Monday, September 17, 2012

The Difficulty of Being Good: Search for Ethics in Business through Study of Mahabharat

In India, Gurucharandas enjoys a special reputation in the corporate world and the  rising middle classes. After Narayan Murthy he is perceived as  one important corporate leader who tends to think always in ethical terms. This is very rare in India where paradoxically  we see two extremes: on the one hand, wealth creation and especially doing business  were until very recently considered  unethical activities and on the other, there is  high tolerance for violation of ethical code even in day to day activities.

 In nineteen nineties, Gurucharandas  published, “India Unbound”, an important book that traces   events leading to opening up of  Indian Economy and the unfolding of the process of wealth creation that followed in its wake.   It is  an insightful study of how Indian economy responded to the economic reforms and how that led to unleashing of a powerful process of wealth creation.  More importantly, it was  a sociological description of a people who , after getting used to  socialism for quite some time, were exposed to  free market capitalism which combines two contradictory principles: one,  enjoyment of ever increasing new wants and two,  rigors and pain that accompany the process of wealth creation. 

 Economic liberalization of the early nineteen nineties did unleash powerful productive forces in action  and it accelerated the process of wealth creation in this country. But productive forces and power also brought unpleasantness and pain.  The whole process was  accompanied by an indifferent style of governance, corruption, corporate greed and perhaps  beginning  of crony capitalism. If the government and its labyrinthine bureaucracy took upon itself the responsibility of promoting business, the proximity between  business and politics at times crossed the reasonable limits  and they tended to  collude to present worst cases of corruption.  People who live on the periphery of the affluence, and worst still those who live outside the realms of market and wealth, are  victims of these new evils. Further, productive forces, even in their pristine form, are truly children of market and they inflict unmitigated cruelty on the weak and  the  most vulnerable.   Surely, after putting in action the forces of wealth creation what was necessary was a moderating spirit of ethics and accountability. Capitalism, especially market driven capitalism, may be a powerful engine of growth and development but it requires a working framework in which society has to evolve a political, social and economic consensus that saves the society from the excesses of capitalism itself.

 For last several years after finishing writing of “India Unbound”, Gurucharandas was working on the theme of ethics for a modern capitalist society. He was unhappy about the   manner in which ethics is given a go-bye by the economic players and those in charge of governance. And this often left him wondering about the future of  society that does not adequately address the issues of ethics. At the same time he was also, on a personal level, fascinated by our ancient scriptures and especially “The Mahabharata" and its ethics.   These two cognate interests led him to take up  the study of ethics, especially the study of what constitutes good  in a fast transforming capitalistic society like India.   Thus, Gurucharandas wants to know if "The Mahabharata" offered any principles of ethics and behavior with which he could get insight into the present day problems of corruption and corporate greed, and if any corrective prescription can be found in our own tradition. His book" The Difficulty of being Good" tries to answer these and other ethical issues of capitalism. This   book   explores the subject of what constitutes good in human life and how one may attain it.  He discusses the question of good and bad in the context of Mahabharata, giving many examples and presenting many case-studies from the celebrated epic.

This book and the subject itself are both very ponderous issues and present great challenge to the author. Gurucharandas is sometimes clear and at times very vague in coming up with a concrete framework in which we can hope to  resolve these ethical issues. There are two major issues that he presents with reference to a number of case studies :viz. the subtle concept of Dharma and the process through which the individual discharges his obligations in accordance with the perceived Dharma.  He says that the concept of 'good' itself is very subtle and that it is very difficult to lay down a very concrete model or framework for ethical resolution of issues. 

Dharma is nothing but the whole gamut of roles, responsibilities and duties that a human being is supposed to discharge as he holds a position. There are often contradictions in various roles and responsibilities. Man does not have only one role to perform. He is simultaneously performing a number of roles, some private and some public. He is simultaneously a member of a family, member of an organization,  member of  local community, a national citizen and a citizen of this world and lastly a human being. Each position has some duties, responsibilities and a reach of values  that circumscribe his role. These roles are often overlapping and yet a man has to ponder and think intensely on his position several times before he makes a decision, for some of his decisions may be very complex. When the CEO of a company manages  the company, he does so on behalf of a number of stakeholders and interest groups and still the company has certain responsibilities to the society and the world outside his company. He holds a position of a trustee and more importantly, he  cannot use that position for advancing his own personal interests at the cost of the company. Such decisions and the process that leads to a decisions cannot be  concretely laid down in a framework. And hence he Gurucharandas says that Dharma and the concept of Good are very subtle. Gurucharandas presents a number of instances and gives examples from the Mahabharata to illustrate his point. At times he goes back and forth on the merits of the Mahabharata in an attempt to provide  a concrete ethical framework. 

