The Upanishads have a lot to teach today’s executives when outcomes are unpredictable, relationships complex, and change is the name of the game.
The immense diversity and complexity of the 5,000-year-old Indian tradition and culture make it almost impossible to identify one single and unilateral Indian philosophy. Moreover, the concepts developed in the different schools of Indian philosophical systems and the paths outlined thereof often appear conflicting and contending with one another. Here, I have chosen a few relevant sources of classical Indian literature which may be useful to modern management worldwide, struggling at a time of turbulence, uncertainty and crisis. The texts chosen here are primarily some of the Upanishads, a treasure house of precious wisdom transmitted in the form of conversations between the teacher/master and the learner/disciple.
A Message from an Ancient Indian Allegory
The Upanishads, 108 in number, as recorded and available to us even today, extol the glory of the perennial flow of human consciousness and its all-pervading nature and scope. Our consciousness has the infinite capacity to traverse the entire cosmic space and time eternal. However, more often than not, it finds limited expression in our engagement with the affairs of our mundane existence.
Even in the micro domain of our life-world, while the consciousness is more directly involved in the endless flurry of our activities, it also has the inherent capacity to withdraw into a reflective mode and become an observer of our own triumphs and tragedies. Suffice it to say, both the “witnessing consciousness” and the “involved consciousness” are but two different expressions of the pure and unqualified Self-Consciousness that constitutes the essence of the “I”, the core of our being.
The seer of the Shwetashwatara Upanishad had portrayed this dual nature of human consciousness pictorially, displaying rare mastery of poetic imagination. This is the simple yet beautiful imagery of two birds perched on the branch of the same tree depicted by the modern Indian seer-poet Sri Aurobindo as follows:
“Two winged birds cling about a common tree, comrades, yoke-fellows; and one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, the other eats not, but watches.”
Like the branch of the tree, our pure Self-Consciousness provides the backdrop for and the connecting link between these two apparently conflicting manifestations of our consciousness. But the two birds are in fact “comrades”, deeply connected to each other and represent two complementary aspects of our nature that can actually coexist.
This comes as a powerful message for organisational leaders to cultivate their reflective and witnessing consciousness prior to engagement in meaningful action, which demands continuous outflow of our energy or consciousness.
Towards Shaping a Comprehensive
What is “spirit” or spirituality? The Latin root “spiritus” connotes breath or the vital life force, the “elan vital”. Spirit essentially refers to the vital flow of awakened human consciousness that infuses life into any endeavour that may otherwise appear mundane or mechanical. Spirit breathes the fire of meaning and purpose into our actions and enlivens our experience of the world. It also stimulates our faculties, pushes us to the edge so that we are compelled to challenge our assumptions and frameworks of understanding through critical self-enquiry and introspection.
At this point, it may be worthwhile to gain some clarity on the whole notion of spirituality and its practical implications for business. Often, spirituality gets associated with certain misplaced apprehensions that relegate it to an otherworldly pursuit divorced from reality.
The quintessential spiritual wisdom of India as preserved in the Upanishads and many other original Sanskrit texts has never advocated such an illusory view of spirituality that fosters a world-negating attitude and lures us to delve into a “mysterious” domain of trance and magic. This also portends the danger and fallacy of shunning material progress as irrelevant to and incompatible with “real” spiritual aspirations.
On the contrary, Upanishadic wisdom boldly presents to the world an all-embracing view of spirituality and advocates a harmonious pursuit of both the material and spiritual dimensions of our existence for a richer experience of work and life. Ishopanishad, the oldest available Upanishad, deals with this problem upfront, dispels the myth of a “non-material” notion of spirituality and offers a comprehensive practical resolution in two of its verses in close succession.
The ninth verse clearly pronounces that if we pursue material knowledge to the exclusion of spirit, our life will enter into darkness. The next line of this verse is even more sharply articulate and challenging. It spells out with no trace of ambiguity that if we pursue spiritual wisdom to the exclusion of matter, our life will enter into deeper darkness. This may come as a shocking revelation to the uninformed proponents of an “otherworldly” spiritual pursuit.
In verse number 11, the seer states that if we pursue material knowledge and spiritual wisdom simultaneously in a balanced manner, then their harmonious blend will offer us fulfillment in life—individual as well as collective, personal and organisational.
Limitations of Linear Thinking and
But the modern mind often fails to grasp this all-encompassing approach to spirituality as it gets caught in the trap of linear thinking and misses out certain colours and flavours that also matter quite significantly in life. Another serious limitation in our thinking today is the domineering influence of binary logic. We tend to see and understand the world in a bipolar mode — one or zero, good or bad, black or white.
Because of this tendency to adopt a compartmentalised view of the life-world, we remain comfortable with the fallacious habit of labelling people and phenomena in terms of opposites from our self-created “boxes”. We fail to comprehend or appreciate that the fabric of life comes intertwined with a dynamic play of opposites. We miss out the kernel of truth which often prevails in the twilight zone and is grey in colour.
