M.P. Bhattathiri applies principles from the Bhagavad Gita to management.
Management has become a part and parcel of everyday life, be it at home, in the office or factory and in Government. In all organizations, where a group of human beings assemble for a common purpose, management principles come into play through the management of resources, finance and planning, priorities, policies and practice. Management is a systematic way of carrying out activities in any field of human effort.
Its task is to make people capable of joint performance, to make their weaknesses irrelevant, says the Management Guru Peter Drucker. It creates harmony in working together – equilibrium in thoughts and actions, goals and achievements, plans and performance, products and markets. It resolves situations of scarcity, be they in the physical, technical or human fields, through maximum utilization with the minimum available processes to achieve the goal. Lack of management causes disorder, confusion, wastage, delay, destruction and even depression. Managing men, money and materials in the best possible way, according to circumstances and environment, is the most important and essential factor for a successful management.
Management guidelines from the Bhagavad Gita
There is an important distinction between effectiveness and efficiency in managing.
- Effectiveness is doing the right things.
- Efficiency is doing things right.
The general principles of effective management can be applied in every field, the differences being more in application than in principle. The Manager’s functions can be summed up as:
- Forming a vision
- Planning the strategy to realize the vision.
- Cultivating the art of leadership.
- Establishing institutional excellence.
- Building an innovative organization.
- Developing human resources.
- Building teams and teamwork.
- Delegation, motivation, and communication.
- Reviewing performance and taking corrective steps when called for.
Thus, management is a process of aligning people and getting them committed to work for a common goal to the maximum social benefit – in search of excellence.
The critical question in all managers’ minds is how to be effective in their job. The answer to this fundamental question is found in the Bhagavad Gita, which repeatedly proclaims that “you must try to manage yourself.” The reason is that unless a manager reaches a level of excellence and effectiveness, he or she will be merely a face in the crowd.
Old truths in a new context
The Bhagavad Gita, written thousands of years ago, enlightens us on all managerial techniques leading us towards a harmonious and blissful state of affairs in place of the conflict, tensions, poor productivity, absence of motivation and so on, common in most of Indian enterprises today — and probably in enterprises in many other countries.
The modern (Western) management concepts of vision, leadership, motivation, excellence in work, achieving goals, giving work meaning, decision making and planning, are all discussed in the Bhagavad Gita. There is one major difference. While Western management thought too often deals with problems at material, external and peripheral levels, the Bhagavad Gita tackles the issues from the grass roots level of human thinking. Once the basic thinking of man is improved, it will automatically enhance the quality of his actions and their results.
The management philosophy emanating from the West, is based on the lure of materialism and on a perennial thirst for profit, irrespective of the quality of the means adopted to achieve that goal. This phenomenon has its source in the abundant wealth of the West and so ‘management by materialism’ has caught the fancy of all the countries the world over, India being no exception to this trend. My country, India, has been in the forefront in importing these ideas mainly because of its centuries old indoctrination by colonial rulers, which has inculcated in us a feeling that anything Western is good and anything Indian is inferior.
The result is that, while huge funds have been invested in building temples of modem management education, no perceptible changes are visible in the improvement of the general quality of life – although the standards of living of a few has gone up. The same old struggles in almost all sectors of the economy, criminalization of institutions, social violence, exploitation and other vices are seen deep in the body politic.
The source of the problem
The reasons for this sorry state of affairs are not far to seek. The Western idea of management centers on making the worker (and the manager) more efficient and more productive. Companies offer workers more to work more, produce more, sell more and to stick to the organization without looking for alternatives. The sole aim of extracting better and more work from the worker is to improve the bottom-line of the enterprise. The worker has become a hireable commodity, which can be used, replaced and discarded at will.