At other times, however, he somewhat brings himself to convince that Mahabharata does have an important message for our age and says that the Mahabharata presents its message in a negative way.  He says  that Mahabharata demonstrates bad effects of bad actions; by presenting a series of disasters, it teaches what one should refrain from doing.    

 This may all seem very interesting; however, there is nothing new that comes up at the end of the book.  One expects that Gurucharandas   would come up with a new formulation of the problem of ethics needed for this country or for the new capitalism in these extraordinary times. Gurucharandas has a philosophical bent of mind  and this has further been shaped by his philosophical studies at Harvard where he was a student of  John Rawls. And, therefore, readers would expect him to formulate first the problem of ethics in Indian society and to provide some answers and  insights that would at least give some indicative answers drawn from the Mahabharata.   However, he does not come up with anything, finally. That the Dharma or the Right Ethics is a very subtle thing is the only conclusion (and yet according to me a very important one) he draws from the rambling three hundred pages. Does a serious discourse on ethics in the post-liberalization era in this country has only this to offer?

 But I would not blame Gurucharandas for this. Like all important issues in life, ethics in our public and corporate life also would require subtle discernment and insights. But more than this one wonders whether ancient traditions anywhere and in any part of the world  can provide straitjacket  answers to the present day complex problems and issues, especially ethical issues.  Traditions are an important source to resolving such complex issues, for it is the departure from the proximate  tradition or accepting new social structures and values and the tensions that result from the confrontation between the tradition and the modernity that many ethical issues stalk in our face.  A good way to resolve such  issues could be reformulating the problems and examining them in the dynamics of the evolving modernity. And in this exercise of reverting to traditions and sometimes even to ancient texts becomes inevitable.  But the problem with the ancient texts such as Mahabharata is that they themselves, as a part of the tradition of the people of this country, have evolved over time.  Each epoch has its own way of attributing meanings to the stories and the actions of the actors in the stories in accordance with the ethos of the times. Under these circumstances looking for ready-made solutions and algorithms in the Mahabharata that can resolve the ethical issues of modern hybrid capitalism as practiced in this country is a very difficult proposition.    

But Mahabharata is not alone in demonstrating its inability of alleviating the modern paralysis of ethical decision making.  No other ancient text anywhere in the world      has that capacity of resolving moral and ethical issues that we face today. A lot has been written and is being written on Chinese Confucianism  and it is being argued that Confucianism preaches moderation, prescribes standards of behavior for bureaucrats  and endorses  subtle art   of governance.  But obviously, Confucianism does not resolve   modern day ethical dilemmas in China.  People go back to history and visit classics in all earnestness to find if the ancient texts can be a guide to resolving the present day ethical issues and ethical dilemmas. This, however, generally does not help, though excursion through history and ancient texts do widen the scope of our mind and prepares it to accept  responsibility. They broaden our canvas of thinking and in turn expand   consciousness and help in understanding issues over a long period of human existence. These are of course  rich rewards of visiting past. To expect anything more than this from our history or our ancient texts is to deny to the evolving life pattern the gifts of rich complexity and innovative ways of evolution. 

 Anyway, I remain thoroughly unimpressed by the book and I am  disappointed that it takes one nowhere, and the issues of corporate greed and corruption in this country do not get adequately addressed to. Gurucharandas is an insightful and thinking author and with the success of "India Unbound" readers had great expectations from him.   It appears that the author had set out an ambitious plan of writing on ethics of present times with reference to Mahabharata.  However, he does not come even near to formulating the question of ethics. 

 Of course this is not to say that what he has written is of no use. He studies the Mahabharata carefully and closely. And there are some meaningful insights that he shares with his readers. He cites good scholars on Mahabharata and we must admit, mentions a few things that may be new and fresh.  However, he has lost a good opportunity of formulating the question of ethics in our social, political and economic life today. Sometimes he is discussing the Mahabharata, and at other times the present day corporate world with its ethical issues. But the reader who follows him through finds himself more confused as he proceeds further.


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