Matter Or Spirit
The Ishopanishad says we must first build a material foundation of life on top of which we can erect the spiritual superstructure.
A whole section of scholars call it Management Science. But there are others who use the term Management Philosophy. Experts in Organizational Design and Development will often stress the importance of Culture in organizations. The evolution of the discipline of Management has taken place along with constant nourishment from the global cultural mosaic and philosophical systems. Max Weber found the connection between the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Oriental management principles and practices in Japan and China largely owe their roots in Confucianism and Shinto-ism. The question that naturally used to haunt me was: What can be the contribution of the millennia-old Indian philosophy and culture to the domain of modern management?
Management Centre for Human Values at IIM Calcutta was set up in 1992 as a pioneering initiative to engage in research in and teaching Indian Ethos and Human Values in Management. It had its foundation in the dedicated efforts of Dr S. K. Chakraborty since the 1980s. We began our journey through Values, Ethics and Indian Ethos in Management, but the journey was never smooth and comfortable. Questions and doubts, conflicts and confusions kept appearing.
For me, it was the beginning of a lifelong movement and exploration. Amidst dilemmas and darkness, sometimes a glimmer of hope and light would come like a flash from the pages of the Upanishads. It helped me change my attitude “from a researcher to a seeker”. This also resulted in a change of my approach—“from a pathfinder to a fellow-traveller”. And slowly the wisdom of the Upanishads began to dawn in my consciousness. I came to realize that the ego of the teacher must be toned down ruthlessly to find access to this higher learning. Learning for me had just begun.
And what did I begin to learn?
Let us start from the very beginning – the first of the Upanishads. Vedanta is the other name given to the entire spectrum of Upanishads. It implies not just the end of the Vedas but the essence of the crystallized wisdom of the Vedas. Ishopanishad is the earliest of the Upanishads that has 18 shlokas or verses. At a philosophical level, Ishopanishad expounds the theory of the all-pervading Universal Consciousness (Isha) permeating every atom of the phenomenal world (Jagat). But at a more practical level, it gives us a clear direction on setting our priorities of life and work among conflicting demands from opposite ends.
To understand the nature of this conflict, let us take, for example, a common question asked by management practitioners—corporate executives. If there is a conflict between ethics and profits, where do we go? This dilemma is confronted by conscientious individuals trying to achieve a level of excellence in real-life business situations where numbers and often, only numbers count the most. The numbers could be profit margins, sales figures, turnover and all you have to prove that you have made it in this quarter. And yes, by virtue of their education and pedigree, they are also sensitive to the issue of ethics that, unfortunately, cannot be reduced to any quantification for an apple-to-apple comparison. Moreover the decision has to be taken on the spot, here and now, preferably yesterday! So what should be their response?
I remember those days when we were young and passionate about upholding values against all odds. But such firebrand yet often “impractical” messages would hardly cut much ice with seasoned managers with a business target to achieve and a family to sustain back home. By this, we do not mean that ethics are not important in work and life. The problem was with our whole approach to the issue at hand. The reason was that we did not delve into the roots of the problem. This is where internalization of the messages of the Ishopanishad came of help to me—to set the priorities right in our life.
The question that has been addressed in the Ishopanishad is much deeper and more fundamental in nature. The Upanishad clearly distinguishes between the two pursuits—Knowledge of Matter (Avidya) for material progress and Knowledge of Spirit (Vidya) for spiritual development. The question is: which one of these two we must focus our efforts on? Lack of clarity in prioritizing these two objectives results in a whole lot of complications in our life and work. The dictum of the Upanishad is bold and clear on this matter.
In the first line of the 9th verse of the Ishopanishad, the sage proclaims with no uncertain authenticity: “If, one pursues avidya to the exclusion of vidya, his life is going to end up in darkness.” But what is most profound is the wisdom uttered in the second line of the same verse: “If one pursues vidya to the exclusion of avidya, his life is going to end up in deeper darkness.” This is most intriguing indeed. All around, we hear the advocates of spirituality placing primacy on spirit over matter for a better life, but the very first Upanishad says that it is just the other way round. Then what is the message for us? One must not conclude in a hurry that spiritual pursuit is not important in life. But there is a priority that has been accorded in the Ishopanishad. We must first build a strong material foundation of life on top of which we can erect the spiritual superstructure. In the light of this, it may be worthwhile to ponder over the powerful message of Swami Vivekananda: “Religion is not for the empty stomach.”
Now the question naturally rises: Till how long should we pursue material knowledge? How do we know when the time is ripe to delve into spiritual pursuits? In the 11th verse of the Ishopanishad, the sage presents to us the key to a life of fulfillment through simultaneous pursuit of avidya and vidya. While Material Knowledge helps us transcend death in this mortal world, Spiritual Wisdom transports us to the realm of immortality. For us, transcending death had to be understood in the sense of absence of even a shade of insecurity out of any material loss while experience of immortality is the ever flowing and glowing Spirit within us—the constant touch with our I-consciousness, the elan vital of life that rules over all that is material and hence unperturbed by uncertainties and vicissitudes. This is not a matter of sudden realization but the fruition of a lifelong endeavour to bring about a harmony between material progress and spiritual fulfillment. Sri Aurobindo wrote: “Matter divides, Spirit unites.”
Let us now go back to our original dilemma—ethics or profits? The answer will never dawn in a mind that is used to binary thinking in terms of “either-or”. Life and work is an everflowing continuum where the colour of the truth is often grey, not black or white. This is essentially the flow of our individual consciousness through the maze of events and happenings, through success and failure, joy and sorrow.
What is important is to keep the flow on like a pendulum oscillating with equal ease between extremes of reality. The problem starts when we get stuck in our flow of consciousness at any point in the trajectory.
If the mind is now focused on achieving a financial target at any moment, it must be equally competent and comfortable to focus on ethics or social responsibility at the other end of the pendulum at a different point in time. We shall not get stuck in evaluating our standard of living by standard of consumption only at the quantitative end of the pendulum. We shall also be able to smoothly swing across to the other end to evaluate standard of living by Quality of Life. The smoother this movement, the deeper and fuller is our experience of meaning and joy in life and work.
I try not to pass judgment on someone who is in the pursuit of material goals in life. If a business leader is confronting such dilemmas as we discussed, I try to listen and never evaluate on the face. And finally I shall never commit the blunder of describing the East as spiritual and the West as material because, after all, it is the eternal voyage of global human consciousness, East or West, North or South.
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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