Contemporary dilemmas, whether in business or politics, bear an uncanny resemblance to the predicaments withessed in the ever-timely epic, the Mahabharata. Who else but Bhishma Pitamah then to the rescue of the modern-day manager, politician or bureaucrat! In the epic, Bhishma is the upholder of truth and dharma, his life shaped by the difficult choices he marks. He isn’t always infallible, but even where his decisions are questionable, he severs as a role model.
Prof. N. Balasubramanian uses this powerful figure and his selfless values as a guide to make the right choices in The Bhisham Way. He discusses the importance of values, dharma, truth, justice and governance in businesses and governments. Analyses of real-life cases-among them, Union Carbide and the Bhopal gas tragedy, James Hardie and asbestos in Australia, and Ok Tedi in Papua New Guinea-complement the mythological stories, and insightful anecdotes in this illuminating and thought-provoking book. This severs as an instructive read for anyone striving for a higher moral code in day-to day decision-making and leadership.
With more than half a century of work experience, Prof. N. Balasubramanian embodies a unique blend of exposure to the industry and academia. For three and a half decades, he served companies like Imperial Chemical industries, Britaaannia and Chemical Industries, Britannia and Wipro at senior levels. He then switched to academia and currently teaches at the Indian institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He was a professor at Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.
A non-practising chartered accountant with a PhD in business finance, and a deep interest in Indian scriptures and heritage, Prof. Balasubramanian has been on the statutory and advisory boards of listed companies as early-to-mid-term start-ups. He also serves on the editorial and advisory boards of some Indian and international scholarly journals. Prof. Balasubramanian lives with his family in Thane, ear Mumbai, This is his eighth book.
The Mahabhrata, like the Ramayana, is among the greatest, and the earliest epics in the world. In length, it is reportedly, seven times longer than Homer’s Odyssey and Ilied put together. What distinguishes it from other such accounts in the fact that it is not just one straightforward story but a collection of discourses, episodes and anecdotes collected from far and wide, spanning aeons, woven around the main story which is short and simple enough. It is about the struggle to the succession of the royal throne of Hastinapura. When the rightful claimant, Yudhishthira, is denied his inheritance by the incumbent by the incumbent ruler, also his paternal uncle, the blind King Dhritharashtra, at the behest of his greedy and arrogant son Duryodhana and his accomplices, the two cousins engage in battle at Kurukshetra. It was a seventeen are annihilated by the righteous Pandavas with Yudhishthira at the helm. But what contributes to the length of the volume are the various twists and turns in the story before the battle is finally fought. It also traces the history of Dhritharashtra usurping the throne and then later, refusing to peacefully return even half of the kingdom to its rightful inheritor.
Among the myriad of players in this epic, two characters stand out prominently; Bhishma, the scion who renounces his right to the kingdom to enable his father marry a woman of his choice, who dominates the entire epic spanning over five generations-in the earlier phase playing the role of an active participant, and later on becoming a learned and well- respected elder statesman and mentor; and Vasudeva Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who plays the role of a non-partisan counsellor, mediator, and the overarching, non- participating chief and mentor for the over victorious Pandavas. Vasudeva Krishna is also attributed with the famous Bhagavad Gita, the celestial song on the duties and responsibilities of humans in steering through their lives in this world delivered on the battlefield to Arjuna, the reluctant Pandava who could not come o terms with the idea of decimating friends, family, and other elders whom they were fighting against.
Bhishma is the chosen anchor for this book. There are several reasons for this choice. For example, much has been written on Krishna and role in the epic, his greatest contribution to mankind, the Gita, and a whole cult based on devotion to him as the eight incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Relatively, Bhishma is less researched and written about, although references to his counsel are often made in different contexts. But the principal driver for this choice is the man himself, his life as message, and the rich counsel that is available in his voice in the epic, which is of continuing relevance to present –day problems and issues of governance and personal behaviour.
At the outset, I should disclose I lay no claim to great scholarship in Sanskrit, although it was my chosen additional language in school and college. My mastery over the languages is modest, but my fascination for it has been my chief driver. In this book, I have relied on the excellent English translation of epic by the renowned expert, Kisari Mohan Ganguli, serially published between 1883 and 1896; my access was to the four volumes published by Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers of New Delhi. I have supplemented my understanding with another classic work by Badrinath Chaturvedi, an experienced administrator and a scholar par excellence who had taught briefly at Heidelberg University and authored several books on Dharma and the doctrines of Vedanta. My access was to his 2006 edition published by Orient Longman, Hyderabad. While I have drawn from these publications, any errors in my interpretation or application are of course entirely mine.