Thus, workers have been reduced to the state of a mercantile product. In such a state, it should come as no surprise to us that workers start using strikes (gheraos) sit-ins, (dharnas) go-slows, work-to-rule etc. to get maximum benefit for themselves from the organizations. Society-at-large is damaged. Thus we reach a situation in which management and workers become separate and contradictory entities with conflicting interests. There is no common goal or understanding. This, predictably, leads to suspicion, friction, disillusion and mistrust, with managers and workers at cross purposes. The absence of human values and erosion of human touch in the organizational structure has resulted in a crisis of confidence.
Western management philosophy may have created prosperity — for some people some of the time at least – but it has failed in the aim of ensuring betterment of individual life and social welfare. It has remained by and large a soulless edifice and an oasis of plenty for a few in the midst of poor quality of life for many.
Hence, there is an urgent need to re-examine prevailing management disciplines – their objectives, scope and content. Management should be redefined to underline the development of the worker as a person, as a human being, and not as a mere wage-earner. With this changed perspective, management can become an instrument in the process of social, and indeed national, development.
Now let us re-examine some of the modern management concepts in the light of the Bhagavad Gita which is a primer of management-by-values.
Utilization of available resources
The first lesson of management science is to choose wisely and utilize scarce resources optimally. During the curtain raiser before the Mahabharata War, Duryodhana chose Sri Krishna’s large army for his help while Arjuna selected Sri Krishna’s wisdom for his support. This episode gives us a clue as to the nature of the effective manager – the former chose numbers, the latter, wisdom.
Attitudes towards work
Three stone-cutters were engaged in erecting a temple. An HRD Consultant asked them what they were doing. The response of the three workers to this innocent-looking question is illuminating.
- ‘I am a poor man. I have to maintain my family. I am making a living here,’ said the first stone-cutter with a dejected face.
- ‘Well, I work because I want to show that I am the best stone-cutter in the country,’ said the second one with a sense of pride.
- ‘Oh, I want to build the most beautiful temple in the country,’ said the third one with a visionary gleam.
Their jobs were identical but their perspectives were different. What the Gita tells us is to develop the visionary perspective in the work we do. It tells us to develop a sense of larger vision in our work for the common good.
A popular verse of the Gita advises “detachment” from the fruits or results of actions performed in the course of one’s duty. Being dedicated work has to mean “working for the sake of work, generating excellence for its own sake.” If we are always calculating the date of promotion or the rate of commission before putting in our efforts, then such work is not detached. It is not “generating excellence for its own sake” but working only for the extrinsic reward that may (or may not) result.
Working only with an eye to the anticipated benefits, means that the quality of performance of the current job or duty suffers – through mental agitation of anxiety for the future. In fact, the way the world works means that events do not always respond positively to our calculations and hence expected fruits may not always be forthcoming. So, the Gita tells us not to mortgage present commitment to an uncertain future.
Some people might argue that not seeking the business result of work and actions, makes one unaccountable. In fact, the Bhagavad Gita is full of advice on the theory of cause and effect, making the doer responsible for the consequences of his deeds. While advising detachment from the avarice of selfish gains in discharging one’s accepted duty, the Gita does not absolve anybody of the consequences arising from discharge of his or her responsibilities.
Thus the best means of effective performance management is the work itself. Attaining this state of mind (called “nishkama karma“) is the right attitude to work because it prevents the ego, the mind, from dissipation of attention through speculation on future gains or losses.
Motivation — self and self-transcendence
It has been presumed for many years that satisfying lower order needs of workers – adequate food, clothing and shelter, etc. are key factors in motivation. However, it is a common experience that the dissatisfaction of the clerk and of the Director is identical – only their scales and composition vary. It should be true that once the lower-order needs are more than satisfied, the Director should have little problem in optimizing his contribution to the organization and society. But more often than not, it does not happen like that. (“The eagle soars high but keeps its eyes firmly fixed on the dead animal below.“) On the contrary, a lowly paid schoolteacher, or a self-employed artisan, may well demonstrate higher levels of self-actualization despite poorer satisfaction of their lower-order needs.