Thus, in the workspace of modern organisations, effectiveness eludes us at a time when outcomes are unpredictable, human behaviour and relationships are increasingly complex and dynamic, and change is the name of the game. Management of differences in human relationships and a celebration of diversity in a multicultural context often remain a far cry. Recent emphasis on developing competencies like lateral thinking and “thinking out of the box” among corporate executives are welcome trends but all this will need a radical transformation, a quantum leap in our worldview.
It may be mentioned here that the Advaita (or Unitary) nature of our consciousness as propounded in the Upanishads absorbs all dualities in the overarching canvas of a grand continuum of cosmic experience across space and time. Polarities or opposites exist in this scheme not as disparate fragments of reality but deeply interconnected in time, space and essence.
A Holistic Framework of Learning
The Upanishads, as mentioned earlier, constitute a vast body of literature where knowledge is transmitted in the mode of conversations. It can be compared with our modern classroom situation where presence and engagement of the teacher and the student create the context for knowledge dissemination and learning. Let us try to explore some leadership lessons embedded in Taittiriya Upanishad, especially in the context of the content and methodology of imparting knowledge in organisations.
From the Taittiriya Upanishad, the leader can learn how to unfold a systems view of life and the world to oneself and then others. From the micro to the macro, from the self to the universe, there are five layers of our existence that have been progressively unveiled in this Upanishad. These layers have been depicted in the form of spherical sheaths or kosha-s through which the consciousness of the learner must evolve to reach the all-encompassing experience of fullness of the self and the world.
The five layers or sheaths (pancha kosha), and their relevance to modern organisations, are:
1. Annamaya kosha (sheath of matter) constitutes the gross body of the individual and the material universe. The physical layout of the organisation comprising land, buildings, plants and physical structures comes within the ambit of this layer.
2. Pranamaya kosha (vital sheath) constitutes the basic life-giving vital force of the individual, so important for survival and movement, and also the field of energy that flows in the natural universe for its sustenance. In the context of the organisation, this refers to the buoyancy and dynamism, flows of information, spirit of aggressive competition for survival and so on.
3. Manomaya kosha (mental sheath) constitutes the mental world of the individual —choices and preferences, vibrations of desires, thoughts and ideas which also expand to include the universe. Healthy and receptive employee mindset, emotional competence and amicable corporate culture are its organisational manifestations.
4. Vijnanamaya kosha (sheath of wisdom) marks the entry from the vast field of worldly knowledge to the pristine knowledge of the Self and its natural, organic connection with the universe and its subtle forces. Questions of purpose of life and sustenance of the planet at large become critically important at this level. Engagement with vision, mission, values, self-actualisation and sustainability issues become organisational priorities at this layer of existence.
5. Anandamaya kosha (sheath of bliss) is the subtlest layer of existence, finding expression in pure bliss amidst the dualities of joy and sorrow, happiness and misery, success and failure.
American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s inclusion of a final stage of “self-transcendence” beyond self-actualisation comes close to this experience. Quest for joy and freedom in action, spontaneous connectivity with others and effortless flow of action comprise the organisational reflections of this experience.
Lessons on the Learning Process
The following pertinent lessons on the process of learning can be crystallised for leaders in organisations from this ancient text:
1. A graded, stepwise and integral approach is essential for proper assimilation of knowledge. The sage in the Upanishad takes the student along all the five stages so that the consciousness and knowledge of the recipient can evolve.
2. There has to be an intrinsic respect for the acquired knowledge at all the five levels— from the grossest to the subtlest. To achieve this, the sage opens his deliberation on each stage by identifying every sheath (anna, prana etc) with the highest principle in the universe or Brahman, the ultimate reality. This also safeguards against any feeling of arrogance or disdain towards learners among those who have progressed ahead of the others.
3. For a leader, there has to be not only an awareness of the entire spectrum of knowledge but sensitivity to the specific stage of learning of a particular recipient. Otherwise, knowledge absorption will not be effective. One often finds that inspirational messages on vision or values do not have an impact on executives as most members of the target audience may be just in the initial stages of the learning path.
4. Each layer has its significant role to play in our learning path. We often find a misplaced notion at work in our minds that the stages and experiences we have left behind are no more important for us. As if material knowledge loses its priority amidst our concern for values or sustainability. Wisely enough, the sage, after completing his inputs on all the layers, warns the learner: “Don’t despise matter” (Annam na nindat).
5. The process of exploration at every stage has been called “tapas” or intense striving for perfection to reach the ultimate goal. What is more profound is that at every stage, this striving has been identified with Brahman, the highest Principle or consciousness in the universe. The path is as important as the destination.
To conclude, the following lines from a poem by Tagore make it clear and succinct:
“My pilgrimage is not at the end of the road;
My temples are all there on both sides of my pathway.”
(Translation by this author)