New Perspective on Leadership from Bhagavad Gita by Prof. B. Mahadevan

I have been greatly inspired by Ancient Indian Knowledge System as such and more specifically by Srimad Bhagavad Gita. Therefore I suggested that I would share some thoughts from the Gita, particularly on leadership. We are in a situation today that the greatest scarcity we have in this country is leadership. We have seen improvements in educational standard, new avenues for education, several new opportunities, new material resources etc. We seem to have everything but I think what is in scarcity is leadership. Therefore I feel it is important to talk about this topic today in the context of whatever is happening. What I found in Bhagvad Gita is some interesting set of ideas on leadership. Today I have chosen to take two contrasting ideas from Bhagvad Gita on leadership and share with you. The first message is what can cause failed leadership? There is no better place to understand this than Bhagvad Gita. In fact the entire preaching of Bhagvad Gita started there because a great warrior Arjuna, all of a sudden, collapsed in the middle of the battlefield like a pack of cards. What happens when leadership fails? How can leadership at all fail? That’s the first part of story that I want to narrate and the second part is “What are the elements of good leadership?”


Leadership – Today’s Context

I will start with the context for leadership. What are some of the broad challenges that we are going through? At an individual level there is an issue which all over the world people talk about. In the nutshell, people in a number of working scenarios, be it a University, or multinational corporation, or government and even temple or at home, often complain that they are deprived of meaning at their work place. This is very loud message that is coming today. We seem to spend a lot of time in our work place. In fact in all these multinational companies people go to work at about 8 O’ clock in morning and do not know when they come back, perhaps it may be 10 O’clock. Still they do not find meaning. Many American managers are apparently saying, “give us less money but more meaning”.

The second message we often keep hearing today, especially in the western societies, is that people prefer time affluence over money affluence now. They have reached the stage now that working professionals are saying, “give us less salary, but give us more time with family. Give us little more time so that I can do other things of interest in my life.” Every time I hear management researchers talking about this, I wonder what really is happening in today’s workplace.

Let us turn our attention towards organizational issues. There was a research conducted sometime back on “How long will companies live?” This research conducted by an Executive Director of the Royal Dutch Shell Company, culminated in a book. The book titled, “The Living Company”, which was published about 15 years back had some interesting things to share. According to that research, the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company was only 40 years. Compare this with the average life expectancy of every one of us in India today, which is about 78 ‐79 years. What was more disturbing was that one third of Fortune 500 companies listed in 1970 disappeared in 1983. In some sense, in a matter of 13 years they became the most unfortunate that they had to perish. Another information in the book showed that 40% of all newly created companies die within 10 years. This is the best example for infant mortality. It is hard to imagine that a number of organizations cannot even survive beyond 10 years.

So what are we doing? What is the issue here? Of course the book talks in some details in terms of why it is happening. Most importantly the research pointed out that the workplace is not at all interesting. There is cynicism, too much of control and stress that stifles imagination, it doesn’t promote imagination. The backdrop of management research & practice is such that we do not even know how to make our company live long. This is the management that we have understood and we are teaching. Individual seems to have problem, company seems to have problem because they are not able to live long.

This is an excerpt from the Eighth Vedanta Vacaspati Justice Radha Nath Pukhan Memorial Lecture delivered in Guwahati on March 1, 2015 by Prof. B. Mahadevan.

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B. Mahadevan, a Professor at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, is currently the Vice Chancellor of Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth. The ideas expressed in the article are the author’s personal views. He can be reached at:

The Importance of Teaching Sanskrit & Indian Knowledge by Prof. B. Mahadevan

What to teach in today’s educational curriculum is a matter that has produced more dust and heat than real substance. This has been true especially in recent years as every attempt by the Indian government to introduce “Indian knowledge” into the curriculum has met with stiff resistance and a hue and cry of thrusting religion, taking us back to a set of outdated and sectarian ideas etc. After nearly 200 years, the “Macaulayan” system of education is indeed delivering the results, although those who wanted it have gone back nearly 70 years ago. The purpose of this writing is to present a case as to why it is important for “Indians” to know what their ancestral knowledge systems were.

What is Indian knowledge?

Before we get into the main argument, it helps to set out clearly what we mean by Indian knowledge. By Indian knowledge we mean a set of ideas that can enable individuals to pursue their life with a singular goal of being happy, contented and self‐evolving either by themselves or in some group of social, religious or other types of organizations. There is a structured classification of the knowledge known as caturdaśa vidyā-sthānam, which covers the most part of it. This repository provides interesting set of ideas on core principles of life (śruti), specific instructions for ethical and moral living (smṛtis), suggested alternatives for do’s don’t in life (dharma śāstras), detailed case laws illustrating implementation challenges and actual experiences while observing these codes of conduct (purāṇas, itihāsas) and a host of scientific and management principles for gainful application in our day‐to‐day life (scattered all over the literature, including in the Upavedas).

