I mean Sanskrit texts, the ones I am more familiar with.  Many of these texts are about dharma, dharma permeates them.  The word dharma is difficult to translate in English.  It means different things in different contexts.  All too often, it is interpreted as moksha dharma, the dharma that leads to emancipation, liberation from human existence and the cycle of birth and death.  Therefore, if one is asked about texts of Hinduism, one will be referred to the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads, perhaps the Bhagavad Gita.  Very few people can hope to attain moksha.  The vast majority of people, then and now, are engaged in earning wealth, hopefully legitimately.  They pursue the three objectives of artha, kama and dharma (interpreted as the dharma of householders).  Hinduism is often assumed to be other worldly because one looks at the wrong texts.  The texts I mentioned earlier are about moksha dharma. Therefore, they aren’t expected to describe what householders and communities in garhasthya (the householder stage) should do.  The dharmashastra texts, the nitishastra texts and itihasa (Ramayana/Mahabharata) and Puranas explain that kind of dharma and it is anything but other worldly.  Business schools should teach these and managers should read these.  They are encyclopaedias and simple retelling of stories robs them of their essence.  They are much more than stories.

Every society functions under a given set of laws and rules.  Today, our basic framework is the Constitution and there are the three organs of executive, legislature and judiciary.  At that time, there was no question of law being codified.  As is normal in common law traditions, society’s laws were laid down in the texts I have just mentioned.  In those days, the counterpart of today’s government was the king and what the king did was part of governance.  If asked about the governance template of those times, most people will mention Kautilya’s Arthashastra.  That is true, but there was a long tradition of arthashastra texts, Kautilya being only one.  Arthashastra doctrines figured in other texts, such as when Bhishma lay down on his bed of arrows and instructed Yudhishthira in Shanti Parva and Anushasana Parva of the Mahabharata.  Until 1905, Kautilya’s Arthashastra had vanished.  There were references to it, but the text had disappeared.  Now that it has been rediscovered and translated, everyone refers to it.  A large part of our knowledge was disseminated through oral transmission.  That is fast disappearing.  Of the written texts that remain, 95% have not yet been translated into any language, not just English.  So before business schools teach them and managers read them, they need to be translated.  It would be a travesty if we rediscover them after the West has rediscovered them.

Business and enterprise flourish in an institutional context where different agents have roles.  At one polar end, not that such an ideal polar end exists in real life, there is the market-based capitalist society, where allocation decisions are taken by individual agents, that is, the market.  At the other polar end, there is the centrally-planned socialist/communist society, where allocation decisions are taken by the State.  Our texts prescribe a different kind of template, in between the two polar extremes.  The king/State had a limited role – external and internal security, punishing the wicked, protecting the virtuous, protecting property rights and ensuring justice delivery.  The individual householder followed the norms of good behaviour (sadachara).  Part of that good behaviour was ishta (performing sacrifices and donating) and purti (civic works).  It was done as part of good conduct, determined, as I mentioned earlier, by common law.  It wasn’t done because of the stick of corporate social responsibility.  Since people followed the common law, codification wasn’t necessary.  Between the king/State and the individual householder, there was the community.  We no longer remember how much was naturally done by the community then.  Skill development, MRP (maximum retail price), clamping down on unfair and restrictive business practices was done by shrenis (loosely translated as guilds).  Often, we complain about unnecessary State intervention, through legislation and the judiciary.  More often than not, this occurs because the community has abdicated its responsibility.  One is not talking about an ideal construct that existed a couple of thousands of years ago.  The British authored district gazetteers for many of India’s districts.  Those describe community practices that flourished as late as the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In other words, we had a template of delivering artha, kama and dharma, that was neither “capitalist”, nor “socialist”.

The moksha dharma texts supplement these kinds of texts, not contradict them. I am bemused when I see books titled “Bhagavad Gita for business schools” or “Bhagavad Gita for managers’.

Who am I?  Why am I here?  Where will I go?  That’s the kind of question moksha dharma texts seek to answer.  The answer fundamentally comes from within oneself, through internal reflection.

These texts are about improving one’s own self, not about relationships with the external world and external objects.  To the extent they enable a person to become a better human being and focus less on the transient, they naturally improve relationships with the external world, with parents, offspring, subordinates and superiors.  Therefore, at the risk of sounding completely contrarian, the Bhagavad Gita has no lessons for a business manager.  Such tempting titles make books sell better.  That’s about all.  However, the Bhagavad Gita has lessons for everyone, for every individual.  In the process, you not only become a better business manager, you become a better consumer too.  But the text, like any other text, is no magic wand.  The effectiveness of a message depends on the sender/transmitter, as well as the receiver.  If the receiver isn’t ready, the message will be wasted.  In other words, nothing is achieved by making a fetish out of reading the Bhagavad Gita. Adi Shankaracharya’s bhajan govindam stotram has the following phrase. भगवद्गीताकिञ्चिदधीता. Loosely translated, “Such people have read a little bit of the Bhagavad Gita”.   As Adi Shankaracharya suggested, this achieves nothing.

(Debroy, Chairman, EAC-PM, is also a renowned Sanskrit scholar. He has translated The Bhagavad Gita into English, and the volume has been brought out by Penguin) 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Dr Bibek Debroy

Bibek Debroy is an economist and was educated in Ramakrishna Mission School, Narendrapur; Presidency College, Kolkata; Delhi School of Economics and Trinity College, Cambridge

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