Book Review – THE BHISHMA WAY : Ancient Dharma For Modern Business And Politics
This book – THE BHISHMA WAY : Ancient Dharma For Modern Business and Politics – authored by N Balasubramanian embodying a unique blend of holding senior positions in the private corporate sector and switching to academia believes that Bhishma Pitamah in the ever timely epic Mahabharata comes to the rescue of the modern day manager, politician or bureaucrat. As the upholder of truth and dharma, Bhishma’s life has been shaped by the difficult choices he makes. Even when his decisions are questionable, he serves as a role model.
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 on the practice of truth. The impression Bhishma proffers is one of a man of great dignity, forbearance, courage, integrity, justice and above all selfless service for a chosen cause. In a business context many successful companies in India have said no to corruption and bribery as it goes against their value system. This has denied them growth opportunities, but they have withstood the temptation of rationalising corruption.
The former Chairman of Tata group J R D Tata was once asked how he would define their set up. He said they felt a certain pride that they were ‘somewhat different from others’. He wondered “what would have happened if our philosophy was like that of some other companies which do not stop at any means to attain their ends. I have often thought of that and come to the conclusion that if we were like other groups we would be twice as big as they are today. What we have sacrificed is a 100 per cent growth, but we wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Likewise, among the values that Azim Premji had learned and wished to implement in Wipro was the total commitment to integrity in operations and anti-corruption in corporate relationships. Bribery was anathema, whether it was direct or indirect through intermediaries. Although profit making is considered a legitimate human objective — being included as one of the four Purusharthas (objectives of human life) of Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha — it is interesting to note that not many business corporations articulate shareholder wealth maximisation as their primary purpose in their vision statements and codes of values.
A big challenge faced by companies is how they adhere to their corporate values while finding appropriate means to achieve desired ends. Bribery is perhaps the most common that companies and business leaders have to cope with. Corruption of course need not always be in monetary terms, although most often it is. On his part the author says “I have trained myself never to be concerned about the result. What I should be concerned about is the means and when I am sure of the purity of the means, faith is enough to lead me.”
Then fundamental values of protecting the dignity of women, and that too a princess, were breached by Duryodhana and his associates in the presence of the blind, but all knowing Dritharashtra and other elders. That disgraceful act should have been stopped and Duryodhana and his colleagues chastised but that did not happen. Instead Bhishma told the pleading Draupadi that morality was subtle. There is also the overarching value principle of respecting a woman’s honour. Bhishma that great repository of wisdom, obviously could not decide and did the next best thing under such circumstances — pass the buck to another. He referred the matter to the accused himself.
Considering his compromised position, Yudhishthira remained silent and the question remained unresolved. But often, a non-decision, or silence, is a decision in itself; in the absence of an affirmative instruction from Bhishma to ‘cease and desist’ from the proposed act of disrobing. However, when Draupadi prayed for divine intervention she was supplied a never ending stream of cloth thus protecting her modesty. Quite often upright people choose the path of indifference or least resistance. It is an area of serious concern where politicians in public service and individual directors in corporations perhaps need to introspect and if what they are doing is not in sync with their own conviction, they need to address that issue head on only to ensure their credibility.
Raja Dharma or the principles of governing a Kingdom or a country keeping in mind the interests of its people seeks to strike a balance between an overly-powerful state and the preservation of order and peace. Coalition dharma is perhaps to the family of unique dharmas, popularised in modern day governments with more than one power centre operating concurrently. The alleged irregularities in 2G Spectrum scam or the coal mines allocation are classic examples of inappropriate handling of dharmic conflicts.
Conflicts are not uncommon between different dharmic principles applicable to individuals and corporations. A major contribution of Bhishma in the field of governance is his detailed postulations in the duties of the king or the state. Every society be it a large country or a tribe, needs a framework to survive, sustain and grow. Everything rests on truth, a categorical imperative. Truth is knowledge and it is the ordinance. Truth is the observance of vows and fasts. It is on truth that the heaven rests. Forgiveness is the quality that comes into play when one has the largeness of heart to ‘forgive’ an exposed person, both for his action and inaction, as the case may be. Thus forgiveness is seen as a concomitant attribute of truth; otherwise, there may be little to differentiate between truthfulness and vindictiveness, if one’s aim in being truthful was only to gain satisfaction by exposing some other person or entity.
The Mahabharata is focussed on the eternal battle between the just and the unjust, between good and evil. In many ways Bhishma has been an integral part of the many decisions and momentous events in the epic. In conclusion the author stresses there is a core of substantive contribution which is relevant to contemporary governance, possibly with some adaptations. Some of these are of eternal relevance to suit the needs of changing civilisation.
Nothwithstanding his faults Bhishma stands out. Overall, he stands out as a giant offering wise counsel to the world on statecraft, in running a welfare commonwealth and personal qualities that are necessary for success in every walk of life. “Bhishma is India’s offering to the world to study and appreciate, to adapt and follow, or, where necessary to critique and discard, but under no circumstances can we afford to ignore the principles he expounded.” The book is both instructive and thought provoking having been derived from an unusual perspective. It focusses on governance in business and governments and demonstrates how governance and justice are inextricably connected.