‘My job is to expand the mind’
Mita Kapur talks to mythologist and author Devdutt Pattanaik on his latest book, and how it places complexities in perspective.
As a reader who’s had a peep into Devdutt Pattanaik’s new book, Business Sutra: A Very Indian Approach to Management, I am taking the liberty to quote from the blurb on the book jacket simply because I can’t think of a better way to describe that he “uses stories, symbols and rituals drawn from Hindu, Jain and Buddhist mythology to understand a wide variety of business situations that range from running a successful tea stall to nurturing talent in a large multinational corporation… If we believe that wealth needs to be chased, the workplace becomes a rana-bhoomi — a battleground of investors, regulators, employers, employees, vendors, competitors and customers; if we believe that wealth needs to be attracted, the workplace becomes a ranga-bhoomi — a playground where everyone is happy. Business Sutra presents a radical and nuanced approach to management, business and leadership in a diverse, fast-changing, and increasingly polarised world.”
The linkage between mythology and business?
Myth is subjective truth. Mythology is stories, symbols and rituals (not just religious) that convey subjective truth. The study of Western mythology reveals a linear pattern that seeks an end either in a happy ending or a colossal tragedy. Modern Management reveals the same pattern. The notion of unending prosperous growth. Indian thought is just not like that. It reveals a cyclical pattern: if you take something, you have to give something, an exchange, a yagna. I am not drawing a link between business and Hindu thought alone. I am drawing attention to the link between modern thought and Biblical mythology and Greek mythology which are ignored under the veneer of logic. Surely in a global world, we need to be exposed to other ideas too.
Business and culture are intangibly connected in an Indian milieu. How does the equation between the two work?
The culture of Indra is Swarga, where there is prosperity but no peace. The culture of Shiva is Kailas where there is peace but no prosperity. The culture of Vishnu is Vaikuntha where there is prosperity and peace, but a lot of work. Culture is created by people. It does not exist outside people. Culture is created when people project their beliefs, their subjective truth, on to the world through stories, symbols and rituals. The West sees culture as an outcome of systems and processes. India sees culture as an outcome of people’s personalities. The West tends to dehumanise culture, see it independent of the human imagination. When pointed out, they try to democratise it — in other words, another process!
The concept of leadership through mythology has been worked out by you. What are the processes that led to it?
I noticed that all definitions of leadership came from Western textbooks written by European and American men. I realised that the definitions were uncannily similar to descriptions of Greek heroes and biblical prophets. Clearly, they were not as objective or universal or as culturally independent as we assume them to be.
This made me think: “What can be an Indian definition of a leader?” And strangely you realise you are force fitting a Western idea and a Western template on to Indian thoughts. Leaders exist when you need to be led. But in Indian philosophy no one can lead anyone; there is nowhere to go! The point of life is not to reach a particular point; it is to satisfy our material, emotional and intellectual hungers. He who feeds us and helps us feed ourselves is the yajaman, the closest Indian definition to leader, if one has to use that word.
The application of mythology to contemporary business practice — that is in a layman's understanding a major part of what you do — how would you explain it?
We do use mythology in contemporary business practice. We are just not aware of it. I am drawing attention to it. Showing how our mental templates, as well as our business templates, are rooted in Western myths about achievement and compliance. These form the root of the materialistic gaze and the developmental model that now forms the dominant thought process of the modern world and not necessarily leading us to a happy place.
We wonder why people at work do not take ownership or initiative, why Europe has recession (and the reason is not greed), why Americans are convinced democracy is the answer to all of the world’s problems, why Indians are not great team players in India, but great team players abroad, why the Chinese hate transparency? Answers to these questions lie in culture: mythology is the map of culture. My job is to expand the mind, explore templates beyond the Western ones, see the world very differently and find answers there that otherwise elude modern industry and society.
The Indian way of thinking vis-a-vis western thought which you have debunked in your book…
I have not debunked anything. Debunking is the Western way. Everything has its place under the sun. Indian methodology is all about inclusion. Think of the Western way as having a shelf for only a single book. The Indian way is to expand the shelf to let many books in and to use them as the situation demands. The Western way has value, so does the Chinese way, so does the Indian way, depending on context. The Western way is not interested in inclusion; it is too busy being “right”. Every company must do CSR, every company must be institutionalised; shareholder value is paramount; trust no one: hence the obsession with documentation, audit and governance; everyone must function like Americans do… we all must wear a suit to work and have “casual” Fridays to appear like corporate (neo-ritualism)… how come we don’t see lungis being encouraged on “casual” fridays, only bermudas?
The Chinese or the oriental way of functioning is another comparison that you have drawn in the Business Sutra.
If the West wants to be right, China wants order. These are two different mind-sets, hence the respective societies function very differently. Indian society wants peace, which comes at its own price. The question is what does the “global village” seek to accommodate: Western righteousness, Chinese order or Indian peace? All come at a price which no one is willing to acknowledge, or pay.
While chasing goals, you pay attention to the processes — which is one of the basic tenets you’ve examined in the book.
When your attention is on goals, you care only for the goal. People become resources. You want them to do as told. And to ensure that that happens we create processes, which are essentially methods that sideline thought and focus on action. This makes it efficient and gets us to the goal. And somewhere along the line we realise we have sacrificed relationships. The winner takes it all. But he stands alone. If that is what we want, that is what we shall get. We celebrate professionalism. Basically it does not matter what you feel, just do the task and achieve the target. A businessman is allowed to feel only after he has made his zillions; then he starts doing charity. Why was this not part of his strategy from day one? It’s all sequential, not simultaneous. Microsoft is not built as an organisation that creates wealth for social responsibility, it creates wealth for shareholders. Social responsibility is an afterthought, after you reach the real goal.
While achieving the aim, you pay attention to the evolution of the self which is very much the “Indian way”. In your entire thinking, you sound exultant and celebratory.
The point of life is not achievement. That is the Greek way — much like the Olympic games which is all about being faster, higher, stronger. The Indian way is about realising our potential and this cannot be achieved without considering those around us. So it is not about “self-actualisation”. Rather it is about “self-realisation” through “other-realisation”. Business offers the way.
What is profit then in your thinking?
Something that ensures sustainability of an ecosystem, where people can grow intellectually, emotionally and economically.
Why call it the Business Sutra?
Sutra means a string that joins the dots together to create a pattern. Sutra also means thought-provoking short sentences. The book has over a hundred sutras to provoke thought and help us rethink business.
Myths, stories, symbols take on realities and play a concrete role in your way of doing business.
Myths, stories, symbols point to the way we think. The way we think impacts how we engage with people. If we believe that business is about people, then paying attention to people’s thoughts, their myths, stories and symbols is important, no? Sadly, modern management practices that celebrate professionalism implicitly teach us that business is not a set of people; it is merely a set of tasks and targets where people are resources, means to an end. Scary!
An NGO wants to change the world. It reveals a Greek mythic pattern where humans have to stand up to the Olympian gods and rise up to become a god oneself.
Likewise a young entrepreneur wants to innovate, like a Greek hero who wants to prove to the world that he is extraordinary and earn a place for himself in Elysium, heaven of heroes.
A regulator creates a law that will create stability and peace, like the Biblical Commandments that will lead us all into the Promised Land.
But in India, many contexts exist, many yugas, exist, each demanding a different avatar. One size does not fit all. We need many gods, each to solve a different problem, deal with a different mood.