Bhagavad Gita: Ideas for Modern Management
Author: Prof. B Mahadevan, Dean (Administration), Indian Institute of Management Bangalore.
This is based on a talk delivered by Prof. Mahadevan in a seminar on “Towards a New Paradigm of Business management – Alternative Perspectives from Ancient Indian Wisdom”, held at IIM Bangalore on December 12, 2009.
Bhagavad Gita is one of the most popular of the ancient texts not only among the Indians but also among the westerners. In fact Robert Oppenheimer who successfully exploded the first atom bomb on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo, New Mexico was greatly attracted by Gita. Watching this event from a distance, he was supposedly uttering a phrase from Bhagavad Gita. Bhagavad Gita has inspired many of our national leaders and provided them strength, moral courage and clarity of thought with which they have led the country in its struggle. Arguably, these are important elements of making a good manager or a leader today. Herein lies the motivation for this article. But what is really interesting is that these ideas are available not only in the Bhagavad Gita but also in the ten Upanishads and for that matter in several ancient Indian texts.
Before we look at one or two interesting aspects of management from Gita, it is important for us to appreciate the multi-faceted nature of ancient Indian texts. We need to get this aspect abundantly clear so that the real value of the ancient Indian texts is fully understood. Further it also informs us that only if we approach the ancient Indian texts with such a perspective we will be able to gainfully understand its usefulness to solve today’s problems.
Ancient Indian texts – Multi-faceted perspectives
First of all we must understand that the Ancient Indian texts could be read with different purposes. For example, a true bhakta of Lord Krishna may want to read Gita as it is a matter of religion to him. He may do a daily paraayana of some of the verses. Many of us can identify with this role. On the other hand, a student of philosophy or a person with a deep desire to search the inner truth or meaning of “self” or a spiritual seeker may view Gita as a spiritual text. Again some of us may fit into this role. But there is a third aspect to Gita and other such texts, which many of us are not aware of. Many of us perhaps did not also think of such a possibility. This is what I call as “secular” or a “material” perspective. By that we mean a set of ideas that help us conduct our life sensibly more from a day to day, working perspective. This is referred to as secular because in this perspective there is no need to bring in the notion of religion or spirituality.
Therefore all these ancient texts provide three distinctive perspectives. It all depends on how we want to read it. Let me look at one or two examples from Gita to understand this point clearly.
Is Gita a Religious text or a Secular text?
Let us look at a pair of famous shlokas – famous because it was a title song for the Mahabharata serial.
- यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत । अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥ 4.7 ॥
- परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम् । धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय संभवामि युगे युगे ॥ 4.8. ॥
For the first time in Bhagavad Gita Krishna manifests himself as God through these two shlokas. In the first three chapters he has been engaging in conversation with Arjuna more from a level of a “cousin”. That is what we implicitly infer from a reading of the Gita. Quintessentially this is the “Avathaara Purusha” dimension brought through this shloka. At a first reading one can easily detect the religious angle.
Whenever there is a deterioration of dharma the God takes one more incarnation (Avathaara) to uphold the dharma. The incarnation of God, as the next shloka suggests, is to protect the good people, destroy the evil ones and restore Dharma in the society once again. That is how the cardinal principle of incarnation manifests here in terms of the context, motivation and purpose.
This is one way of looking at it. However, the same set of shlokas could be understood as a profound management concept because that is what you will find in the instructions of many engineering and management schools. Let us understand this perspective with respect to these shlokas.
Stability and long term sustainability of the system happens because there are regenerative points. When the system attains disequilibrium and shows signs of being unstable and going out of control measures have to be taken to restore the equilibrium in the system. This is a classical systems engineering idea according to which there are regenerative points in the system. If the regenerative points are not there, the system will go unstable.
One can easily relate this to well-known concepts in Economics & Management. The demand – supply equilibrium, pricing decisions in alternative market structures, the way in which organizations continue to root out bad CEOs or Managers over time, the mechanisms to prevent opportunistic behaviours in the long run (and variations of this such as Prisoner’s Dilemma) could all be explained by this basic axiom laid out in this shloka.
Is Gita a Spiritual text or a Secular text?
