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BW Businessworld

Like Mirror Reflections

The ancient Indian texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Puranas continue to inspire both spiritual gurus and management pundits. This heritage of wisdom, they say, are like mirror images — untainted by time

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In ancient India, education was not just a means to acquire knowledge, but a path to a complete realisation and liberation of the self. The Draft National Education Policy (NEP) 2019 emphasises the need to inculcate this ancient Indian wisdom into the education system. It only echoes the preaching of sages like Swami Vivekananda.

Swami Vivekananda had said, “Education is not the amount of information that we put into your brain and runs riot there, undigested, all your life. We must have life-building, man-making, character-making assimilation of ideas. If you have assimilated five ideas and made them your life and character, you have more education than any man who has got by heart a whole library. If education is identical with information, the libraries are the greatest sages of the world and encyclopaedia are the greatest Rishis”.

This holistic approach to education applies more than ever to the study of management skills, which after all aspires to efficiently and effectively achieve organisational goals by integrating and coordinating the efforts of the workforce. Management is an interdisciplinary doctrine that draws on disciplines like psychology, social psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, economics and finance. Inducting the wisdom of the ancient Indian sages and texts into the curricula of business schools is creating a more holistic approach to the discipline, say experts on education.

The Ivy League of business schools in India, comprising the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), the Faculty of Management Studies (FMSs) or other elite institutes like MDI and KJ Somaiya Institute of Management Studies and Research, either offer the wisdom of the ancient Indian texts through workshops, seminars and select courses or are in the process of inculcating them into their curricula. During a recent interaction with BW Businessworld spiritual guru, Swami Mukundananda (an alumnus of IIT, Delhi and IIM Calcutta) emphasised that “It is important to bring up compassion among managers, ultimately they are going to have so many resources at their command. If they are going to be selfish there can be Satyam-like scandals.”

 Swami Mukundananda has recently authored the bestseller 7 Mind-sets of Success Fulfilment and Happiness. “So people need to learn value for ethics. Business schools are now doing it as one of their departments and it should be because people are learning to manage everything but not themselves,” he told BW Businessworld. “So there is a need for it. Like there is Japanese style of management, now the Indian style of management is coming up. But there is no spiritual paradigm of management. I explain how it is meant for the growth of ourselves and others,” the spiritual guru went on to say.

Management strategies

 “So, the goal of the organisation to extract money is its material perspective. But if you realise that you are also satisfying the need of the people and doing it it is a win-win situation of being social, and can add value to society as well,” he said. Swami Mukundananda is among those who see a need for the wisdom of the ancient Indian texts in B-school curricula, especially at a point in time when the global economy is once again in a tailspin. 

There has been a shake-out among the financial markets across the world ever since the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the US economy and showed concern about the debt situation of most of the developed world. Economic distress has stoked riots in the UK, rising unemployment levels and currency instability have instigated agitations in Greece and other parts of Europe. So management of enterprises needs to be inspired by wisdom now more than ever before.   

The earliest civilisations flourished because of organised human efforts. Management studies often refer to ancient scholars and philosophers of Egypt, Rome, Greece and China, but seldom to thinkers in India. Yet, but for powerful management techniques, a culturally advanced civilisation like the Indus Valley, could not have evolved. The two great Indian epics and Vedic literature vouch for the prevalence of a unique Indian culture, leadership style and management system in the subcontinent.

Numerous definitions of ‘management’ prevail, the most common is to “get things done through people”. Chester Irving Barnard, acknowledged as a pioneer in management theory and organisational studies and author of the 1938 book, The Functions of the Executive, defined management as a system of consciously coordinated activities or forces of two or more people. This presupposes an organisation as a system and that management has its origin in human civilisation.

Wisdom of the sages

In his paper, ‘Management thoughts in Puranas’, B. Mahadevan, professor of Operations Management at IIM Bangalore, speaks of ideas that can be inculcated from these ancient Indian texts. “The moot question is whether our Puranas contain useful ideas for management. A cursory glance at some portions of our Puranas will indeed, suggest that there is a rich repository of management thoughts contained in it,” Mahadevan writes in his paper.

