The Success Sutra: Myth and meaning

By: | Published: October 4, 2015 12:10 AM

EVERYONE WHO is familiar with the Ramayana will be aware of the famous Lakshman Rekha sequence, where Ravan disguised as a hermit requests Sita for food and she has to decide whether or not to step across the line.

The Success Sutra: An Indian Approach
to Wealth
Devdutt Pattanaik
Aleph Book Company
Pp 147

EVERYONE WHO is familiar with the Ramayana will be aware of the famous Lakshman Rekha sequence, where Ravan disguised as a hermit requests Sita for food and she has to decide whether or not to step across the line. In the Mahabharata, Krishna asks the Pandavas to burn down the forest, Khandavaprastha, which they are loathe to do until told that if it’s not done, they wouldn’t be able to build an empire. In another story from the Ramayana, King Dashrath requires sage Rishyashring to perform a yagna for him. But Rishyashring can’t perform it unless he is married. So princess Shanta is sent to seduce him and, eventually, he falls for her charms. In another tale, Queen Kaikeyi gets two boons from King Dashrath. She uses one for banishing Ram and tries to install her son Bharat as king of Ayodhya. However, her son refuses to become king.

These stories may sound moralistic, but Devdutt Pattanaik in his book, The Success Sutra, uses such tales to exhibit the four secrets of success for any business. If one were to relate these four stories (there are several more in the book) to sound business principles, they would be ‘decision taking’, ‘violence’, ‘seduction’ and ‘churning’, respectively. The book discusses these from different angles. If you are convinced with these analogies, you will enjoy reading this book. Else, it could get a bit taxing.

In this book, Pattanaik interprets corporate and business actions and structures through Indian mythology. While the idea is very novel, it tends to feel a bit forced at times, especially when a comparison doesn’t hold. However, his four points for success are certainly appealing.

Let us look at decision taking, an integral part of any organisation. Often, it’s the hardest thing, as there is always a chance of decisions going wrong. So how far do we go in taking such chances, provided we conduct preliminary analysis before reaching our decision? More importantly, once we go ahead with a decision, retracting it becomes difficult, if not impossible. Also, often people do not want to take responsibility for what they do, especially when the consequences of the investment are unknown.

Here, some of the aphorisms that Pattanaik comes up with are: decisions are good or bad only in hindsight and hence are rationalised in hindsight. And, more importantly, the person taking the decision is responsible fully for bad decisions, but also exclusively becomes the beneficiary of a good decision. One is, however, not sure if it really works this way in most organisations.

The author’s take on ‘violence’ is also interesting. His view is that without violence there can be no nourishment and any physical growth involves consumption of others. If there is development, it has to be at the cost of something else—more housing complexes mean less open space and so on. Violence is culturally acceptable in a society where we ‘take’ when no one ‘gives’. But it’s not acceptable in case the concept of ‘taking’ is not accompanied by ‘giving’. Hence, in an example given by the author, while giving away a child to repay debt is not right, violation of a patent, say, for a drug in the larger interest of society would be acceptable even if it’s moralistically incorrect.

The analogies get perplexing when he tries to put Shiva’s drinking of poison during the churning of the ocean in context of present business activity. The churning was done to obtain the nectar of immortality, but it released a number of things in the process, the deadly poison being one of them. By consuming it, Shiva protected humanity.

However, some of Pattanaik’s analogies do make a lot of sense. For example, his likening of ‘seduction’ of mythological figures to seduction of consumers will find many takers, as this is what all companies try to do. They reach out to customers to increase their top-lines. Further, when we talk of employee retention and rewards, the story also revolves around seduction. But such seduction, Pattanaik warns, could be a trick, a trap or even manipulation. It could, however, also be an expression of genuine affection. Given that almost all CEOs today are constantly urging their employees to work towards customer satisfaction, one would tend to think it is genuine, even if it is forced affection. The two, however, are inseparable.

The last sutra is ‘churning’ and since an organisation has several forces—ranging from production to accounting, research and sales—every organ plays a dominant role at some point of the business chain. The others have to submit when one dominates. When there is stringency, for example, accounts become more important than sales or marketing.

The author further stretches the reader’s imagination to relate Vishnu’s tools with different ideas: ‘conch shell’ for communication, ‘wheel’ for repetition and review, ‘lotus’ for appreciation and praise, and ‘club’ for reprimand. It is the author’s interpretation of these tools as symbols of expression and could easily have been interpreted as something else as well. A writer’s prerogative, perhaps?

Pattanaik also talks of the need to balance everything in life. Again, with examples from mythology, he shows how strategy and tactic represent force and counterforce, respectively—‘creativity and the process’, ‘ambition and contentment’, ‘hindsight and foresight’, etc.

Pattanaik concludes by saying modern management is all about chasing a target, but if we chase Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, it creates conflict. At the heart, we have to have a fair exchange, that is, give so that we can get. Every component of an organisation is important and we need to keep everyone satisfied. This would be the route to success.

The book could get a bit difficult to read, as one has to think hard to relate the examples from mythology with the business world. The stories as stand-alones are quite interesting, but at times do not gel well with the advice being given. To the credit of the author, it should be said drawing such parallels, even though stretched at times, does require remarkable skills.

Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings

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