Let us look at one more example. In chapter 2 of Gita, when Lord Krishna begins his set of arguments to convince Arjuna the need to fight against the Kaurava army, the first idea he brings into focus is the notion of time. What strikes you is that this idea is in stark contrast to modern day pre-occupations with quarter-to-quarter guidance ritual that investment bankers are going after. However that is not the point of our discussion now. Let us look at one of the shlokas from this argument of time and its impact.
वासांसि जीर्णानि यथा विहाय नवानि गृह्णाति नरोऽपराणि ।
तथा शरीराणि विहाय जीर्णा अन्यानि संयाति नवानि देही ॥ 2.22. ॥
The easy and direct meaning to this shloka runs as follows:
Just as a person discards an old and a torn shirt and wears a new one, the soul (Atma) also discards an old body and acquires a new one. What a simple way to explain a complex idea of a chain of birth and death events! There is a spiritual angle to it. It is a profound spiritual thought here and true seekers of knowledge will revel on this idea and deeply contemplate.
Now we shall look at an alternative perspective of this shloka.
In order to be successful and sustainable organizations need to continuously engage themselves in discarding old ideas (mind set!) & embrace new ones. This is the fundamental building block of innovation and creating competitive advantage.
This shloka echoes and reinforces the recent work by Joseph Schumpeter on creative destruction and innovation followed by a number of other researchers. The most important issue in management of change is one of mind set. The biggest challenge in organizations is mind set inertia. You can discard many things but mindset is very difficult to discard. This puts realistic limits to creating better organizations over time.
Another example can be found in a paper titled “May the Whole Earth be Happy: Lokaa Samstaa Sukhino Bhavnatu” written by a Canadian, Stafford Beer in 1994 in an Operations Research Journal. In this paper, Beer shows how a shloka in Chapter 3 of Gita (3.27: अहङ्कार-विमूढात्मा कर्ताहमिति मन्यते) indeed relates to some of the issues that arise in cybernetics and control theory. He also mentioned several other concepts from the Ancient Indian wisdom in the same paper relating them to certain management principles.
Relevant thoughts for Management
If we develop the skill, orientation and attitude to draw upon the repository of knowledge for our day to day living issues (such as Business Management), then we will realize that the world of ancient Indian wisdom opens up. One may locate a number of direct and relevant thoughts in these texts. Let us look at one or two examples from Gita on the issue of relevant thoughts for today. The following shloka from Gita, chapter 3 is a case in point:
अथ केन प्रयुक्तोऽयं पापं चरति पूरुषः ।
अनिच्छन्नपि वार्ष्णेय बलादिव नियोजितः ॥ 3.36.
In this shloka, Arjuna raises a question which is very pertinent to most of us. We have had several occasions in our personal and professional life during which we would have internally asked the same question.
Who is behind all these bad or wrong things that people do? Although I am not interested it appears I am forcibly involved into this.
In fact you ask managers who have erred in their decisions or committed some blunder, you ask fathers who have made blunders of scolding their children or taken wrong decisions about their daughter or son. They will always say something similar to this shloka. There is this feeling – I have become a victim of a situation as though somebody is pushing me to do wrong things. We have gone through this frame of mind in our daily life. We are going through this frame of mind every now and then in Management. Krishna offers some explanation as to why this is happening in the shlokas that follow.
Gita also offers perspectives on how to manage certain things in life, understand complex things that we go through in simple terms (just as the example of birth and death). It also offers direct ideas and sets us in a state of contemplation. One example will help drive this point.
मात्रास्पर्शस्तु कौन्तेय शीतोष्णसुखदुःखदाः ।
आगमापायिनोऽनित्याः तांस्तितीक्षस्व भारत ॥ 2.14.
The meaning of the shloka is as follows:
As long as the five senses are active in gathering the signals that come into contact with them, we will experience the world of dualities – hot and cold, peace and sorrow etc. You cannot run away from the world of dualities as they happen continuously and are also impermanent. Learning to handle them is important.
Stress management is a big issue today. Most of the knowledge and help we get from the modern day thinking is to suppress or divert our attention from the issue of stress. They implicitly operate with an assumption that stress will be inevitably generated and the solution lies in doing something about it once we are stressed. “Let us kill it or run away from it by some means after it happens” is the basis for stress management. We do not seem to address why one should get stressed in the first place.