What separates out the Indian knowledge from the rest is that it does not force everyone to accept that the method of achieving this goal is only one and everyone will have to strictly adhere to that single prescription. Most of the knowledge were developed, synthesised and articulated by great individuals who proposed their own models. In the process they refuted others and disagreed with others’ ideas, albeit in a structured logical fashion, without any room for emotional outbursts, name calling and dumping ideas and people disrespectfully. The ideas in Smṛtis and Dharma Śāstras proposed by great seers such as Manu, Yajñavalkya, Parāśara, Apasthamba and Bodhayana to name a few will provide enough evidence to this. Similarly the six major darśanas (Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṅkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta) also demonstrate this aspect if we dwell deeply into it. Even if you take one topic such as Vedānta, you find more than three competing schools of thought (Advaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita, and Dvaita, to name a few major thoughts for example). Such is the richness of the literature and multiplicity of ideas to choose from.

It appears that for the Ancestral Indians, knowledge can never be static, dogmatic or rigid in both structure and content. It must allow for dissent and constant churning thereby discovering new insights. In the whole process there is a culture of being very tolerant and respectful of the received wisdom. You will find no incidence of somebody being killed for not agreeing with the philosophies promulgated as the only valid means of knowledge (as you see in Semitic and Abrahamic religions). Where else can you see such a democratisation of knowledge, learning and practice of one’s own ideals in life?

Do we need to teach this knowledge today?

Modern educated Indians do not want this knowledge to be taught. They want it to be erased from their memory somehow, destroyed altogether if possible, or at best, ridiculed to the core so that it will not enter into the corridors of the educational institutions. They fancy the growing children with some new found ideas from the West, not in an accommodating fashion along with this knowledge, but in an exclusive fashion. The irony is that the greatest votaries of these are those who have not had the opportunity to properly acquire this knowledge, examine it by themselves, and conduct deep study and reflection etc. before taking the position. Instead they have been administered several doses of evils of “Indian knowledge” by some champions of this cause, who themselves have also suffered from the same limitation. It is like a person who claims to have a lifetime of expertise in the field of metallurgy making serious accusations and comments on anaesthesia or brain surgery on the basis what he has “learnt” from some self-proclaimed experts in the field. It is a typical case of the blind leading the blind! Let us not worry about these people, but get to the root of the matter and identify reasons as to why we need to know ancestral Indian knowledge.

Importance of received wisdom

Of all the reasons, the top of the list is that no society can afford to say, “I do not want to know what my ancestors thought about issues of life”. Such an attitude is naïve and childish and will make us “fish out of the water” overnight. I do not know if any society will develop such an attitude. This will be possible only under a few conditions. First of all, all our ancestors ought to have been so idiotic, mindless and bereft of any reasonable thinking. Further they must have been worldly foolish, dull headed and myopic in their thinking that it is not worthwhile to know what their ideas were, the issues that they discussed, and the theories of good and successful living that they proposed. Trying to know this could be a sheer waste of time in such a case.

If the above assumptions are not true, then we run a huge risk of reinventing the wheel all by ourselves by numerous needless experiments in our own lives. We are already going through this unwanted routine. It has been a practice for us to “junk” ancestral knowledge in the first place. When some western University reinvents the wheel after a series of experimentation and reiterates the ideas contained in the ancestral scriptures, we suddenly develop some respect for that piece of newly rehashed knowledge and at times end up paying dearly for acquiring it. All these could be avoided if we ourselves can introduce this knowledge in the curriculum. We must have the benefit of some first‐hand experience of consuming this knowledge. In any case, every society must learn to appreciate that there is intrinsic value to received wisdom and value it.

Propping up the sagging self esteem

An average Indian today, who has spent considerable number of years in the formal educational system (say up to higher education leading to UG or PG degree) is at best a bundle of conflict on matters pertaining to ancestral knowledge. Put such a person alongside such educated persons from the Western countries and kick start a discussion on their respective religious and cultural ethos and values, this Indian will be apologetic to the core. He will feel inferior and will quickly agree to the suggestion that his native wisdom and knowledge repositories are worthless. If his Macaulayan foundations are pretty strong he will even covertly and overtly argue for this. This introduces a deep sense of inferiority complex in him and his self‐esteem takes a beating every now and then. How can you build a society of confident and self‐believing young minds with this state of affairs? What can be a greater tragedy than this and how long can we live in a denial mode. The only way to come out of this is to have a good understanding of the ancestral knowledge of India.