I have also greatly benefitted by referring to the extensive Sanskrit –English Dictionary of Vaman Shivaram Apte, first published in 1890; Apte was the principal of Ferguson College, and despite his very short life (he passed away at the age of thirty-four), was a recognized authority in Sanskrit. My access was to the 2007 reprint of the 1998 edition, published by Motilal Banarasidas of Delhi.
I should mention here that notwithstanding the high praise and reverence people accord to the Mahabharata, scholars have questioned the veracity of large parts of epic and concluded that many of them were later-day interpolations. The Bhandarkar Research Institute at Pune has done remarkable work over half a century, identifying and removing many such interpolations and published the Critical Edition of the epic in twenty-two volumes between 1933 and 1966. The effort was taken forward by Justice Sisir Kumar Sen and many remaining interpolations and discrepancies were identified and removed.
Erudite and scholarly as these efforts were, and help they did eliminating many of the unrelated material from the popularly accepted and adored versions of the Mahabharata, it is later that I have chosen to rely upon these volumes. My reason were simple: My objective is not to establish the authenticity of the epic but to access its message as conveyed and ascertain their relevance and application to contemporary issues of governance and personal behavior. In all such epics around the world, there are elements of historical reality as well as mythological and poetic embellishments. added by interpreters and scholars. The Mahabharata is no exception. Seen in this light, it is not even important to me if a character like Bhishma was a real person and did exist in flesh and blood, although there is more than adequate historical and anthropological evidence of the reign of kings and the Kurukshetra war as chronicled in the epic. And even though it is inconceivable to our modern and rational minds that someone lay for months on end on a bed of arrows piercing through his body and delivered long lectures on morals, kingly duties and normative human behavior, it is the substance of the character as portrayed in the epic and its messages that are valuable and relevant.
Bhishma’s personality has always been portrayed as daunting and overwhelming, but there were undoubtedly some aspects and instances where he might arguably have done better, or at least differently, with the benefit of hindsight. Let’s consider, representatively, two such decisions:
• It is true that Bhishma had vowed to remain celibate to ensure not only he, but also his progeny would never lay claim to the Hastinapura throne in competition with the children of Satyavati with King Shantanu. Years later, when both the sons of Satyavati had died without having any children and have was asked by Satyavati herself of consider niyoga (a practice which legitimizes a sibling having children with the widow[s] of his order sibling, if and only if it is for purpose of ensuring continuity of family succession, but not otherwise) with the widows of Satyavati‘s deceased son, Bhishma declines citing his vow. In the circumstances, the purpose of row had been negated, with no successor from Satyavati likely to fight his progeny for the throne. Instead, they had to eventually summon Bhishma’s stepbrother from Satyavati’s side to perform the task. It is not relevant for our purposes whether Bhishma or Vyasa, his steptbrother, fathered the future king for Hastinapura; but it does show the somewhat inappropriate application of dharmic principles on the part Bhishma.
• Bhishma was convinced that the path chosen by Dhritharashtra and Duryodhana by denying even half the kingdom (itself a questionable proposition) to the Pandavas, was not dharmic. And yet, when the inevitable war was to be fought, Bhishma chose to side with father, Shantanu, that he would always protect the Hastinpura throne. What he seems to have overlooked is the fact that his vow must be construed as fighting for the throne occupied by the rightful successor and not an impostor, which Dhritharashtra was in this case. How can it be dharmic to fight in support of a cause that is not legitimate? Granting that applying the rule that possession was half the strength of claimed property, not being convinced of the legitimacy of the approach adopted by Dhritharashtra and Duryodhana, Bhishma had the option of staying neutral (as indeed Balarama, Vasudeva Krishna’s brother did not opt for this course, which again was perhaps the result of inappropriate application of righteousness relating to the honouring of his vows. The other dimension, which we discuss later in the book relates to Bhishma’s capture’ (or ‘bought over’ in contemporary terminology) by Dhritharashtra and his sons with wealth, comfort, and respect, obligating him to fight for their cause even when he was not convinced.
