Ancient wisdom is no different from contemporary wisdom: Devdutt Pattanaik
It can take years for people to understand what they are truly passionate about. For some, their job becomes their passion. For others, their passion is something on the side that keeps them ticking. Then, there are few like Devdutt Pattanaik who seize opportunities to turn their passion into a successful career. Trained as a doctor, Devdutt worked for 15 years in the healthcare and pharma industry before focusing on his passion full-time. Today, he is a leading mythologist, author, illustrator and speaker who joins the dots of mythology and management in a way that moves people to look at business practices from eye-opening perspectives that hold relevant and meaningful in modern times.
When it comes to succeeding in today’s corporate world, you’ve shown us that there’s a lot we can learn from unexpected places. Before we delve into the linkage between mythology and modern management, are there some misconceptions about the mythology that people should be aware of?
There are two misconceptions about mythology. The first is that it is some kind of history, and the second is that it is fiction. The former is the preferred understanding of right-wing groups across the world, while the latter is the preferred understanding of left-wing groups across the world.
Mythology is not history. It’s a subjective truth of how people imagine the world, the past, the present, and the future. History is an evidence-based understanding of the past. So, the two are very different concepts. God, for example, is a mythological concept and not a historical figure.
Likewise, thinking of mythology as fiction, i.e. something that is not true, completely dismisses people’s beliefs. Does India exist? Technically, it doesn’t. It’s an imaginary idea. Borders don’t exist; property does not exist. Ideas like justice and equality do not exist. These are concepts that we believe in, which create a civilised society. And therefore, to call them fiction is to dismiss the power of these concepts in creating a civilised society. Mythology has to be understood as somebody’s truth, unlike fiction, which is nobody’s truth and is based on fantasy, or fact, which is everybody’s truth based on evidence.
When you accept that different people have different truths, you are open to collaborate. Otherwise, you are constantly debating on what is the truth.
How is mythology relevant to business and leadership in this time of great uncertainty, rapid change and upheaval?
We must first understand how mythology is relevant to business per se. What we study in business schools today is based on Western mythology. The whole concept of objective-based management is based on the biblical concept of the Promised Land that one day, the leader will take us to a better place. What follows is the assumption that all industry and businesses bring good to society by solving problems.
Western mythological models do not have a concept of karma. Every industry interferes with natural processes and changes social structures, impacting both nature and culture. This karmic repercussion is not discussed in boardrooms.
The current business models based on Western mythology need a wider understanding. For example, Indian mythology values diversity, Chinese mythology values relationships, and both value nature. The current uncertainty and change also is a result of many of the actions that we have taken. Modern management does not value contentment and is based on greed with year on year growth and no concept of expiry dates. This system is detrimental to society as a whole and needs to be re-imagined. We are currently going through a bad time, but the fact is in this uncertainty, rapid change and upheaval, the rich have become much richer, as data shows. Which management or leadership school sees that as a negative thing? The fact that we don’t see it as a negative thing shows the structural problems that have emerged.
You say that most of the definitions of leadership we come across today are based on Western ideas (along Greek and Biblical lines) and are fundamentally different from the Indian perspective of leadership. How do the Indian and Western thoughts differ on this front, and why do those differences matter?
Different people look at the world differently. Indians are different from Chinese, Chinese are different from the West, and so on. We are trying to homogenise the world because, in the last 100 years after colonisation, the whole world assumes that we all think in the same way and that we should be on the same page. It is only in the last 10 years that we have realised the value of diversity, and this is not just about skin colour, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. It is also about how different people think.
Ancient Indian thought valued diversity and created models to accommodate different ways of thinking, and I believe that’s the need of the hour. Homogeneity is dangerous, as it wipes out diverse cultures.
What can leaders of today learn about adapting and evolving to the changing time from Vishnu and his avatars (forms)?
Vishnu takes different forms in his life. In the Dwapara Yuga, he took the form of Krishna, the cowherd. In the Treta Yuga, he took the form of Ram, the king. Thus, in different circumstances, he takes different forms. There is no standard form. It is always customised to people’s needs, and that’s a very important lesson that we have to learn: You have to keep adapting to situations. There is no single form or solution that satisfies all needs.