“Management is all about dealing with a multitude of people, situations, and entities around. Since the Puranas contain a number of situations dealing with multiple entities and people, it is inevitable that they should bring management ideas to the fore,” he says, adding, “In order to understand this better, we need to delve a little bit into the manner in which the ancient Indian knowledge tradition is organised.”

Several business schools in India have turned to the ancient texts for perception and insights for tackling modern-day business challenges. A perfect example is a course on ‘Management Paradigms from Bhagavad Gita’ by Professor Mahadevan at IIM Bangalore, being offered now for over six years. Over 150 students have subscribed to this three-credit elective course.

Professor Pawan Kumar Singh, Director of MDI, Gurgaon, cautions that not every B-school had inculcated ancient Indian wisdom in their curriculum. In his words, picking out nuggets from the age-old texts was akin to “collecting pearls of wisdom from the vast reservoir of ancient wisdom”. Singh points out that the IIMs in Indore, Lucknow and Bangalore had experts on the subject and that IIM Calcutta had a dedicated block on ancient Indian wisdom and related studies.   

Professor Monica Khanna, Director of KJ Somaiya Institute of Management Studies and Research, says, “I think it is a very good idea to teach ancient Indian texts as management lessons in business schools. Since childhood, we have read and heard about the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Panchatantra and other stories from our family members, comic books, rapid reader books, television serials, radio etc.  because of which awareness about such stories definitely exists.”

“However,” she cautions, “the lessons and knowledge of wisdom that can be gleaned from these ancient Indian texts should be distilled and taught at the business schools in a relatable, rational and lucid manner, and their applications to real-world scenarios should be clearly brought out. It is difficult to get teachers who have both the knowledge and communication skills to connect and engage with budding managers,” she says. Khanna underscores the fact that these insights enrich business school teaching and help mould the thinking of budding managers with both western thought and Indian philosophy.

Mahadevan too emphasises on the need for such courses. Business management curricula provide a variety of theoretical inputs for the effective running of an organisation. In the current state of affairs, theses inputs are characterised by two peculiar aspects. Firstly, these are based mainly on the occidental “world view” and so, it is worthwhile to understand alternative world views too. 

Secondly, the current management theories are by and large prescriptions for business organisations. Even when issues pertaining to individuals are addressed, they are in the context of organisational performance. For instance, theories of motivation are developed to improve organisational performance. This overwhelming focus on organisations has over time pushed “individuals to the residual in the equations,” says Mahadevan. 

Singh says ancient Indian texts were authored by seers who had mastery over their senses and had gleaned the knowledge they preached from life. “It is more like a mirror, rather than a beautiful calendar that changes with time and becomes irrelevant with time. A mirror, on the contrary, reflects your real image and does not get affected by time. The text may be ancient in nature but not the wisdom in it because truth never turns old,” reasons Singh.

The flip side

There is a flip side to the coin as well. Professor Nisigandha Bhuyan, Associate Professor at IIM Calcutta, says there are various reasons why no concerted efforts had been made to inculcate traditional wisdom into B-school curricula. Indian B-schools, for instance, blindly follow US management school curricula, which do include courses on standard business ethics, but also propound the flawed precept that the texts are religious and so, not secular. 

Some educators interested in the rich cultural tradition of India do, however, make conscious efforts to incorporate the knowledge of the ancient Indian traditions into business practices.  Bhuyan says, “Business as a human social function should be integrated with the overall human goals of a good life.”

“The activity of profit-making or wealth creation can possibly have no other goal and it is not done just for the sake of it,” she goes on to say. “The activities of the business should be carried out with utmost importance for the preservation and protection of nature,” adds Bhuyan. 

Incidentally, more and more students are flocking to courses on the wisdom of the ancient Indian texts. So, perhaps there is a realisation among the modern youth that the teachings embedded in the ancient tomes are that “mirror that reflects a true image” and so have not changed with culture or time. 

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