Beyond The Books Of Ethics
Asato ma sadgamaya. Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya. Mrityorma amritangamaya. Three lines from the Upanishads that come alive in my mind when I remember my beloved professor.
Life is not merely a written account or record. It offers countless unwritten suggestions and insights. An analysis of those suggestions reveals that when one feels despondent, in the abyss of despair and hopelessness, from a space that can at best be called ethereal, consciousness flashes across our mind. This happened to me in the early 1990s when I was feeling thoroughly disenchanted with the daily chores of a rather lucrative corporate job that was draining my vitality and spirit every day. I was, as if, waiting for Godot, a calling from within. Then one day it came.
In 1993, I joined the Management Centre for Human Values (MCHV) at IIM Calcutta created by Dr S.K. Chakraborty with Prof Debashis Chatterjee of IIM Lucknow (past Director, IIM Kozhikode) as my colleague. I abandoned my corporate career. MCHV was a pioneering as well as innovative experiment in the field of management education, a bold statement alternative to the mainstream. It evoked a whole range of responses, often sceptical and caustic, from the Indian academic community. But the movement gathered momentum with appreciation from global academia and practitioners as well as Indian corporate leaders who contributed generously that made the Centre a vibrant reality lasting for nearly two decades in its shining glory amidst questions, doubts and controversies. But with the changing of the old order and leadership priorities, the position and importance of the Centre was gradually fading and declining within the institute framework and that prompted my decision to shift to IIM Shillong in 2009.
In the initial stage of teaching, I found myself getting trapped unknowingly in the comfort zone of certain models and frameworks of ethics and values. While this made the job of teaching rather easy and cushy, it failed to involve or ignite the audience—students and business executives. It took me some time to realize that the participants were not enjoying the sessions and lectures. More importantly, I found that after some time, I too was becoming a cog in the wheel, part of a daily grind that I was not enjoying at the end of the day. This compelled me to question myself, my approach to the whole subject of ethics, its contents and pedagogy.
I plunged into an adventure of seeking wisdom and insights from sources beyond the spectrum of available management literature. This prompted me, for example, to introduce the students to certain episodes from the Mahabharata and raise such uneasy questions in class: Between Arjuna and Karna, who is your favourite and why? I found it extremely important to plant the seeds of lateral and critical thinking in Business Ethics courses. “The colour of truth is grey.” This was the wisdom of Andre Gide, the French Nobel Laureate. And I added—It is so because truth often prevails in the twilight zone. There is an urgent need to strike at the roots of our propensity towards resorting to binary logic that paints reality as either-or: black/white, good/bad, right/wrong.
All this brings us to a vital issue. To what extent do we need to retain the acquired knowledge in the mainstream and to what extent must we need to find new avenues of knowledge creation and dissemination? We, the academics of structured management education must be willing to challenge ourselves—our thinking and perceptions, our beliefs and values to chart out pathways in this journey or movement. We need to evolve alternative sources and non-conventional methods of learning.
One such example is learning from Nature. Rabindranath Tagore had pioneered the most comprehensive experiment in this regard in the last century. A school dropout, he went on to create his institution of higher learning Vishwa Bharati at Shantiniketan in the heart of an ambience of Nature. In his inaugural message of the university to the students, he made it abundantly clear. Apart from the teachers in human form, the trees around, he said, would also be their teachers in this university. He had a strong apathy towards rote learning and envisioned holistic development of students as the primary goal of education.
T.S. Eliot’s poem The Rock comes to mind: “Where is life we have lost in living?/ Where is wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/ Where is knowledge we have lost in information?”
This sets the tone and direction of this new movement—from information through knowledge towards wisdom—our journey ahead—a real adventure!
“An unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. What does this imply for us? The present education system is characterized by a certain amount of impatience—to find quick and easy answers to all our problems. This does not deliver the goods, especially when it comes to the human side of the organization. Reality is too complex and multi-dimensional to be simplified into a single mathematical solution. It is more important to ask the deeper questions to understand the reality of the problem prior to leaping for the solutions. A personal learning experience will make this clear.
We were writing the last examination in IIM Calcutta in January 1989. The course, Politics of Development, was taught by Prof Saila K. Ghosh, a handsome tall, dark man with curly white hair and sparkling eyes. He was also the invigilator for us on that day. At the end of two hours, the closing bells rang. Five of us were still there, writing. He looked at us and asked with smiling eyes, “Do you want to write more?” We were silent. “OK. Ten more minutes to write and complete the paper.” We followed his instructions, wrote the paper and submitted within 10 minutes.
This is unheard of in the IIMs’ context. The students who left the examination hall on time had every reason to object that they also should have been given this opportunity. That might have enhanced their grades, who knows?
But that did not happen. Later that day, I went to his room. By that time he was more a friend to us than a teacher. I asked him, “Sir, you broke the rules today?” His answer is worth internalizing for all teachers, especially for those teaching values and ethics.
He said: “Did I? No. You must see the context here. For two years, all of you have followed the rules of this institute. By now, all of you have got your jobs. None of you came to me pleading for extra time. I saw in your eyes the desire to express more. I only allowed for that. Only those who have followed all the rules also have the right to act a little differently at the end. This is not breaking the rules. It is going beyond the rules, transcending the existing rules for a greater cause.”
Ethics is not just about going by the rules, the dos and don’ts, but having the courage to go beyond the rules when the time and the situation demands it for a higher purpose. This was the episode that later ignited in me the spark to try and liberate structured business school curricula and learning from being fossilized and ossified in a stingy, dark dungeon that is celebrated as the “real grind”!
Often I would meet Prof Ghosh even after leaving the institute, and later when I joined in 1993 as a Research Fellow, till he passed away in September 2007 on a stormy rainy night. I got the news two days later. I still remember standing in my balcony in the darkness of that night reviving the memories of my association and learning from him. Three special messages he had planted in me suddenly flashed across my mind.
Never avoid uneasy questions in life. Never rush for quick, easy answers. Don’t ever opt for soft options.
As I still keep on teaching ethics and values and remember my revered and beloved professor, these messages come alive in my mind like the three prayers from the Upanishads:
Asato ma sadgamaya (From the unreal lead me to Truth)
Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya (From darkness lead me to Light)
Mrityorma amritangamaya (From death lead me to Immortality)
The odyssey still goes on as I keep reminding myself the words of the philosopher Nietzsche: “If one is to live, one has to live dangerously.”
The author is a Faculty of Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility at IIM Shillong. He has been invited to speak at several prestigious forums—the Aspen Institute, the Oxford Roundtable, the Global Ethics Forum (Geneva), and International Wisdom Conference at CEIBS, Shanghai, among many others. At IIM Shillong, he is the Chairperson of the Annual International Conference on Sustainability.
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