You have used the metaphors of a garden and a forest to explain diversity in a distinct way. Please elaborate.
In nature, all kinds of people exist, but in an organisation, we select people very carefully to suit our needs. Now, there’s an increasing requirement that people should not only have the skills that the organisation needs, but they must also belong to various minority groups so that the corporates play a socially responsible role and recognise the diversity in the world around them by including diverse groups of people in the organisations. Therefore, corporate essentially is a garden that decides which members of the forest — that is, the market — will enter their space. Some gardens can be very homogenous; some will be heterogeneous, and others will be landscaped differently. The whole idea is that eventually, we want a garden that is as diverse as possible, but it will never match the forest because the forest is organic and natural while a garden is artificial, constructed by shareholders eventually.
First-time work meetings can be unnerving and awkward. Agendas often get reduced to transactions, and creating a human connection is hard. How can the Haldi-Kumkum-Chaval approach to meetings help prioritise interactions over transactions?
When we meet people, we have to recognise they are strangers and that we don’t really know each other. It is important to accept that upfront. The concept of Haldi-Kumkum-Chaval reveals that we must walk into a meeting not merely with an agenda in place and that introductions are not just about knowing names and designations.
Just as Haldi is an antiseptic, the first step of interacting with strangers is about removing the negative energy in the room, accepting the fact that we don’t know each other, and admitting that there’s awkwardness. Then comes the Kumkum, which is about appreciating each other’s skillsets and sharing each other’s capabilities and weaknesses. That creates a decent ecosystem and lightens the atmosphere. After Haldi and Kumkum comes the Chaval — the main agenda.
That’s what Haldi-Kumkum-Chaval is symbolically. We often take these symbols to be literal, and that’s the tragedy.
Up-Close and Personal
You are a medical doctor by education and worked for 15 years in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. What were some of the biggest obstacles you faced when you started out to make a unique career in mythology?
It is fashionable for many writers to say that they faced a lot of problems when they were trying to start a new career. I never thought of mythology as a career. Opportunities opened up, I went in that direction, and one day, I suddenly realised that I could make enough money writing and speaking about mythology full time. It was an organic thing; I never thought I had obstacles or that anybody was trying to block me. Opportunities came. If opportunities had not come, I would have walked in a different direction.
Does your interest in mythology date back to childhood?
Honestly, no. It began in my medical college and was amplified after my internship. It was a casual conversation with some editors which led me to write my first book. The publisher approached my editor, asking if he knew someone who would write a mythological book, and my editor asked me for a proposal that worked out. So actually, the publisher sought me out. I didn’t seek out the publisher. Things just organically emerged from there.
When did you start writing and what motivated you?
My writing started in my college days. I was a magazine secretary, and I enjoyed writing because it clarified my thoughts. It’s inspired by making notes, which most students do, but I turned it into a bigger vocation.
What is the significance of illustrations and artwork in your books and writings?
I illustrate my work because, just as in science, artwork explains concepts that cannot be expressed using words. The artwork in my books is meant to communicate ideas that cannot be captured using words. So it complements my writing; it’s not mere decoration.
What’s your favourite indulgence when you need a break from work?
I like to take walks. That’s my favorite indulgence.
What’s your most significant learning from the pandemic experience?
The most significant thing I’ve learned is that our bodies need exercise. You suddenly realise when you’re locked in the house how little you move your body. Our bodies do need to move much more, and being locked in one place is unhealthy.
• What’s the one thing you miss most about pre-pandemic times?
I miss travelling.
• What would we be surprised to learn about you?
You might be surprised to know that I don’t listen to music.
• Complete these sentences:
i. Life is… full of joys and sorrows.
ii. I strongly believe in… hard work.
• What comes to your mind when you hear these words?
i. Storytelling: Explains the world
ii. Ancient Wisdom: It’s no different from contemporary wisdom
iii. Sutras (Aphorisms): Simple ways to remember complex ideas
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