Business Sutra: A very Indian approach to Management

Business Sutra, Devdutt Pattanaik, Aleph Book CompanyWhen Business Sutra: A Very Indian Approach to Management (2013, Aleph Book Company, pp. 438, Hardbound, Rs.695/-) was offered for review, I went through a dilemma of epic proportions. Authored by Devdutt Pattanaik, whose books and articles on Indian mythology I have read and enjoyed over the years, the book title had the dreaded word “management”.

Now, management books and I don’t see eye to eye, so much so that I completely ignore the management section in bookstores and pretend like they don’t exist. I’ve tried to read books recommended by friends and have found myself yawning with boredom or scratching my head at the drivel written. Management books are also probably the only reason why I don’t have a management degree ! On the other hand, I am a mythology buff and will do anything to get my hands on a book from this genre.

I’m sure you can appreciate the dilemma that I went through over deciding on whether to read the Business Sutra or not. I didn’t bite my nails or have hysterics. Just allowed my head (management) and my heart (mythology) to battle it out.

And the winner was… I got a copy of the book to read and review. :-)

Business Sutra is perhaps the first of its kind, not just in India, but anywhere else in the world, where belief, which is highly subjective and varied, has been clubbed together with management science, a highly objective discipline. Management science

… steers clear of belief. (pg. 3)

[and] … is rooted in Western beliefs and indifferent to Indian… beliefs. (pg. 8)

And yet, it is the Western management principles of objectivity and rigid emphasis on organisational goals over individual goals and beliefs that are implemented and followed in Indian organisations and in a country that traditionally accepts subjectivity and diversity. It is this disconnect that Pattanaik seeks to bridge with this book.

Business Sutra, therefore, is an Indian approach to the Western ideas of management narrated through sutras or “an aphorism, a terse statement” (pg. 19). Stories, symbols and rituals from Hindu, Jain and Buddhist mythologies have been used in the sutras to illustrate or demonstrate or create an understanding of the Indian beliefs. An equivalent management principle and a case study are also presented with every sutra to draw parallels with the story from Indian mythology. Further, each sutra is elaborated with Pattanaik’s own illustrations and sketches to support and reinforce it.

Business Sutra is divided into three sections. Section 1 or the Introduction sets the context of “connecting belief to business” and management to mythology. Section 2 is titled “From Goal to Gaze” which is all about understanding Western, Indian and, for good measure, Chinese beliefs. Section 3 is the main portion of the book and also has the same title and is where all the sutras are laid out and presented.

The last 10-12 pages of the book consists of (i) “Business Sutra Vocabulary” which explains the context-based explanation of words (eg. in the conventional sense, halahal means “the poison that comes with nectar”, but in the business context it means “the negative output of any action” [pg.427]); (ii) an index of all the 145 sutras; and (iii) an intriguingly titled “How to reject this book”, where 14 reasons for dismissing the book are listed ranging from “This is too rhetorical, not practical”, to “This is Hindu right-wing propaganda” to “Devdutt Pattanaik will solve my problems” (pg.437). In fact, I read this before I began reading the book in earnest.

I took a long time to read the Business Sutra. No, not because it was difficult to read — on the contrary it is a very easy read. But it is not a book that one can breeze through. I had to often pause and think about what I had just read. Contemplate. Absorb. Have thoughts explode in my head or have a light bulb moment when something got clarified just like that. For example, Pattanaik’s illustration of “belief” as viewed from pre-modern, modern, postmodern and post-postmodern lens (pg.10) helped me understand these postmodernism and post-postmodernism for the first time.

Sometimes I had to pause to double check if I had missed something. For example, while Pattanaik has covered inclusion in terms of caste and minorities, gender is conspicuously absent. In fact, the gender component is not dealt with at all. Women only seem to make a token appearance in the case studies and in the illustrations. In my opinion, this is a serious omission in the book, especially with increasing numbers of women in the workforce.

Sometimes I would pause because I could see parallels in what I was reading with the functioning in my organisation or in my role as the head of my department. Of course, I had to stop and reflect.

Sometimes I had to pause because what I had read was just plain incomprehensible. For instance, I did not get some of the sutras on violence (pg. 137-161) and seduction (163-184) in the context of business. I had to stop, think, re-read and then move on.

Sometimes I had to pause as fellow commuters in the bus I take to work and back would want to know more about the book. I always read something or the other on my commute, but never has a book generated so much interest as this the Business Sutra !

And sometimes, I had to pause because I got bored with all the management talk. I know, I know, this is a book on management, but… For me, the first two sections were the most interesting, especially the section on decoding and contrasting Western, Chinese and Indian beliefs. I learnt something new and many things especially in relation to art and language just fell into place. I also liked all the stories from mythology, but when it came to management talk, I had to take a break after a while.

Business Sutra is a bold and compelling book, and definitely a “landmark book” as the book blurb in the inside flap claims. Without doubt, only Pattanaik could have been the sutradhar of this book by conceiving the idea and writing a book like this one.

He says that everyone thinks that their belief is the objective truth, when actually it is a subjective one. And so my subjective verdict (belief) of the book is that it is an easy read, but not easy to comprehend; it has an interesting premise, but failed to hold my interest throughout the book; and the inclusiveness of Indian belief that the author claims in the book, does not include a gender perspective. If you like management books then this is definitely the book to read. If not, well then … take a call based on my review.

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14 thoughts on “Business Sutra: A very Indian approach to Management

  1. Interesting book it is. I had the chance of listening to Devdutt Pattanaik himself speaking on the book at a litfest last month. He spent an hour talking on some of the more basic points covered in the book, which inspired me to buy a copy (that I shamelessly got him to autograph) as also gift another to my boss. I found some of the ways of thinking covered in the book to be a bit radical, although I’m still to go beyond the first part yet.

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    • I remember reading your tweet about the book. Wanted to ask your opinion, but as I had not written my review yet, I did not do so. :-)

      The book is certainly radical in its very approach to management and the true measure of its success will lie in how management professionals like you will respond to it.

      I liked the first two parts, largely because it was on mythology and also because it was something that I knew little about. The part of Business Sutras was part interesting, part frustrating, part confusing … You’ve read the review. Do let me know what you think of the book when you’re done. Would love to discuss it with you.

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  2. I am exactly like you..management books have me flummoxed, more importantly because they all seem to say the same thing in different ways…I mean at the end of the day, its all about demand and supply eh? but thats me, the non business person.

    I heard a lot of great stuff about this book and your review has now intruged me. A collegue of mine has the book, Once he finishes, will ask for it from him!

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    • Same pinch, RM. :-) And er, you said it that they all same to say the same thing is different ways. And may I add to that all of it appears like common sense to me?

      The book is worth a read and in spite of not understanding parts of the book, I’m glad I read it. And I think you should too :-)

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    • Welcome here, Avinash. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

      The reason I signed up to review the book was because it was authored by Devdutt Pattanaik. And Business Sutra is his book all the way in terms of writing style, clarity of expression. But… and it is a big but, it was not an easy book to comprehend. It could be because of my own limitations with regard to an understanding of management science, or it could be that the topic is really abstract. Since the author does not mention that this book is only meant for people in the management field, I have assumed that I am also a member of the target audience. :-)

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    • Ah ! but is it good interesting or bad interesing? That I’d like to know ;)

      You know Anu, I have never read a book like this before. Such simple language and no jargon at all. And yet, so difficult to comprehend. I like books that make me think or refelct, but if I’m thinking hard to figure out what a particular passage meant, then there is a problem. I think you will enjoy the first 2 sections and I would love to know what you think of the 3rd and main section – Business Sutras

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