One could argue that on the basis of these other such indiscretions in judgement, Bhishma was not an ideal character to be emulated, nor that his message of wisdom were worthy of adopation. Indeed, Bhishma’s claim to selfless greatness has itself been questioned. I tend to believe thought, that these very shortcomings make the man more human, prone to mistakes; and to that extent, one can relate to the character more comfortably than if he had been depicted as divine and wholly infallible. If one could learn from such seemingly unworthy blemishes and discern what may be more appropriate, the purpose of studying Bhishma would have been quite satisfying.
Governance is our primary focus, exploring how contemporary administrations can learn and adopt takeaways from the Mahabharata in general and Bhishma in particular. Justice is the fundamental objective of all systems of governance (though justice itself could be subjective, differing according to circumstances). Justice in a civilized commonwealth depends upon three constituents: the value systems of the realm, the standards of dharma or righteousness, and the emphasis placed upon the practice of truth. The five chapters are structured accordingly, beginning with the fundamentals, leading to be objective, and finally to the system designed to deliver on the objective.
The discussion of each of these, often interdependent concepts, is focused on the individual, the state, and the corporation as a sub-set of the state . To better relate to the reality of the day, a representative (and by no means an exhaustive) collection of cases are included as illustrations. The fact is that each of us (as was the case with Bhishma and all the other characters in the story) is facing situations and taking decisions that seem appropriate under given circumstances Whether decisions are in line with what they ought to be under such circumstances (within the framework of values, righteousness and truth), only one’s own conscience could judge.
In modern democracies, where legislative decisions are made on the basis of a majority of the people’s representatives in Parliaments, senates and so on, it might appear that decision-making is collective, but there can be a contrarian view here as well. One could argue, for example, that the legislator is making his or her individual’ lonely’ decision on a given motion; the requisite majority for carrying it through the Houses reflects the sum of such ‘personal’ decisions of the representatives and hence, the greatest interest of the largest number of people (following the Utilitarian approach). In party-based systems, the use of use party whip to vote for the motion may effectively constrain the freedom of the individual party member. Whittling this down further, though, one could rationalize that a party’s position is itself derived from the majority of party constituents and thus, it reflects the greatest of the number of people, in the ideological opinion of the party. The short point is that, in theory, the collective view in a democratic environment is still, at the root, a reflection of the constituents’ individual decisions. (It is important to underline the repeated use here of democratic processes in this line of argument. If a political party does not follow this process in its own structure and processes, then the conclusion will not hold is respect of that party.)
Bhishma’s counsel repeatedly includes admonitions to the king that he should consult his ministers, advisers, elders, and the ‘learned’, and then using his judgement take his own decision. Despite going through the motions of consultations with all these people, the king could take decision that did not lead to the greatest good for the largest number of people. A telling example is the instance where Dhritharashtra seeks advice from Vidura, Bhishma, Drona, and others with regard to giving the Pandavas back half of their kingdom, but decides against it to suit his personal agenda of retaining the whole kingdom for himself and son. In modern times, both in governments and corporates, similar situations are not difficult to find!
The story of Bhishma, although predominantly one of greatness valour and wisdom, has its share of pathos as well, especially in his later phase where it seemed he was just respected but not necessarily heeded. Whether it was during the dice game and the disrobing of Draupadi, or on Whether the Pandavas should get back half of their kingdom, his advice fell on deaf ears. Duryodhana in particular was openly disrespectful and even insulting; Karna (who had a poor equation with Bhishma anyway) was increasingly confrontational, and Dhritharashtra became more restive and annoyed . For someone who had sacrificed his kingship and worked so hard to expand and protect the kingdom, such treatment was not warranted. And yet, instances are common in modern-day governments and corporations where similar sidelining and disrespect of senior leaders and directors take place routinely. Wouldn’t it be better for such seniors to step down with dignity rather than suffer such ignominy?
Notwithstanding the few negatives that have been mentioned, overall, the impression Bhishma proffers is one of a man of great dignity, forbearance, courage, integrity, justice, and above all, selfless service for a chosen cause. There is much that the present and future generations of leaders can emulate in their respective spheres of activity and influence. This book is a humble effort in that direction.
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