On the other hand, this shloka addresses this issue and truly provides us an idea for “managing” stress. It is all about signal processing. We have to differentiate between signals and noise. That is the idea here. We don’t do so because we don’t have the capability of signal processing. That does not mean we can turn off the apparatus and stop receiving the signals. That happens only when we are in a state of coma. That is not what Lord Krishna is saying. Gita never recommends running away from problems. On the other hand it seems to suggest that understanding problems in the right perspective is key to managing them. That is the greatest management lesson that one can learn. The idea of managing the world of duality (समत्वं योग उच्यते) has been one of the key messages in the Gita and it has been repeatedly emphasized not only in chapter 2, but also in several other chapters. This could very well be the cornerstone of developing superior self- and people management skills and leadership traits.
Basic approach to work in Gita
Management is all about doing work, doing it efficiently and ensuring that results follow. Viewed from this perspective, Gita offers counter-intuitive ideas on these issues (see figure for a basic framework depicting this).
Work & Its effectiveness as the Core
Often people comment that the central message in Bhagavad Gita is about the notion of karma yoga. Of relevance to management is the notion of karma yoga and its essence in terms of work. It will be very useful to understand how this issue is laid out in the Gita. First of all Lord Krishna establishes a paradigm that there is nothing called “the state of inaction”. He clearly says in chapter 3 that there is nothing like akarma (no action or inaction) (3:5 न क्स्श्चित्क्षणमपि जातु तिष्ठत्यकर्मकृत्). There is nothing like a state of inaction. Why did he say that? Because only then we will focus on the issue of how to do work correctly. It is natural then for us to ask how to do work. He says enjoy complete degree of freedom (3:9 यज्ञार्थात्कर्मणोऽन्यत्र लोकोऽयं कर्मबन्धनः, 3:31 श्रद्धावन्तोऽनसूयन्तः मुच्यन्ते तेऽपि कर्मभिः) and total joy while engaging in work. That is the idea. While we are in the thick of work can we enjoy? Gita emphatically replies in the affirmative. Krishna goes to the extent of saying that with such a perspective to work, we may realize that even when we do a lot of work, we do not feel like indeed engaging in any work (4:20 कर्मण्यभिप्रवृत्तोऽपि नैव किञ्चित्करोति सः).
If you think that this is a utopian idea simply ask a mother tending to her child with great love and dedication. She will relate herself to this shloka. If only we could ask some of the greatest social workers and inspiring leaders that this society has produced they might have replied in the affirmative.
This is again in contrast with our understanding of work and its effects on us today. One of the biggest problems that we are facing in our daily life, professional work and personal life is that we don’t seem to enjoy what we are doing. Swami Ranganathananda mentions that there was no word like boredom in the dictionary about 400 years – 600 years ago. Today the children say “I am bored”. Young professionals want to adopt the western model of “weekend getaway”. We need weekend getaways if work is perceived as drudgery and an avoidable aspect of our life. Such a perspective can never get the best from work place that modern business management is worried about. What is this boredom? Why does it happen? Because we don’t enjoy what we are doing, we get bored.
The basic tenet of Gita is antithesis to this idea that work could be drudgery. First understand there is nothing like state of no work. We cannot run away from work as there is nothing called “no work”. Further if you enjoy complete freedom of doing work result has to follow. That is the basic line of argument that I see in Gita. Lord Krishna says that it is possible that you can have complete degree of freedom and enjoy work. This is the basic thread of argument I see in the text which I think is very relevant for management.
Axioms of work
As we have already seen, there is no escaping from work. Therefore, let us understand how the axioms of work have been proposed in Gita. There are four aspects to this, which is very well brought out in this famous shloka in Gita:
कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन ।
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूः मा ते सङ्गोस्त्वकर्मणि ॥ . 2.47.
A direct translation of this shloka is as follows:
You have the right to work but never to the fruits of the action. Further you do not have the right to the root cause of the fruits of action. You also do not have the right to remain in the society without performing any work.