Fighting the emerging IPR battle worldwide

There are strong geo‐political economic reasons for us to start learning ancestral Indian knowledge. This arises from the emerging IPR regime that promises to reward those who claim to have access to rich and useful knowledge earlier than the rest. The economic and legal framework for this is administered through a system of awarding patents, copyrights and exclusives rights of use. In very simple terms this works as follows. “A” claims that he indeed had the knowledge (by way of his ancestral repository) that is being used gainfully in the society for a number of potential applications. He will file a patent application to the International patent regulatory authorities on this basis. If no one else is able to prove that they had access to this knowledge earlier than “A”, then “A” is given patent and he is allowed to enjoy the benefits while restricting the use for others. On the other hand, if “B” claims that they indeed knew this earlier than “A” and is able to establish this decisively, the privileges are indeed given only to “B”.

Where will this country head if we are busy erasing our past memory and knowledge on some flimsy grounds of “thrusting Hindu religious ideas etc.”? We will either fight a losing battle (since we do not know what knowledge we had), or we will helplessly subdue ourselves to the rules of the game and curse ourselves for not being informed of what our ancestors did and said. In the case of Basmati rice, turmeric and a host of scientific and industrial applications (especially in the pharmaceutical sector) we are waging these losing battles. The cruel business world is silently smiling at the “height of ignorance” that we are subjecting ourselves to. The only way to quickly redeem us from this needless logjam is to get adequately educated into ancestral Indian knowledge.

The Way Forward…

There could be any number of reasons as to why we need to get educated with ancestral/traditional Indian knowledge. We shall focus on how this needs to be done rather than why. Two things need to be done almost immediately to rectify this lacunae that haunts our society, particularly the youngsters. We need to equip ourselves with this knowledge repository. The knowledge repository is vast and it needs careful thought on the different formats and methods of imparting them. Some foundational courses that can introduce the caturdaśa vidyā-sthānam will be a very valuable beginning.

The other aspect is giving them the key called Sanskrit, to open this vast treasure house. This is because the entire repository in its original is available only in Sanskrit. Therefore, knowledge of Sanskrit will prove to be very valuable going forward. Perhaps, several foreigners and Universities in the West have opened up to this reality and have seriously begun teaching Sanskrit, whereas we are left behind in the race. However, all that we need is a beginning. We have the native advantage to catch up and overtake others so that the delay in starting this process can be more than compensated.

Chemical and Metallurgical Engineers and Doctors must have some understanding of the ancestral knowledge, so that they can relate them to some modern day issues, and will be able to get near the source and examine it for whatever requirement. Similarly a student of Political History, Management, Psychology or Commerce must also benefit from this awareness. All that we need will be a decade of serious reforms and well thought out implementation strategies for this. When we achieve this, we will be at a striking distance from being the Viśwa Guru, which our ancient nation was for several centuries.

B. Mahadevan, a Professor at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, is currently the Vice Chancellor of Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth. The ideas expressed in the article are the author’s personal views. He can be reached at:

Degree Programmes for the Next Generation by Prof. B. Mahadevan

What degree should my son or daughter pursue? This is a million dollar question that bothers an average Indian parent. In fact, most parents begin worrying about this as their children reach 9th standard. Notwithstanding whatever is the inherent strength and interests of their wards, a vast majority of the parents are able to coerce their children and align them to their “own” perceptions and interests. The game starts at the end of the 10th standard. As things stand today, the decision to put a child into a particular stream (Science, Commerce or Arts) in the 11th standard almost seals the opportunity going forward. The road ahead is restricted, narrow and often a one-way. Changing the lane is risky, not possible and considered foolish by many of us.

The Science stream is the clear winner during the last two decades, not because there is deep passion among the students to learn science. It is simply a least resistance route to fetch a job in some software company writing programmes to fix the bug that exists several thousand miles away in an alien work setting. Consequently, most students are pushed into science stream simply because of this back-of-the-envelope calculation that the parents do. After all, software companies have been habituated to lift a targeted number of bodies (ironically this is the terminology these companies use) from hundreds of engineering colleges. The parents are happy and so are the recruiters. We may not know if the children who went through this routine were indeed happy. But it appears, that is not the criterion in this decision making process.


