Bhishma, the Ultimate Resource for Business and Politics

[The following guest post is contributed
by Professor B.N. Balasubramanian,
who is Adjunct Professor of Corporate Governance at the Indian Institute of
Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad]
Among
the myriad of players in the great epic, The Mahabharata, two characters
stand out prominently towering over the rest: 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 victorious
Pandavas. To Vasudeva Krishna is also attributed the famous Bhagavad Gita, the
celestial song on the duties and responsibilities of humans in steering their
lives in this world, delivered on the battlefield to Arjuna, the
reluctant Pandava who could not come to terms with the idea of decimating
friends, family, and other elders whom they were to fighting against.
Bhishma
is the chosen anchor for my latest book, The
Bhishma Way: Ancient Dharma for Modern Business and Politics
(Random
House, December 2015). Why did I choose Bhishma? For one thing, Bhishma is
relatively less researched and written about, compared to Vasudeva Krishna. But
it was the man himself, his life as a message, and the rich counsel that is
available in his voice in the epic, which is of continuing relevance to the present
day problems and issues of governance and personal behaviour in business and
politics.
As
a strict upholder of Dharma both in his personal and public life, there
are indeed very few equals to Bhishma. His commitment to truth and values
was unquestionably rocky firm. His sense of justice serves as a
beacon light to civilised people around the world. One could differ from and
argue with his exposition of social and ethical principles, especially in the
present day changed circumstances, but none could question either his sincerity
of purpose or his commitment to what he thought was right and ethical.
Was
he always infallible in his judgement or actions (and even in-actions)? Of
course not; and that is what makes Bhishma so human and so relatable to any of
us in our day to day activities. Towards the end, he himself realised his
follies but by then it was too late for redemption. If some of these anecdotal
incidents appear to bear some uncanny resemblance with our own personal
experience in business or political behaviour, it only confirms how timeless
Bhishma and his life were, nay, are in our modern circumstances.
Governance
is the primary focus of this book, 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 civilised commonwealth depends upon three
constituents: the value systems of the realm, the standards of dharma or
righteousness, and the emphasis placed upon on the practice of truth. The
book’s five chapters are structured accordingly, beginning with the
fundamentals, leading to the objective, and finally to the system designed to
deliver on the objective.
The
discussion of each of these, often inter-dependent, 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.
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 a 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 his 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 side-lining 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 suffering such ignominy? Or, like
Bhishma, in the larger interests of the country or the company, should they
continue to pursue what is best for the constituents?
Notwithstanding
the few negatives, overall, the impression Bhishma proffers is one of 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.

Professor B.N. Balasubramanian

About the author

Umakanth Varottil

Umakanth Varottil is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore. He specializes in corporate law and governance, mergers and acquisitions and cross-border investments. Prior to his foray into academia, Umakanth was a partner at a pre-eminent law firm in India.

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