Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Bhishma, the Ultimate Resource for Business and Politics

[The following guest post is contributed by Professor B.N. Balasubramanian, who is Adjunct Professor of Corporate Governance at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad]

Among the myriad of players in the great epic, The Mahabharata, two characters stand out prominently towering over the rest: Bhishma, the scion who renounces his right to the kingdom to enable his father marry a woman of his choice, who dominates the entire epic spanning over five generations--in the earlier phase playing the role of an active participant, and later on becoming a learned and well-respected elder statesman and mentor; and Vasudeva Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who plays the role of a non-partisan counsellor, mediator, and the overarching, non-participating chief and mentor for the victorious Pandavas. To Vasudeva Krishna is also attributed the famous Bhagavad Gita, the celestial song on the duties and responsibilities of humans in steering their lives in this world, delivered on the battlefield to Arjuna, the reluctant Pandava who could not come to terms with the idea of decimating friends, family, and other elders whom they were to fighting against.

Bhishma is the chosen anchor for my latest book, The Bhishma Way: Ancient Dharma for Modern Business and Politics (Random House, December 2015). Why did I choose Bhishma? For one thing, Bhishma is relatively less researched and written about, compared to Vasudeva Krishna. But it was the man himself, his life as a message, and the rich counsel that is available in his voice in the epic, which is of continuing relevance to the present day problems and issues of governance and personal behaviour in business and politics.

As a strict upholder of Dharma both in his personal and public life, there are indeed very few equals to Bhishma. His commitment to truth and values was unquestionably rocky firm. His sense of justice serves as a beacon light to civilised people around the world. One could differ from and argue with his exposition of social and ethical principles, especially in the present day changed circumstances, but none could question either his sincerity of purpose or his commitment to what he thought was right and ethical.

Was he always infallible in his judgement or actions (and even in-actions)? Of course not; and that is what makes Bhishma so human and so relatable to any of us in our day to day activities. Towards the end, he himself realised his follies but by then it was too late for redemption. If some of these anecdotal incidents appear to bear some uncanny resemblance with our own personal experience in business or political behaviour, it only confirms how timeless Bhishma and his life were, nay, are in our modern circumstances.

Governance is the primary focus of this book, exploring how contemporary administrations can learn and adopt takeaways from the Mahabharata in general and Bhishma in particular. Justice is the fundamental objective of all systems of governance (though justice itself could be subjective, differing according to circumstances); justice in a civilised commonwealth depends upon three constituents: the value systems of the realm, the standards of dharma or righteousness, and the emphasis placed upon on the practice of truth. The book’s five chapters are structured accordingly, beginning with the fundamentals, leading to the objective, and finally to the system designed to deliver on the objective.

The discussion of each of these, often inter-dependent, concepts is focused on the individual, the state, and the corporation as a sub-set of the state. To better relate to the reality of the day, a representative (and by no means an exhaustive) collection of cases are included as illustrations. The fact is that each of us (as was the case with Bhishma and all the other characters in the story) is facing situations and taking decisions that seem appropriate under given circumstances. Whether decisions are in line with what they ought to be under such circumstances (within the framework of values, righteousness and truth), only one’s own conscience could judge.

Bhishma’s counsel repeatedly includes admonitions to the king that he should consult his ministers, advisers, elders, and the ‘learned’, and then using his judgement take his own decision. Despite going through the motions of consultations with all these people, the king could take a decision that did not lead to the greatest good for the largest number of people. A telling example is the instance where Dhritharashtra seeks advice from Vidura, Bhishma, Drona, and others with regard to giving the Pandavas back half of their kingdom, but decides against it to suit his personal agenda of retaining the whole kingdom for himself and his son. In modern times, both in governments and corporates, similar situations are not difficult to find!

The story of Bhishma, although predominantly one of greatness, valour and wisdom, has its share of pathos as well, especially in his later phase where it seemed he was just respected but not necessarily heeded. Whether it was during the dice game and the disrobing of Draupadi, or on whether the Pandavas should get back half of their kingdom, his advice fell on deaf ears. Duryodhana in particular was openly disrespectful and even insulting; Karna (who had a poor equation with Bhishma anyway) was increasingly confrontational, and Dhritharashtra became more restive and annoyed. For someone who had sacrificed his kingship and worked so hard to expand and protect the kingdom, such treatment was not warranted. And yet, instances are common in modern-day governments and corporations where similar side-lining and disrespect of senior leaders and directors take place routinely. Wouldn’t it be better for such seniors to step down with dignity rather than suffering such ignominy? Or, like Bhishma, in the larger interests of the country or the company, should they continue to pursue what is best for the constituents?

Notwithstanding the few negatives, overall, the impression Bhishma proffers is one of man of great dignity, forbearance, courage, integrity, justice, and above all, selfless service for a chosen cause. There is much that the present and future generations of leaders can emulate in their respective spheres of activity and influence. This book is a humble effort in that direction.

- Professor B.N. Balasubramanian

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