This situation is explained by the theory of self-transcendence propounded in the Gita. Self-transcendence involves renouncing egoism, putting others before oneself, emphasizing team work, dignity, co-operation, harmony and trust — and, indeed potentially sacrificing lower needs for higher goals, the opposite of Maslow.
“Work must be done with detachment.” It is the ego that spoils work and the ego is the centerpiece of most theories of motivation. We need not merely a theory of motivation but a theory of inspiration.
The Great Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941, known as “Gurudev”) says working for love is freedom in action. A concept which is described as “disinterested work” in the Gita where Sri Krishna says,
“He who shares the wealth generated only after serving the people, through work done as a sacrifice for them, is freed from all sins. On the contrary those who earn wealth only for themselves, eat sins that lead to frustration and failure.”
Disinterested work finds expression in devotion, surrender and equipoise. The former two are psychological while the third is determination to keep the mind free of the dualistic (usually taken to mean “materialistic”) pulls of daily experiences. Detached involvement in work is the key to mental equanimity or the state of “nirdwanda.” This attitude leads to a stage where the worker begins to feel the presence of the Supreme Intelligence guiding the embodied individual intelligence. Such de-personified intelligence is best suited for those who sincerely believe in the supremacy of organizational goals as compared to narrow personal success and achievement.
An effective work culture is about vigorous and arduous efforts in pursuit of given or chosen tasks. Sri Krishna elaborates on two types of work culture — “daivi sampat” or divine work culture and “asuri sampat” or demonic work culture.
- Daivi work culture – involves fearlessness, purity, self-control, sacrifice, straightforwardness, self-denial, calmness, absence of fault-finding, absence of greed, gentleness, modesty, absence of envy and pride.
- Asuri work culture – involves egoism, delusion, personal desires, improper performance, work not oriented towards service.
Mere work ethic is not enough. The hardened criminal exhibits an excellent work ethic. What is needed is a work ethic conditioned by ethics in work.
It is in this light that the counsel, “yogah karmasu kausalam” should be understood. “Kausalam” means skill or technique of work which is an indispensable component of a work ethic. “Yogah” is defined in the Gita itself as “samatvam yogah uchyate” meaning an unchanging equipoise of mind (detachment.) Tilak tells us that acting with an equable mind is Yoga.
(Bal Gangadhar Tilak, 1856-1920, the precursor of Gandhiji, hailed by the people of India as “Lokmanya,” probably the most learned among the country’s political leaders. For a description of the meanings of the word “Yoga”, see foot of this page.)
By making the equable mind the bed-rock of all actions, the Gita evolved the goal of unification of work ethic with ethics in work, for without ethical process no mind can attain an equipoise. The guru, Adi Sankara (born circa 800 AD), says that the skill necessary in the performance of one’s duty is that of maintaining an evenness of mind in face of success and failure. The calm mind in the face of failure will lead to deeper introspection and see clearly where the process went wrong so that corrective steps could be taken to avoid shortcomings in future.
The principle of reducing our attachment to personal gains from the work done is the Gita’s prescription for attaining equanimity. It has been held that this principle leads to lack of incentive for effort, striking at the very root of work ethic. To the contrary, concentration on the task for its own sake leads to the achievement of excellence — and indeed to the true mental happiness of the worker. Thus, while commonplace theories of motivation may be said to lead us to the bondage or extrinsic rewards, the Gita’s principle leads us to the intrinsic rewards of mental, and indeed moral, satisfaction.
A note on the word “yoga”.
Yoga has two different meanings – a general meaning and a technical meaning. The general meaning is the joining together or union of any two or more things. The technical meaning is “a state of stability and peace and the means or practices which lead to that state.” The Bhagavad Gita uses the word with both meanings.
The Gita further explains the theory of “detachment” from the extrinsic rewards of work in saying:
- If the result of sincere effort is a success, the entire credit should not be appropriated by the doer alone.
- If the result of sincere effort is a failure, then too the entire blame does not accrue to the doer.
The former attitude mollifies arrogance and conceit while the latter prevents excessive despondency, de-motivation and self-pity. Thus both these dispositions safeguard the doer against psychological vulnerability, the cause of the modem managers’ companions of diabetes, high blood pressure and ulcers.
Assimilation of the ideas of the Gita leads us to the wider spectrum of “lokasamgraha” (general welfare) but there is also another dimension to the work ethic – if the “karmayoga” (service) is blended with “bhaktiyoga” (devotion), then the work itself becomes worship, a “sevayoga” (service for its own sake.)
(This may sound a peculiarly religious idea but it has a wider application. It could be taken to mean doing something because it is worthwhile, to serve others, to make the world a better place — ed.)
Manager’s mental health
Sound mental health is the very goal of any human activity – more so management. Sound mental health is that state of mind which can maintain a calm, positive poise, or regain it when unsettled, in the midst of all the external vagaries of work life and social existence. Internal constancy and peace are the pre-requisites for a healthy stress-free mind.
Some of the impediments to sound mental health are:
- Greed – for power, position, prestige and money.
- Envy – regarding others’ achievements, success, rewards.
- Egotism – about one’s own accomplishments.
- Suspicion, anger and frustration.
- Anguish through comparisons.
The driving forces in today’s businesses are speed and competition. There is a distinct danger that these forces cause erosion of the moral fiber, that in seeking the end, one permits oneself immoral means – tax evasion, illegitimate financial holdings, being “economical with the truth”, deliberate oversight in the audit, too-clever financial reporting and so on. This phenomenon may be called as “yayati syndrome”.
In the book, the Mahabharata, we come across a king by the name of Yayati who, in order to revel in the endless enjoyment of flesh exchanged his old age with the youth of his obliging youngest son for a thousand years. However, he found the pursuit of sensual enjoyments ultimately unsatisfying and came back to his son pleading him to take back his youth. This “yayati syndrome” shows the conflict between externally directed acquisitions (extrinsic motivation) and inner value and conscience (intrinsic motivation.)
Management needs those who practice what they preach
“Whatever the excellent and best ones do, the commoners follow,” says Sri Krishna in the Gita. The visionary leader must be a missionary, extremely practical, intensively dynamic and capable of translating dreams into reality. This dynamism and strength of a true leader flows from an inspired and spontaneous motivation to help others. “I am the strength of those who are devoid of personal desire and attachment. O Arjuna, I am the legitimate desire in those, who are not opposed to righteousness,” says Sri Krishna in the 10th Chapter of the Gita.
The despondency of Arjuna in the first chapter of the Gita is typically human. Sri Krishna, by sheer power of his inspiring words, changes Arjuna’s mind from a state of inertia to one of righteous action, from the state of what the French philosophers call “anomie” or even alienation, to a state of self-confidence in the ultimate victory of “dharma” (ethical action.)
When Arjuna got over his despondency and stood ready to fight, Sri Krishna reminded him of the purpose of his new-found spirit of intense action – not for his own benefit, not for satisfying his own greed and desire, but for the good of many, with faith in the ultimate victory of ethics over unethical actions and of truth over untruth.
Sri Krishna’s advice with regard to temporary failures is, “No doer of good ever ends in misery.” Every action should produce results. Good action produces good results and evil begets nothing but evil. Therefore, always act well and be rewarded.
My purport is not to suggest discarding of the Western model of efficiency, dynamism and striving for excellence but to tune these ideals to India’s holistic attitude of “lokasangraha” – for the welfare of many, for the good of many. There is indeed a moral dimension to business life. What we do in business is no different, in this regard, to what we do in our personal lives. The means do not justify the ends. Pursuit of results for their own sake, is ultimately self-defeating. (“Profit,” said Matsushita-san in another tradition, “is the reward of correct behavior.” — ed.)