As we notice from the above translation, there are four components of the axiom of work defined in Gita. It is much easier to explain the rationale of the last component. When one is told that he/she has to do the work, he/she does not ask for results or bother about what causes these results, the normal tendency in some cases is to say, “well in that case, I am not interested in doing the work”. The last component takes away that possibility. Since in Gita, the notion of non-work or inaction is not a feasible alternative, the last component makes sense. The most difficult part is the second and the third component. How can someone do the work and yet not have the right for results? This requires some more articulation and understanding of the idea.
Let us see it from the management perspective. The current day thinking and this are in loggerheads. We are told that we need to work for results. Why is then Lord Krishna advocating the antithesis of this? In order to get this clear, let us trace some side effects of working for results. Many of us with some work experience will be able to relate to these side effects:
- Result orientation can make one wary of failures, we may refuse to undertake great activities (modern risk management issue comes into play). Yesterday I read in the paper that an 8th standard student ended her life because she did not clear the exam. What a tragedy and what a side effect that we need to face?
- We have a tendency to excessively focus on ends instead of means. This is what most working in Multi-National Companies are busy doing. Modern day managers spend significant time to manager “performance reports” rather than “performance” itself.
- In order to be good in managing the performance report, “process orientation” must give way for “result orientation”
- What are results at the end of the day? They are issues of the future about which we spend our time in the present. Therefore, we may tend to escape the dynamics of “present” and go after “future”
The apparent confusion that we have in understanding this shloka is that when we say you have no right to the results, it merely suggests that take off your pre-occupation with results and have a process orientation. Results must follow automatically. Is it not what the total quality management (TQM) philosophy is also arguing about? Further, you may ask, why do we want to take the fixation from results and instead concentrate on the work itself? The simple answer to it is that by doing do it lets you literally “get lost in work”. When one gets lost into work, the traditional barriers of efficiency and motivation are broken and the individual treads into extraordinary performance born out of inspiration. Perhaps, that is how a Nobel Laureate or a great scientist or a visionary leader would have spent several years of his/her time.
We often say when we do very interesting things in life, “I never knew how time passed” That is a good indication of our ability to practice कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन. This is neither an unknown or impossible idea to mankind. Every day we all practice this when we have deep sleep. We rise from the deep sleep and remark that we had a sound sleep. By that what it means is no matter what sound others made in the vicinity I continued to sleep. Try to sleep with an objective of having a 6 hour sound sleep and work for the result, you will not get sound sleep. Your mind will work very hard to find out how to ensure 6 hours of deep sleep and in the process you will get tired. Maybe after some time when the analytical and result-oriented mind gets fatigued, you will slip into deep sleep.
The ancient Indian texts such as Bhagavad Gita are profound and are meant to open up the horizon in the minds of the people. Therefore it is hardly surprising that we can draw such alternative ideas and thoughts from such texts. However, in order to benefit from this immensely, in the domain of management, we need to step out of the world of rationality and tread into unknown areas. Perhaps a nearest reference to this idea in modern day is “out of the box” thinking or thinking “without” the box. This in itself is a paradigm shift in perception that we need to make in our own mind.
There are several other useful ideas in Gita for management. There are specific ideas for management that address issues pertaining to self, self-mastery and self-assessment. There are also specific suggestions on the leadership traits.
Bhagavad Gita and for that matter in several other ancient Indian texts offer a unique value proposition. We can have spiritual progress, we can have material progress too in a very balanced way. We can have happiness, not only success. This could be one of the good reasons for us to look at some of these and make our own notes. There is a greater promise and potential for much larger perspectives in ancient Indian wisdom and much greater propensity to draw out of it and apply in a variety of situations.
 This is based on a talk delivered by Professor B Mahadevan, Dean (Administration), Indian Institute of Management Bangalore in a seminar on “Towards a New Paradigm of Business management – Alternative Perspectives from Ancient Indian Wisdom”, held at IIM Bangalore on December 12, 2009. firstname.lastname@example.org
 Beer, S. (1994). “May the Whole Earth be Happy: Lokaasamastaa Sukhino Bhavantu”, Interfaces, Vol. 24, No. 4, 83 – 93.
 Swami Ranganthananda, (2000). “The Universal Message of Gita”, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkatta, Vol. 1, pp. 430 – 437.