Career Choice & Degree Programmes

Fortunately the dynamics of the education space is changing. Let us first understand the trajectory before projecting the future. In the 1970s the fad was for Engineering and Medicine. With the arrival of software and computing boom beginning late 80s, engineering clearly took over medicine. Everybody wanted their son or daughter to become an engineer preferably in an IIT. However, from the first decade of the new millennium the sheen of engineering degrees began to fade and crave for management degree began. The shift to Management degree happened both at the undergraduate and post graduate levels. The initial promise of fat salaries and fancy jobs that a Management degree will provide did not prove to be true. Only a handful could get such privileges.

In response to this reality, of late, the focus shifted to two more areas; Mass Media & Journalism and Law. A number of students are now advised to look at these emerging areas. In the meanwhile, some of the traditional subjects such as Commerce regained its credibility and now we find renewed interest into these degree programmes as well. Very recently, Liberal Arts programmes are getting back to the main stage.

Given this roller coaster ride, parents and prospective students will continue their hunt for that programme which will fetch them a good career. A natural question therefore to ask is how will the future programmes look like and what are the likely parameters that will drive the choice of degree programmes. We shall address this question in some detail.

The art of creating successful programmes

The first principle that parents, students and academic administrators must remember is nobody recruits a “degree” but a “person”. This may appear to be an obvious matter that merits no discussion. However, it is not true. The excessive hangover about a certain degree programme is a phenomenon only in India and that has driven our society mad of late. The torture that we subject our wards from 7th standard onwards in some concentration camps to get them into IITs and IIMs and other top engineering colleges bears ample evidence to this. In no other society they madly go after a particular degree. This might have had some value in the post-Independent planned economy era.

In today’s globalised economy this value has begun to diminish. The Indian recruiters have woken up to this reality. Now they want a “good person” as opposed somebody having a so called “good degree”.  This is going to be the trend for the next 2 to 3 decades in this country. If we need to respond to this changing trend, educational planners should design programmes that prepare a good person, even as he/ she is acquiring some functional inputs (say in Commerce, specific branch of Science or Engineering).

The second related principle arising out of the above is that we need good and substantive inputs in our curriculum that focuses on developing a “wholesome” individual. The current degree programmes offered by Indian educational institutions fall abysmally short of meeting this requirement. The installed base and the mind-set inertia will not allow them to make this transformation even if they “conceptually” agree to this emerging requirement. Therefore, it is not surprising that the existing universities are busy adding more and more job seeking inputs in the name of curriculum revision. The smarter ones go one step forward and intelligently adjust the inputs and nomenclature of the programme. The hope lies in the new generation universities to lead this transformation.

The interesting question that will emerge out of this change will be, “What is the quintessential nature of such a curriculum design?” In simple terms, Universities will step out of the traditional approach of providing inputs only for a “living” and augment them with inputs for leading their “life” as well. Modern day research on workplace stress, employee satisfaction and stress and burnout are all pointing to this missing link in individuals as they step out of the universities and enter the corporate world.

The operational principle behind delivering a successful programme along the lines discussed above is the last component of a good degree programme. This amounts to providing substantial amount of flexibility as part of the design so that students can mix and match from the available courses. This will truly enable them to construct their own menu of courses leading to a degree. The current scenario in the country is again bleak as far as this aspect is concerned. Existing universities may have the required expertise to deliver this but they lack the vision and desire to do so. The other reason is that it is difficult to enable this from an implementation perspective. It requires a high level thought and a design philosophy to ensure that at the end of the day students do not run the risk of being “jack of all trades”.  If this feature is not carefully implemented, students will miss the opportunity to invest in some job oriented skills and may not also develop subject matter expertise. Such universities that know how to make this happen will become favourite for the students in the future. It will be the turn of the new universities to lead on this dimension also.

A future outlook

New generation programmes designed with the above principles are the investment for the next 20 – 30 years that needs to happen in the higher education space. Amongst other things, it will take out most of the pressure from the students and parents. Students will be able to seed their interest, discover their passion, and get introduced to some of the areas related to their passion as they pick up a useful degree for gainful employment.

Recruiters are bound to see a welcome change in the quality of the raw material that they will get. Future employees will be able contribute meaningfully to the work place but will also be keen to pursue their passion outside of the office timings. A happy and a contented employee outside the office is bound to be highly productive while in office. The issue of job stress and burnout which are serious challenges for management will become lesser in magnitude as time passes by. University systems will have an opportunity to rejuvenate themselves and can breathe fresh air into their curriculum.

It is time we take a leaf or two out of movies such as “3 Idiots” presenting such possibilities more as fantasy and translate them into reality. In the final analysis, the real beneficiary will be the society.

B. Mahadevan, a Professor at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, is currently the Vice Chancellor of Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth. The ideas expressed in the article are the author’s personal views. He can be reached at: